Blog Article 

 Make Progress in Federal Prison by Preparing 

Michael Santos

Michael Santos

If you want the best possible outcome, the earliest possible release, and the best opportunities for success upon release, learn how to make good decisions early.

Make Progress by Preparing

When a person surrenders to a minimum-security camp, administrators conduct a rather perfunctory intake procedure. The intake procedure requires the individual to:

  • Respond to questions on a series of forms that provide administrators with the individual’s self-assessment on matters that include:
    • Medical needs
    • Educational background
    • Religious orientation
    • Emergency contact information
  • Stand for a mug shot and fingerprints
  • Interview with various staff members
  • Surrender clothing and personal belongings
  • Submit to a full strip search
  • Receive initial clothing allowance and bedroll
  • Obtain a housing assignment

That intake procedure consumes the entire first day. To enhance opportunities to get through the admissions process in a single day, we think it’s best to surrender early, usually between 9:00 and 10:00 am.

Throughout the day, staff members will conduct their intake responsibilities for all new arrivals. Once complete, a guard drives the person from the intake area of the main prison to the adjacent camp. A person surrendering will introduce himself to the guard, or “Officer in Charge (OIC),” and he will receive his bunk assignment. He will meet a variety of other people serving time, some nice, some not so nice.

For those who have never been to prison previously, understanding the vernacular may help. People serving time refer to staff members as guards, and people working in prison refer to people serving time as inmates. We prefer to remove the labels because we’re all people.

Individuals who work for the Federal Bureau of Prisons do not like the term prison guard. They consider the training they receive as giving them a higher status than a prison guard. Those who work for the prison system consider the term “guard” a pejorative term. Staff members of the BOP prefer the more sanitized “correctional officer.” Further, BOP staff members refer to the people who serve time as “inmates,” not prisoners.

While serving our sentences, the people on our team did not see any emphasis on “corrections” within the system. Each person should go into the system with the intention of making the most of the journey, regardless of external circumstances. People should know and understand the environment in which they’re going to live.

In this lesson, we provide an overview of what a new person can expect to encounter during his first weeks in a Bureau of Prisons facility.

Adjusting to federal prison:

After completing the intake process, and officers assign the person to his bunk, the person will interact with others. He may or may not continue those relationships, but initial interactions may provide a sense of stability—as if he is finding a toehold from which he can begin his climb out from the abyss and into better days. The first night may be difficult. A new person may not have an opportunity to talk with his family and he will still feel somewhat unsettled by the initial discomfort of confinement. As the person lies on his rack for the first time, staring at the ceiling above, a series of conflicting thoughts will likely run through his mind:

  • What am I doing here?
  • How did this happen?
  • How am I going to get through this?

Those are normal questions. Our team advises people to anticipate challenges and discomfort on that first day. The more thought a person gives to responding to those questions, the further along a person will be in launching a mitigation strategy. Each person must architect a strategy to prepare for success.

When people fail to prepare before surrendering, they feel as if they’re wandering through the days. They lack purpose or a clear definition of the intended outcome.

People will hear from others who are on a less-than-deliberate adjustment strategy. Those people may say “the best approach to serving time is to forget about the world outside and to focus on the time inside.” Others will say that since a person is in prison, he cannot control what is going on outside and too much thought about the outside world will only aggravate him.

We advise a more leadership-driven approach. When people serve their time in prison without a plan, they:

  • Do not have a deliberate strategy to ensure that they return to society stronger.
  • Respond to inevitable complications or frustrations that surface in the heat of the moment, without clarity on the implications of their decisions.
  • Suffer through unanticipated and unnecessary disciplinary problems.
  • Serve more time inside than necessary, and in harsher conditions than necessary.
  • Return to society without an actionable, methodical plan to triumph over the inevitable complications that follow confinement.

To the extent that a person begins with a clear idea of the best possible outcome, the person can reverse engineer a plan to succeed. At Prison Professors, we encourage people to use a disciplined plan to prepare for success. Those who choose to design their own path may consider the following questions useful in their preparation:

  • Why do I find myself in this predicament?
  • What is my plan for making it through?
  • How can I pursue a deliberate course of action to ensure that when I move into the next phase of my life, I’ll advance the possibility for a full and meaningful, relevant life?
  • How am I defining success at each stage of the journey ahead?

