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A cartoon thief in mask with sack
Illustration by Seamartini on Depositphotos

One of the worst labels you can get in prison is “jailhouse thief.”

When I first started doing time over 25 years ago, it quickly became apparent that the things you are allowed in prison are cherished. Personal photos. Cards. Letters. Paper. Stamps. These items vary from county jail to state prison, but they are yours, and they are sacred.

Prisoners can also lose belongings if they are disciplined by the authorities for a rules violation. If someone is found guilty of a certain infraction, they can have certain belongings restricted from them for a time, ranging from 30 days to 6 months. It could be email restrictions, or less allotted canteen and commissary draws. It might mean going from being able to spend $240 a month to only being able to spend $55.

One punishment is to be removed from the general population, which can happen for different reasons. The person’s cellmate then has access to all of their belongings. God forbid you were punished for having it out with said cellmate.

In almost all of the cases that I saw, the person who had access to the other person's property took liberties, stealing many — if not all — of the helpless party’s property.

I once had a cellmate steal from me. I had not packed all of my property when I was removed from my housing unit pending an investigation. He did not think I was coming back, but I returned to the same cell five days later to see all of my things that he tried to keep. You can imagine the look on his face. But I was able to keep cool until I got him moved out. He was very fortunate. Terrible things can happen to people who steal inside prison.

The other way that your property can be “lost” is if you have conflict with the powers that be, or any of those who are aligned with them by proxy, including extension nurses, counselors and others. Your prison possessions can be left in another prison when you transfer. Or they can just somehow get “lost.” If you do ever see them again, they might be broken.

Seeing it happen to other prisoners is as distressing as having it happen to myself. I have had my property “lost” by corrections twice. The second time I filed a grievance and it was “found.” The first time, nothing could be done.

Our belongings are all we have, and we hold them dear. Some may have a little, and others more. But regardless, if it doesn't belong to you, just leave it be.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Kevin Ward is a writer incarcerated in California.