Tag Archives: prison folklore

What to do if you go to jail

Information about the Informant

My informant is a university professor of English and American literature. He grew up in Chicago during the 1950s, and fought in the latter half of the Vietnam War. After that, he returned and received his degree in English Literature at UC Irvine. He has worked on many textbooks and movies that deal with the Vietnam War.


“I was once taught, at the age of twelve, what I should do if, if I went to jail. And the man gave me three pieces of advice. One, keep your mouth shut. Two, keep your eyes and ears open. Three, find the toughest guy in your cell block, and start a fight with him. ‘Cause even if you lose, he’s gonna respect you and nobody else is gonna fuck with you.”


I believe, although I could be wrong, that this advice has become widespread or a bearer of the advice has become a published author or told it to someone who then published it, because I believe I have seen this piece of advice in a book once. While not fixed enough (and probably too long to ever be fixed), to be considered a proverb, the advice is still worded memorably enough that it is easily remembered and passed along. There is almost a certain lyrical quality to it. The concept of keeping one’s mouth shut is offset by the second part of the advice which involves keeping two other orifices open, and there is the implication that this is a balance, where one shuts one’s mouth and, to compensate for that, one also keeps one’s ears and eyes open. The third part of the advice then comes as a disruption to the balance of this advice, especially the way it was worded by my informant. Whereas the first two parts are standard pieces that could be told to more than just people going to jail, told by mothers to their children, told by bosses to their workers, the third part really establishes the context and the brutality of the environment in which the complete advice is applicable.