What is the First Day Like?
If you’re concerned about what will happen on the first day of prison, the following story will give you some insight. The more you know, the better you can prepare for a successful outcome.
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Prepare for First Day in Federal Prison
The federal prison system is a growing bureaucracy that operates scores of institutions across the United States. As we described in earlier lessons, each of those institutions is classified in accordance with variables that determine its security level. In an effort to streamline efficiencies, the trend over the past several years has been to build prisons of different security levels on the same piece of property, known as a Federal Correctional Complex (FCC). That strategy allows staff members to further their working knowledge of the system without having to transfer to other states. Prisoners within each facility will not have any contact with prisoners of other security levels who are held in other facilities on the same property. Some FCCs, like Beaumont, have an individual USP, two FCIs, and an FPC. More than 5,000 prisoners are confined in those different prisons. Yet staff will limit interactions for prisoners to others who are confined in their same facility.
Ordinarily, the system installs Federal Prison Camps (FPC), or Satellite Prison Camps (SPC), adjacent to higher-security institutions (FCI or USP). When a judge orders an individual to surrender voluntarily to a minimum-security camp, and the camp is not a stand-alone camp (like FPC Maxwell, in Alabama, or FPC Alderson, in West Virginia), the individual will surrender to the higher-security institution. That is where the intake-process begins. After administrators complete their intake proceedings, they will send the prisoner to the camp.
Surrendering to Federal Prison for White-Collar Crime:
When a judge authorizes an individual to surrender to federal prison, the BOP will notify the individual of the date and time that he is supposed to report. As soon as the individual receives that notification from the BOP, the individual should contact his attorney. Ask the attorney to make every effort to confirm that the receiving institution has a copy of the PSI and the Judgment order prior to the scheduled surrender date.
In most cases, the US Marshals and the BOP will coordinate well to ensure that the receiving institution has the appropriate paperwork. That said, clerical errors are known to take place. We’ve worked with several individuals who surrendered to prison. When they arrived, staff members told them that the paperwork was not in order. As a consequence of the paperwork snafu, the individual was taken to the Special Housing Unit, otherwise known as The Hole. Authorities held the individual in solitary, isolated from the population because of the missing paperwork. In some cases, the individual waited several weeks before anyone resolved the paperwork mix up. If staff cannot review the PSI, they cannot confirm that he has been appropriately classified. To avoid this problem, we urge our clients to take the following action.
- Advise counsel of the possibility of a paperwork mix up on the day of surrender.
- Ask counsel to contact the BOP in Grand Prairie, the local institution, and the US Marshals to confirm that the PSI and Judgment Order have been delivered to the local institution.
- If clients do not want to burden defense counsel, the individual should make every effort to confirm
himself,or work with Prison Professor to make the confirmation prior to surrendering
Although the BOP may have instructed the individual to surrender “before 2:00 pm,” at Prison Professor, we advise our clients to report much earlier in the day. Individuals who report to the prison as late as 2:00 pm may find that staff members will not be available to conduct the intake process before their shift ends at 4:00 pm. If that happens, the individual who surrenders to prison may have to spend the first night inside of the Special Housing Unit (SHU), and they’ll quickly learn that there isn’t anything “special” about time in an isolated cell. To minimize that possibility, the individual should surrender to the prison in the morning. A good time to surrender is 9:00 am.
On the day of surrender, an individual may choose to have a family member or a friend drop him off at the prison. At Prison Professor, we advise our clients to say their goodbyes in the parking lot and to walk into the facility alone. That approach will minimize the sadness and humiliation that is bound to take place.
Guards who work for the prison system can appear insensitive to the trauma that family members endure when a loved one surrenders to prison. Whereas surrendering to prison is a new and uncomfortable experience for the individual, guards interact with prisoners on a daily basis. Such experiences desensitize many people who work for the Bureau of Prisons. By walking into the prison alone, the individual protects those whom he cares about from having to witness the humiliating metamorphosis. Like the celebrated story by Kafka that describes a man who has been transformed into an insect, surrendering to prison will bring a sudden awareness that, in an instant, upon surrendering, the humanity will be lost. Instead, many of those in the system will see the man as an inmate; some BOP employees deem an inmate equivalent to an insect. It’s best for family members not to witness this transition.
