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Prisons are common, yet misunderstood institutions. So what does popular media like Orange is the New Black and Shawshank Redemption get wrong? Why do prisoners wear orange jumpsuits? Do prisons operate the same way around the world? How many prisoners are incarcerated for marijuana possession?

Join host Justin Dodd as he breaks down some common myths and misconceptions about the prison system.


00:00:00 Intro
00:01:30 You only have one phone call
00:02:41 Pumping iron is a common activity
00:04:08 Riots happen a lot
00:05:47 Prisons are full of murderers
00:06:16 Prisons are full of people convicted for marijuana possession
00:06:54 U.S. prisons jail people at about the same rate as other countries
00:07:58 Most people in jail have been found guilty of crimes
00:08:22 Prison and jail are the same thing
00:08:57 Prison is the same around the world
00:09:36 Prisons have decent libraries
00:10:37 Incarcerated people earn good money working prison jobs
00:11:10 “Don’t drop the soap” is a concern
00:12:03 Prisons have to provide nutritionally complete meals
If you've ever watched Orange is the New Black,  Shawshank Redemption, or any of the ubiquitous Law and Order series, you probably have a few ideas  about what prison is like—including the fashion.

As far back as the 1820s, the standard  prison uniform was a black and white striped jumpsuit. There are a few explanations  floating around to explain that high-contrast look.

Many sources say it was meant  to symbolize the bars of a jail cell, others that it was easily distinguishable  from non-prison garb. It may have been meant to humiliate the wearer  or just been cheap to produce. Whatever the reason or reasons for its  one-time popularity, the scheme started to fall out of favor in the early 20th century.

It eventually gave way to solid-color jumpsuits that were intended to make prisoners highly  noticeable in case of escape. Orange was popular for its visibility, but in recent  years, the bright color seems to be headed back out of fashion. Many prisons are bringing  the stripes back for a more “punitive” look, even stating that the public prefers the  pattern.

Prison jumpsuits actually come in pretty much every shade these days, including hot  pink—which some jailers use as punishment. There is so much wrong with that fact that I don’t  know where to start, so let’s just move on. Hi, I’m Justin Dodd, and orange being the  new black is just one of the misconceptions about prison that I’m going to discuss today,  from phone calls to food.

Let’s get started! You only have one phone call. It’s in every cop drama you’ve ever watched: When someone is arrested, they have the right  to make a single phone call.

Sometimes there’s an agonizing choice: Do you use your one  phone call to relay some critical piece of information in a coded message to your significant  other? Or, as common sense would dictate, do you call your lawyer? Who, if this is a  real drama, is ALSO your significant other.

Well, it seems that—for people in the United  States—the right to a call varies depending on where you’re arrested. The Chicago Appleseed  Center for Fair Courts went through and examined the relevant laws state-by-state. They found  that while most states do allow some form of phone call, others don’t.

California law, for  example, allows three phone calls immediately upon booking unless it’s physically impossible,  and authorities have up to three hours to get the arrestee somewhere to use the phone. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, many sources say there’s no immediate phone call right upon  arrest. One Pennsylvania law firm explains that after arraignment you can secure counsel, but  before then it’s often more complicated.

You still have your Miranda Rights, no matter  what state you’re in, but whether that comes with a call is less certain. Pumping iron is a common activity. Prison movies often show people who are  incarcerated biding their time by lifting heavy weights in the prison yard.

While that  may have been true in the ‘80s, it’s not true for many federal prisons these days. In 1996, an  amendment to the appropriations bill prevented the Federal Bureau of Prisons from buying “training  equipment for boxing, wrestling, judo, karate, or other martial art, or any bodybuilding  or weightlifting equipment of any sort.” One assumption under-girding this change appears to  be the idea that bulking up makes the incarcerated more dangerous, both in and outside of prison. When California was told to release 30,000 incarcerated people in 2011 due to overcrowding,  late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia commented that they “will undoubtedly be fine  physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.” The  financial savings associated with the new mandate were no-doubt appealing to lawmakers, as well.

