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 Federal Prison Reception & Intake 

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Michael Santos

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A person reporting to federal prison to begin a prison term generally shows up at R&D, Receiving & Discharging. Every new arrival at a federal prison facility goes through prison reception. While people who self-surrender know in advance that they will be going to prison to serve some time, they are often unaware of what precisely the reception process in prison is all about and what they can expect on arrival day. Lawyers do not discuss this with their clients specifically, leaving people to wonder how to prepare for the prison reception experience.

Knowing what is coming is half the battle. Read this detailed article on the federal prison arrival day process to prepare for the prison reception experience. Learn what to expect each step of the way on arrival day. 


What is the reception process in prison is a question many people about to go to federal prison have.

Every new person goes through a carefully scripted and documented reception process upon arrival to federal prison. R&D staff receives new people for identification, physical processing, disbursing prison clothing, medical and mental evaluation, and assess if they pose any security risk.

People reporting to federal prison for the first time often are physically and emotionally drained from the ordeal. Knowing more about what to expect during prison reception and what the first day is like can ease the transition and set them up for a better outcome.


According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the Receiving and Discharging (R&D) Department handles the arrival operations at all BOP facilities. R&D is where federal inmates go for processing upon arrival. R&D must at all times take special precautions to maintain security, prevent the introduction of contraband into a prison facility, and maintain accountability of all property.

R&D staff is tasked with preventing early or late releases, delivering people to the wrong facility, or identity mix-ups among prisoners.

At the same time, R&D staff must make every effort to protect the rights of the people in custody, identify any problems or significant facts regarding people during processing, and exercise good judgment in their decisions. That is their mandate.

People unfamiliar with the system often ask, what is the purpose of reception procedure in prison for incoming inmates? 

The BOP answers that the purpose of the reception procedure is to physically process new arrivals accurately and efficiently, prevent the introduction of contraband into federal prisons, and safeguard and disburse property and cash. The intake process aims to keep everyone at the prison safe. 


Processing new arrivals is a significant part of the BOP’s overall operations. BOP refers to the intake process of a new person as “inmate processing, ” and it takes place at a facility’s Receiving & Discharge Department (R&D). While some aspects may vary from one federal prison facility to another, the core of the intake process is essentially the same.

Upon arrival, staff from the case management, medical, and mental health units will interview and screen each person and document these screenings. 

Specifically, R&D personnel, correctional officers (or prison guards), a counselor or case manager, medical and psychological department staff members, and sometimes a Special Investigative Supervisor (SIS) staff member participate in the intake process. Other prison staff members may also help with intake.

After completing intake at R&D, new arrivals attend an Admission and Orientation (A&O) session, where they receive a formal orientation about the facility’s staff, departments, programs, services, policies, and procedures. The A&O program introduces all aspects of the federal prison institution. The initial A&O program seesion typically takes place within the first day or two of a person’s arrival when possible.

Personal Property

For security, safety, and sanitation reasons, the BOP limits the amount of property (jewelry, photographs, books, magazines, etc.) people may bring into a facility or keep during their stay. BOP also limits the types of publications people can receive. Upon arrival, the BOP issues clothing, hygiene items, and bedding. People can keep a religious necklace, a pair of stud earrings, prescription sunglasses, legal papers, and a religious book such as the Bible. No item can be worth more than $100, 

Beyond that, people may later purchase other personal care items, shoes, some recreational clothing, and some food items through the commissary. After arrival, people cannot keep civilian clothes (i.e., clothing not issued by the BOP or purchased from the commissary). 

From arrival and for the duration of their prison stay, a person may only possess:

  • items they are authorized to retain upon admission to the institution; 
  • items issued by authorized staff; 
  • items purchased from the commissary; or 
  • items purchased or received through approved channels.

All other items are considered contraband. When found, contraband items are seized and destroyed, mailed out of the institution at the person’s expense, or otherwise disposed of. People can face disciplinary action and even criminal prosecution for possession of contraband at a federal prison at any time, especially when the contraband item threatens the security of the prison facility. 

Pro-Tip: Attempting to bring prohibited items into a federal prison is a serious matter, not how anyone should envision beginning their journey. Prison Professors helps clients prepare for a successful journey through all phases of the criminal justice process, including preparing for federal prison.


Further breaking down the intake process, a person’s initial steps at R&D involve getting scanned, searched, and photographed. R&D has holding cells to place new arrivals during the intake process. Also, new arrivals receive a brown bag meal or a meal tray from the dining hall, depending on the time of day. 

