A man whispers into another man's ear.
Illustration by Remo_Designer on Depositphotos

The drama in prison is a lot like the drama in high school. But in prison, gossip can have deadly consequences. 

The gossip that takes place in prison varies from the trivial (“Did you hear that Jon and Pete are sleeping together?”) to the dangerous (“Tommy is a rat, and he’s got bad paperwork.”).

The latter can be a serious problem on some prison yards because it translates to: “Tommy is telling the police about our illegal activities, and he’s a sex offender.” Even if those allegations are untrue, they don’t have to be proven to get Tommy killed. 

Just like in high school, every prison yard is full of people who love to start fires. They stir the pot and watch what boils over. I have seen friends fight each other and people get their faces slashed with razors because of firestarters. Over time, our minds warp in prison, and we come to see this level of brutality and violence as normal. The reason we do this is to cope with our environment, so we don’t lose our minds amid the madness. 

Once we come to the realization that prison is insane, we have to work for years to normalize ourselves — to become the kind of people who deserve to be a part of society again.

The work is hard. And many men don’t want to put the effort in because it is akin to climbing the highest mountain. Some people don’t have the will to change anymore, but some of us do.

During my first few months inside prison, I was scared, but I thought I was prepared. I was wrong. 

The first time I saw a gang beatdown over gossip was in San Quentin State Prison’s chow hall. I was trying to eat when 10 men jumped one man because they thought he had said something disrespectful about their gang. They were mistaken, but someone said he had. 

This was happening two tables away from me, and I was in shock. The alarms sounded. Everyone had to get down on the ground and allow the officers to respond. We got down. I was with three older men who had been inside for years. They grabbed their trays off the table and kept eating as fists flew. While some men screamed, officers arrived with pepper spray in hand.

I turned to an inmate I knew and yelled, “How can you keep eating at a time like this?”

He looked at me, unfazed, and said, “You get used to it.” 

I thought to myself, “How can he be so callous? That will never be me.” 

One week later, I was doing the same thing. 

I too became callous.

I no longer saw the man getting beaten up as a human being, but rather as an inconvenience I had to tolerate and risk being accidentally pepper sprayed for.

In retrospect, I dehumanized the victims I saw in prison, and by doing so I dehumanized myself. I did it so I could mentally survive my situation, but that doesn’t make it right. 

Gossip and a turbocharged high school mentality were at the root of many of these attacks. 

By being part of a recovery community and undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy, I came to realize how distorted my worldview was and how far I’d let myself slide down a path of inhumanity. 

I now see the danger of prison gossip for what it is: a means of destruction.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Daniel X. Cohen

Daniel X. Cohen is a comedy and drama writer and is currently working on screenplays and short stories. He serves as a facilitator for self-help groups. He is currently incarcerated in California.