What to Do (and Not to Do) to Survive a Prison Sentence

Updated on 2/9/2023

If you’ve recently been sentenced to prison – a place you never thought you’d end up – chances are, you’re pretty terrified.

From not knowing exactly what to expect while imprisoned, to hearing horror stories about inmates being jumped, beat up, and even killed while serving their sentence, you can be pretty sure that the months (and possibly years) to come will be quite difficult – and possibly dangerous.

While you’ll never truly be “safe” while serving your sentence, there are definitely some things you can do to minimize the amount of danger you’ll face throughout your time on the inside. There are also a number of things to avoid doing while serving a prison sentence in order to stay out of danger, as well.

In this article, we’ll go through some of the most important things to know before beginning your prison sentence in order to stay out of trouble, and to stay as safe as possible.

One of the first things to do is to send this link to your closest friends and/or family.

What to Do (and Not to Do) to Survive a Prison Sentence

The following is a collection of suggestions from individuals who have spent more than a fair amount of time in prison – and who have survived their sentences relatively unscathed.

Before we dig in, it’s important to note that following these suggestions won’t necessarily guarantee your safety – there’s always a potential for problems to occur in prison. On the other hand, though, not following these suggestions is a sure recipe for disaster.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what to do – and not to do – to minimize your chances of facing trouble or danger throughout your prison sentence.

Show Respect to Everyone

Perhaps the most important rule of all within prison walls is that you need to show respect to everyone you come into contact with.

Regarding other inmates, respect is shown by:

  • Refraining from staring – or even looking at – other individuals
  • Refraining from looking into other cells
  • Ensuring you aren’t taking another person’s seat in the “chow hall”
  • Refraining from cutting inline
  • Refraining from insulting or touching others

While these rules are basically an extension of the unspoken rules of society outside of prison walls, the consequences for not following them while in prison are much more severe. In other words, you want to be extra careful not to break these rules – even unintentionally.

As for how to show respect to prison guards and other personnel, you’ll basically want to follow their orders exactly as given – and do so without complaint. The best way to think about your relationship with prison personnel is that they have no reason to like you, but will find any reason they can to not like you. As long as you do what you’re told, and do so compliantly, you stand a pretty good chance of simply flying under the prison guards’ radars.

(Note: As we’ll talk about in the next section, you don’t want to be overly polite to other inmates or to prison guards. Even if you don’t have an ulterior motive, both inmates and guards may mistake your authentic politeness as being patronizing.)

Stay Tight-Lipped and Poker-Faced

Since you’ve gone through the legal system, you’re certainly familiar with the phrase “anything you say can and will be used against you.”

Not only does that go for your court case, but it also goes for your stint in prison. And it applies to more than just having your words used against you in a legal sense.

What we mean, here, is that inmates and guards can and will use your words – as well as your actions – against you in some way or another. With regard to other inmates, any information you provide them will essentially be used as ammunition against you, or as justification for harming you in some way, in the future. You basically want to avoid saying anything that could be taken the wrong way, taken out of context, or come off as offensive to anyone within the prison. Furthermore, you should avoid certain topics that may cause problems with other inmates (such as religion, race, etc.). This, again, is pretty much a rule of thumb for life in general – but, again, the consequences for not following this rule while imprisoned can be disastrous.

Additionally, you want to avoid showing any emotion – whether positive or negative – as best as possible throughout your prison sentence. Other inmates are likely to take note of anything that makes you happy, sad, angry, and more – and use this information to take advantage of you in some way.

As for the guards, as we said earlier, there’s no way to get them to “like” you; they’ll either remain neutral toward you, or they won’t like you…but they will never truly think of you as anything more than an incarcerated individual. With that in mind, you definitely don’t want to try and joke or pal around with them in any way. Not only will this not work anyway, but it will, of course, cause other inmates to think you’re a snitch or something along those lines.

While we’re on the topic, you should never snitch on another inmate for any reason whatsoever. First of all, there’s nothing to gain from doing so; your sentence is your sentence, and won’t be shortened because you told a guard about illegal goings-on within the prison. Secondly – and more importantly – your fellow inmates will find out that you snitched to prison personnel, and will definitely seek retribution as soon as possible.

Even in the unlikely scenario that the prison’s administration decides to place you in protective custody or transfer you to a different institution, word will eventually get around – and you’ll, unfortunately, have a permanent target over your head for the remainder of your sentence.

Stick With Your Own Race – But Avoid Gangs

Unfortunately, racial harmony typically doesn’t exist in most prison scenarios. In situations in which inmates are “free” to interact with each other (such as the chow hall or the yard), most individuals stick to hanging around members of their own race – for the most part.

