Why inmates cry in prison

Why inmates cry in prison
Are they real or fake tears?
"…tears were a replica, not counterfeit."

This excerpt comes from a book by Avi Steinberg, a Harvard grad who thought he was going to be a rabbi, but instead took an eye-opening job in a Boston prison library, where he began to understand the inmates and their culture.

We might not realize it, but for those who are practiced in deception, crying is both a means for them to cope and a valuable skill, and outsiders can’t tell a real cry from a fake cry because fake cries can be both real and manipulative at the same time:

There are various reasons to cry in prison.

Crying as initiation rite. Dice claimed that any inmate who tells you he didn’t cry when he ?rst came to prison is a liar. As he said this, the three inmates standing around us nodded. One of them confessed he was so stressed his ?rst day in prison he could hardly breathe. When he heard the door of the cell bolt shut for the night, he panicked and began pacing, beating on the door and shouting. 

"It’s hard to explain it," he said. "It’s not like I wanted out. I just wanted the door unlocked. Just knowing that the door was locked made me freak out. I’d never been locked in." His cellmate was an old guy who took pity on him. "He just said to me, ‘Get into bed, son. Let yourself cry. There ain’t no shame in that. Just do it, and then you’ll be done with it.’ And so that’s what I did." 

Thus he joined the club.

Bored to tears. A woman inmate told me this can literally happen.

Crying as a nightly sleep aid. "You can ignore shit during the day," a woman inmate told me, "you can just go about your business, pretend this is normal. But in bed at night, you do a lot of thinking." The only way to stop the thoughts and fall asleep is to give in and cry. She laughed and said that she’d developed the same habit as her baby daughter. "I can’t fall asleep without crying ?rst."

Crying to mark a season. "I cry every Christmas, Easter, birthdays, you name it," Jessica had once said. She thought she would cry on these days even when she got out. "This place gets you pretty well-trained."

Crying on cue. Prison life is full of Oscar-worthy moments. Some inmates become pro?cient at crying miserably at will, a skill they employ at various crucial moments: in court, in caseworkers’ of?ces, to officers, to the parole board, to the prison librarian. A prison teacher who got fooled by one of these actors came to the library just to tell me the story. "I’ve been doing this for a long time now," she’d said, "I’m pretty hard to fool. This guy was good."

And just what is a good fake cry? The teacher explained: a professional sobber will:

a. generate real tears, not simply bury his face and begin heaving
b. not overdo it by moaning and wailing and the like
c. not just begin sobbing but rather "try to hold it in," until, ?nally, he is simply overcome. 

This the Academy loves.

In defense of crying on cue, Martha the gossip explained that she legitimately cried all the time, but no one was there to see it. So when she cried, she was just showing a person something they weren’t around to see for real. Her tears were a replica, not counterfeit.

"And once I get going," she said, "I feel it for real."

"But," I asked, "you are crying in order to get something from someone, right?"

"Well, yeah," she conceded.

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, Amazon>> 
The photo is of actress Maria Falconetti from the 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc, her only picture. Rumors are that the actress was reduced to real tears by director Carl Dreyer, who wanted an authentic performance. Many regard her acting as the best ever put on film.

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One thought on “Why inmates cry in prison

  1. As a criminal lawyer san diego, this is something I had to deal with on a regular basis. Most of the prisoners I had encountered would really be lying if they will tell me that not once did they cry on their first days in incarceration.

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