Our correspondent “Leather” is currently serving a sentence because of charges related to a family dispute, subsequent warrants, and the labyrinthian carceral state in general. Leather was previously incarcerated at the Orleans Parish Prison but has recently been transferred to a facility in Ferriday. The following has been transcribed (with minimal edits for clarity and format) from handwritten letters. Because of barriers that restrict and complicate communication with people in prison, we are unable to independently corroborate claims herein.
In prison there’s three different types of prisoners: there’s your inmate, offender, then there’s your convict, and they all behave differently. Most people don’t understand the difference. The offender is a prisoner who is most likely a first-timer and probably has a short sentence and probably has never done anything more than parish time, so he or she is considered a fresh fish and doesn’t really know the rules of jail. You can usually spot them very easily by the way they move. Most of the time fresh fish have a certain look on their face. I can’t really describe it, but if I had to, I would say they look like they’re scared to death, because most fresh fish only know of the stories they’ve been told, or they only know what they have heard, or they go by what they have seen on television, which is so far from what jail or prison is really like—stories of people getting beaten up and raped. But they soon realize that’s not the case, even though these things do happen. It’s a little more complicated than that. Those things happen under some very specific circumstances.
Now the next one is the inmate. The inmate is a prisoner who has been to jail before and never really gets involved in jailhouse politics, just does his or her time without getting involved in all the bullshit that goes on in jail, e.g. gangs, cliques, drugs, or homosexual games, mainly because they probably won’t be coming to jail on the regular. They follow orders, never get in any kind of trouble, stay in his or her rack, minds their business, does their time, and goes back to the world. Now you can tell an inmate because an inmate is someone who isn’t a criminal-minded person. They’re usually people who in the free world has a job, goes to work, takes care of their family, and doesn’t have an extensive criminal record. Believe it or not but there are a lot of people locked up for something like DWIs and end up doing three or four years in the penitentiary for having two or three of the same charge. These are usually professional people who have careers, people who went to college and really never thought they would end up in prison just because they had one too many drinks or had an argument with their spouse.
This is so much different from a convict, because a convict is a person who usually starts his or her criminal career very young. Most of the time it’s someone who starts stealing car stereos, cars, bikes, snatching purses, breaking in houses, like I did. I just thought we were kids having fun. And what usually happens is you get caught young, and you go straight to juvie by say, 12, 13, 14. You have dropped out of school, and if you’re not careful this will start a cycle of crime. What’s funny is we were just trying to survive. I was just trying to eat. Once he gets out of juvie he comes home and realizes he’s too young to get a job, doesn’t want to go back to school, has no skills, so what does he do? He continues to commit petty crimes or get the idea he can sell drugs or be a stick-up kid. So he hits the streets and tries to sell drugs, but most of the time he ends up getting caught, and he goes right back to juvie where all he ends up doing is learning about more criminal activities.
Now what makes a convict? A convict is a creature of a whole different nature. A convict is usually a person who has been doing time for a long time or has been in and out of the system all his life. Most convicts are older guys, 40 years plus. But there are a lot of convicts who are younger. Now you can tell a convict by the way they move. Most convicts are extremely clean and very neat. We don’t really do what other inmates do. For instance, most convicts don’t talk to many people cause convicts are used to people coming in and out of their lives, so we try not to get attached to any of the inmates. Because we know soon as you start getting attached to someone, they go home or get moved to another jail. This is why most convicts have their very own way of doing time. We don’t watch a lot of television, but in jail no matter what, the news is mandatory and so are sports. That’s just what it is. Convicts don’t play the phones, because we’ve also gotten accustomed to being by ourselves. I deal with my celle and maybe a handful of other inmates, but we don’t do shit like talk to the guards. Real convicts don’t play that, because the guards are police to convicts, they just work in the jail.