A well-prepared individual surrenders to prison knowing what to expect. The alternative is to live as an ostrich. Ostriches of Africa know the danger of stampeding lions or wildebeests that are in the vicinity. Rather than running to get away from predatory animals, however, ostriches choose to bury their head in the sand. Theorists hold that since the ostriches cannot see the danger when they bury their head in the sand, they believe that danger will not see them and pass them by. Such an approach doesn’t generally work out so well for the ostriches.
Similarly, individuals who surrender to prison without adequate preparation will not know how to respond to the indignities. At Prison Professor, we use this lesson to prepare our clients so that they know what to expect. Others may find value in using the lesson to condition themselves for the inevitable challenges that accompany a term in prison.
To make the remainder of this narrative easier to follow, we’ll describe the first days as a story with the fictional character named “Greg Samsa.” We’re not writing this narrative as a literary masterpiece, but rather to dramatize a typical experience of someone who surrenders to prison. At key points, we’ll offer observations or questions that readers may consider as they prepare for their own journey.
Greg is a former business owner who did not have any previous exposure to the criminal justice system. Like many of the clients we represent at Prison Professor, everything about the system is new to Greg.
As a side note, we write this lesson from the male gender’s perspective, using the pronoun “he and his.” This information will also prepare females who anticipate a journey through
Greg says his goodbyes to his wife, Betty, in the parking lot. They hug briefly, and then he pulls himself away. Greg’s legs feel weak as he opens the door to the late model BMW. When he closes it, the firm sound of its latch reminds him of the car’s fine engineering. He realizes that cars or outward status won’t matter anymore. Greg is surrendering to begin a five-year sentence for violating securities laws, a crime that he knowingly committed with Jim. Greg’s friend Jim worked at a large law firm. When Jim told Greg about a corporate merger that his firm was advising on, Greg purchased stock in the company that was about to be acquired. When authorities learned about the transaction, they charged Greg and he pleaded guilty. As part of his plea agreement, Greg cooperated with authorities, admitting everything in exchange for leniency at sentencing.
Greg pulled open the door to the prison’s entrance. The steel handle felt cold and the glass door heavy,
“Hello. My name is Greg Samsa,” he laid his driver’s license on the receptionist’s desk. “I’m supposed to turn myself in.”
The receptionist nodded
Greg walked away and then slumped into one of the hard plastic chairs. As minutes turned into an hour, he observed lobby activities. Guards strapped heavy black belts around their waist with radios that cackled as they walked through the lobby. They joked with each other. For the guards, the day felt normal and they didn’t have a care in the world. They showed no interest in Greg or how lost and alone he felt.
In the distance, beyond the metal detector, Greg watched two young men wearing green khakis as they operated giant buffers to polish heavily waxed floors. Two other men in khakis worked along the walls, polishing brass railings and commemorative frames. The odor of disinfectant hung in the air.
After an hour of waiting, two guards approached Greg, one short and one tall.
“Name and number,” the short guard said.
Greg looked at them. “I’m sorry?”
“Name and number.”
He stood up. “My name is Greg.”
“Whoa,” the tall guard took a step forward. “No one told you to stand.”
Greg sat back down. “I’m sorry.”
“Name and number.”
“My name is Greg Samsa.” He extended his driver’s license in his right hand.
“Date of birth.” The short guard didn’t take the
“I was born on January 15, 1964.”
“That’s him.” The tall guard said. “Your number is 16377-004. Stand up and turn around, face the wall.”
When Greg stood as ordered, a guard frisked him, as if searching for weapons. Then Greg heard the guard unsnap a leather pouch. The guard pulled out steel handcuffs and locked them around Greg’s wrists.
“This won’t take long. Got to keep you in cuffs while we walk you into processing.”
“I understand,” Greg said, determined to cooperate fully through the process.
- From the brief narrative above, what level of interest should an individual expect from BOP staff members when he surrenders?
- How would such interactions influence you during your initial hours of confinement?
