Federal Prison: Ten Things You Should Know Before You Go
You Can Survive
Being Afraid Is Your Worst Enemy
When I was sentenced to federal prison, I thought my life was over. I wanted to simultaneously pass out and throw up. All through the process, my highly-paid attorneys had been assuring me that I would get 18 months or so and "be home before I knew it"—yeah right. Nothing could have been further from the truth (short of a death sentence for my "white collar" crime, but that is another story for another day).
The fact is, I was sentenced to 44 months, in the camp that is part of the Atlanta facility. I was given a little time (customarily 60 to 90 days) to get my personal affairs in order, and was instructed to self-surrender on Oct. 27, 2004.
Of course, I had no idea what to expect. At that point in my life I had served a total of 24 hours in jail, when I was arrested and arraigned, and that experience proved to be not even a foggy clue as to what prison life would be like. All I knew was what I had seen on television and in the movies, and I was scared to death. My family and I scoured the internet and bookstores for any kind of written material about doing time, and found damn little with any sort of quality. What we did find was either poorly written, including the ramblings of one gentleman who had lost his mind in the process, or silly attempts at humor regarding a situation that to me was anything but funny.
Thus I walked into the receiving office ill-prepared for what I was about to experience. For me the first few hours, even days—the "not knowing"—were the worst part of the entire experience.
So I am writing this article to try in some small way to lessen the angst that you might be feeling as the day of your incarceration approaches. I'll try to make it an easy read in case you are like me; in the time leading up to the day I reported, I had some trouble concentrating with all the thoughts that were swirling around inside my head. Here, in my opinion, are the things you need to know, in order of importance.
1. You are in no imminent danger. Despite what you might have read elsewhere or seen on TV, you don't have to worry about becoming someone's "bitch" or being sexually assaulted in the shower. In my experience, in the camp environment, that sort of thing just does not happen. From what I saw, the camp environment is a pretty much live-and-let-live sort of culture. In other words, you mind your business and I mind mine, and we'll get along just fine. To be honest, I was witness to a few instances of violence: fights between inmates or groups of inmates, and they were always started over someone sticking their nose into someone else business. Fighting, by the way, is an automatic trip to solitary confinement, or the dreaded "Hole" as it is referred to inside. Regardless of who started the ruckus, anybody and everybody involved goes, and for a long time. It can also mean being transferred to a higher security facility, something that you do not want, so simply avoid fighting at all cost. In short, mind your own business, do as you're told and you will get along OK.
2. Club Fed is a myth. There is no such animal. I don't care what has been written about tennis courts and saunas, computers, wood shops, etc.: they aren't there. The idea of going back to school and getting an education while you are there is also something you shouldn't count on. Although I think other facilities offer a route to a high school equivalency certificate, even that was not available in Atlanta when I was there. What is there is a 1/4 mile walking track, a basketball court, and a softball field. There were some free weights under an outdoor shed, but they were being phased out when I was there. There is much free time in prison, and the opportunity to improve your health does exist if you apply yourself to an exercise routine. I did, and lost over 100 pounds while I was there. There was a small library, and of course a TV room at the end of each dorm, but watching TV is difficult because of the number and diversity of the inmates; getting that many people to agree on what to watch is an arduous task. There are ways to occupy your time but you have to look for them. I read and exercised every day, and it helped me to get through my time more easily.
3. Don't expect to be treated fairly. Prison guards, counselors, and staff are human beings, some of them good, some of them not. If they like you they will treat you well. If not, you may not always come out where you had hoped to be in your everyday dealings with them. For example, in the assignment of jobs and housing, the people they like move up the ladder and get the better assignments and locations, and the others often get stuck with some not-so-good duties. I was fortunate. I was pretty well liked and ended up with the best job on the compound in Atlanta. I was the clerk for the powerhouse. I kept the payroll records, read the meters, and sat in the office with the guards all day, where it was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I helped them with real estate investment advice and kept them laughing all day, and I fared pretty well. Make friends of the guards and staff if possible. It will make your time easier.
4. You can't have money. Cash is forbidden in prison, although it does exist. Get caught with it, and you will have a one-way ticket to solitary. I had a friend who made the mistake of trying to send me money in the mail, and although I didn't even know it was coming, the guards found it and I narrowly escaped being punished for it. You are issued an ID card when you enter. That card serves as your charge card and can be used to pay for phone calls, commissary, and vending machine purchases at the facility. You are allowed to have up to $300 per month placed on that card from an outside source or family member, and the small amount you are paid for working is placed on there as well. My advice is to avoid trying to sneak cash in, and to play by the rules where your monthly expenditures are concerned. Things will go better for you if you do.
