I need ideas on how to describe a prison. I don't know how to start my story that is about a guy in prison. Also, I must reflect on loneliness. Please help, thanks. I'm talking about a prison in California during the Great Depression.

  • 2
    There are lots of different kinds of prisons. Are you talking about a modern prison? Maximum security or minimum security prison? Men's prison, womens prison, youth prison? 1800's Midwest American prison, the Bastille, medieval, an ancient Mayan prison? Without context there's no way we can help. Washington State has minimum security prisons up in the mountains where the inmates are trained to be forest fire fighters and to do small engine repair. That's a totally different kind of prison than a maximum security overcrowded prison in California.
    – DoWhileNot
    Jan 17, 2016 at 17:20
  • I'm talking about a prison during the Great Depression in California
    – Lucy
    Jan 17, 2016 at 17:25
  • 3
    Being as you probably have no first hand experience of being in prison in California during the Great Depression you should look up some references. Data about prison buildings from correct era and place. Data about life in prison during the era. Maybe some first hand accounts for verisimilitude. I don't think there is a substitute for research in this case. Jan 17, 2016 at 17:38
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    You're still kind of stuck with needing to know what kind of prison. Alcatraz was a federal prison in operation during that time, but federal prisons are a lot different from state or county prisons. They'd likely have been in some kind of forced labor camp. White inmates were also treated very different from colored inmates. You might try doing a google image search on "1930's california prisons."
    – DoWhileNot
    Jan 17, 2016 at 17:39
  • 1
    @DoWhileNot I take your point. Logic is the beginning of wisdom; Googling is the beginning of research. Jan 17, 2016 at 21:40

7 Answers 7


When I want to describe a location, I use the following techniques:

  1. Browse Google images for pictures of the location to get initial inspiration and a feel. I find pictures of these places often have details I hadn't thought of. I recently described a prison cell myself and the pictures showed me rats and a bucket under the sleeping bench, when I had been preoccupied only with the walls and size of the place.

  2. Try to jot down some words for each of the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Words, phrases, images, ideas. By thinking about each sense in turn your inspiration will hopefully be sparked.

  3. I do a word brainstorm to list a bunch of words that relate to the theme location, without trying to hang them nicely in sentences and paragraphs. Then when it comes to writing the description properly I can dip into them as I wish. Allowing the brainstorming gives the mind freedom to come up with more interesting concepts.

You can read more about developing locations and themes here.

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    #3!! In primary school one year, our english teacher had us students each pick photographs from a National Geographic. She gave us a list to fill out regarding the photo. "List five adjectives that describe this picture." "Give three moods to describe the picture. Put an exclamation point next to the strongest mood." There were a few others, but the end result was a page with tons of words describing the picture. We then wrote a 4 paragraph mini story using those words, and the results were so powerful, it made me want to be a writer. I still use this tactic today. GREAT EXERCISE.
    – kmunky
    Mar 3, 2016 at 16:08

I asked my writing AI for some descriptions of prison settings, based on your query:

  • The room is a grim, stone box with one small window that looks out on the town, the sun rising over high stone walls. The walls are slightly damp, a feeling of coolness emanating from the space.
  • The bed is made of steel mesh, like your dad’s shack. The door is steel, equipped with locks and bolts. There’s a sink and a toilet.
  • The place is cold, each breath a frosting of white that blankets you and the air thickens with the stench of your own breath. Your clothes stick to you, and the straw beneath you is wet and slick beneath the weight of your body.
  • The room is dingy. It is a small, windowless room with a brick-walled fireplace. The walls are bare, only the faintest of scuffmarks mark the original brick surface.
  • His skin is cold and clammy, his hands and feet numb with the damp, like he’s been wrapped in wet sheets for days.
  • The air tastes like stale bread and centuries-old stale water. You taste no oxygen; this place is sterile.

If you already know it is California, Depression-era, then pick a real prison and use that as a setting. If you can find a prison that somebody has written a comprehensive book about, then choose that prison and get that book. It may have maps and descriptions of what life was like there.

There are many books about what it is like to be a prisoner, and about particular people who were imprisoned. Get one of those, too. Ideally from the same era. If from the actual prison you have chosen, that is even better.

Those books form the foundation of your research.


You have to know what prision you are talking about: modern, old, with security... Then, you could look for some pics and information in order to know what are you describing aproximatetly.

Then, when you know everything you have to know about the prision, start writing. You can start with an explanation about you character are looking at, like: After that those two cops leaved me here I sitted in a corner of this little and unclean prision. Everything is dark and lacking of life here. I only have that tiny window with too many iron bars.

Just let your imagination get out!


John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath might come in handy as background for the Great Depression. The story is about a family that moved to get away from the Dust Bowl conditions in Oklahoma to California during the depression. The book could serve as a part of your research. Good luck!


Just from what I saw online, it looks like prisons during that time period were almost more of like work camps. Almost everyone was wearing black and white striped pants and shirts, and it almost had the same atmosphere as a Nazi prison camp.


Research historical facts about prison construction and operation, including penal theories of punishment and what not. Movies made in the late 30's will reflect many elements that you need to know as well as modern period pieces like 'The Green Mile.' But you shouldn't rely on movies alone, libraries and state department of corrections and newspapers of the day should provide perspective.

Then think on how you can safely explore the isolation and loss of control of being a prisoner to find the root of the character.

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