A person who works through those questions may find that first night in prison to be much more restful. Rather than dwelling on all that he has lost, the person will know that he is not an “inmate,” as the system defines him. He is not waiting for calendar pages to turn, or for life to happen to him. Instead, the person knows that he is a man. He is moving through this challenge in a deliberate, disciplined way, knowing that the success he experiences in the weeks, months, and years to come will follow the decisions that he makes along the way.

First Morning in Federal Prison:

The first night may have been restless. Intermittent census counts throughout the night may take disrupt sleep. A person may adjust to the noise level of living in a room the size of an airplane hanger that he shares with hundreds of others. Yet when officers walk through the unit several times during the night, shining flashlights in people’s faces as they sleep, the person may have a hard time resting. It’s simply part of the journey. A person must develop confidence that he will power through in a disciplined, deliberate manner that corresponds with the plan he put in place.

The prison camp will come to life after the 5:00 am census clears. Early morning risers will get up and begin using the bathroom at that hour. People with experience of living inside will know that the bathroom becomes increasingly more crowded as the minutes pass between 5:00 am and 7:30 am. Beating the rush makes a lot of sense. People new to the environment will benefit from an understanding of what to expect from living conditions in prison, especially the bathrooms.

Understanding Housing Units and Bathrooms:

Personally, I went through prisons of every security level, from high-security to minimum-security to home confinement. Every person on our team has been through the system. For that reason, we feel as if we’re qualified to serve as tour guides—we not only know how to go through the journey, we know how to prepare for success. And we know that any person working through our lessons can do the same.

In minimum- and low-security prisons, the institutions make use of an open living area. Rather than individual cells, the architecture makes use of open dormitories. Some camps divide the area into cubicles. Other camps line the metal bunk beds in a grid of columns and rows. Some institutions limit a housing unit, pod, or wing, to as few as 30 people; others confine several hundred people in one giant room.

Regardless of architecture or interior layout design, all prisons will share a lack of privacy in common. People prepare well when they condition themselves to anticipate a total lack of privacy for the duration of their sentence. Whether they live in cells, rooms, cubicles, or open dorms, either officers or other people will continuously be around. It doesn’t matter where a person is within the institution, he will always be vulnerable to prying eyes, listening ears, and body searches.

The bathrooms are open also. People may expect stalls around the toilet, like toilets in a restaurant bathroom. Most institutions will build stalls around showers, though some institutions have a locker-room design, with open showers.

There is a bathroom protocol that all new people should understand. With the total absence of privacy for people in prison, people will find that their peers accept them more easily if they make a commitment to adhere to the following basic unwritten rules of living in prison:

  • Before showering, be courteous of others that may be waiting in line.
  • Do not look at others when showering.
  • If a custom exists for people not to use some showers in order to offer an illusion of privacy in other showers, respect that custom.
  • Do not engage in conversations with others in the bathroom.
  • After using the shower, bathroom, or sink, clean the area

Those instructions may seem very basic. Yet many new people find themselves tangled in unwanted complications because they breached “bathroom etiquette in prison.”

Starting the Day in Federal Prison:

After taking care of personal hygiene, a person should clean the area around his bed. Staff members will be finicky about tidiness in the housing unit. Each person has a responsibility for keeping the bed made during the day and keeping all personal belongings inside of the locker. Before leaving the housing unit, the person should look around his assigned area. If a person makes his bed without wrinkles, keeps personal property inside the locker, and sweeps the area, he can proceed through the day without worries that staff members will reprimand him for untidiness, or worse yet, issue some type of sanction.

Call-Out Sheet in Federal Prison:

As a person walks toward the outside of the unit, he will see a “call-out sheet.” People may think of the call-out sheet as an appointment book. Staff members will schedule people to participate in specific activities every day.

In the first days and weeks, the person will see his name on the call-out sheet frequently, as staff members will fill his day with appointments. He may have to see personnel from the health-services department, from education, from psychology, and from other areas.

