In the world outside of prison, everyone wants to know what others do, where they work, how much they make, where and in what type of house they live, what they drive, and the answers to many other personal identity questions which help us to quantify and categorize others. These are social signals to those around all of us. They help us to understand how to treat others, how they compare to us, and a plethora of other interpersonal protocols. Not very surprisingly, prison is no different.
The Prison Pecking Order
In prison, unlike life "on the street," social status is not based upon what a fellow prisoner makes or what they do for a living, but what their crime of conviction is, if the fellow prisoner is an informant or not, the group (or "car") they associate with, and how they carry themselves. Also unlike the world outside of prison walls, this social status can mean the difference between a life of torment and assault, and a relatively peaceful life, where due respect is proffered by perceived social equals and lesser-thans. As such, it is vital for new arrivals -- and others who want to understand the prison experience -- to understand how stratification works in a correctional context. Doing so will ensure that they maximize their chances of surviving relatively unscathed.
Crime of Conviction: Social Stigmatization at its Best
The convict stratification equation starts, much like many other components of prison life, in a seemingly backward fashion. When judging a fellow prisoner's social status, one doesn't start by thinking of who they are today, but what they did to be locked up in the first place. This is a common starting point for any evaluation because it helps to quickly -- and relatively accurately -- quantify complete strangers. After all, if a fellow prisoner is, for example, doing time for bank robbery, then it can be assumed that he is a traditional convict, schooled in the criminal lifestyle. On the other hand, if someone is in for wire fraud or embezzlement, then they are probably not considered "good people" -- according to the social construction of prison society -- and will be categorized as a "citizen," not a true convict.
The same form of judging occurs with other, less savory crimes, too. Having an unpopular crime of conviction is a quick path to the lower realms of the prison stratification system. Those with a criminal history of sexual assault, possession, distribution, or production of child pornography, rape, molestation, and such are deemed in prison to be the lowest of the low. Those with these types of crimes are almost automatically shunned from Day One, though they can often find a place amongst fellow unsavory types (those many regular prisoners disparagingly call "weirdos").
The Rat Factor
After this initial evaluation has been figured, the next question -- regardless of crime of conviction -- concerns if the prisoner in question has testified against anyone else. This could be in terms of testifying in court (they would be deemed an "informant" in this case) or snitching on their fellow prisoners (they would be deemed a "rat" in this context). Regardless of crime of conviction, if a prisoner is known to assist law enforcement or the prison authorities, they are deemed to be the lowest of the low. Add a conviction for an unsavory crime, and any "good con" wouldn't be seen dead speaking with them, or worse, many might make a point to openly assault such individuals based upon principle. Whereas in regular American society, those who are a bit odd or disagreeable are avoided, those in prison face a much harder fate: ostracism, shunning, and possible assault (depending on the prison security level in question).
Association: The "Car" You Ride In
After a fellow prisoner has been evaluated for their crime of conviction and if they are an informant or not, the next step in the social judging ladder concerns who they associate with. In prison, associations matter. In fact, they can be vital to a healthy and safe prison experience. This is because, in prison, when one prisoner gets into an altercation with another -- or even when others think about causing a problem for a fellow prisoner -- they must take into account that they are not merely picking a fight with one person, but that person, plus everyone that person associates with. Prisoners tend to form smaller groups -- called "cars" in the prison context -- whom they eat with, work out with, cell with, and defend one another.
These cars can be formed for any number of reasons and can include any number of different groupings. For example, a common trait amongst the cars concerns where someone is from. This could be as micro as the street or city they lived in prior to their incarceration, or it could include all of the prisoners at a specific prison from a state or county. These can be informal groups of likeminded persons, based on racial or religious factors, or even be traditional prison or street gangs (e.g., Aryan Brotherhood, Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, etc.). The car could even consist of what most prisoners would consider "weirdos" (those with unsavory charges or character).
Depending on the car in question -- and its reputation -- an association can make all the difference in the world. For example, in prison, no one in their right mind would openly assault someone from the Muslim car unless they had permission from their crew and, possibly, an approving nod from the Muslim "shot caller" (the leader of the group). This is because there are many, many Muslim prisoners in almost any American prison. On the other hand, someone from a weirdo car wouldn't have anywhere near the same sort of protection because their car probably wouldn't step up to the plate and defend even their own.
Personal Projection: It's the Image that Counts
The way a prisoner presents themselves is a bit of a wildcard. Usually, crime of conviction, the potential rat factor, and associations lead the way in determining where someone will reside in the prison social stratification system. But this is not always the case. More often than not, a prisoner's personal projection -- or perceived image -- will dictate their pecking order within their particular car, and it's the car that determines the prisoner's social status.
But from time to time, there are prisoners who are either afforded additional respect or additional harassment due to the way they carry themselves. For example, not too long ago, there was a guy in my prison who associated with the weirdo car -- and was openly gay, a somewhat taboo subject in prison -- yet could fight very, very well. So, while some groups didn't like him because of his sexual preferences and lifestyle, many respected him because he was a standup convict and could hold his own (a physical and personality trait very much respected in the prison environment).
External Social Ranking Factors: Prison Security Level and Time
There are even external social ranking factors which can come into play when quantifying a fellow prisoner. A simple one is the amount of time that the person was sentenced to. As long as the prisoner hasn't been charged with an unsavory crime, the more time they receive the more respect they seem to garner from their fellow convicts. Likewise, prisoners who receive very short sentences (called "bids") tend to be regarded as insignificant pests by those with more time. This is largely due to "short timers" always complaining about simple things or problems associated with getting ready to be released. Obviously, those in for decades don't want to hear about how a short term prisoner is going to get home from prison on the day that they are released or how much halfway house time they received.
Of more significance is the security level the prisoners are incarcerated within. Generally speaking, the higher the security level, the more important the pecking order. At maximum security federal prisons (called either "United States Penitentiaries" or "USPs") this pecking order determines where prisoners sit at chow (if they are even allowed to sit at a table by their fellow prisoners), where they cell, where on the recreation yard they workout or hangout, and every other component of prison life. Those who belong to stronger or more revered cars often have an easier prison experience, and those who are alone (called "independents") or who belong to a weirdo car tend to have a more challenging time.
The lower the security level, the less the pecking order and prison politics comes into play. Prisoners incarcerated at the low security and minimum security levels don't really have to worry about being assaulted for their characteristics, their associations, or their crime. On the other hand, those at the medium security and maximum security levels do. Much of this security level discussion is outside of the individual prisoner's control since it is the prison administration, not the individual prisoner, who scores and designates a prisoner to a particular security level.
Convict Stratification: A Fluid and Evolving Discipline
Clearly there are a number of components which contribute to the stratification system employed in American prisons. These various components all add together into a fluid mental equation which results in a snapshot -- or a belief -- of what a fellow prisoner stands for and their social value in the prison context. This estimation of social value is a constantly evolving belief, but one which is shared by the prison population as a whole. In a word, the prisoner's reputation is what is at stake here, something hard to earn, and easy to lose. And in the prison context, this can be the difference between a life of comfort and a life of abject torture and fear.