What ‘Iron Man’ Robert Downey, Jr. Said About His Time in Prison

One of the most popular and successful actors in film today, life wasn’t always smooth for Iron Man’s Robert Downey, Jr. Battling substance addiction for many of his early years, Downey was arrested in 1996 for possession of cocaine, heroin and a pistol when he was stopped by police for speeding, according to BBC. He was later sentenced to three years in a California state prison in 1999 after violating his probation.

So what was it like for the Avenger to live behind bars? Here’s what we know.

Robert Downey Jr. | Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images for Disney

A major adjustment

Downey never denied the initial shock at entering prison. “A symptom that characterizes the first phase is shock. Under certain conditions, shock may even precede the prisoner’s formal admission into the camp. The main symptom of the second phase is apathy, a necessary mechanism of self-defense,” he said in a Vanity Fair interview.

Downey spoke in the interview about having to learn “rules” about very simple things, such as using the community sink after he was moved to a group cell. “You know, it’s all about sinks and toilet rims,” he said. “Because that’s what it comes down to. I was new to the cell, so it wasn’t really my sink. I was just a sink guest.”

Eventually Downey began interacting with his cellmates, even gaining the nickname “Mo’ Downey” according to Ranker. Downey also performed with the inmate chorus choir during the Christmas season, and worked in the prison kitchen earning eight cents an hour, as noted by Ranker.

He felt an odd sense of security

“When the door clicks shut, then you are safe,” Downey said in a Rolling Stone interview. “There is nothing aside from a rogue correctional officer that can do you harm if you have the right cellie. You are actually in the safest place on Earth. Safe from the intruders.” According to the interview, his “intruders” were his addictions that began when his father, Robert Downey, Sr., began giving him drugs at the young age of 8 years old.

“Smoking dope and smoking coke, you are rendered defenseless. The only way out of that hopeless state is intervention,” Downey said in the interview.

Though there were opportunities for Downey to get drugs while in prison, he knew the consequences would be too great. “If you follow those impulses, you are going to be very indebted to someone who is too much of a public-safety threat to even just be in jail,” he told Rolling Stone.

Famous friends came to visit

Actor Sean Penn often made time to see Downey during his sentence, telling Vanity Fair, “His humor was well intact. He seemed like a guy doing time, one day at a time. Robert’s always been a hard read, though, because of his sense of humor. It’s difficult for someone to say something as silly as ‘Boy, he’s doing great!’ But given that, he looked great and he made me laugh a lot.”

While Penn knew Downey needed an intervention, he also saw the sentence as too heavy-handed and wanted to see him freed. “I felt that a sentence was needed—something had to happen—but now it’s entering what you’d call cruel and unusual punishment,” Penn told Vanity Fair. “We need Robert Downey free! We need him, just selfishly speaking, as an actor. His talent raises the bar. And the bar has dropped so low ever since they put him behind bars.”

Sean Penn | Gary Miller/Getty Images

Downey’s director in the film Wonder Boys Curtis Hanson also visited during his incarceration. ”Any gifted artist draws from life experience,” Hanson told Entertainment Weekly after Downey’s release. ”Robert’s gone through a very profound one, so I’m sure it will have an impact just in terms of what feelings and everything else he can now draw on for his craft.”

Needless to say, Downey has impressively turned his life around and is reaping the benefits of his hard work in sobriety.