An insider’s impression of life behind bars
by Kathleen Hallgren, editor
Sergeant Andrew “L.T.” Mahar graduated from Colorado College in 2007 with a Classics and Political Science double major, a yearning to serve his country, and ready military experience gained through his participation in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). Hoping to be deployed for combat in Afghanistan, Mahar enlisted in the United States Army for active duty in August of 2007. Instead of being sent into combat, however, Mahar was deployed to the United States Eighth Army, and spent a year serving as a correctional officer in the United States Eighth Army Confinement Facilities prison system in Korea.
From February 2008 until 2009, Mahar dealt with military personnel and U.S. citizens involved with the military who had gotten into trouble with Korean law, as well as military personnel who broke U.S. military law while on Korean soil. During that year, he was responsible for between eight and twenty-five military prisoners, and one to six civilians. The ratio of prisoners to guards fluctuated, the lowest being six to one, and highest being twelve to one.
Sergeant Mahar, a self-proclaimed beer, music and adrenaline junkie, offers an insider’s perspective of life in prisons and power structures, as well as helpful tips on how to survive if you ever find yourself behind bars.
The opinions stated within are his own, and do not reflect the views of the United States military or any other organization.
Are there any discernible qualities that set an inmate apart from the start as being an alpha, or likely to be at the top of a hierarchy among prisoners?
All of the organizations and activities that are on the outside of jail are on the inside as well. Especially when you have someone come in and they were in a gang—you have that rank on the inside as well. Intelligence would be a big thing, intelligence and criminal intent. There were people in there who actually were criminals, who didn’t really care what the law was, and who would do what they wanted. They just didn’t really care. There were other guys in there who just made mistakes, and they wanted to get out. You had a lot more trouble out of the people who were smart and resourceful, and didn’t really care about the rules or how the guards perceived them.
Is it obvious that there are certain people that are in control, and others who are subordinate? And do you think there are ways to be in prison without getting involved in that hierarchy?
Oh yes, yes there are always little cliques . . . But at the same time, if you’re in there you’ll find a group or a friend at least. You’re constantly surrounded, you can’t leave, and you’re with the same people over and over again. You need a group, or something that tides you over. In larger American jails, you need to have a support group for protection. You’re very isolated from everything else; having a sort of structure allows you to have an identity and a purpose.
Are there measures taken to prevent these power structures from forming?
Yes there are, but really only to prevent rule infractions. If you’re in solitary confinement, you can’t communicate with anyone else; if you’re in a single cell it’s harder to talk back and forth. But most of the guys I dealt with were in open confinement.
Do the guards feel threatened by this power structure?
The guards weren’t really threatened. The first time you get out there, and you’re on the block (the hallway between cells) alone, you get nervous. But you realize that most of these guys aren’t really bad people; they made mistakes and that’s it. It really is amazing, people in jail often just want to get it all done with and get out and get on with their lives.
Do you think that sentence length plays a role in who gets to be on top? If you’re in for a longer period of time, is it more important to establish that kind of connection?
I would say to a certain degree, but at the same time, almost all of the jails are going to hold people who are confined with others of the same general length of confinement. When you first get in, or at least in my experience, unless you have an “in” somewhere, you are going to be low on the totem pole. You gain some sort of rank.
How do you gain rank?
It’s like . . . This is going to sound so wrong, but it’s like dogs in a pack. Humans are social animals, and we have different ways to vie for dominance. There are people who need to govern, and people who need to be governed; there will always be a leader and a follower. It happens in all groups; even in your group of friends, I’m sure you have someone who dominates, and that’s how it works. It’s the same sort of thing, even small power struggles that we experience on a day-to-day basis, they’ll experience on the inside. But in major jails, you’ll also have crime and violence. Power struggles are more structured and organized. Who’s in charge, and all the ranks, that’s how you face off against the guards and other inmates.
Are a lot of these power struggles physically based? Does violence earn respect or rank?
In my experience, we had hardly any violence because in the Korean jails you are treated very differently than in American jails. Your rights are much more limited, and the Koreans’ positions of authority are very violent. The whole time I was there, there were only two fights with my guys. You’re stuck in a very small area and it’s easy to get fed up with someone. I’m sure in prisons in the U.S. in long-term confinement you have people who are very violent offenders who would commit more actual violence. I didn’t see that much, and was involved in only one myself.
