What conspiracy theories are popular in prison?

A former prison librarian writes about conspiracy culture among the incarcerated.

Mar 27, 2018
What Conspiracy Theories Are Most Popular In Prison?

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CRANSTON, RI – DECEMBER 10: (Editorial Use Only) Nathan Brown (his real name has been changed at the request of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, both to protect him and the identity of people and victims associated with his crime), a prisoner at Rhode Island’s John J. Moran Medium Security Prison, walks through the prison yard after spending some free time at the prison library on December 10, 2013 in Cranston, Rhode Island. Brown is 75 years old and is serving 55 consecutive years for first degree sexual assault; he arrived in prison in 1992. Brown denies he committed the crime for which he was convicted and refuses to go through a sexual rehabilitation program necessary to be eligible for parole. However, he does admit to serving time in jail prior to his current conviction for assault and weapons possessions. Brown is a trained carpenter, enjoys working in the prison library and also works in the prison’s laundry facility. He is also blind in one eye, suffers from arthritis, has had numerous knee surgeries and is currently suffering from an ear infection. Approximately 50 of the prison’s 1020 inmates are 65 or older. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country, with the number of inmates increasing 42 percent between 1995 and 2010, according to Human Rights Watch, and the number of prisoners 55-and-older skyrocketing by 282 percent. The increases are blamed on the ‘tough on crime’ and the ‘war on drugs’ policies enacted in the 1970s through the 1990s, with mandatory-minimum sentencing, three-strike laws and life-without-parole legislation becoming popular. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

We are living in a post-modernist nightmare where facts are impulsively distrusted and outrageous lies are accepted as truth. As it turns out, prisons are no exception. 

The Marshall Project, a publication that specializes in prison and injustices, recently reported on the conspiracy culture behind bars. The article is written by Mary Rayme, a recently retired prison librarian in West Virginia and Maryland.

She writes about how even with limited access to the outside world, some of the conspiracy theories most popular in prisons are those believed in society-at-large. People who are incarcerated talk about how there is an Illuminati that runs the world from the shadows, and how Jay-Z and Beyonce are head honchos in it. Another popular conspiracy is that there is life on Mars, and that the face-like blur on its surface is proof of civilization. And it should come as no surprise that life in prison, where nationalist gangs and racial conflicts are often intensified, makes conspiracy theories about genetic superiorities thrive.

Other tall tales are more specific to the incarcerated—and sobering in their large scope. At the prisons Rayme worked at, there is a popular conspiracy that upon re-entering the free world, ex-convicts will be greeted by a surprise payout, a year of free financial benefits from Uncle Sam. It circulates via photocopied pamphlets between inmates. Rayme tried to level with prisoners that such a program doesn’t exist and was told: “the paper says you will deny this program exists.”

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WASHINGTON, DC — MARCH 24: Larry Blair, a D.C. inmate makes use of the library at the jail reading books like ‘Dreams from my Father,’ by Barack Obama, in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 24, 2016. Blair told the jail librarian that his heart knew how to give to others, but reading the books like ‘Picking Cotton’ by Jen Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton taught his heart how to forgive as well. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“As a prison librarian, you get a lot of interesting reference questions,” writes Rayme. “Inmates do not have regular access to the internet so while outsiders can Google the slightest question, the incarcerated have to use an old-fashioned form of search engine: the printed encyclopedia. Or, they can lean on someone like me as their internet intermediary, making formal, written requests for information online. We do our best to provide accurate responses that are current and come from reliable sources.”

But the sources of information for those behind bars are under attack in some states. Prisons in New Jersey and New York have attempted to put limitations on literature accessible to inmates, making contraband out of books donated by non-profits and even family. In New Jersey, the approved vendor only had 78 books available, 24 of which were coloring books. 

Mar 27, 2018