  1. All new arrivals receive a full-body X-Ray scan, a strip search, fingerprints, and photographs
    • People routinely undergo a full-body x-ray scan (similar to those performed at airports) upon self-surrender or after US Marshalls or BOP transport. The purpose is to detect any contraband a person may have ingested, inserted, or otherwise hidden in their body.
    • People also undergo a thorough strip search, including a visual inspection of the mouth, hair, ears, and genitals. This may be a person’s first experience with the squat and cough. This process is designed to ensure there is no contraband in a person’s private areas. 
    • Next, new arrivals receive their “R&D clothes” (i.e., a white or brown t-shirt, socks, elastic-waist “bus” pants, and a pair of slip-on shoes). People wear their R&D clothes until they get a complete set of institutional clothing, usually from the Laundry Department.
    • New arrivals also undergo fingerprinting and photographing procedures to receive their prison ID – a plastic photo identification card with name and registration number, eye color, height, etc. The prison ID also has a bar code that some institutions use to scan when a person gets their meals, shops at the commissary, uses the copy machine, etc.
    • BOP expects everyone to have their ID cards with them at all times, often requiring that the ID card remain visible to staff.
  2. The next phase of the intake process involves initial interviews with medical, psychology, and Unit Team staff.
    • Medical staff (usually a nurse or physician’s assistant) from the Health Services Unit conducts a brief interview of each new arrival to document the person’s overall physical health status. People should disclose prescription medication needs and all health concerns at this time. Health Services seeks to document if a person has contagious infections, infectious diseases (such as active tuberculosis), acute illnesses, or other medical needs. People should not expect actual medical treatment during the intake process unless their condition is a dire medical emergency.
    • Psychology staff member conducts a brief interview of each new arrival to ascertain their general mental health status. More than anything, Psychology staff seeks to determine if a person is at imminent risk of harming themselves or others. In addition, they want to make sure a person is mentally fit for placement in the general population, as opposed to special housing or isolation. Disclosing some distress about entering prison for the first time is a tough call for each person to make. On the one hand, the distress is natural and understandable. However, when perceived the wrong way by staff, the person could be kept away from the general population and sent to isolation. People on mental health treatment and prescription medications should disclose their medications with the Psychology staff member at this interview. People should not expect any mental health treatment during the intake process.
    • A Counselor or Case Manager will do a brief interview, provide the A&O Handbook for the prison, and provide a brief description of what to expect from staff and other inmates, what staff expects of them, and what the prison offers in terms of education, programming, work assignments, and recreation. There will still be a more formal A&O session, which comes later. The counselor or case manager also lets people know their assigned housing unit, bed assignment, and Unit Team assignment. The Admission & Orientation (A&O) Handbook received at intake contains all the relevant information on the prison’s rules and services and the possible sanctions for violating the prison rules. People will need to keep this handbook and refer to it as needed throughout their time at the facility.
  3. At intake, staff from Special Investigative Supervisor (SIS) should determine if there is any reason (other than medical or psychological) why a person should not be in the general population. SIS’s concerns generally focus around:
    • the nature of a person’s crime;
    • was the person ever in protective custody, and if so, for what reason;
    • do they know anyone at the prison who might wish to harm them or vice versa; and 
    • are they currently or have they ever been an active gang member (SIS staff may even ask the person to display any tattoos to determine if any are gang-related).
      • In dealing with SIS at intake and while in prison, new arrivals should consider that SIS’s role is to investigate disciplinary and criminal misconduct within the prison. People must use discretion when answering questions in any interaction with SIS staff to avoid disclosing information that they may later use against them. If necessary, this may be an appropriate time to make prison staff aware of any serious personal safety concerns. 
  4. During the reception process, people get their initial housing assignment. Most new arrivals will go into the general population once done with the intake process. If someone cannot go directly to the general population for some reason, they are housed in the prison’s Special Housing Unit (SHU).

    Some reasons why a new arrival cannot go directly to the general population include:
    • Needing medical isolation (i.e., a contagious infection or certain infectious diseases such as active tuberculosis, measles, etc.).
    • Needing special medical accommodations or treatment that the prison cannot provide.
    • An immediate medical emergency requiring hospitalization or isolation.
    • A mental health condition preventing participation in the general population
    • An administrative order requiring separate housing from someone already at the prison (called a Separation Order or “separate”).
    • Missing or incomplete documentation, such as a person’s J&C (Judgment and Commitment Order) or the Pre-Sentence Report (PSR).
    • A person refusing to go into the general population (may occur when staff attempt to put an at-risk offender, such as a sex offender or informant, in the general population at a prison where the person believes someone will harm them).
  5. At the point that they are ready to enter the prison compound, new arrivals receive a bedroll (two blankets, two sheets, a towel, washcloth, and a few basic hygiene items). They leave R&D to enter the compound, carrying their R&D clothing, bedrolls, A&O Handbook, ID card, paperwork, any prescription medications they have been allowed to retain, prescription eyeglasses, and necessary medical or dental prosthetics.

    Check out this video about the first day in federal prison: First Day In Federal Prison (Key Tips)


The federal prison intake or prison reception process is systematic and predictable. It can take several hours to complete, depending on the number of new arrivals simultaneously to the facility, among other things. If all goes according to plan, a person arriving at a federal prison in the morning should find themselves at their housing unit before dinner. Knowing what to expect the first day when self-surrendering can help people arrive less anxious and more prepared to face the journey.

Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, works alongside (not in place of) civil and criminal defense counsel to help clients proactively navigate through investigations and prosecutions. Our team also helps clients prepare mitigation and compliance strategies.

If you have any questions or are uncertain about any of the issues discussed in this post, schedule a call with our risk mitigation team to receive additional guidance.

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