How prisoners spend their time

Like most people who have never served any time in jail, I have no idea what prison life is like. What one sees in films is likely to be highly exaggerated and thus unreliable. Daniel Genis, who spent a little more than ten years in prison, says that what characterizes prison is the large amount of leisure time that one has and what one does to combat the sheer boredom.

Leisure time, unstructured and purposeless, generally makes up most of an American prison inmate’s day. Most convicts are just sent to the yard, where they socialize, exercise, play games and sports, and make their deals.

Born in New York in 1978—immediately after my family escaped the Soviet empire—I grew up with talk of the camps, and of course their literature, much of it brilliant, and some of which I read for tips. So when my own sentence began, I was surprised by the absence of forced labor. Not a salt mine in sight. Instead, there was a dirt yard with exercise equipment, and we spent most of our days there lifting weights and smoking.

So inevitably (if inadvertently), the sheer amount of leisure time allows for prisoners to become masters of chess and poker, or drunkards, or excellent batters and jump-shooters, or gamblers and addicts. In the spirit of rehabilitation, the team sports and mentally challenging games are healthy, but the inebriation and wagering is not.

The free time is a gauge of a prisoner’s odds at ever again being a law-abiding citizen. If he fills it with healthy activities, his chances are good, while chasing pills and tiny bags of dope (often bought at a 500-percent markup) all but ensure that he’s coming back to jail.

It is an interesting look at routine prison life from an insider’s perspective.


  1. John Morales says

    Marcus, it has much to do with prisons, so you’re implying that prisons have nothing to do with justice.

    (They certainly have something to do with the justice system)

  2. John Morales says

    I’ve been following the various internal crosslinks. This is one of a series, and very interesting reading it is for me.

  3. John Morales says

    Gregory, from another piece:

    For centuries, philosophers like Foucault have eloquently argued that prison is merely a microcosm of the society that populates it; the role of violence inside is the role of violence outside, the reason for war and terrorism—status and power.

  4. says

    Locking up people and giving them nothing to do is a recipe for disaster. If they have nothing to do, then they will find something to do – and that usually means gangs and criminal activity. For all the blather christians do, they certainly act contrary to their own words, re: St. Jerome’s “fac et aliquid operis, ut semper te diabolus inveniat occupatum” (idle hands are the devil’s workshop). I’m adamantly against using prisoners as slave labour, but teaching them farming and making them grow their own food reduced costs and makes them productive.

    Prisoners should definitely be taught skills and educated, especially those who are going to get out eventually. Do you want someone leaving prison with a GED and computer skills at the cost of $5000, or only knowing how to break into cars and be back inside within a year costing another $25000 each extra year behind bars? Unless you’re a short sighted gainsayer or someone who profits from prisons, I know which one sane people would choose.

    When prisoners have tried to make their time in prison and themselves more productive, idiotic attention seeking politicians and other busybodies have tried to destroy it. In Wisconsin, an idiotic court ruled that Dungeons and Dragons would “lead to gang membership and escape attempts.” The stupidity of that decision is mindboggling.

    Dungeons & Dragons Prison Ban Upheld

    Prisons can restrict the rights of inmates to nerd out, a federal appeals court has found.

    In an opinion issued on Monday , a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected the claims in a lawsuit challenging a ban on the game Dungeons & Dragons by the Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin.

    The suit was brought by a prisoner, Kevin T. Singer, who argued that his First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights were violated by the prison’s decision to ban the game and confiscate his books and other materials, including a 96-page handwritten manuscript he had created for the game.

    Mr. Singer, “a D&D enthusiast since childhood,” according to the court’s opinion, was sentenced to life in prison in 2002 for bludgeoning and stabbing his sister’s boyfriend to death.

    Prison officials said they had banned the game at the recommendation of the prison’s specialist on gangs, who said it could lead to gang behavior and fantasies about escape.

    Dungeons & Dragons could “foster an inmate’s obsession with escaping from the real-life correctional environment, fostering hostility, violence and escape behavior,” prison officials said in court. That could make it more difficult to rehabilitate prisoners and could endanger public safety, they said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *