In more than one TV show I have heard generic advice somewhere along the lines of, “Find the biggest guy in there, and pick a fight with him to gain respect.” This might happen in jail, but it just doesn’t in prison. While I was only in the Davis County jail for six months before going to prison, I probably saw just as many fights in the jail as I did over multiple years in prison. There’s a number of reasons for this.

First of all, you have a more stressful and volatile situation in jail. Guys are coming in and out, going to court and not knowing what is going to happen, and usually they are much closer to all the chaos that put them there. You’ve got inmates who are only going to be there overnight and you have people facing life sentences. Most all the inmates are grouped together whereas in prison, guys are housed a little more carefully, but just a little.

One of the biggest advantages you get with the time and familiarity in prison is the community governance, if you will. In jail, if you have an issue with someone, most of the time you just do something right there about it or you “take it to the cell” if you happen to think first a little at all. This is where two guys go fight one on one in a cell in an effort to not raise the attention of the cops. The idea of trying not to get everyone locked down and yourself in trouble is about as far as the jail prefight thought process goes or even needs to because the only consequence is often the punishment from guards.

On the other hand, if you have an issue with someone in prison, you better know damned-well who you might tick off if you get in a quarrel with another prisoner. Prisoners will literally ask around if someone ticks them off before they make a move; I imagine this practice has its own diffusing effect simply because of the time it takes to vet the hazards.

The biggest consideration is whether another person is “affiliated” or if their friends are. “Affiliated” is a term that means there is a gang connection, or more specifically meaning membership in a gang. Prisoners get slapped or punched by other prisoners, but in a lot of those cases, the prisoner that does it is in a position to do so against a guy that couldn’t fight back if he wanted to. I’ve seen gang member hit non-affiliated prisoners knowing those guys aren’t going to do anything about it. They can’t.

I’ve literally never seen a member of one gang punch a member of another gang. The one time I thought I was seeing that, it turned out the gang member who was on top of a rival gang member showering him with rabbit punches actually had small stabbing weapons between his knuckles. I was able to watch that one a couple feet away because I was on the other side of the fence in the college building trades area with a fence between. The one prisoner on the bottom’s face looked like hamburger afterwards. Also unlike movies, nobody stabs the kidney. Every stabbing or aftermath thereof I have seen, was in the face and/or neck.

There is very little casual fighting or even “taking it to the cell,” because in prison it escalates much beyond just throwing punches. Prisoners rarely just fight, someone gets “booked,” and it’s rarely one on one. When someone has decided they are going to assault someone it is most often done with some sort of “shank,” or prison hand-crafted stabbing weapon. It’s planned, and they bring their friends.

A friend sent me a picture of a prison shank and below it read, “Even in the most secure environment possible, humans will still find a way to kill each other.” It was a solid point about gun control laws, but made me think of the very creative shanks I’ve seen – where there’s a will there’s a way.

I think this is probably the biggest reason there are not as many fights in prison. People think twice about punching someone, even when they’ve lost their temper, when they know throwing said punch has a very real possibility of putting their life in danger.

Brian Wood, of Layton, pleaded guilty to nine felony charges for offenses from 2011 to 2014, including counts of burglary, drug possession and prescription fraud. He served four years in the Utah State prison system before being released on parole on Jan. 2, 2018.

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