7 law-abiding citizens went to jail undercover and learned the unwritten rules that govern life behind bars

A&EDavid, an undercover inmate on the A&E show ’60 Days In.’
  • The A&E documentary series “60 Days In” sends regular, law-abiding citizens to jail as undercover inmates.
  • The undercover inmates quickly learn many of the jail’s unwritten rules that inmates live by.
  • Inmates divided themselves by race and had strict rules for settling conflicts, the participants learned.

Life in jail is hard enough as it is. But it’s even harder when you don’t know the unwritten rules.

Seven ordinary people found out what it takes to survive behind bars on the show “60 Days In.” Now in its fifth season, the documentary series follows law-abiding citizens as they navigate life at Arizona’s Pinal County Adult Detention Center for two months.

The undercover inmates quickly learn that inmates at Pinal County obey a strict set of unwritten rules that dictate who they eat with, where they can walk, and how they settle disputes.

Violate one of the rules, the participants learn, and they will be met with certain violence.

Read on to see 11 of the unwritten rules they had to follow behind bars:


‘This jail is segregated. There’s no other way around it.’

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The biggest unwritten rule inmates discovered was that at Pinal County jail, inmates segregate themselves by racial group.

Inmates are expected to eat, share cells, and fraternize only with members of their race. The main racial groups in the jail were whites, blacks, US-born Hispanics, foreign-born Hispanics, and Native Americans.

“This jail is segregated. There’s no other way around it,” an undercover inmate named Abner said on the show. “Whatever race you belong to, you have to follow the rules.”

As Abner discovered, racial ties are even stronger than gang rivalries for Pinal County inmates.

“You come in white, it doesn’t matter what gang you belong to in the streets – you’re white,” he said. “If you come in black, and you’re a Blood, a Crip, or whatever – you’re black.”


If you break the racial barrier, you’ll have to answer for it later

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Even if Pinal County inmates didn’t agree with the racial segregation that took place, they adhered to it for fear of consequences down the line.

If an inmate is convicted and sent to prison, they will be expected to share developments from their time at Pinal County. (Jails are run by local law enforcement agencies, and hold inmates who are awaiting trial or are serving short-term sentences, while prisons are run by state or federal entities and house those who have been convicted of serious and are serving longer sentences.)

Word will quickly spread throughout the system if someone at the jail isn’t obeying the racial code, and they could face violent retribution if they go to prison.

“When you start seeing intermingling like other races eating with other races, that’s one telltale sign that something bad is going to happen to them,” a Pinal County inmate named Willie said in one episode.

“We all get along, but when it comes to these rules, they need to be abided by,” he said. “Because when you get to prison, or what we call the yard, you’re going to have to answer for everything you did in jail.”


Don’t ‘split’ tables during chow time

A&EDavid, an undercover inmate on ’60 Days In.’

Racial groups eat together in jail, and according to an undercover inmate named David, it’s a breach of etiquette to walk between two tables being used by the same racial group.

“You don’t split the tables to go places. That was one of the things I learned as time went on,” David told Business Insider. “You couldn’t split tables to use a shortcut or to get something from your room.”

Like in most other cases, violating this rule can lead to violent punishment.


White inmates refused to bunk with black inmates

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David also said the racial divide extended to sharing bunk beds. Although inmates can’t always choose which inmates they share a cell with, David said the white faction had a rule prohibiting white inmates from sharing bunk beds with black inmates.


Never steal from another inmate

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Resources in jail are extremely limited, and one of the foremost rules the participants learned was not to steal from their fellow inmates.

Some of the biggest conflicts on the show erupted after inmates were accused of stealing coffee, soda, and other commissary items from other inmates.

As Abner explained, stealing is a sign of cowardice, and an accusation of theft can damage the reputation of your entire racial group.


When there’s a dispute within a racial group, it goes to ‘trial’

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If someone is caught stealing or violating another rule, members of that inmate’s racial group will hold what they call a “trial.”

In a trial, the accused inmate is confronted by the inmates at the top of his race’s social hierarchy and is allowed to plead his case.

If the leader of the racial faction finds him guilty, he can order violence against the inmate or simply have him removed from that section of the jail.

“You have to enforce your politics, even if it’s your brother. You have to,” Abner said. “I can’t keep control of the soldiers if I’m not in command.”


If an inmate wants to fight someone from another race, it has to go through the proper channels

A&EAbner, an undercover inmate on ’60 Days In.’

Disputes involving members of multiple races are a little more complicated.

In one episode of “60 Days In,” a Hispanic inmate is accused of stealing soda from a black inmate. However, the black inmate knew he couldn’t simply start a public argument or fight with the accused thief.

It fell on the Hispanic faction to decide on an appropriate punishment, and their decision needed to be severe enough to restore calm across the entire pod.

“If someone steals from me and they get caught, if it’s my race, I’m going to have a meeting with the rest of my people, and we’re going handle it a certain way,” Tyrus, a black inmate, said.

“If it’s somebody else’s race, they’d be forced to handle it,” he continued. “Or if they don’t take care of it to the way I like it, then me and my people and their people have an issue. It’d be a race riot because you’re harboring a f—–g thief.”


Never back down from a fight

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Violence is the conclusion to almost every dispute in jail, the undercover inmates learned.

“The rules state in jail that whenever another man disrespects another man, that they are to fight,” undercover inmate David said in one episode.

But fighting served another purpose too – inmates could strategically use fights to climb the social ladder.

Merely accepting the challenge of a fight is often enough to earn respect in the eyes of other inmates, the participants learned, regardless of who comes out on top.

Meanwhile, refusing to participate in a fight is considered the ultimate sign of cowardice, said Ryan, a participant from the second season of “60 Days In,” which was filmed in Indiana’s Clark County Jail.

“You should never fear violence,” Ryan told Business Insider. “If you take that beating, you’re more respected. So it’s something people shouldn’t be afraid of.”


And never stop a fight in progress

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You wouldn’t be able to tell a fight is taking place at Pinal County from the reactions of the other inmates.

That’s because there usually aren’t any reactions at all.

Because fights are used to settle disputes and keep the natural order in the pod, inmates know not to interfere when other inmates are exchanging punches.

Instead, there are a few ways fights can end. One of the participants could give up, or they could get a signal to stop from a more veteran inmate. Typically, however, fights keep going until the inmates are broken up by correction officers.


Don’t snitch

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Snitching is arguably the worst offence there is behind bars.

The undercover inmates quickly learned that they would face severe consequences if they informed jail staff about illegal activity happening in jail cells, such as fights, drug use, or the presence of contraband items like weapons and cell phones.

“If someone calls you a snitch in jail, that can get you beaten up, it can get you shanked it, it can get you killed,” an undercover inmate named Brooke said.


If you violate a rule, it’s time to roll out

A&E

Once someone is labelled a snitch, or is found guilty of stealing from another inmate, or backs down from a fight, even members of their own racial group won’t defend them.

In that case, there’s only one thing left to do – roll out.

An inmate “rolls out” when he requests that jail staff move him to another wing of the jail because he is in fear for his safety.

Of course, even if an inmate rolls out, their troubles are far from over. Inmates can communicate across pods by discreetly sending “kites,” or handwritten messages, to other sections of the jail.

If an inmate’s new cellmates discover he’s been labelled a snitch, he’ll have to roll out again, and if there’s nowhere safe for him to go, he’ll likely be sent to solitary confinement.

“60 Days In” airs Thursday at 10 p.m. on A&E.

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