KRISTIN DAVIS: What the 2016 Presidential Candidates Could Learn From Prison Politics

In 2010, I ran for Governor of NY. But none of my experiences prepared me for the politics of prison.
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Kristin Davis
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In 2010, I ran for Governor of NY. But none of my experiences prepared me for the politics of prison.

In 2010, I ran for Governor of NY. I was running as a protest candidate to highlight the inequities in a criminal justice system that would send me to prison for promoting prostitution yet allow the Governor, the same man that made it a felony for a man to use the services of a prostitute, Governor Eliot Spitzer, to merely resign after getting caught with an escort.

During my 2010 race, I actively campaigned throughout the State of NY, I held press conferences and did fundraising. In order to get on the ballot, my team was required to collect over 22,000 signatures in 40 different counties in a 30-day time period. 

This was an exhausting feat for which I am still grateful to my team. During the campaign, I was a participant in a debate with the current Governor of NY, Andrew Cuomo. The debate was televised live on local TV and in front of an audience of 3,000 people. This was an experience that required a lot of preparation and studying.

And in 2012, I worked as the NY Finance Chair for Governor Gary's Johnson's bid for President and was an active member in the Libertarian Party.

When I was arrested in 2013, I was running for the Office of NYC Comptroller and my opponent was former Governor of NY, and former client of the escort agency I ran, Governor Eliot Spitzer.

But none of these experiences prepared me for the politics of prison.

Prison politics are based on one thing: survival. Political parties are organized to further a specific agenda. Your political party is determined by your race; not by your choice. Party leadership follows the survival of the fittest principal which is gained through actions and not words.

And all of this starts the moment you walk inside the prison walls, whether you want it to or not. You must participate in the political structure because you do not have a choice. It is part of surviving this world.

Within an hour of arriving in prison as a new inmate (newbie) I was approached by a "greeter." This greeter might already know the newbie because they share mutual friends from the various county jails that they have been in prior to coming to prison. It is quite common for these friends to notify each other of their arrivals. 

However, if the newbie is relatively unknown, the greeter evaluates the newbie's worth and determines if they should be offered membership into their prison political party.

If the newbie is offered membership, they must immediately accept or decline -- there is no time given to think about the decision. If they accept, the newbie must agree to follow all party rules and adhere to party standards. Membership usually lasts the duration of their prison stay and you cannot change parties.

In the rare case where the newbie does not accept, they will be deemed as undesirable and left with no political association or support. And no one wants to walk the yard labeled as undesirable.

Most inmates refer to these political parties as "cliques" or "cars." It is a lot like being forced to participate in a political party, but unfortunately, it's a political party based on the color of your skin. Like groups with like. 

There is no freedom of choice. You must fully accept your party's stance on everything even if you disagree with it. A lot of prisons call these groups "cars" since the concept is basically that once you get into the “car,” you must go along for the ride or get thrown out and incur the damage that goes along with expulsion.

The leader of your party is often called the "shot caller" or in prisons that are segregated by both race and city, they are called "key holders" which means they hold the key to that city. 

These leaders are not actually elected by their supporters. They win their seats from the respect they have earned through experience, ruthlessness and knowledge of the system and their constituents.

The shot callers act as intermediaries and mediators both internally and to the other groups. In fact, you are prohibited from speaking to members of other cliques and must go through your shot caller to get things done. The shot callers take a percentage of all income the group receives, which might be from the services their clique provides to the other cliques or from the sale of contraband items. 

The shot caller controls all money from their group. They also act as judge and jury, deciding the outcome of all disputes.

The shot caller decides what issues the clique is going to take on and what action must be taken. These issues might be specific to that clique, such as setting in place standards for personal hygiene or rearranging the hierarchy of the leadership. I have even heard of cliques instituting grooming standards so that their people look a certain way when they walk the yard. 

Other issues might be institution-based, like lobbying for salad or fresh vegetables, which we do not have. If you are here for 10 years with no fresh vegetables, these things are worth lobbying for and are considered necessary for survival.

While I admit that prison is a strange place to learn about politics, it seems to me that a lot can be learned in the arena of politics from a prison stay. Perhaps the 2016 Presidential Candidates, especially Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, could learn a thing or two from inmates.

Inmates know the value and importance of meaning what they say and the power that comes from group unity. There are no fake promises in prison. No telling you what you want to hear just to get your vote. 

A shot caller has to follow through on their word because failure to do so would label them as weak and result in them losing their position (or worse). Inmate leadership is based on action and the group is united in following the shot caller because any sign of clique weakness has serious consequences from the other cliques.

In addition, inmates understand how to be humble, since there is a certain amount of humility that comes from having to use the bathroom or shower in front of each other. Inmates are resourceful and can operate with limited resources. 

In prison, we can bake a cake from Oreos, soda and pudding and must find a way to get things done with what little we have. And unlike some elected officials, we have a set spending limit each month, so there is no chance of overspending.

Inmates can also interact with just about anyone and really understand the issues their cliques are facing, since we live within our constituency. We cannot leave problems or avoid or run away from them since this is home -- our issues must be worked out. 

Since I am in a Federal prison, things operate a bit differently here. That is primarily because we get so little good time, only 15 percent. (Good time is days off your sentence). Because of this, most inmates are afraid to risk the loss of their good days by becoming too political. So they reserve their opinions and maintain the status quo to mitigate that risk.

When I got to this institution, I was approached by a "greeter" who helped me get my initial toiletries because I couldn't shop our commissary until the following week. I was new and didn't realize that I was already involved in this political structure just by walking through the doors. No one gives you a heads-up on what to expect.

And although the structure here is more relaxed, there is still a shot caller and the community that the shot caller serves. Issues are raised and addressed, contraband is bought and sold, and there is still a chain of command. 

But a more in-depth conversation on this will have to wait until I am out...and safe.