03/20/2012 11:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Are Some Aspects of Incarceration That Could Not Possibly Be Guessed by Someone Who Hasn't Experienced It?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Eric "Phil" Phillips, San Quentin inmate.

One aspect is the amazing amount of talent in prison. There are many people here not just talented, but very intelligent. I know for example, one individual who has been incarcerated since the late 60s, around 44-45 years, an African American man. He started his time in Illinois, and then was extradited to California. He should be on the outside because he would easily fit in on "Washington This Week" or "Nightly Business Report" on PBS. He could outshine those renowned political and international policy experts with ease, and he's very well read! There are multi instrumentalists (including myself) who can even break down complex jazz arrangements. You have amazing painters and artists, poets extraordinaire, and proficient writers. San Quentin is unique because of the many programs here, inmates can cultivate these talents. There are electronics experts, computer experts, and masters of law, even doctors. Prison contains all kinds of people; it's not all stereotyped tattooed convicts and gangbangers. As a matter of fact, many of these talented people are those "convicts" and "gangbangers." Never judge a book by its cover especially in prison.

*All communications between inmates and external channels are facilitated by approved volunteers since inmates do not have access to the internet. This program with Quora is part of The Last Mile San Quentin. @thelastmilesq

Kenyatta Leal, San Quentin inmate.
One aspect of incarceration that couldn't be guessed is the degree to which our physical absence disrupts our interpersonal relationships. Prior to entering the prison system, I had a robust social network. I knew a lot of people and I spent a lot of time hanging out with friends, going to parties and getting involved in activities that most young people experience. At the time, I believed my relationships were stable and that somehow we'd always be connected. I thought I had a lot of real friends and people I could count on no matter what, but today I know differently.

Remember phrase, "Outta sight, outta mind?" It alludes to the idea that once visual/physical contact is broken, the relationship itself is broken. This is precisely what many of us in prison experience during our incarceration. Of course, this outta sight, outta mind dynamic is not unique to prison but there's something about experiencing it while incarcerated that makes it's impact so much more dramatic.

In my case, it felt that as my relationships deteriorated, so did my capacity to have meaning in the outside world. I felt as though my friendships helped me maintain a sense of relevancy in life, and as a result I found myself trying desperately to hold onto friends and things we had in common. However, as my sentence progressed so did the distance between the friends I once cherished and me. Slowly but surely my physical absence whittled away at my relationships until my once vibrant social network was reduced to me, myself, and I. For years, I put on a front like I wasn't affected by what was happening, but inside I agonized over the loss of my friends. I ended up feeling disconnected, like I no longer mattered to anyone in the outside world.

Today, after 18 years in prison, I have no contact with any of the people I called friends when I began my incarceration; they've all moved on with their lives and so have I. The only relationships I have strong enough to endure the "outta sight, outta" mind dynamic are the relationships with my family. For this I am truly grateful because I don't know where I'd be without the unconditional love and support of my family.

I think the toughest part of all is that I have a life sentence and I don't know if/when I'll ever have the opportunity to develop a friendship, romance, or any other meaningful relationship outside of prison again. Pretty much everyone I know or could come close to knowing is in prison. Couple this with all the uncertainty of prison life and the mistrust associated with prison culture, I've found it virtually impossible to really get to know anyone in here well enough to call them a "friend." For me, true friendship in prison has been a fleeting illusion to be pursued but yet to be attained. Perhaps one day that will change but as it stands, I guess you could say I'm a loner just doing my best, where I am, with what I have despite being "outta sight, and outta mind"

*All communications between inmates and external channels are facilitated by approved volunteers since inmates do not have access to the internet. This program with Quora is part of The Last Mile San Quentin. @thelastmilesq

Aaron Ellis, Screenwriter and track coach.

Never been to prison, but I have a lot of family and friends who have done or are doing time. I also know several prison guards and one warden. The common stories I hear are that are different than what most people think are:

The Value of Junk Food: Prison food is pretty crappy. It's bad everyday. It's basically tasteless slop made to keep inmates alive. Because of that, prisoners love to get their hands on the food from the commisary (it's basically a mini-mart in the prison). With an extreme markup, the commisary sells food to inmates that most of us take for granted; Cup O Noodles, candy bars, cereal, Cheetos, Hostess pastries, trail mix, Oreo cookies, plain saltine crackers with peanut butter, etc. You can't imagine the high demand for treats in prison. They go nuts for simple junk food. Movies and television often depict drugs and cigarettes as the currency of prisons, and there is truth to that. But not everyone smokes and very few do drugs. Everyone likes the occasional sweets. You can make friends with a carton of Newports, but you'd be surprised at how many people will want to be your friend if you have a bag of chocolate chip cookies or Kool-Aid.

The Commissary Is A Bunch of Crooks: Every month my family gets a letter from my cousin asking to wire him money so he can get food and basic toiletries from the commissary. If I went to the local supermarket and bought these items for myself, it would cost me at most $30. Purchasing these items in prison costs well over $100. Everything costs several times more than normal price. Some prisoners are able to work, but they get paid nickels and dimes, so they rarely earn enough money to buy items from the commissary. Most prisoners rely on friends and family on the outside to send them money for basic supplies, and it adds up quickly. It's pretty close to robbery.

Celebrity Treatment: There's a slight misconception that a celebrity who goes to prison will get stuck in general population and get their ass kicked by violent inmates. That's not quite true. The last thing any warden wants is for a famous actor to get shanked by someone who didn't like their last movie. Truth is, most high profile people are isolated and looked after. But most celebrities matriculate just fine because they quickly make friends.

My former roommate worked at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles. They have housed several celebs, including rapper The Game when he was incarcerated for felony weapons possession. My roommie told me about how EVERYONE tried to meet him, ask him for an autograph and be his buddy. There were also a lot of people - inmates and prison guards - who passed him their mix tapes in hopes he would discover their rapping talents. It was like the final scene of the movie Hustle & Flow, but it was like that all the time.

Ariel Williams, Dreamer, Writer, Artist
I was 16 and in juvenile hall for 2 days on account of being brought in early on a Christmas eve. Everything was shut down due to Christmas so everyone was going into the jail in the back even people that would normally be released directly from the holding cells because there was no staff to do the releasing.

The two worst parts of this singular experience with a "real" jail in my life was my cell mate relating to me the horrible things they did and myself feeling disgusted and afraid being in the same room with them and The Chipmunks Christmas album being played over the speakers. In the solid concrete halls The Chipmunks squeaky little voices seemed to echo into infinity and it was played day and night. Oh and being strip searched down to nothing and cavity searched is probably the worst most dehumanizing experience ever. They run their fingers through every part of your body, through your hair, in, out and through every crevice, etc.

FYI I was brought in on a domestic violence charge that didn't even involve physical violence just shouting loud enough that three neighbors called the police. My mother was drunk and screaming and I was fed up so I started screaming back. Tucson, AZ law required someone to get arrested in domestic violence. If my mom got arrested, my 6 yr old brother would go to CPS. The police told me if I was the one arrested then my mother would go to the hospital to get her stomach pumped and my brother would stay. I told them to arrest me. When it came to court, all the charges were dropped anyhow.

To this day this song gives me chills remembering it echoing down the halls of juvenile hall at 2am... Seriously cruel and unusual punishment.

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