July 15, 2005

Trained to Live Behind Bars

By Katia Lopez-Hodoyan

The questions were direct and personal. How could a reporter endure the hardships of life in prison? Could she overcome the violence, commotion and solitude of life behind bars? Better yet, could she survive all the unwritten rules inmates live by? One by one, these questions were asked and slowly, after a series of deep breaths and lip biting, they were all answered. The client was a brown haired, 120-pound woman who stood 5’3’’ tall. The sentence she was about to face however, was much higher.

With a nonchalant vibe, that seemed more fitting for a cocktail party, Brian James kept on asking these questions. He, more than anybody, knew the correct answers. After coming in and out of prisons for more than a decade, life behind bars had become second nature to James. So much so that recently, he and his partner Steve Scholl decided to create a business out of his experience.

Mr. Scholl showing a Dr. Prison booklet.

They both prepare soon-to-be-prisoners for jail under their San Diego based consulting firm Dr. Prison. During a close-knit meeting, James, Scholl and a client go over a few files that describe the felon’s crime, sentence and personality traits. With this information at hand, Scholl, the businessman and James the ex-convict, make recommendations of what the client will need to be aware of as an inmate in prison.

During a mock session, for instance, a reporter’s body language showed too much emotion. A characteristic that was sure to instigate trouble in jail. Her direct eye contact and listening skills however, showed one of the most important tools needed in prison: respect.

“Trust nobody, don’t be talkative or people will think you’re a snitch,” says James. “Don’t tell anybody what you’re in for or show any type of frailty because inmates pray on the weak. And remember, you have no friends…. only allies.”

As far as being locked up with women, one recommendation was clear. “Be careful, women are ruthless.”

While being imprisoned for drug distribution and consumption, James witnessed stabbings, riots and even a dozen murders while doing time. He saw people come and go, but the unwritten prison rules stayed intact throughout time and locations. He learned to never owe any favors or money to inmates, for it is the number one cause of death in prisons. Strength in numbers means survival and even if a matter doesn’t concern one directly, one must act or risk being attacked later on for lacking ‘heart’. On the lighter side, food in jail is lousy, treats such as sodas come sparingly, jobs pay pennies on the hour and prison ministers are always there to help.

“Our goal is to help them [prisoners] from being injured, extorted or killed in prison”, says Scholl. “In prison you can’t make the same assumptions you make in the real world. Using humor, sarcasm or even typical social interactions can cause some serious trouble. You can’t take a candy bar and think you’ll pay the guy later…you might get killed.”

Extortion in prison is a huge powerhouse. Inmates are allowed to have a credit line account that enables them to buy anything from television sets to Raman Noodle Soup through a catalog. A point system, which is where their paycheck goes to, is used for such purchases. Family members and friends can also contribute by donating money to their relative’s credit line. It is to be expected then, that items are sold at such high prices internally.

“You can get anything in prison. Anything,” says James. “Some of the best drugs I bought were in prison. But a joint that would cost me a few bucks on the street would be worth $60 in jail.”

It is a well-known fact that danger, violence and isolation are prison factors. Hence, begging the question, is a business like Dr. Prison really needed? Does one need to be reminded to keep to oneself and not take things that don’t belong to one in prison? The owners acknowledge that consulting companies such as Dr. Prison are a type of luxury that not too many delinquents think of. A legal attorney and bail bond manager come first in mind when someone is going to jail. Nonetheless, almost two-dozen inmates sought this service before Dr. Prison completed its first year in business. Prices for the consultation as well as other services range from $275 to $1200.

“About 30 percent of the material we give out, one could know intuitively,” says Scholl. “The other 70 percent are facts that can keep you out of trouble and alive.”

Perhaps what prompts people to use these consultation firms are the statistics on prison violence. According to Prison Policy Initiatives, a non profit based organization, inmates face a 10 to 15 percent chance of getting raped during their sentence, an 80 to 90 percent chance of getting beaten during their jail time and a 25 to 30 percent chance of getting killed.

Heightening the tension in prison is also impacted by race in gang affiliations and rivalries. As a general rule, during a riot or direct confrontation, hispanics and whites will team up against blacks. Anybody who doesn’t join in the fight will pay dearly for it later.

“Once you’re in jail, it doesn’t matter what gang you were in back on the streets, or who you had problems with,” says James. “You go directly to your racial group, and they will take you in. If there is a problem though, you better make sure you’re first in line to fight.”

Weapons are made in prison with seemingly inoffensive items. A sharpened toothbrush can prove to be harmful during a fight. A utensil can be an inmate’s worst enemy and anything that has the slightest possibility of having a pointed edge rapidly becomes a needed possession.

“Inmates run prison,” says James. “Guards are just there to baby sit, but prisoners control everything.”

So, does this business have a future in San Diego County where there are more than thirty thousand bookings every year? Two middle-aged men seem to thinks so, but just like in prison, inmates will control this factor.

After an hour and a half session, James sums up what he has lived through in more than ten state prisons.

“One can only run as far as the fences in the wall. So I think one needs to be prepared.”

For more information on Dr. Prison one can visit their web-page at www.drprison.com

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