5 Things I Learned in Prison

Time in prison is supposed to “teach” you things, right? That’s why it was originally called the penitentiary — as in penance. A place to reflect on one’s life and the path not taken.

1 Building C Side Courtesy of the Folsom Prison Museum

1 Building C Side
Courtesy of the Folsom Prison Museum

Some lessons are learned the hard way. The weak, meek and mild won’t survive in prison. Inmates quickly develop survival mechanisms to ward off the predators. They pay the shot callers “rent” for protection, agree to mule drugs and weapons from one part of the prison to another, or have money sent in by their families.

As a peace officer in prison, you learn to read people and situations very quickly. You can walk into a housing unit and get an immediate feeling that something’s not right and there is unrest brewing. The inmate who smiles at you is probably the one holding a weapon. And you learn to trust the staff you work with in the units, on the yard and on the gun rail.

I started learning in prison at a very early age. I was probably around ten years old or so when I went to prison. I lived on prison grounds, in a remote camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains. There were about a hundred inmates in the camp and their primary assignment involved forest fire fighting and conservation projects. Most of the inmates were from the cities and wouldn’t wander beyond the camp limits because there were bears and mountain lions waiting in the tree line — or so they believed.

My early prison education taught me an appreciation for the Blues. One of the kitchen workers, an older black man, would sit on the back dock and play the blues on his guitar. The sound was so different than anything this little white kid had ever heard. I’d sit and listen while he played. He tried teaching me to play, but my hands couldn’t muster the strength to hold down the strings, let alone strum a Blues riff. But that sound stayed with me.

I learned to understand that people do bad things. I recall a lead cook — a master pastry chef– would come to prison and parole out, vowing to leave his life of crime behind a half a dozen times. A few months later, he’d return, caught up in a new get rich quick scheme gone wrong. This cycle continued for several years until one time, he didn’t return to the camp kitchen. He was shot and killed in the commission of a robbery.

I found out what pruno was — that infamous prison made home-brew concocted from leftover fruit, yeast and anything else that would ferment. Nasty smelling stuff. I also leaned that inmates don’t like it when you discover their stash and it gets confiscated. Also bears get intoxicated when they find the stuff too.

I saw sadness on the faces of the wives, friends and families of the inmates when they would come and visit. I realized in the way only a kid can reason that they were all sentenced to prison, only the families didn’t have to stay at the camp. I later learned how close that was to the truth.

Finally, I learned that one bad decision can change your life. I recall a groundskeeper who rode me around in a wheelbarrow while he worked at the camp residences. He’d tell me about gardening, about Los Angeles and where he wanted to travel when he got out. Back then, inmates serving life sentences were eligible for camp placement. The groundskeeper was the driver in a robbery that went bad and one of his cohorts was killed. That’s the felony murder rule and life in prison. He never got to travel. He died in prison.

You could say I had an unusual childhood.

courtesy of ktbs.com

courtesy of ktbs.com





  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. Clearly, you also learned to write. 🙂

    1. My pleasure, Piper! Growing up and then working in prison was a different experience. The problems of the outside world are magnified behind the walls. The writing – well that came later.

  2. An unusual childhood indeed but it sounds like you learned some important lessons. I grew up in Reno Nevada and used to babysit for high class “escorts” and madams. Not really criminals but a different sort of childhood also. My CASA kid’s father was in and out of jail and you’re right – the children grew up thinking they’re criminals as well. Such a sad thing to see.

    1. What stories you could tell from your babysitting days. A different perspective on life, for sure. Thanks Jan!

  3. Great post, James! Br

  4. Unusual childhood indeed and with many life lessons you were fortunate to learn early in life.

    1. Thank you! It was an interesting place to learn, that’s for certain.

  5. Barton Powell · · Reply

    Excellent Jim. I never knew some of these things about you. Wish you would have shared some of your stories with me. We did have some times! Peace.

    1. Thanks Bart! We did have a few interesting times, didn’t we? You take care.

  6. Derek Porter · · Reply

    Jim, well written, don’t stop here, you have thousands of stories to share that others will enjoy reading, I’m so very proud of you:-)

    1. Thanks Derek…we do have some stories, for sure.

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