Prison Myths

There are a great number of myths and legends from the “Big House.” Some myths come from misinformation on what happens inside this strange unfamiliar world, while other legends spring from convict eyewitness accounts–believe it or not, felons aren’t always the best source for accurate information. Don’t get me started on movie depictions of life on the inside…

There are a surprising number of online sources where people go to find out what really goes on in prison, sometimes because they are headed there themselves and want to know what to expect. Most of the online chat rooms get it wrong–and here’s a fun example.

I worked in a older prison.When I say older, I mean really old. Folsom Prison was built in the 1880’s and is still in use today. When you have a physical plant made from granite block, steel, and concrete the procedures used to maintain order and keep the inmate population in their assigned cells were designed in a time without electronic locks, and CCTV coverage. You needed to be certain the convicts stay on the correct side of the cell bars.

There is an old-school technique used in these less-than ultra modern prisons. Vintage black and white movies and television shows depicted the hard life on the inside and often showed an image of an officer dragging his baton against the cell bars–tapping out a metallic pattern.

If you go to some of those online chatrooms, you’ll find the “experts” there tell you this is an intimidation tactic employed by sadistic guards to keep inmates awake, and remind them where they are–under the state’s thumb. Other creative theories included using the tapping sound to announce the officer’s presence on the tier. Points for creative thinking here, but no…

The answer is none of the above. Cell bars as you see in the photos above are steel, or iron–they are metal. There is a double lock on that cell. One key operated lock in the door and a second metal flap above the door that keeps the door closed even when the lock is unlocked. That flap is attached to a long metal bar running above the door the entire length of the tier (usually thirty cells). An officer standing at the end of the tier can pull the bar one way or the other and release half of the tier at a time. The officer would shout, “Back bar!” shove the bar in the right direction and release any of the back fifteen cells they had unlocked.

With this double locking obstacle, convicts turned their attention to the cell bars themselves. And that is where our dragging a baton across the bars comes in. It’s not the neighborhood kid passing a stick on a picket fence to get under some grumpy old man’s skin. When tapped, a steel bar has a unique ring to it–a ping. That’s under normal circumstances. You want to hear ping, ping, ping, ping as you walk down the tier.

When you hear a ping, ping, thunk, you’ve got problems. That last bar has been tampered with. If a bar is cut, even partially, it doesn’t ring the same anymore. You’ve identified a security risk and perhaps prevented an escape plot.

These techniques are still used today in prisons like Folsom and San Quentin, but the baton has been replaced with a small hammer to tap on the bars. You always want to hear those cell bars sing.

It’s a simple technique and it has nothing to do with harrassing inmates in their cells. It’s about keeping them and everyone else safe.

James L’Etoile uses his twenty-nine years behind bars as an influence in his award-winning novel, short stories, and screenplays. He is a former associate warden in a maximum-security prison, a hostage negotiator, and director of California’s state parole system. Black Label earned the Silver Falchion for Best Book by an Attending Author at Killer Nashville and he was nominated for The Bill Crider Award for short fiction. His most recent novel is the Lefty and Anthony Award nominated Dead Drop. Look for Devil Within and Face of Greed, both coming in 2023.You can find out more at

10 thoughts on “Prison Myths

  1. Reblogged this on James L'Etoile and commented:

    There are endless myths and legends about what happens behind the walls. Too many social media platforms profess to give the “prison-curious” writers and others get the inside scoop. The problem is, most of it is based on watching a few episodes of Orange is the New Black. Here’s one example…


  2. Your life behind bars always fascinates me, Jim! So I would venture to guess the “sing” of the bars is NOT the basis for the name of the notorious Sing Sing in New York?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I meant a book, a short stories or an encyclopedia L’Etoile, not two lines about skinny vaseline McGraw..

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Please let me know when it’s published. I bought Dead Drop and it’s next on my list to read.

        Liked by 1 person

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