There have been studies* proving that sex offenders are as stigmatized within prison as they are in the outside world. In your experience, did the crime that the inmate was convicted of play a part in where he or she fell in the power structure?
Not where I was, no. From Correctional Association conferences I’ve had to attend, I do know that’s a problem in other prisons. If you’re a pedophile or you’re charged with a sex crime against a minor, you are stigmatized. And that’s one of the social groups. If you fall into that group, you really only associate with that group, and they all bond together to form their own clique. That’s kind of what they need because, yeah, you are on the bottom of the totem pole. At the same time, if you’re very openly homosexual and feminine, you’re going to be lower down on the totem pole. It’s a very masculine structure.
Did inmates who were openly homosexual or effeminate stick together as well?
Yes, I would say so.
if you had to divide the groups into a couple of broad, general categories, how would you do that?
There really wasn’t that much division, actually, because I worked at very small jails with around twenty people at one time. We had a couple of cliques. One was Hispanic, another was white, and another group liked to go outside and play basketball, so that was kind of what they revolved around, the really sporty guys. But that was pretty much it. It’s like friends; it’s who seems fit for each other. But in America, of course, it’s really different because of all the gangs.
Do you believe that these power structures serve a purpose?
Yes. Well, wow, that’s a really tough question. The gangs in jails are certainly a problem but I think they also help because they give structure to the jails, and allow the correctional officers to know who they need to watch for certain things. They can peg down who is a leader and who is a follower. And I believe that people need structure in their lives, a sort of order to how they live.
From conversations you’ve had with colleagues, do you know how gang-related activity continues within prisons?
There are people in jail who are the leaders of gangs, and they run the gangs on the outside from the inside. Having cell phones smuggled in is a huge problem. There are also gangs that are only on the inside. You could be involved with a gang on the outside and have a certain rank and come inside and have a completely different rank and place in the power structure. Drugs are a big thing, smuggling them in, and the actual selling of drugs is a huge trade.
Selling to other inmates?
How does contraband get in?
They get snuck in. Sometimes they’ll do it by eating it in a baggy, or hiding it, usually in the anus. We have a huge problem with cell phones being brought in that way. You can smuggle it in your shoe, and there are people who cut open their pants and hide things in there and sew it shut. If you’re in jail and stuck in there and all you have to do is sit in your cell for hours at a time and think, you will devise ingenious way of doing things. If you give someone rules that they want to break, they’ll find some way around it. Our job as officers is to try and catch them beforehand, or figure out policies that will make it harder on them to follow through with their plan.
What would the benefits of being at the top of a power structure be, not only specific to where you were working, but your experience with the correctional system in general?
Well, to start with what I have seen, a big thing for us was food. We had all the inmates line up in a general order, all the pre-trials ate first and ate on their own in a general area, and then the others ate next in their own area as well. But we had no say in how they lined up within their groups. And you’d notice that there were certain people who would always line up first in the front of the line, be able to eat first, and thus eat for a little bit longer than everybody else. It wasn’t really a big deal because it didn’t cause any problems, but that was one thing I definitely noticed. When we occasionally had Western food, there were certain things that everybody liked. Lucky Charms cereal, for example, there would always be a little hoopla over who got the Lucky Charms. Food was a big deal in jail, a really big deal. There were also two TVs, and who chose the station was a big thing. If there were an argument over what to watch, usually the person who was senior would choose what to watch then. The only fight I was involved with was because of an argument over the TV.
This shouting match escalated on the main block until it became a fight. When a fight happens, the whole facility goes on lock down, and any guard who has been trained will respond. The whole thing was over what channel to watch, which might seem stupid, but if that’s all you really have for months and months, that’s important.
Do you know how it was determined who got control over the TV?
No, not really. There were some guys who just didn’t care, they didn’t want to deal with it, they just wanted to get out of there. There were other guys who thought it was a big deal. The ones who cared would fight over it and try to prove that they were the big dog, that they were the ones in charge.
