A hopscotch design on asphalt is filled with numbers 1 through 10.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The thing about the Department of Corrections is that the whole confusing mess is a numbers game. Years, days, levels, degrees, amounts, victims — they’re all a factor. Most people will never experience a taste of prison. But, since I have your attention for a few minutes, let me explain the threes and sevens — a bad poker hand — of this chaotic underbelly. 

Prison is all about class warfare, and numbers are the politics of division. The rules and numbers that dictate my survival around here revolve around a hierarchy. In simpler terms, we have a food chain here in prison. One needs to be aware of his surroundings in a place like this because good will can quickly turn into bad intentions. 

At the top of the food chain are your run-of-the-mill first-degree killers doing 30 years to eternity. At the very bottom are people with sexual offenses. It’s up to you to know your place in the pecking order.

These bad boys in here are information gatherers. You better believe they’ll find out all your years, days, levels, degrees, amounts and numbers.

It’s imperative to remember that in prison most people are full of you-know-what. Just knowing the ratio of true kingpins to bullshitters in any room you’re in can boost your success rate by 90%. 

For example, let’s say I walk out of my cell. I look to my left. I see a group of six or seven men on some gangster vibes, hanging out on the tier. I quickly calibrate that these are possibly killers looking to put in work. Some guys here have nothing to lose. Forever is their number — the ultimate number — and for them it means nothing matters anymore. What is the value of anything or anyone if you are never getting out? 

It means there’s a high probability of chaos in here. 

Now, if I walk out of my cell and look to my right, I might see my next-door neighbor. He spends the majority of the days on the Dungeons & Dragons table. I know he’s an eighth grade dropout, a 12th-level dungeon master and a third-degree sex offender. 

There’s a 0% chance of danger or conflict. 

I personally fall somewhere in the middle of the food chain. I manage to navigate this minefield with intelligence. I also know how to mind my own business. Luckily, I can move left or right and know I’ll still be up on two wheels an hour from now. 

The most important number to me today is the number of days I have left in prison. Once I’m free, you can bet I’ll be living life by the individual minute, looking to make a million. 

You don’t gotta be a math genius to run the numbers. You just gotta know how to play the game.

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.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Jason Olson

Jason Olson is a Minnesota native and a former editor of two prison newspapers out of Minnesota, “The Voice” and “The Gold Rush Chronicles.” He is incarcerated in Minnesota.