Convicts are very careful who we deal with, and most convicts are very clean. Most convicts will have a fit over shit like trying to mop the cell. Hell no! You ain’t putting that nasty ass mop on my floor. A real convict rather clean his floor with a towel on his hands and knees, inch by inch. And you gotta keep the toilet spotless because your toilet bowl doubles as a washing machine. Yeah, if you’re in a cell we soak our clothes in the toilet bowl, so you have to respect the cell. Also, it’s funny but us convicts don’t indulge in stuff like church call, yard call. I don’t like going outside because it really makes me homesick. When I go outside I want to stay outside, so I rather just stay inside until I can come and go as I please. This comes from years of being in the can. Convicts have a routine that you can almost set your clock by. For real, they usually sit in the exact same spot all the time.
For example, there’s one convict in here who gets up every morning as soon as the lights come on, around 4:30 a.m., and goes straight to the shower. He spends around 15 minutes grooming himself. Breakfast comes around 5:30 a.m. and he never eats breakfast, lays down, watches the morning news, and everybody knows better than to touch the remote. After the news is over he heats his water up for his coffee, sits in his spot, reads the Bible for maybe 30 minutes, then like a tiger in a cage he paces the floor, back and forth, back and forth, for maybe an hour every day until it’s time to go to work at about 8:00 a.m., and he doesn’t come back until 5:00 p.m. Also, most convicts don’t talk to the young inmates. We stay away from loud, young inmates and inmates who run in packs because certain things in jail is a recipe for destruction. So we stay clear.
Convicts spend most of their time to themselves, in their racks or in their cell. Me, I sleep during the day and I stay up at night. We convicts are real reclusive. I realize from spending so much time in jail I don’t like criminals. I enjoy being by myself, learning myself. And one thing a convict knows is that a quiet inmate is the most dangerous. Yeah, the less you speak the better off you are because if you never talk, other inmates can’t figure you out, so people stay out of your way. Besides, real convicts don’t play, because jail ain’t the place to play. That’s why we stay clear of inmates and offenders who don’t realize just how long 20 years in jail is. They don’t realize what all they’re gonna miss in the world, like deaths of family members, births, parties, all kinds of major events, like your baby brother who was only 8 years-old when you got sentenced. When you finish doing time he’ll be 28 years-old. The little guy who worshipped the ground you walked on don’t even know you. Your baby brother has kids and in some cases family members don’t even want you around their kids because you’ve been gone so long. They don’t know you, just of you.
The D.O.C. usually ships you far away from home, which makes it hard for some families who have to travel by car to some remote parish in Louisiana to see you on the regular. This makes it hard because a lot of people don’t have the means, or they’re just tired of going through this crap with you. So most convicts learn to distance themselves. With me I don’t have time to teach anybody the rules of jail, because the young inmates really run the jail. The way these lil boys think is unreal. Every one of them wants to be rappers and all they talk about is guns, killing, and selling dope. All day long. They might mention the company of a beautiful, soft woman, but not much. And you can look at some of them and you can tell he’s gonna be a convict, dorm whore, shitter leg, or he ain’t built for this.
What’s funny to me is all the guys I looked up to on the streets when I was young, who told me stories of prison, getting your first tattoo, getting strips, getting visits from your girl and she’s giving you shots, kicking it with ya’ boys from ya’ hood, you becomin’ a man by going to jail. They never tell you the bad parts, like not having anybody to write you, come see you, put money on your books, or answer the collect calls. They never explain how lonely it gets. They never tell you how you could be talking to your mom and everything is fine, and the next time you call, you hear she or another family member has died and won’t let you go to the funeral to pay your last respects, or how it feels to be dead broke and hungry at night. They never tell you that. But us convicts know the horror stories of prison, and it’s a rough, terrible life to live.
So make up your mind, while you can, if you want to be an offender, an inmate, or a convict and make the right choice, because I can tell you the life of a convict is very lonely. After all the smoke clears you’ll find that crime doesn’t pay, and you’ll find that you’ve wasted all of your life behind bars, and you never got a chance to live your life to its full potential. So be an abiding citizen and leave jail for the convicts.