May 4, 2020 | Maria Cruz

Former Prisoners Share The Hardest Habit To Break After Getting Released

Getting out of prison can be a life-changing moment. Depending on how long a sentence someone serves, the world can certainly change in exponential ways. It’s also not uncommon to develop habits that are hard to break once you enter the free world. These are some of the toughest habits former prisoners had to break when they were released.


#1 Hot Water

My friend did two and a half years in a Florida state prison. He said one of the biggest habits was showering for as long as he wanted. The first thing he did when he got home was shower until all the hot water ran out. This was like 15 years ago. Tankless water heaters weren't really a thing back then. I'm not totally sure if they even existed, and if so, they weren't common in lower-income households. So, it was very possible to run out of hot water.


#2 Round and Round

Doing laps. In prison, every time you get time in the yard, you do laps. Seriously, almost every single person does it too. When you get out, it's hard to break that habit. You literally just walk laps. Just pacing back and forwards in a line if there's no room, or doing laps if you're in a big yard. As soon as everyone gets out, they just start walking and talking.

Picture 10 people in a line shoulder to shoulder walking straight, and then everyone turning around at the same time once they get to the opposite boundary. It's probably partially to do with the way all animals pace in captivity and also just getting your bit of exercise after being locked in your cell for the last 22 hours.


#3 Making Announcements

I spent 72 months in prison for a tragic car accident that I had caused. After I was released, I fell into the habit of announcing everything I did. I kept telling my wife exactly what I was doing without her asking. She thought it was funny at first, but after a few weeks of it, she was starting to get bothered.

Car accident | on I376 between Wilkins Township and Penn Hil… | FlickrFlickr

#4 Hidden Motives

A somewhat-friend of mine served a few years in prison. He said that the one habit he couldn't shake was distrusting people. He said that people in prison are never nice and if they're nice it's because of a hidden motive. To this day, he still doesn't trust anyone who acts nice, generous or helpful towards him.


#5 Commissary Only

For me, I’d have to say that it’s making prison commissary-only food. Everyone around me thinks it is really disgusting to throw summer sausages, pickles, cheese, Doritos, Cheetos, and the like into my ramen noodles. But good lord, I can't stop. I can’t stop and I’ve been out of prison for about five years now.


#6 Breaking the Habit

I noticed that my ex-boyfriend would sleep a certain way all the time. To me, it seemed as though he was sleeping like he was laying in a coffin. His arms were crossed and wouldn’t move for the entire night and it remained that way for a couple of months. He eventually broke that habit, but I definitely noticed it.


#7 Speed of Light

A couple of guys I know, after being out for about five years, wrap their arms around their plates and shovel food in their mouths at the speed of light. They’re also super defensive of their food. When I first got to know them, I jokingly swiped a chip off one of their plates and he flipped his fork up and demanded I give it back. It freaked me out a little.


#8 Hooked on Entertainment

My friend once told me he got hooked on watching news channels and silly daytime television. He said he also enjoyed listening to AM radio, even though he knows specific podcasts exist that are more tailored to him. He took his life three years ago after getting a 20-year sentence just one year after getting out.


#9 On Constant Guard

Being paranoid and always looking over my shoulder is my hardest habit to break. I also never let anyone stand behind me. Even when people pass on the side of me, I'm always turning my head to see what they're doing. Food is another big one. I could be the last one to eat and the first one done and I still stand when I eat around people.


#10 Get Up and Go

For me, it was realizing I could just get up and go somewhere. That I could make plans tomorrow from a thousand different choices. It’s honestly hard to break the habit of checking everyone who enters your vicinity. It feels like you have to mark everyone off as a non-threat as opposed to always having your back up.


#11 Sharp Objects

Staring at sharp things. Like, there's no desire to use them inappropriately, but you’re just kind of shocked they're there and available for use. You might be surprised what qualifies as a sharp object. I remember whenever someone tried to hand me something to cut veggies and I'd be afraid to touch it. Glass was the biggest thing, though. I couldn’t believe restaurants had such a dangerous thing in their bathroom. Not thinking of sharp objects as weapons is hard.


#12 Sleeping in Peace

I’m not a former prisoner, but my stepdad has been in and out of prison for the majority of his life. I spoke to him about what it was like to be out. He always said that whenever he gets out of prison, you're so used to it being loud all the time that when he got home he couldn't sleep because it was so quiet.


#13 Hoarding Products

Hoarding feminine hygiene products. We were super limited on the number of pads or tampons they gave us. They didn't give any to the women in holding cells. Women left dried and fresh messes on the floor and concrete benches, and a drain in the middle of the rooms like they intended to hose down the room, but if they did it was not often enough.


