Preparedness Lessons I Learned in Prison

Preparedness Lessons I Learned in Prison

Andrew’s Note:  Today we’re pleased to present ‘Preparedness Lessons I Learned in Prison’ by guest writer David Nash of The Shepard School.  See the end of the article for additional biographical info on David.

First off, I should mention that the things I learned in prison were things I learned while WORKING in a prison, not LIVING, in a prison.  That being said there are several things I learned from prison that apply to catastrophic disasters.  They are:

  • You are not in control
  • Mental, emotional, and physical strength are essential
  • Resources are limited
  • There is always a way to get what you need
  • Weapons will always be present
  • Flexibility and ingenuity have rewards
  • Networks and support groups are essential

By definition a catastrophic disaster is out of your control, just like a prisoner cannot control their environment.  However, in my experience, the inmates that are the most successful at adapting to prison life were able to recognize what they could and could not control, accept the realities of the situation, and then learn to quickly adapt to the situation.Preparedness Lessons I Learned in Prison

Adapting to the new reality is more about strength than weakness.  It is common knowledge that the weak are preyed upon inside prison walls.  However physical strength is not enough.  No matter how strong you are, there is someone bigger and tougher.  However, having a mental attitude that exudes confidence and mental strength can be a game changer.  I will admit, in my time working as a correctional officer, there were times I was afraid.  Several times the thought going through my head was “this is really going to hurt”.  I have had inmates blatantly tell me I was on my own and that no one could get to me quick enough to save me if something “happened”.  While feeling fear, I also knew that should an inmate attack me I would not go down gently.  I am by no means a “tough guy”, basically I am a nerd.  Academically I knew that my best chance of survival in that situation was to go ahead and decide to fight back.  The willingness to do violence showed through more than the fear, and while we both knew who had the upper hand tactically, strategically it made more sense for the inmates to back down.  In a disaster situation it is the same thing, you cannot always win, but the moment you give in to fear, you have lost.  It is always better to keep trying.  As an old convict used to tell me “I ain’t afraid of no man, he can kill me, but he can’t eat me…”

In the system I worked at, state policy dictated an inmate could only have 6 cubic feet of personal items (this is about 2 garbage bags).  Not only was the amount limited, but what was available to purchase was limited also.  In a disaster resources will also be limited, stores will either not have items to sell, or be without the power and communications infrastructure required to process debit cards.  Without electricity, gas stations won’t be able to pump gas.  Realistically, in a disaster, the only items you will have will be ones you already own.  Learning to live on less is not an optional program for prison inmates, they have no choice… however it is a good idea for the prepper to think about what is really necessary to survive (and even thrive).  Learning to enjoy simple activities and pleasures can really make a difference.  Personally I have a set of playing cards in every disaster kit I have.  When you don’t have anything else, a game of cards can be a real blessing.

While it is true what an inmate can have is different than what an inmate can get.  In many prisons drugs are actually cheaper than they are on ‘the street.’   Anything can be gotten for a price.  I remember performing a late night inmate count in a dormitory style prison annex.  I looked over to see what appeared to be a video game on an inmate’s TV.  He was wrapped up in a blanket, but the blanket was moving.  Normally, I would not follow up on such furtive moves, but because of the TV I investigated further.  I was surprised to see that he had a top of the line, brand new game console.  I have talked with correctional officers that have been involved in actual shootouts with inmates that have had firearms smuggled in to them.  The obvious lessons for preppers is that weapons are always available, but also that while supplies may be limited anything can be had for the right price.  While hand crank wheat grinders are a real pain to use, they cost less than $50 now, but during a time of catastrophic emergency they could be priceless bartering items.  I like to keep things like liquor and other shelf stable high value items that can be later bartered.

Along with things being available at the right price, I was constantly amazed at the ingenuity of the convicts to make what was needed.   I have seen several guns made within prison walls – one really interesting double barrel shotgun was made with a door bolt as the locking mechanism, and a mousetrap as the firing pin spring.  I have seen knives of all kinds, from lawnmower blade swords, to small Papier-mâché shanks made from toilet paper and glue (designed to disintegrate in the wound to cause infection).   I had another old convict ask if he could “show me something cool” and then proceeded to make a very compact blowgun using typing paper, a post it note, and a staple.  He then told me a story of how a convict soaked a dart in a mixture of feces and urine, and then shot a guard in the neck.  I was assured that the infection was painful and almost life ending.   Of course not all prison ingenuity was related to weapons.

I have seen speakers made using headphones stuck into Styrofoam cups, wine made with oranges and moldy bread being distilled into hard liquor using garbage bags and immersion heaters made with electric cords, bits of wood, and a couple strips of metal.  Creative inmates make all sorts of art; I have seen ingenious wooden ships the size of a computer screen made with toothpicks, wooden boxes with hidden compartments, all manner of tattoo guns.  With proper motivation, time, and effort almost anything can be built from recycled materials.  It may not be pretty or last a long time, but you can make it work.

Lastly, while inmates have to survive on their own, and a common saying is “you have to do your own time”, building networks, and surrounding yourself with a group that depends on each other for self-protection is a very vital aspect of survival.  There is always someone meaner, tougher, and stronger than you, and a group of people tougher than him.  You have to be your own person and handle your own business, but spending some time building a network willing to help you out of a bind can mean all the difference, because you have to sleep sometime.

Moving from corrections to emergency management was a huge shift in gears mentally, but I found that the core knowledge that I learned in the military, refined in corrections, and proved in emergency management is universal.  Think, plan, prepare, and be ready to adapt on a moment’s notice.   You can learn from every situation, and never EVER give up.

About the Author

David Nash is the owner of the Shepherd School, which is a preparedness and self-reliance informational resource devoted to helping teach people how to become more self-reliant.  He is the author of “Understanding the Use of Handguns for Self Defense” and the upcoming “52 Self-Reliance Projects”.  Besides being a DIY prepper, David is also a full time emergency management planner for state government.  However, before that he was a correctional corporal for the Tennessee Department of correction. You can find the Shepherd School on the web at  Also, make sure to check out David’s recent article rebutting an article accusing preppers of being ‘socially selfish’…he’s trying to quash that argument before it gets any traction in emergency management circles.

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