The Department of Justice, on the other hand, has long espoused the benefits of exercising  in prison, stating that both residents and staff alike find weightlifting to be  a positive thing. Physical activity, they say, improves the incarcerated person’s  self-esteem, gives them a sense of control, and even helps them sleep better. Decades-old equipment purchased prior to the Appropriations bill amendment is still available  at some prisons, and other exercise equipment is often offered—things like pull-up bars,  stationary bikes, yoga videos, and treadmills.

Riots happen a lot. TV makes it seem like prison riots are a “when,” not an “if” at  U. S. prisons.

But according to The Atlantic, riots are actually on the decline - in 1973, there  were 93 riots for every 1 million incarcerated. In 2003, there were fewer than three. That’s quite a  decrease over 30 years.

Aside from violent riots making for spectacular movies and TV, the reason  they might seem more common than they actually are is because they’re highly publicized  on the rare occasions that they do happen. The largest and most famous prison riot took place  at Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York, in 1971: 1281 incarcerated people held 39  prison guards and employees hostage for four days; in the end, 43 people were killed, the majority  by indiscriminate police gunfire. The reason for the riot?

Inhumane conditions at the prison.  “Demands” included the right to shower daily, the provision of basic hygiene items like  toothbrushes, and better medical services. The way prisons deal with those riots might  not be exactly what you expect, either. Rather than the bumbling, sometimes even lovable  guards sometimes depicted on TV (looking at you, Orange is the New Black), prisons often employ  Correctional Emergency Response Teams, or CERT, to handle issues big and small.

Many CERT members  participate in intense training at an event called the Mock Prison Riot, held at the decommissioned  West Virginia State Penitentiary. Attendees to the Mock Prison Riot experience scenarios that could  erupt in real life, then learn how to prevent and react to them. There’s also a skills competition  that includes events like hostage rescues, physical competitions and marksmanship.

Prisons are full of murderers. Based on depictions of prisons in pop  culture, many people assume prisons are teeming with extremely violent offenders, like  murderers. But according to the federal Bureau of Prisons, almost half—45 percent—of people in  federal prisons are doing time for drug offenses.

The next largest segment belongs to those in  prison for weapons, explosives, or arson charges, at 21 percent. Homicide, Aggravated Assault,  and Kidnappings account for just 3.2 percent of the incarcerated population. Prisons are full of people convicted for marijuana possession.

In 2021, more than 31 percent of federal crimes were drug-related, according to the  United States Sentencing Commission. But less than 2 percent of that number—309 people—were  for drug possession, and even fewer for marijuana possession specifically. That means President  Biden’s pardon announcement for those with federal cannabis possession charges will do more  to clear previous records than anything else.

No one will actually be released from prison as  a result of the pardon. That leaves 30,000 in state prisons for marijuana charges—not just  possession, but higher-level charges as well. U.

S. prisons jail people at about  the same rate as other countries  Although the U. S. makes up just 4  percent of the world’s population, it accounts for 19 percent of the world’s  prison population, which tells you just how much higher American incarceration rates are. Why is the United States’ rate so high?

There are a number of contributing factors at work  here, including the longer-than-average prison sentences the U. S. justice system tends to dole  out. U.

S. courts impose longer prison sentences than many other countries, on average, to people  convicted of robbery, assault, drug offenses, and fraud. These long sentences, for what it’s  worth, have not prevented people incarcerated in the U. S. from having high rates of recidivism.

Another factor is that the U. S. has a relatively high homicide rate, especially for a prosperous  country. Even if you decry the large number of people in federal prison for drug offenses, you  have to contend with the fact that a large number of people in the United States—especially in state  prisons and local jails—are there for crimes that have been categorized as violent offenses.

But not all of them have been convicted. Most people in jail have  been found guilty of crimes. People who have been found guilty (they may not  necessarily be guilty—but that’s another story) are more likely to be found in federal prison.

But at a local jail, more than 80 percent of people are still considered innocent. They haven’t  been convicted of anything and are simply awaiting trial. Many simply can’t afford to pay bail  money to get out ahead of their day in court.

Prison and jail are the same thing. People often use the terms interchangeably, but prison and jail are not exactly equal. The  main difference is length of stay.

Prisons are designed for long-term sentences, while jails  are typically used for those awaiting trial and sometimes for people with shorter sentences. Jails are usually at a local level, while prisons belong to a state or federal jurisdiction. If  a crime has been committed at the state level, that person will usually go to a state  prison.