#14 Slightly Disconnected

My uncle was in prison for a while and we've talked a bit about his experience and how it affected him. He has a hard time not being violent. You'd never guess since he mainly just sits in a corner and smokes, but he's been out for nearly 10 years and still always struggles with using his words. The guy also cannot stand authority. He tells me that it's hard to listen to bosses when you know you're probably smarter and tougher than them. He knows most people feel this way, but he just can't ignore it. He's taken up professional carving so he can be his boss.

He doesn't talk much either. I don't know if that's because of prison but he really only speaks if he wants to. Not the type of guy who likes to talk just to talk. He also doesn't have a lot. He has some sort of abandonment issue or something so he doesn't want a lot of things to miss if he goes back to prison. For all the time he doesn't spend with people, he's out with nature or doing something in the wilderness. I think it helps keep him calm and feel connected. He’s a nice enough guy, but prison kind of messed him up and he's going to live his life being slightly disconnected with people.


#15 Foster Son

One of my foster sons came to us from juvie. Every meal, his arm was around his plate and he woofed down his food. My mastiff couldn't keep up. He always ate back against the wall, hunched over. It took my wife and I a month to show him that no one would take his food and we had plenty more. The funny part is, he went to the Marines and did eight years. He got out and is now working in corrections.


#16 A Few Habits

There were a couple of habits that I found hard to break. For example, not wearing shoes in the shower. Eating with forks and knives. Actually having salt and pepper for my food. Not always having to watch your back. Being able to get food when you want it, and just get up and leave to go for a drive or something.


#17 Jailhouse Slams

My dad was in and out of jail when I was a child. When he was out he used to make me “jailhouse slams,” which were basically whatever you could find to throw into ramen. I thought they were the best thing ever and it was so cool because I ate what my dad ate, right? Fast forward 12 years when I told my girlfriend this story and she was like, “... your dad fed you prison food?”


#18 Sizing You Up

Having your head on a swivel, protecting your personal property in an obsessive manner, and sizing everyone up. When I was locked up, I always knew what was going on 360 degrees around me. Only the last unit I was in had lockers with actual locks, so before that, I had to protect my paperwork and books all the time. Most people would fight you to take your stuff because that’s the respectful way to do it. I’ve been out for almost a year and a half, but I still constantly size people up.


#19 Trading Food

Now, I’ve never been to prison. But I did serve a few months in a county jail. Something I haven't really heard mentioned is trading food. When I got out, I asked my girlfriend to trade me her chicken wings for my macaroni. It was out of pure habit. I really could've just went to the kitchen and gotten more chicken.


#20 A Few Things

I eat fast. I don't sit with my back to the door in public. I always scan crowds constantly. I question why people are nice to me. I carry extra clothes, water, and various other things in my car in case I need it. I don't like being away from home overnight. I also quit eating boiled eggs, I over-season my food, and I refuse to drink Kool-Aid anymore.


#21 Protecting His Own

I’m not an ex-con, but my daughter's father is. He still can’t stand with his back turned to people, he constantly watches over his shoulder, and he eats piles of food mixed together within minutes. I tried to wake him up from the couch to come to bed and almost got hit in the face. He paces around our apartment whenever he's looking at his phone or on a phone call.

In a restaurant, he’ll make sure he has a view of the majority of the people. In a mall, we will walk near the walls and rarely be found in the middle of the food court. But in the end, he does it to protect us. He does it because he knows how rough prison was. He knows that the world is not as peachy as it once was and will do anything to protect the ones he loves.


#22 Fast Food

Not me, but a guy who worked for me. When things were very busy, I would often get carry-out lunch for everyone and bring it back to the workplace. This one guy would eat a cheeseburger and french fries in two minutes. Once, I asked him why he ate so quickly. He said, "Well, I spent seven years in federal prison and if you didn't eat your meal in 10 minutes, you didn't get anything. That 10 minutes often included the time it took standing in line to get your food." I never said anything to him about it after that.


#23 Eat Like a Dog

I’ve been out for eight years and I still eat like a dog. Most prisons give you 30 minutes for your meal but that includes the walk from your cell block to the chow hall, waiting in line and finding a seat. Normally, by the time I actually get a piece of food in my mouth, I’ve already got a CO yelling over my shoulder to hurry up. It’s really annoying going out to eat with people and gobbling up your meal only to be stuck watching normal people eat for 20 minutes.


#24 Martha Stewart

When my dad got out of prison (10+ years), we nicknamed him Martha Stewart because he was such a clean freak. His home looks like an Ikea catalog, he has glass containers for his shoes, he wakes up early to iron, wash, and scrub everything. When I lived with him for a year, I was grounded so many times over leaving water drops in the sink.


#25 Goofy Label

Judging by a few guys I've worked with... some of them take extreme offense at the word "goof" or "goofy" being used in their presence. It’s apparently a prison term primarily in Canada that refers to those who were arrested for crimes against children. In prison, you definitely don't want that name attached to you. Still, it’s pretty weird to have a dude blow up just because you said something they were working on looked a bit goofy and needed to be fixed.


