Setting Thesaurus Entry: Prison Cell


Iron bars, cement, thin mattresses, old sheets, plain blankets, toilet, sink, stuff written/carved into the walls, painted cement floor, prison overalls, prison shoes, prison clothing and incidentals, a few toiletries (toothpaste, comb, soap, dental floss), light with a cage over it, reading table, books or magazines, photos taped to the wall of girl friends, wives, children or friends, contraband hidden out of sight (cigarettes, drugs, bladed weapons, money, syringes, electronics, lighters, food, cutting tools, etc), inmates (pacing, reading, sleeping, staring at the wall, doing sit ups and push ups, writing letters)


footsteps echoing down the walkways, coughing, talking, muttering, swearing, yelling, whispering, shoes squeaking, pages turning, water turning on and off, toilets flushing, humming, grunting/panting while exercising, mattresses squeaking, guards speaking/yelling, buzzers, iron door shuddering open, voices over loudspeakers, sirens, riots/fights


Sweat, metal, mildew, cleaning products, soap, air conditioning, food from the mess hall, dust, dirt


water, contraband items, approved items purchased through prison confectionery (cookies, chips, instant coffee, chocolate, etc)


Cold metal bars, cracked and dirty porcelain sinks, walls of pitted concrete, laying back on a mattress with no back support, springs digging into your back or no springs at all, lumpy pillows, scratchy blankets, piled sheets rubbing at your skin, running a finger over the face of loved ones in photos, flipping through magazines, a pen held tightly in fingers as you write a letter, sketching or studying for educational improvement, probing a bruise with your fingers after a scuffle with guards or a fight with inmates, pacing across a hard floor, sweat dripping down your face while exercising in the cell, turning your face to sunlight coming through a high window, leaning against the bars, hooking your arms through the bars, the chafe of handcuffs or ankle cuffs, uncomfortable shoes rubbing at feet

Helpful hints:

--The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1:

I pull down Jackie's picture from the gloomy wall next to the bed, careful to only touch the edges. She's in the park near our old place, apples in her cheeks as she pumps her legs on the swings. Her grin is so bright I smile just looking at it, and I long to touch her face, but fear wearing away her beautiful image. In the photo she's five or six, an age left behind a dozen years ago. I wonder what she looks like now, if she's happy. I would trade another year in this place of cold steel and weeping concrete to have just one hour back with her, there in the park, where our smiles could meet without a photo between us.

Example 2:

One of the guards waited for me outside the cell as I glanced around one last time at the barren walls that had housed me for seven years. The room was straightened, toothpaste scum washed down the cracked sink, table cleared off, bed neatly made. I didn't need to do any of these things, but habits are hard to break. In my hands, I carried three items: a copy of Orwell's 1984, a photo of my wife and our son, and my toothbrush. Maybe it was stupid to bring the toothbrush, but I couldn't bare to leave anything personal of myself behind in a place that held only frustration and despair. I turned my back on the room and follow the guard to where my family waits. A strange feeling swelled in my chest, something absent so long I almost didn't recognize it: hope.

--Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Simile)

The bed creaked as I sat, the lumpy mattress sagging in the middle like the sludgy bilge of a rotten ship. How many others had claimed this spot before me, staring at the same chipped paint that I now did?

Example 2: (Metaphor)

As the metal bars rattle close behind me, my eyes grow used to the dim light of my new home. Slowly they reveal themselves to me, the ghosts who have remained to greet the newest inductee. Carved and penned, the walls are filled with ravings at the unfairness, the wasted opportunities. The dingy cement reeks of loss, tattooed with the life stolen by steel and fences.

A special note:

I found some good information here regarding prison life: contents found in a prison, items that can be purchased by prisoners and their costs, etc. There are also personal stories regarding inmate treatment and the gritty reality of prisons. As this information is provided mostly by inmates in Pennsylvania, be aware that some of the language and content may be highly offensive.

Keep in mind too that not all prisons or operations are similar nor host the same conditions or environments, but some of this may offer good generalities for fiction writing.


PJ Hoover said...

Love it (as always)!

Bish Denham said...

Oh...did you have to do research on this? :O

Big Plain V said...

Yes! I can totally use this one on my WIP.

How much do I owe you?

Angela said...

Thanks PJ!

Haha, Bish! Sadly I have no life of crime to draw on, but I do have a friend who works as a guard in a small BC jail. On a slow night I brought the kids down for a field trip, where they were finger printed, got to go in one of the holding cells (a clean one, thank goodness) and try out the restraint chair. I've got a great pic of my youngest in it--he's pretending to be a crazed lunatic fighting to get out of the restraints. If I find it, I'll post it on the Facebook Bookshelf Muse page.

Big Plain V--how about a multi book deal, two Twinkies and one million dollars? LOL

Mary Witzl said...

Ooh, prisons!

I toured a women's prison once, at the age of 17, and if anything could have kept me from a life of crime, it was that. All the colors that weren't grey were stains; all the colors that should have been beautiful were hideous. And the stench of overcooked cabbage and cheap disinfectant hit you like a herd of buffaloes.

Danyelle said...


Perfect timing!

Angela said...

Ugh, Mary--talk about being scared straight! But yanno, I think if more kids had to tour prisons/youth centers/homeless shelters & landfills, it might really bring about a big shift in where the world is going.

Danyelle, I hope that means for your writing and not for your what-to-pack list, LOL!

Venus said...

Love this. I am starting my final revision on my finished novel and have to add details and descriptions, fine tune the atmosphere, mood. While I love that and am looking forward to it I know this will take the longest time. I love your blog and how you have a way of breaking down the words and phrases. I may have to do a similar exercise. Great post!

C.R. Evers said...

ummm. . . how do you know this one so well? hmmmm . . .. ? ;0)

colbymarshall said...

Haha...I'm thinking the Bookshelf Muse could take field trips :-) it as always!

SugarScribes said...

As a prosecutor for over 20 years; I have visited my share of prisons including the worst of the worst "Angola" in Louisiana. If you happen to be a fan of Aaron Neville, listen to his song "Angola Bound". Anyway, having spent more time than I care to in prison cells; I assure you that your Setting thesaurus entry is right on and spookingly accurate. I don't know how you do it, but you do it well and there are a great number of people out here that have come to depend on your entries, Thank you so much

Melissa Sugar Gold


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