Now, this doesn’t mean you need to ignore inmates of other races or ethnicities – and it definitely doesn’t mean you should offend them, either. As we said earlier, respect is key: failure to show respect to an individual of another race or ethnicity – even if done unintentionally – may cause other members of that same race or ethnicity to consider you a target.

On the other hand, fraternizing on a deeper level with members of other races or ethnicities could cause you to be alienated by members of your own race. Unfortunately, you stand little to no chance of “getting in” with a different group of inmates if this happens – and will, therefore, be left all alone. Needless to say, this is a dangerous scenario that you don’t want to experience.

As far as joining gangs go, it’s not a good idea at all.

First of all, joining one gang will essentially cause members of other gangs to place a target on your head (which they may not have done had you not joined the gang in the first place). Along with this, there’s really no true guarantee that your “fellow” gang members will protect you from these rivals if a problem were to arise.

Secondly, once you pledge allegiance to a gang, you’ll be required to do things in prison that, quite simply, can lead to your staying in prison for much longer than your original sentence. Of course, if you’ve pledged allegiance to a gang, you can’t simply refuse to obey an order – so your options are to commit an additional crime and potentially get caught, or to face the violent consequences of refusing to follow orders.

Finally, your membership in a gang won’t end once your sentence is over. Once you’re “on the outside,” you’ll still be required to do the bidding of your superiors – or, again, face the consequences. This, unfortunately, means you’ll be at risk of being arrested, injured, or killed, for the rest of your life – with almost zero chance of escaping this vicious cycle.

Avoid Gambling, Drugs, and Sexual Relationships

We’ve lumped these three things together since many of the consequences of not avoiding them are similar. However, we’ll go over each separately in greater detail.

Gambling in prison is extremely dangerous – especially when done with individuals you don’t necessarily “know.” Basically, you run the risk of running up a debt that you can’t pay back immediately – but that your counterpart will expect to receive in full right away. Needless to say, there’s very little leeway involved when you owe something to another prisoner – be it money, food, or possessions. And, as we’ve spoken about before, coming across these items while imprisoned isn’t exactly easy; if you can’t pay up, you’ll end up facing major consequences from the person you’re indebted to.

Drugs, of course, should be avoided at all costs while in prison – for a number of reasons. For one thing, possessing drugs is, of course, illegal anyway; those who are caught in possession of drugs (and even just contraband) will almost certainly see a number of years tacked onto their sentence. Furthermore, if you’re somehow able to get away with possessing and doing drugs while in prison, you run a major risk of overdosing and/or contracting a deadly disease; in either case, the risk certainly outweighs the “reward,” if it can be called that. Finally, if word gets around that you’re in possession of drugs, this will also put a target over your head, as other inmates will likely do whatever they can to get ahold of whatever it is you have on you.

As for sexual relationships, this is another thing that should be avoided in prison at all costs. First of all, the vast majority of prisoners either look down on homosexual relationships or will at least act as they do in order to not stand out; if word gets around that you enjoy such activities (or are simply “okay” with others engaging in them), you’ll likely end up being ostracized from any group you belong to. Additionally, even if your fellow inmates are “okay” with homosexual activity occurring around them, you still run a major risk of contracting STDs that could end up being life-threatening.

While you’ll certainly be tempted to seek out any escape you can while imprisoned, submitting to any of these vices can cause major trouble in your life – and can definitely put you in danger. Additionally, one of the main purposes of incarceration in the first place is for you to learn to live your life free of the vices that may have caused problems in your life before you were arrested.

Which brings us to our last point:

Make Positive Moves

So far, we’ve mainly addressed the things you should avoid doing while in prison in order to keep out of trouble.

As we’ve talked about in a previous post , one of the best things you can do while incarcerated is dedicate yourself to learning, growing, and becoming a better person overall. Doing so accomplishes a number of things:

  • It keeps you away from the temptations we’ve spoken about within this article
  • It allows you to pass the time productively as you complete your sentence
  • It enables you to prepare for your new life “on the outside” once your sentence is over

Some of the ways in which you can continue being productive while incarcerated include:

  • Volunteering in different areas of the prison
  • Working out and staying fit
  • Reading whenever you have the opportunity
  • Devoting yourself to faith and religion

And, of course, you’ll also want to try to stay in contact with as many positive members of your network as you can while incarcerated. The Pigeonly team is dedicated to helping you do so – whether by phone, mail, or any other means of communication. Check out our Services page to learn more.