Inside: Life Behind Bars in America


There are not many books about the American prison system written from the perspective of an inmate. Michael Santos is a prisoner charged with convictions related to drug trafficking and is currently serving the second decade of his 45-year confinement. He managed to collect accounts of more than 100 prisoners and published them along with his own experiences in the form of a book. Inside: Life behind bars in America is a comprehensive outlook on the prison system of the United States and an indicator that massive reform is required. Jail, according to Santos, is not a place where people can rehabilitate. The majority of inmates struggle in search of survival, and most criminals that are released return back to jail after some time. This continuous line that pulls prisoners back behind bars is only one problem that exists in the system. This paper will provide a summary of the book and integrate scientific evidence into Michael’s account.

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In the beginning, Michael did not know how good his stay at prison was going until he met Ronald MacLean. The latter told the author about his experiences in other jails, emphasizing that it was mainly survival despite a prisoner’s intentions (Santos, 2007). Another problem was related to accommodating prisoners – in cases when the prison was overcrowded, guards made convicts lay on the ground while they await the next available bed (Santos, 2007). This claim is complemented by the study of Berk et al. (2003), who discovered that the number of inmates assigned to a particular security level and the number of beds in that housing unit often mismatch. The primary aim of having different security levels is to partition prisoners according to the potential level of inmate misconduct (Berk et al., 2003). MacLean’s labeling of prisons as gladiator schools compromises the perceived efficacy of such distribution.

Overpopulation has issues beyond a simple shortage of beds and cells. Santos (2007) was kept inmates in a county jail that was managed poorly because staff had no time to consider each prisoner. The largest issue was the lack of outlets where inmates can spend their energy. One consequence of the lack of a gym, for instance, is the high rates of misconduct. By consulting empirical evidence, one can notice a clear link between prison violence and lack of discipline, and the overpopulation of the prison (Franklin et al., 2006). The harsh environment inmates find themselves in may lead to homicide in extreme cases (Franklin et al., 2006). For behavior-shaping strategies to be effective, jails should not accept prisoners beyond their capacity.

After the judge imposed their sentence, Michael’s status changed from pretrial to a convicted felon. This change indicated that he would soon switch his place of residence. Michael’s family and friends were based in Seattle, but the correction professionals, who are responsible for deciding where a convict should serve their sentence, ordered Santos to be sent to a United States penitentiary in the East. Research suggests that incarceration deteriorates family well-being (Carlson & Cervera, 1991). The issue is exacerbated by the fact that correction professionals neglect convicts’ and their families’ needs to contact each other regularly (Santos, 2007). Furthermore, Santos (2007) says that prisoners only have several minutes for a phone call per day, and this opportunity is taken away even for trivial offenses. Carlson and Cervera (1991) urge that prisons should support family ties because they restrain recidivism.

In prison, Santos got acquainted with the culture that exists within its walls. The author says that any prison consists of a class-based society, where even a simple thief can achieve authority among other inmates. Michael speaks of a set of rules a convict must abide by to stay positive in the eyes of other prisoners. Irwin and Cressey (1962) discovered two subcultures to be dominant in jails. The first one is the thief culture, members of which value reliability, resistance to law enforcement, and trustworthiness. In other words, according to thieves, prisoners should support each other and should not betray others to the police (Irwin & Cressey, 1962). Santos (2007) mentions that a person who never contemplated cooperating with law enforcement is a hero. The second subculture is utilitarian culture, which values flexibility and strength to use whatever is at disposal to achieve authority and respect on behalf of others (Irwin & Cressey, 1962). The gladiator school described by MacLean refers to this utilitarian attitude.

Staff in prisons played a central role in Michael’s life because they were responsible for the security and enforcement methods. Santos (2007) describes the prison staff to enjoy punishing inmates for their misconduct. In one case, a mentally ill prisoner was taken to the bathroom by force for coating his cell with fecal matter. Guards then showered the inmate with hot water, and the prisoner got third-grade skin burn and was taken to hospital (Santos, 2007). Clark (2018) suggests that mentally ill prisoners require special consideration. However, prison staff engages in the opposite – they apply more harsh disciplinary measures on people with mental health conditions (Clark, 2018). The primary issue in this context is that the majority of prison staff enjoy it.