5. The food is decent. I was at two facilities, and in both the food was not what I would consider gourmet by any means, but it was edible, and in a sufficient amount that I never felt hungry. Of course there are three meals a day and they come pretty early compared to the outside world. Breakfast, at 5:30, consists of grits, eggs, toast or biscuits, sometimes bacon or sausage, and coffee. Lunch is served at 11:00AM and the menu varies daily. Dinner is at 4:30 and that menu varies as well: it includes fried or baked chicken, hamburgers, hotdogs, fish, pizza, corned beef, and ham occasionally. You are allowed to purchase snack items such as chips, candy, and soft drinks from the commissary on a weekly trip.
6. Prison life is loud. The noise was one of the hardest things for me to get used to. Fifty to 100 men in one big room, talking, laughing, sometimes yelling, coughing, snoring, farting, and singing can sound something akin to a train coming down the track. It can be difficult to get used to; but you will. Ear plugs can be purchased at the commissary which will help when you are attempting to sleep.
7. Medical care is poor and dental care is a joke. If you have health issues and need medication, be sure to take a list with you when you enter. Your prescription medications will be given to you daily at the medical dispensary. Some pills such as blood pressure medications will be given to you monthly and can be kept in your locker. The doctors and dentists are overworked and basically uncaring, so do your best to stay healthy during your stay. If you develop a serious condition you will be transported to a hospital. I never had to do that, so I really cannot speak to the type of care given there, although I would not expect it to be award-winning.
8. The accommodations are spartan but bearable. You will share an 8-by-8 cube with one or maybe two other inmates. Your furnishings will include a metal cot and mattress, a metal chair, a small wall locker, in some cases a small metal desk attached to the wall, one blanket, two sheets, a pillow, and a pillow case. The beds aren't at all comfortable, but you will get used to them and learn to get a good nights sleep there. The walls of the cube are concrete and do not reach the ceiling; the floors are polished concrete. Both heat and cooling can be a problem in the worst parts of the winter and summer. Score an extra blanket if you can, and keep it in your locker for those really cold nights.
9. There is a prison economy and you can benefit from it. Many inmates don't have money on the books, either because they have no one on the outside who cares enough to put it there, or simply because they aren't in a financial position to do so. Those men have to learn to fare for themselves when it comes to extras such as commissary, and the small amount they make working a prison job does very little toward that end. Many of them are willing to work inside the prison for others doing odd jobs, such as laundry, making beds, and shining shoes, in exchange for items from the commissary. This is how it works: inmate one does your laundry each week and returns it to your cube washed, dried and folded. In exchange, you give him five dollars in commissary, he gives you a list each week of what he wants from there, and you deliver it to him after your trip. This method is used often and with success throughout the entire camp system.
10. You will make friendships in prison, but don't expect them to be lasting. Prison is a different animal: a place where men are thrown together by requirement, not by choice. Just like you would anywhere else, you will come to relate to and enjoy your relationship with some of them. Of course there will be others to whom you do not relate, just as it is in the outside world. Despite what you may think while you are doing your time, walking the track with a friend, playing cards, or just sitting and talking, in my experience the friendship will not and should not extend past the walls of the prison. There are a couple of reasons for this.
- First, most people would like to forget the experience once it is over. It is a horrible and embarrassing time in one's life.
- Two, despite your friendship inside the walls of the prison you are usually two very different people from very different worlds. It isn't likely you would have ever met on the outside to begin with and even less so that you would have been friends if you had.
My advice is to enjoy the friendships while they last and to let them go when your sentence is done.
Keep in mind that even though this is your first time, you will be serving with inmates who have been in for a while, or those who have been released and returned. There is a 65% recidivism rate in the federal prison system. Be careful to not get suckered in by those who have been around a while. Use your head, follow your own instincts, and do what you believe to be the right things, and you will have a better experience.
The prison experience is anything but easy. In fact It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I was horrified at the prospect of going and wasn't sure I could make it through it but I did and you can too. Ninety percent of how you fare will depend on your attitude: approach it with the best information you can get and the right attitude, and you will be fine, Remember that these six months (or six years, either way) are is just a period of time in your life that will end eventually. The good news is there is life after prison. I am living proof of that.