Was there a sexual element to the structuring of the hierarchy as a means to assert power?
Where I was, no, because it was a very small jail and we had a very good watch over them. Our guard-to-inmate ratio was very low, but better than most other jails, and our duty to make sure that they didn’t have sexual relations was pretty easy because it was such a small facility.
Do you have any insight about this issue in large prisons?
A major thing we were taught was that if you’re in jail, you’re either going to fight to prove you’re not someone’s bitch, or you’re going to be someone’s bitch. Even if you fought and you lost, other inmates are deterred by the idea of future fights. There’s also the fact that if you did become someone’s bitch, you’d have protection and you’d belong to a group. In jail homosexuality is not viewed the same as it is on the outside. You could have relationships with someone of the same sex on the inside and it wasn’t gay. I didn’t really have to deal with that; I was pretty lucky. In the military there is a very homophobic atmosphere anyway, so you don’t really have to deal with it that much, or even at all, really. There was one inmate who was gay.
how did he fare with the other prisoners?
Almost the whole time he was in isolation because he was a bad apple. He was very disrespectful to guards and got in trouble a lot. He was in confinement a lot.
What crimes had the inmates you were with committed?
We had everything from murder to fraud, which would be the most minor. There were some guys in for assault or assault with a weapon, and a lot of guys in for rape or sexual assault; that was a big one. Three or four were in for drugs, and one for theft. I also had five in for kidnapping, assault, and grand theft auto. They had kidnapped a taxi driver and stuffed him in the trunk of his taxi.
Do you think that your experience would have been different if it had been twenty civilians instead of twenty people in the military? Like in terms of a power structure, and having already been exposed to a highly stratified system?
Actually, of my inmates that were in Korean jails, I had three civilians: a son of an Air Force contractor, and two wives of army guys. The wives were there for drugs, and the young man was there for sexual assault. They were involved because of Status of Force Agreements (SOFA), which determine what laws American personnel are covered by, and how they are treated by the host nation’s penal system. I was in charge of all of the SOFA issues, so I had to deal with all of the courts and other surrounding issues. A lot of my job actually involved mediating between Korean guards and American prisoners. The cultures are so different in terms of how they view power and authority. Americans are much more individualistic—focused on “my rights”—and in Korea, which is a much smaller, community-based country, there is more respect for authority, rank and age. Koreans use force much more regularly.
Do you think that outlook serves to prevent crime, or just makes people more prone to violent crime?
From what I’ve experienced, there is not that much violent crime in Korea. There’s just a very different attitude. If you’re in an authority position, you’re supposed to be in charge.
Do you think that there were any racially charged tensions between the inmates?
It was more an issue between the Americans and Koreans than anything else.
Do you think that’s an issue in American civilian prisons?
Oh yes, yes, oh good lord. Almost all gangs in jail have to do with race. What gang is dominant depends on the region of the country, most notably the Aryan Brotherhood and the Latin Kings.
Are there any other main aspects pertinent to these power structures that we have not discussed?
How inmates deal with guards. There were ones who were respectful and befriended the guards. They were not accepted as well by the rest of the inmates because it’s a very “us versus them” mentality, the inmates versus the guards.
Do you think it’s more beneficial for the inmates to form relationships with the guards, or with other inmates?
Well, that’s really tricky because you can’t really form a relationship with an inmate. You can actually serve time in a correctional facility and get out, and stay in the Army. There have been times when I’ve run into people from the jail and they’re like, “Hey, what’s going on?” and you can’t really talk to them.
How does an inmate form a positive relationship with a guard, and what good comes of that for them?
There are two main types of relationships. The first is positive, when the inmate knows that you have a job to do. They’re respectful and just want to serve their time and get out. The second, the bad one, happens as well. They try to get something out of each other. Inmates try to get privileges or favors out of guards. A big thing that has happened over the last couple of years in military facilities is guards having sex with inmates. There were three or four female guards who were caught having relations with inmates, and that’s a huge problem.
I’m assuming we’re talking consensual sex?