One guard walked beside Greg, gripping the handcuffs behind his back. The other guard walked on his other side as they walked down the long corridor. While going deeper into the penitentiary, Greg wondered whether the guards had made a mistake. He was a white-collar offender and his attorney told him that he’d be going to a minimum-security camp. The penitentiary looked way too intense, with the surveillance cameras, steel bars, and metal detectors everywhere.
They stopped at a steel gate that stretched across the corridor. It reminded Greg of that scene from the old television show Get Smart, or a scene from Mission Impossible, with the need for one gate to close before another one would open. The short guard used his radio to ask permission to pass.
A different guard in a control center opened the gate electronically.
“Shouldn’t I be going to the camp?” Greg’s voice felt shaky. “My attorney said I was supposed to serve my sentence in a camp.”
“Don’t worry,” the short guard seemed more sympathetic. “You’ll get to the camp later. All inmates get processed through the penitentiary.”
Greg saw a sign pointing to the R&D building and he wondered why a prison would have a Research and Development department. As he moved closer to the building, he read Receiving and Discharge and realized that prison vernacular differed from the world outside. He wondered what else he would have to learn.
The guards unlocked his handcuffs. Then they led him to a holding cell, where he saw another man who was filling out forms. The guard passed Greg a packet of forms and a miniature pencil. “Fill these out,” the guard said. Then he locked Greg in the holding cell.
“I’m Greg,” he approached the other man.
“Steve,” the man nodded. “Are you just getting here?”
“Me too,” Steve said. “How long did they get you for?”
“Wow! Five years? That’s some serious time. I’ve only got ten months.”
- At Prison Professor, we advise our clients not to judge people they meet. While in custody, people serve time alongside individuals from every type of background and education level. People serve sentences of all lengths. We’ve found it best to begin the sentence with an understanding that each individual is living in a fishbowl, and everyone is watching. In that type of environment, it’s best to be reserved and nonjudgmental. As Stephen Covey advised, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Greg shrugged. “Whatever it is, I have to get through.”
“What did you do?” Steve asked.
“I pleaded guilty to a crime that violated securities laws?”
“Did you make any money?”
Greg would’ve liked to avoid this conversation, but he was locked in the same small room. “The government took it all, so I didn’t make anything.”
“That sucks. I’m in for something stupid. I’m not even a criminal.”
“That too bad.”
“That I’m not a criminal?”
Greg laughed. “No, that you have to serve 10 months in prison even though you didn’t commit a crime.”
- Greg didn’t challenge Steve’s assessment that he wasn’t a criminal. Nor did he ask Steve why he was in prison. Greg concluded that it would be best to be respectful, but reserved in his conversation.
Greg used the bench as a writing surface and he began responding to the many questions on the intake forms that the guard provided. The questions requested information on:
- What type of medical history exists,
- What type of medications the individual takes,
- Whether the individual feels suicidal,
- Whether the individual wants
- Whether the individual has any enemies,
- What type of educational background the individual has, and
- Whom authorities should contact in the event of an emergency.
A guard stepped to the door and unlocked it. “Which one of you is Samsa?”
“I’m Greg Samsa,” he stood closer.
“Let’s go,” the guard said.
Greg followed the guard out of the holding cell, down the corridor, and into another room.
“Strip,” the guard ordered.
“Get buck naked. Through your clothes in that bin.”
The order startled Greg. He wasn’t used to someone speaking to him in such a condescending manner.
“Shouldn’t we get to know each other first?” Greg wanted to make light of the moment as he unbuttoned his shirt.
“Don’t get smart with me inmate. I can see it’s going to be a long day.”
Greg didn’t respond. He threw his shirt in the bin, his trousers, and his socks. He stood there, demoralized, in his boxers.
“Don’t you speak English?”
Greg took off his boxers and threw them in the bin.
The guard was making checks on a form he held with a clipboard as he inspected Greg. “Raise your arms.”
“Lift your tentacles.”
“Lift your balls and quit dicking around.”
Greg didn’t understand the purpose, but he complied.
Greg turned around and faced the back wall.
“Lift your feet.”
Greg lifted one foot off the
“What are you, slow or something?”
“Excuse me?” Greg intended to cooperate, but this guard seemed to be taunting him, making sport of the most humiliating experience that Greg has ever endured.
“I need to see the bottom of your feet. When I say lift your feet, show me the bottom of your feet.”