#26 Make the Days Go Away

I had to completely change my sense of time. I made sure I never consolidated enjoyable things. If I had a snack, I ate it and concentrated on it. If there was something good on TV, I watched it. Now, I’ll snack while I watch a movie because there aren’t enough hours in the day. But on the inside, I was trying to make hours and days go away. I’ve got a good job now, and nice respectable friends, but I still react to confrontational situations more quickly, decisively and… efficiently than they do. I’m able to pull back at the last minute, but it’s pretty clear that violence isn’t a tool in their arsenal.


#27 Booted and Suited

I got out two years ago and I cannot for the life of me shake my aggressive posturing. That's all prison is, being hyper-vigilant, and I would argue, worse yet, always appearing indifferent. Like you could be kicking it with your "friends," laughing, watching TV, but even the slightest word or a sudden movement will shift the whole mood of the room at a drop of a dime.

So whatever emotion you display has to be instantly shut off and on a moment’s notice. You have to be “booted and suited.” I would return to my unit on occasion and there would be evidence from a fight I missed. You didn't look at it. Eyes forward, indifferent. Emotion is a weakness, and though I was secretly panicking, I had to bury and put on as a cold guy.


#28 Lock Him Up

I knew of a guy who got out after 15 years. He had to call a friend to come and let him out of his apartment. They'd go out, do some shopping or whatever and then his friend would "lock him up" for the night. Dude could not work doors himself without irrational fear. He did get better after a few months, but I hear he still has trouble doing things independently.


#29 Grocery Shopping

I was released at the end of November after three years and my biggest adjustment is grocery shopping. In prison, you typically can only go to the canteen once a week. It isn't like just walking into your local grocery store, you have to write all your items down in advance, so if you forget something, you have to wait another week to get it. Or if you're lucky, you buy the item off another inmate. So, it is still weird adjusting to being able to go and get groceries, hygiene items, etc. whenever I need them.


#30 Awake at Night

Definitely sleeping habits. Still haven't broken them. I haven't slept a full night in over a decade. Any noise and my eyes are open and I'm wide awake. I can hear really well. A raccoon comes nightly to eat scraps and cat food and I can hear him crunching outside on the porch from my bed on the opposite side of the house. I’ll be wide awake.


#31 Asking Permission

An ex-con who works for me always asks to use the restroom. I have politely informed him that there is no need to do that, he's an adult and can use the restroom whenever he pleases. But he keeps asking and apologizing, saying that it's hard to break the habit. He even told me it's hard to go whenever he hasn't gotten permission, out of fear he shouldn't be going in the first place.


#32 Private Bubble

Being a recluse. Prison is a garage of a bunch of people that don't want a thing to do with each other. Unless you've lived a certain lifestyle, there's no one there you'd associate with under normal circumstances. You avoid having any reason to associate with fellow prisoners or the guards. You try to find ways to keep yourself from going totally mad. If you're very lucky, maybe you'll find someone to chat with when walking the yard or to play chess with. Other than that, you try to live in a private bubble. It's very hard to shake that when back out in the real world.


#33 Reading and Eating

In 26 months, the only habits I kept were the positive ones, hygiene and exercise. The only thing I wish I had kept doing is reading. I read about 350 novels in 26 months including the five released Game of Thrones books four times. My hardest habit to break after release was eating all the time just because I could. I gained an easy 40 lbs in the first nine months of being out.


#34 Cautiously Optimistic

Constantly looking over my shoulder. By far the hardest conditioning to break, which I haven't and doubt I ever will, is the constant pessimism and cautious optimism. You see, when you're waiting to work your way through court, get a deal, and get sentenced, you’ll have your dates changed 50 times. You’ll also hope for certain things only to be disappointed, and any time you’re told something hopeful, it doesn't work out.

As a result, I never get excited about something until it actually happens. When my wife told me we were pregnant, I was obviously happy. But I'm always cautiously optimistic and rarely show emotion, so I couldn't feel comfortable or excited until I knew that my developing daughter was healthy. Even then, it didn't really hit me till she was born.


#35 Working on It

My partner was locked up for six years in various state prisons. He still gets wide-eyed when he hears someone call someone else the b-word or a “punk,” even as a joke. His instinct to fight someone over the littlest things still hasn’t really worn off. The good news is that he’s definitely working on it, though.


#36 Lights Out

Placing a shirt over my face while I slept. In jail (never was in prison), the lights are never turned off. The COs want to be able to make sure that nothing bad is going on in the cells. Even though they never actually check and are very, very slow to come provide help to people who actively call for it. They don’t come even if there's an assault or medical emergency in progress.