Yes. There was a case this past year, not in a military jail but in a civilian jail, where there was one inmate who had relations with multiple females, either on staff or in the facility. The females portray it as if he had power over them somehow, but this makes no sense at all because if you are a correctional officer, that’s your job. You are your own power; you’re in charge of the inmates. It’s something that’s happened in the past. both males and females having relations in jail. There are also guards who sneak in drugs, sneak in treats, and minor favors become major problems. Even if you think something is not a big deal, it can turn into something. As I said, inmates are very clever and they think about ways to get around rules. You might think a pen is just a pen, but it can be used as a weapon, a tool for escape, or something else. We issue one specific kind of pen to the inmates, and if another kind is found, you know a guard is responsible.
Is that an issue in military prisons?
Not really. If you get caught doing something like that, you get in a lot of trouble and will probably go to jail yourself. And if you go to jail as a correctional officer you get treated really badly. You do not want it to be known that you were a correctional officer. That’s actually really scary to think about. It’s really just in everyone’s interest not to cause problems.
Did you have any female guards?
Yes, yeah we did.
Did the prisoners treat female guards differently?
Usually you’d have one or two prisoners who tried to act differently, but that got squashed pretty quickly. Usually it was someone who was new to jail who didn’t know, and they were actually being serious. They would try flirting with the guard, and were quickly told not to. At any one time in our unit we had only between five and ten females working, and that’s out of sixty or seventy people.
Do you think that the female guards have to behave differently, act especially tough or masculine, in order to gain respect of the prisoners? Or at least more consciously than the male guards?
I don’t think so. I mean, a major way they were different was in how they would approach the inmates and deal with them. Not necessarily that the female guards would sweet-talk the inmates more, but a lot of these guys were in there with no female contact, so having a female guard smile at you and say thank you had a different effect than if a male guard did the same thing. It’s just a different vibe. So I would say that, yes, the females did act a little bit differently, but always professionally and respectfully.
Was it easy for you to predict those changes to the power structure?
No, not really. It takes a while to feel the vibe and feel what’s going on, but once you get used to it you walk into the room and you can actually tell the instant something is wrong, or something has changed. Policing in general is about that; it’s all about feeling things and noticing small details.
So there were subtle differences that became obvious as you learned what to look for?
Yeah, how people are sitting, who’s sitting with whom, who’s talking, how people look at each other, what’s on TV, what people are doing . . . And that’s all it could be.
What happens when there is a riot?
When the fight that I mentioned earlier happened in Korea, most inmates got in their bunks right away, and we had four guards to the scene within seconds. In larger prisons, however, the entire block shuts down, so if there are only two guards inside, they just have to hold out until it’s clear to open the gate. The problem is that the inmates are so clever, they’ll tie sheets around the bars so you have to cut through them to get through, cover themselves with soap so they’re really slippery, and put their mattresses up against the wall or in front of their cell doors so you can’t see in, and you don’t know what’s going on or if there’s a weapon. I had one instructor who had been stabbed eight times; it was nuts.
What is done to prevent riots?
The big thing is that most inmates don’t want a riot. And we don’t want them to have a reason or the ability. You want to stop that before it happens, and notice changes early. There are not a lot of riots in prisons, especially now because of the weapons guards can access if there is a riot. There are really cool tools that we have nowadays, non-lethal. No one wants to get hurt, hit with a riot-control grenade, but it does happen sometimes.
What is the greatest risk that guards face?
It’s in becoming complacent, not following rules and protocol. The critical thing as a guard is to be able to relate to people. Your ability to talk, and to calm people with your voice, is really the most important tool you can have.
Knowing what you do, how would you advise someone who was about to go to prison? What is the best way to survive that situation? And are there any physical attributes or personality characteristics that you would want to develop?
I often asked myself that question: how would I act if I went to jail myself? Me being me, I would want to be in solitary, probably, and read books. That’s not really possible, though, so I would say be respectful and obey the rules. As bad as it sounds, fight if you have to. Be respectful to everyone there, don’t be a loud mouth, don’t try to show off. Just go in there and do your time. It’s hard, I really have no idea how I’d do that. Be physically fit, be a fighter and be able to handle yourself. Be smart and self-controlled. Be self-reliant. Have the ability to calm yourself, and maintain the ability to communicate with and relate to people.