“I didn’t know what you meant.” Greg braced himself against the back wall and bent his knee so the guard could see the back of his foot.
“Now the other one.”
“Okay. Now bend over and spread ‘em.”
Greg cringed, but did as instructed, wondering why the guard would want to look up his sphincter. “Do you have a family?” he asked.
“Shut up and get dressed.” The guard tossed Greg khakis with an elastic waistband and a white t-shirt. “Get your boxers and one pair of socks from that bin in the back. What size shoe do you wear?”
“I’m a 10.”
The guard tossed Greg a pair of blue canvas slip-
After dressing, Greg walked back toward the hallway outside of the room where he changed. Another guard saw him and led him back into the holding cell, which was empty. He wondered where they had taken Steve.
- Observation: Upon surrendering, administrators will sequester prisoners in a holding tank. Other prisoners may be in the tank, but they all will have been classified at the same level. Except when transporting prisoners from one institution to another, the BOP does not mix prisoners of different security levels. The guards will provide the prisoners with intake paperwork. Then they will issue the initial set of clothing for the prisoner to wear inside. Prisoners will meet people one minute, and they may be gone the next.
While Greg waited alone in the room, different staff members came by to question him.
While he was locked in the room, a man came and introduced himself as Dr. Greer, a psychologist. Rather than unlocking the door, the psychologist proceeded to interview Greg by speaking into the door’s frame. Greg had to stand next to the door, but it was difficult to hear the questions. The psychologist concluded his assessment after a few questions, suggesting that if Greg required any counseling, he should submit a copout to his team.
“What’s that?” Greg wanted clarification of what the psychologist meant by copout and team.
“Just ask around.” The psychologist started to walk away.
“But what about the RDAP program,” Greg called into the frame of the door.
The psychologist kept
Greg wasn’t sure, but he thought the psychologist said that he’d get to that later. He sat back down on the bench, folded his arms across his chest, and waited. The fluorescent lights were bright, and the forced air blew cold. He shivered in his white t-shirt.
Two people wearing cheap suits stopped outside of the holding tank and looked inside, observing. Greg felt like an animal in a cage at the zoo. The two men talked among
A uniformed guard stopped by and unlocked the door. “Are you Greg Samsa?” He read from a thick file.
Greg stood. “I am.”
“Come with me.”
Greg followed the man down the hall, and the large man squeezed through the door of a small office. He walked around a heavy metal desk and plopped into the chair.
Greg stood in the doorway, unsure of the protocol.
“Sit. Take a load off,” the guard said.
“I’m Mr. Jones and I’ll be your counselor.”
“Okay. Greg said.”
“I need to ask you a few questions.”
“Have you ever worked for law enforcement?”
“Have you ever testified in a court of law against someone else in a criminal case?”
Greg thought about the question for a moment. “Well, I pled guilty to charges of insider trading. It’s my understanding that the government will call me to testify during a trial, but I haven’t testified yet.”
“Is there any reason that you can’t serve time at the camp?”
“What do you mean? I was sentenced to serve a five-year term.”
“Are you affiliated with any gangs or criminal organizations?”
The counselor looked at the forms that Greg had filled out. “If you were hurt or seriously injured or died, would Betty be the person you’d want us to notify?”
“Would you fear for your safety if I put you in the camp?”
“You tell me.”
Greg didn’t know how to respond. “I didn’t think about it until you started asking me those questions.”
“The camp is fine. We have to ask those questions of everyone.”
“Ok. Then no. I’m not afraid, just a bit apprehensive.”
“You’ll be fine,” the counselor said. “But you might want to think twice before revealing that you’re going to be testifying against another defendant.”
“Is that going to cause me problems?”
The counselor shrugged. “It’s just best to
“May I receive visits from my wife?”
“Is she on your PSI?” The counselor started flipping through pages in the file.
“We’ve been married for 10 years.”
The counselor read the pages, circling some lines. “Okay. I’ll put her on your visiting list today. If you want other people to visit, send them a visiting form.”
“Can’t I just give you the names?”
“I can only add immediate family members that the probation officer listed in the PSI,” the counselor said. “Send visiting forms to anyone else and have them return the forms to me. I’ll have to run a background check on them.”
