Blog Article 

 Day in the Life in Prison 

Picture of Michael Santos

Michael Santos

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My name is Donna, and I spent several years at a federal prison camp. Larry and Michael’s video discussion about what days are like in minimum or low-security federal prisons inspires me to share some of my personal prison stories.

In my experience, I found that, unless people take steps to stay busy and become productive, days in prison can be repetitively boring: CDR (central dining), counts, jobs, phone, shower, email, “rec time” (recreation), mail call, and maybe some TV. Of course, I chose to spend my time programming and taking classes, improving my physical fitness, and repairing important relationships.

During the first couple of weeks and months at the camp, my experience was similar to Larry’s. At first, the process is about learning and adapting to the new environment, figuring out your new surroundings, and figuring out the scammers and those genuinely trying to help newcomers. 

They also hold formal orientation sessions by prison officials. But in truth, I learned all the essential stuff one needs from those who had been in my shoes.

The formal A&O (Admissions and Orientation) walks newly admitted people through the A&O Handbook to make sure everyone understands how the facility works and can meet the supervisors of all of the various departments, including the Warden or at least an Assistant Warden. I remember one of the Lieutenants ran my A&O session, and the heads of various departments spoke to us about their services, office hours, open house schedule, and similar issues. They also walked through their approach to discipline at the facility and the importance of count time.

The job search was a big deal for me at the beginning of the process. That’s because everyone at my camp has to start out working AM Dining, which consists of cleaning tables during breakfast and lunch, reporting to work at 5 am. You have to have a medical reason to avoid kitchen duty, and I did not have one. Of course, I heard from many ladies how people lie to avoid kitchen duty, which was not an attractive option. I did not want to start on the wrong foot and get disciplined.

I was horrified when learning from the other ladies that everyone medically able has to start in AM Dining! I’m not a morning person for starters, and it was the dead of winter to get up at 4:30 am and be at work by 5 am. To top it off, officers have to count the kitchen workers at 5:15 am, so being late means two write-ups, one for being late to work and the other for disrupting an official count. The pressure felt like a lot. 

Eventually, like everyone else, I adapted to the rules and the schedule because I had no choice. Humans are more adaptable and resilient than we tend to think. I remember telling my bunkie, who also worked in AM Dining with me, that I would never make it working in the kitchen and getting up at 4:30 am. It felt too hard. I was not used to it. And, while I believed that when I said it to my bunkie, I could make it, of course.

Like Larry, I had to work in AM dining for 60 days before I could leave to work elsewhere. I tried mightily to find another job and get an exception to leave early, to no avail. For example, there was a shortage of tutors in Education, and some ladies received permission to leave the kitchen job before their 60 days to work as tutors. I had to wait. That was so random. Unfair even, but typical. Rules are not enforced uniformly in prison, and I realized then that sometimes you just have to accept and move forward. Other ladies just lied to the officers and said their 60 days were up. They knew that the officers never bothered to check. For me, I was not willing to lie for fear of getting caught in such a lie and receiving a shot or a write-up. 

So goes life in prison at the beginning. Many people like me were trying to figure out how to avoid kitchen duty at all costs. Others were content to work in the kitchen and stay there for a while. As Larry and Michael discussed, some people don’t mind working in the kitchen because they can get extra food, which they then sell or trade on the compound. The butcher shop was particularly popular for this purpose. Many ladies got fired for stealing from the butcher shop, so they always had openings. 

After AM Dining, I left to work in the prison library for a few months, and then I moved to the Recreation Department to work as a clerk. I worked for Recreation until my time was up. My favorite job was at the Rec! The officers were fair and laid back, and we could take workout classes during our shifts. 

There were all sorts of other jobs people could do. We did not have Unicor (Prison Industries), a highly desirable job in federal prison because people learn skills, and Unicor pays more than regular prison jobs. The starting pay in federal prison when I was there was $5.25/month. 

My prison camp offered people jobs in the commissary, the warehouse, laundry, education (as ESL and GED tutors), the library, the yard, orderlies in all the buildings, teaching workout classes, and a lot more. Basically, if it needed to get done, there was a job for someone because the officers certainly were not going to be the ones to do it.

There were also several apprenticeships, considered both education and work. What I often share with people who are not familiar with jobs at a federal prison camp is this: The residents do everything! We kept the compound running while officers barked orders and loosely supervised us. 

Looking back, those first couple of months in prison for me were similar to what Michael and Larry discuss in this video, trying to avoid kitchen duty, obligated to work there for 60 days that seemed unending, and feeling such a sense of freedom from changing jobs to become a library clerk. Still, the forced experience in AM Dining was beneficial for me. The experience taught me that I’m more adaptable and stronger than I give myself credit for, and it set me up for humility, gratitude, success, and hard work during the rest of my time at the camp.

I am grateful to Prison Professors for putting out this content and allowing me to share my personal story

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