Santos recalls that employees of correctional facilities are not accountable for an inmate’s re-entry into society. Prison staff is not interested because they view inmates not as individuals but as people who committed crimes and should be punished (Santos, 2007). This experience of Michael is a representation of how the approach to re-entry has changed over the last several decades (Seiter & Kadela, 2003). For most of the 20th century, re-entry was seen as a necessity – prisons would have trained personnel to prepare inmates for release and their further integration into society (Seiter & Kadela, 2003). However, for the last several decades, expenditure on re-entry programs has been reduced significantly.

There are, of course, prison employees that do not condone such methods of enforcing discipline. However, as Santos (2007) says, staff members are silent about their disapproval because taking a stand would harm their career advancement. In this context, it can be considered that prison staff can experience job stress because of witnessing the inhumane activities of their colleagues (Santos, 2007). On the other hand, researchers believe dangerousness to be the primary factor causing job stress (Lambert & Paoline III, 2005). Both Santos (2007) and Lamber and Paoline III (2007), however, agree on the statement that job satisfaction is strongly linked to career advancement and growth.

Whether or not a staff member enjoys penalizing inmates, all disciplinary measures should be legal. Calhoun (1977) reminds that prisoners, despite committing a crime, are not to be deprived of their constitutional rights. By the Supreme Court’s decision, prison conditions and practices are to be revised (Calhoun, 1977). However, controversial punishment methods utilized by prison staff raise questions about their legality. One inmate named David shares his belief that punishment for his crimes should be confinement, not guards’ ruthless methods (Santos, 2007). It should be considered that many prisoners across the country are the victims of fierce treatment on behalf of employees of these correction facilities (Santos, 2007). A thorough inspection is necessary to determine whether or not such practice is acceptable in the legal context.

Riots occasionally happen in prisons, and one such massive event took place before Michael arrived at the U.S. Penitentiary. Two theories aim to explain why riots are organized (Carrabine, 2005). The first explanation is that riots are caused by societal disorganization in prisons and interpersonal manipulation on behalf of inmates (Carrabine, 2005). However, a much simpler explanation exists – prisoners riot because they are not satisfied by confinement conditions (Carrabine, 2005). Michael’s narrative supports the second theory – prisoners are the oppressed population who are the target for regular violence on behalf of guards (Santos, 2007). In the case of the U.S. Penitentiary riot, inmates were unhappy with some new legislation.

One of the most important elements which are not available to prisoners is sex. While some inmates replace this desire with other physical activities, others engage in homosexualism. Santos (2007) describes several sexual predators who would, either through cunning strategies or through fear, insist other inmates on having sex. On one occasion, a newly admitted prisoner became a victim of such a predator (Santos, 2007). Same-sex relationships in jails are not a rare occurrence in the United States. Even in female prisons, homosexualism is present, as indicated by empirical evidence (Hensley et al., 2002). In most cases, younger women and individuals with more prolonged confinement are more likely to engage in a same-sex relationship (Hensley et al., 2002). Sexual orientation can change along the life continuum, especially when individuals are deprived of sex.

There are female staff members, even in male correctional facilities. The presence of women in such environments creates room for sexual remarks on behalf of inmates. In some cases, the lack of sex for prisoners and low salaries for female employees spark prostitution within jails. Santos (2007) has witnessed numerous instances when female staff engaged in prostitution for a financial benefit. However, it is not possible to say that prostitution does not influence female employees’ perceptions of their work. There is scientific evidence that female workers experience job stress much more significantly than their male colleagues (Van Voorhis et al., 1991). Therefore, these findings may necessitate policy changes in the prison system.


In summary, the book of Michael Santos is a first-person account of what it is like to live in jail. The book provides a comprehensive overview of prison life, challenges faced by inmates, and how these struggles impact prisoners’ ability to re-enter society. The author also describes the social order that persists in prisons, and how it influences inmates, whether they want to be part of it or not. Santos implicitly suggests that the prison system of the United States needs significant reform. Current practices are controversial and may even be illegal in some cases.


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