“How long will that take?”
“Not long, give it a few weeks.” The counselor stood. “Let’s go. You’re almost done here. We’ll have you over at the camp before
- The intake process will expose the individual to many functionaries within the prison system. Essentially, they’re taking the pulse of the prisoner, literally and figuratively. The bureaucracy requires staff members from various departments to collect data from forms the prisoner fills out. They do so in a robotic way. Our clients understand that they should be polite, courteous, and expect that the system will frustrate them at every turn—though it’s not personal. Those who staff the prison want to complete their tasks as quickly as possible, and they won’t show much concern for the prisoner’s anxiety. During intake, the prisoner suits himself best by complying, understanding that clarity will open during the initial few days of confinement. The first hours of intake may frustrate the prisoner, as the cavalier way that staff
treathim during this difficult transition do not end. Once administrators transfer him to the compound, he will have a better feel for his new environment.
Different staff members interrupted Greg’s solitude in the holding cell every 30 minutes. They took him out to fingerprint him, to photograph him for a mug shot, to issue him an inmate identification card, and to ask whether he wanted to donate his personal property or have staff members mail it home at his own expense. Greg chose to donate the property. At 3:40 in the afternoon, a guard escorted him outside to a van. On the way out, the guard did not require him to wear handcuffs. Rather than ask for
After the two settled in, the guard drove the van toward a narrow perimeter road of the prison. A pair of high, chain-link fences capped by endless coils of razor wire circled the enormous penitentiary. In the back, Greg saw an open group of buildings. They were not enclosed with fences. It seemed as if anyone would be able to walk in or walk out. Greg breathed a sigh of relief when he realized that he was going to serve his sentence in such an open setting. From his perspective, administrators would only allow trustworthy, non-volatile people to serve their sentences in such an open setting. If he had to serve a five-year term, Greg didn’t want to worry about his safety.
The guard parked the van and the two men stepped out. When they walked inside, Greg noticed that the door was not locked.
“Here is your bedroll and a simple care package,” the guard said. “Grab one of those mattresses on the floor and carry it to Unit 1A.”
Greg held the rolled up blankets and sheets under his arm and he picked up a dirty vinyl mat from the floor. The lightweight mattress folded easily. He walked out toward where the guard pointed, Unit 1A.
Compared to the penitentiary, the camp looked small. Two,
“I’m looking for Unit 1A,” Greg said to one of the guys loitering by the railing at the entrance of the building.
“So what I look like, the welcoming committee? Why you axin’ me?”
Greg was taken aback by the man’s rude response to his friendly question. He apologized and walked into the first-floor entrance of the building.
He saw six phones mounted against the wall as soon as he entered the building. He walked a little further inside and approached a man he saw in uniform.
“My name is Greg Samsa,” he said. “I’m assigned to Unit 1A. What should I do?”
“Hello Greg Samsa,” the guard said jovially. “Do you have an ID card?”
Greg passed the guard his card.
“Okay. Let’s see where I can put you. Come with me.”
After checking a bed book, the guard led Greg through an open dormitory of bunks. They were military-style steel racks, without springs. Hundreds of prisoners were crowded into the open room and the noise felt deafening. Greg wondered how he would find peace in such an environment. Televisions were mounted on posts in the open. Prisoners could watch the televisions from the bunks using headphones. The guard stopped at bunk 73 and told Greg that he would reside on the top rack.
The guy on the lower bunk stood up. He was covered in tattoos and not wearing a shirt. “Why you putting him on my bunk,” the prisoner asked the guard.
“The camp’s full. There isn’t room anywhere else.”
“If you got less than 10 years, I don’t want to know nothin’ about you or your case.”
Greg looked at
“Are we clear?” the guy on the lower bunk said.
The guard stood by, smirking at the encounter.
The guy from the lower bunk sat back down, and resumed his
“You need some help, pal?”
Greg turned around and saw a young man.
“I’m Paul. Let me show you how to do that easier.”
“Thanks. I’m Greg.”
“I could see that you’re new. The trick to getting these sheets to stay on is to tie them beneath the mattress at each end.”
“It’s not much of a mattress,” Greg observed.
