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…


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…


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…

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…

–Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (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.

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.

Think beyond what a character sees, and provide a sensory feast for readers

Logo-OneStop-For-Writers-25-smallSetting is much more than just a backdrop, which is why choosing the right one and describing it well is so important. To help with this, we have expanded and integrated this thesaurus into our online library at One Stop For Writers. Each entry has been enhanced to include possible sources of conflict, people commonly found in these locales, and setting-specific notes and tips, and the collection itself has been augmented to include a whopping 230 entries—all of which have been cross-referenced with our other thesauruses for easy searchability. So if you’re interested in seeing a free sample of this powerful Setting Thesaurus, head on over and register at One Stop.

The Setting Thesaurus DuoOn the other hand, if you prefer your references in book form, we’ve got you covered, too, because both books are now available for purchase in digital and print copies. In addition to the entries, each book contains instructional front matter to help you maximize your settings. With advice on topics like making your setting do double duty and using figurative language to bring them to life, these books offer ample information to help you maximize your settings and write them effectively.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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10 years ago

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

11 years ago

Haha…I’m thinking the Bookshelf Muse could take field trips 🙂 Heehee…love it as always!

C.R. Evers
11 years ago

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

11 years ago

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!

11 years ago

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!

11 years ago


Perfect timing!

Mary Witzl
11 years ago

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.

11 years ago

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

Big Plain V
11 years ago

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

How much do I owe you?

Bish Denham
11 years ago

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

PJ Hoover
11 years ago

Love it (as always)!