Similarly, a federal crime typically means a federal prison. There are also some  state prisons that are operated privately, not through state or federal government. Prison Is the Same Around the World  The number of prisoners isn’t the only thing that  varies from country to country.

The demographics of incarcerated people and the conditions  inside can also differ greatly. In Germany, for example, “juvenile justice” can extend to  age 21, while in the U. S., 18-year-olds (and sometimes even younger people) can be housed  in the same institution as older adults.

Norway’s Halden prison has been called the “most  humane prison in the world,” full of green spaces, private sleeping quarters, and abundant  vocational and educational opportunities. In Singapore, in contrast, prisoners can actually  be caned as a form of corporal punishment. Prisons have decent libraries.

Fans of Shawshank Redemption might reasonably believe that prisons  have pretty good libraries—after all, studies have shown that being able to access  the resources available in prison libraries is helpful for effective criminal rehabilitation,  so why wouldn’t libraries provide inmates with something productive and constructive? Unfortunately, not every prison library has an Andy DuFresne to line up donations,  and most prisons have little to no funding for their libraries. In one particularly sad  example, the state of Illinois spent just   $276 on non-legal books in one year—and that was  across 28 facilities.

When donations do roll in, they can be denied at any whim for  being too “incendiary.” In one case, an Arizona prison denied access to Gray’s Anatomy  because reading it might result in more requests for health care—and the illustrations  were deemed “sexually explicit.” And no, this wasn’t a risqué novelization of the hit  TV show—it was the anatomical reference book. Incarcerated people earn good  money working prison jobs. From cutting hair to groundskeeping, people  in prison do work skilled jobs and make money doing so.

But they don’t make much—literally  pennies an hour. The range for “in-house” pay in U. S. prisons is anywhere from literally  nothing to a couple of dollars an hour, and that’s before wages are garnished for things  like room and board.

And to add salt to the wound, many of the skills incarcerated people develop  in prison can’t be used once they’re released, because people who have committed felonies  are banned from a huge number of jobs.   “Don’t drop the soap” is a concern. It’s understandably a little challenging to get real numbers or statistics on this one,  but when formerly incarcerated folks are asked how fearful they are of dropping the soap, most of  them report that the whole thing is just a trope. It does occasionally happen, of course—soap  is slippery, after all.

But when it does, others who happen to be in the shower at the same  time tend to laugh; they know the trope too. So how did it come into being? Pop culture, of  course.

The phrase has been referenced in 2 Fast, 2 Furious, Empire Records, Barbershop, The  Office and Rick and Morty, among many others. To be clear, it’s the soap concern, specifically,  that’s a myth. Sexual assault and rape are very real problems.

Tens of thousands of people in  prison and jail are victims of sexual assault every year—both men and women, at the hands  of other incarcerated people, and by guards. Prisons have to provide  nutritionally complete meals. There are some laws and guidelines about what  prisons can feed people, but it’s shockingly loose, and three meals a day aren’t always a  requirement.

Most prison food is straight-up bad. One man described his meal at a county  jail as “Ground-up gym mat with a little bit of seasoning.” Many meals consist of soy “filler” and  foods high in sugar, sodium, and carbohydrates—and not much by way of real nutrients. Veggies and  fruits might very well not appear at all.

And some official investigations discovered that it’s  not uncommon for prisons to serve smaller portions than recommended or water down food in order  to stretch the supplies and cut the budget. One prison is trying to buck the trend, though. At Maine’s Mountain View Correctional Center, inmates help grow their own food at the facility’s  5-acre garden.

In its first year, the program produced 100,000 pounds of produce that was used  directly for meals at the facility, offsetting costs and providing better nutrition and a sense  of purpose for prisoners. Hopefully the trend catches on, but until then unbalanced meals  and inadequate portions will remain the norm. Thanks for watching Misconceptions.

Let’s all  keep trying to dispel misleading, cliched, and most importantly harmful stereotypes  about the strange world we live in. We have an upcoming episode dispelling myths about the  1990s. If you have any misconceptions you want to see debunked about that nostalgic decade,  leave a comment below.

I’ll see ya next time.