Paul laughed. “You’ll get used to it soon enough.”
Greg appreciated Paul’s kindness.
“This is your locker here. You’ll be able to be able to keep your commissary in it. We’re going to have
“The guard gave me a care package when I checked in.”
“The Christian brothers all chip in to get a few extras for the new guys. You won’t have to pay us back or anything. It’s just something we offer to help people get started. If you can repay later once you’re established, great. If not, that’s cool too.”
“That’s really nice. I’ll be sure to pay it back.”
“Awesome. Now stand by your bunk. It’s about to be count time.”
ontothe prison yard will expose an individual to all types of people. Some will be friendly, others will live as if friendliness is a sign of weakness. Prisons have a culture that differs in remarkable ways from law-abiding society. People who surrender to minimum-security camps sometimes mistake the open environment for normalcy. It isn’t. People who live apart from loved ones may endure high levels of stress. Further, a segment of the population in the camp will have transferred to minimum-security from higher-security prisons. They may be more abrupt than others. Yet without a doubt, an individual who surrenders will find people willing to help them adjust. Greg does well by excusing himself and moving on from the confrontational inmate on the railing, by respecting the space that his cellmate requested, and by accepting the kind gesture from Paul. The “count” to which Paul refers, is a census. Guards hold those counts several times a day. In many camps, the census occurs at the following times:
- 4:00 pm (stand up count),
- 9:00 pm (stand up count),
inmatemust be in assigned area,but may be sleeping.
- 3:00 am,
- 5:00 am,
- 10:00 am (stand up count)
- In addition to the scheduled counts, the prison camp will hold unannounced counts throughout the day. Guards may or may not require the inmate to stand for those unannounced counts.
At 4:00 pm precisely, two guards simultaneously hollered into the unit. They screamed “Count” and the noise quickly subsided to silence. All the men stood by their bunks. Two guards walked by counting. They passed by
Then they yelled again. “Count Clear, Mail Call!” The noise level resumed. All of the men gathered around the guard’s desk and he began passing envelopes to people who responded to his call of names.
After the guard distributed the mail, he unlocked the doors and the men began to leave, walking out in herds.
“Would you like me to show you around the compound,” Paul offered.
Paul led Greg outside. He pointed out the chow hall, the education department, and the chapel buildings. Then he led Greg to the recreation yard, which was like the field area of a small high school. While walking, Paul explained the rituals and monotony of prison life.
“Okay. Here’s what you need to know. Just ignore guys like your roommate. They call him Snake. He’s been in prison for about 20 years or so. Guards moved here because he is almost ready for release. He’s angry all the time. I think he hates everyone.”
“Do I have to stay in that bunk?”
“My bunkie is going to be released next week. If you’d like to move over with me, I’ll talk
“That would be great.”
“No sweat. No one wants to hang around that old guy.”
“So what is the daily life like here?”
“Well, it’s pretty laid back.
“Admissions and Orientation,” Paul said. It’s where the guards come in, one by one, and tell you about the rules of the place. There isn’t anything to be alarmed about. It’s all pretty much routine. Everyone gets a job. We work from 7:30 to 10:00 in the morning. Then we return to our bunks for a count. We have lunch. After
“When will I get a job?”
“Not until you finish A&O. All
“Okay. Can we see the library, too?”
Paul laughed. “I’ll show you, but don’t get your hopes up. It’s just a few bookshelves. The institution doesn’t provide much in the way of library books. When guys finish reading books that they receive in the mail, they pass the books around. Some end up in the library.”
- After initially settling in, the first day of prison is somewhat non-eventful. The new prisoner’s accounts will likely not be set up until the following day. Since Greg didn’t arrive on the compound until the late afternoon, administrative staff would be leaving. He wouldn’t have an opportunity to use the telephone until the following
day,when he would see a counselor and administrators would set up his accounts.
- In what ways would the environment of a camp influence your adjustment to prison?
- If administrators sent you to a higher-security prison, what would you expect to be different?
- What expectations would you have about the ways that people in prison got along?
- How would you respond to rudeness that Greg encountered from guy on
rail, or to the person assigned to the bunk beneath him?
- What ramifications could follow the decisions you made?