#37 How You Did It

I’m not an ex-con myself, but my good friend’s uncle served about 20 years or so in prison. His habit was how he ate. Everything on the plate got immediately cut, mixed and devoured unbelievably fast. I don't know why. He always said it's how you did it in prison. You just ate and got out as quickly as you could.


#38 Up at Night

I’d have to say that the hardest thing for me was not waking up at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m., wide awake, thinking about food. I would have to eat a small meal and try to go back to sleep. It took me close to a year to sleep through the night again without waking up. I really only broke this habit about six months ago.


#39 Favorite Pizza

Mealtime was the hardest for me. It doesn't matter if you’re hungry. If it isn't mealtime, you don't eat. When I first got out, I kept missing mealtime, sometimes only eating once a day. It took me weeks to realize that I could eat whatever and whenever I wanted. I was all alone, sitting hungry with food in the fridge because I didn't eat an hour ago and I couldn't eat until breakfast.

A friend took me out to a pizza place a couple of days after I got out. The waitress asked me, "What's your favorite kind of pizza?" and I honestly didn't know how to answer because it didn't matter if you liked it. I actually thought about it and answered, "I don't know.” They looked at me like I was joking. It's been a long time, and I think I've broken most of my habits. I still don't feel comfortable in crowded spaces where I can't track every single person. I still have a hard time making decisions, and sometimes need people to tell me to do basic things because I can't just do them.


#40 ID Tags

I did eight years. You have to wear an ID tag clipped to your left collar or upper left part of your shirt whenever you were out of your cell. It took a couple of months when I was out before I stopped checking for the ID tag on my shirt. Then about five years later, out of the blue, I subconsciously checked my chest for my ID tag when I left my house.


#41 Learning New Things

For a while, I would get hostile if anyone pointed at the food I was eating or looked at it too closely. I also showered with slides or flip-flops on for years. Nowadays, I'm only barefoot when showering or sleeping. A good thing that came from going to prison is that I saw undeniable proof that race has nothing to do with personality, intelligence, or anything inside the person.


#42 Regional Slang

The hardest habit to break was talking like a convict. Prisons have their own culture complete with their own regional slang and it's like language immersion. After a while, you start picking it up, even if you're not really trying. It takes a few weeks to rid yourself of the worst of it and it never totally goes away.


#43 Workout Habits

My uncles workout with whatever they can find. It wasn't uncommon for an uncle to be in our kitchen benching or curling frozen meat. They would also just pace back and forwards in our tiny back yard or do push-ups wherever there was space (including the bathroom). They still will do a push-up wherever they have space, but they have developed normal workout habits.


#44 Taking Notes

I would have to say documentation. I was a little different type of prisoner. I would document guards' names, information about them, shifts, work schedules, maps, dietary schedules, yard schedules, etc. Basically, everything I could possibly know about the ins-and-outs of the prison. You know, just in case I needed to escape. I pretty much still do that type of documentation today.


#45 Basic Manners

Having zero tolerance for "stupid" stuff took a while for me to ease up on. Standing too close, not saying excuse me when you bump into someone, etc. A lot of what is considered "common courtesy" out here are essentially rules inside. If I follow them, you have to also. Even now, I sometimes feel like I'm going zero to one hundred when someone cuts in line or stands too close at the store. More than 20 years have passed and I still need to consciously reach out and remind myself that some people have no clue that they're only thinking about themselves.


#46 Common Courtesy 

For me, a habit that took a while to break was courtesy flushing in my own bathroom. Sometimes I even go for the baby powder. For those who don’t know, courtesy flushing is excessively flushing the toilet when you do a number two or let one rip real bad in close quarters. It’s seen as a sign of mutual respect between cellmates.


#47 Whistling Dixie

I’d have to say not whistling. It’s sort of like an unwritten rule that people in prison don’t whistle. When I got first locked up, my cellmate told me not to whistle because that’s what free people do on the outside. He also informed me that if other cellmates catch you whistling, they’ll target you on the inside.


#48 Around Corners

My cousin went away for eight years. When he got out, he said he had a real issue with going around corners because he once got jumped. He's always cautious and takes the long wide turn when going around corners, walking down corridors or hallways and walking past alleyways. It's just completely ingrained in him.


#49 Personality Shift

Not me, but my best friend was incarcerated for six years. The thing I noticed most was how he changed in regard to personal interaction. My formerly trusting, kind friend thought that everyone was out to get him. He thought that every interaction was transactional and that people just don't do stuff to help others. It led to some interesting conversations about prison mentality and how most of the social hierarchies that exist in incarcerated environments are an attempt to gain control over a situation in which they have no power.


#50 Sleeping Habits

For me, the biggest thing was getting out of the habit of sleeping whenever I had free time. That's all I did in prison if I wasn't eating or working out. All I did was sleep. Now on the outside, if I have down time, my body automatically gets really tired. So, I start yawning and I just want to lie down for a nap.



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