Each person must train himself to check the call-out sheet on a daily basis. If a staff member uses the call-out sheet to schedule a person for an appointment, the person has a responsibility to attend. People who fail to show up for the call-out appointment expose themselves to disciplinary infractions for being “out of bounds.” Punishments for such a disciplinary infraction may include:

  • Loss of telephone privileges
  • Loss of commissary privileges
  • Loss of visiting privileges
  • Extra work duties

Meals in Federal Prison:

After a person checks the call-out in the morning, he may leave the housing unit for the chow hall. Food in prison is basic. Those who’ve experienced the military will recognize the institutional food; those who’ve not served in the military may have a better understanding of food in federal prison if they recall meals that were served in a typical American high school. The Federal Bureau of Prisons serves meals in the following approximate rotations:

  • Monday-Friday:
    • Breakfast (6:00 to 7:00 am)
    • Lunch (after morning count, usually 11:00 to noon)
    • Dinner (after 4:00 pm count, usually 4:30 to 5:30)
  • Saturdays, Sunday, holidays
    • Breakfast (6:00 to 7:00 am)
    • Brunch (after morning count, usually 11:00 to noon)
    • Dinner (after 4:00 pm count, usually 4:30 to 5:30)

The bland meals will be strikingly similar in all institutions. People may expect a rotation of the following meals depending on the day each week:

  • Breakfasts: eggs, potatoes, cereal, pastries, fruit, pancakes
  • Lunch: hamburgers, spaghetti, rice and beans, chicken patty, chicken, pizza
  • Dinner: roast beef, potatoes, rice, beans, macaroni and cheese, chili, fish, casserole dishes

People should expect to wait in long lines for each meal, as most people in the camp eat in the chow hall. Those who have financial resources may choose to avoid the indignity of the chow hall by purchasing food from the commissary and preparing their own meals.

Admissions and Orientation (A&O):

The A&O session will be the start of each new person’s initial adjustment. Institutions will vary with regard to scheduling new people for A&O, depending on population levels. People should expect to attend A&O during the first days or weeks of their arrival.

During A&O, all new people will sit in a conference-like setting. They will listen as a parade of staff members visit to describe the purpose of their departments. Each staff member will speak for between 10 and 30 minutes. Some will open the floor for questions. Some will show videos during their presentation. Newly arriving people should keep the following in mind:

  • A person should not say anything during the A&O meeting that he would not want to be spread around the institution.
  • Although a new person may appreciate an opportunity to listen to staff members and learn how the institution operates, most of the people in the room will want to end the meeting as quickly as possible. They will not appreciate unnecessary questions.
  • After the A&O meeting, counselors will begin assigning job assignments to all new people. People should locate the work assignment that suits them best prior to A&O and do everything possible to secure the job that suits them best.

Some people enter prison with the perspective that they should become resources for the administration. They believe it important to show the staff that they’re different from the ordinary criminals who are in custody, and they want such recognition.

Such an adjustment will bring scorn, ridicule, and possible danger from others who are serving time in the same prison. I remember a person convicted of a white-collar crime who repeatedly asked staff members during A&O how he could help. Other people who participated in the A&O session spread the news about the question throughout the population. As a consequence, the person who “wanted to help” had a very difficult adjustment in the minimum-security camp.

Job Details in Federal Prison:

In federal prison, counselors will assign a job to all people who are capable of working. People serving sentences provide a significant portion of the labor that maintains the institution. A job that will appeal to one person may not interest another. Below we provide a listing of some job assignments that people will find available in any prison:

  • Food Service: People serving time prepare all the meals. As such a large number of people work on the kitchen detail. People assigned to the kitchen detail may work as cooks, wash dishes, maintain cleanliness, or work to store the food.
  • Orderlies: Most all departments in the prison will employ orderlies who bear responsibility for keeping an area clean.
  • Maintenance: People may work as electricians, plumbers, or on jobs that require skilled labor.
  • Landscaping: People may work to keep the grounds clean.
  • Factory: Many prisons operate industrial factories under the UNICOR brand, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. UNICOR factories manufacture mattresses, beds, furniture, military clothing, and other products that other government agencies want to purchase. People who work in UNICOR may earn a higher wage than people who work in other prison jobs.
  • Commissary: A few people will be assigned to work in the commissary. Those positions require people to maintain the store and perform stocking services.
  • Education: People who are assigned to work as tutors will teach others who prepare for a high school equivalency exam.
  • Clerical: Most all departments that do not involve sensitive information will employ people as clerks. Those who have typing and clerical skills may appreciate the solitude of such jobs.

People surrendering to prison should understand that two factors have a significant influence on prison adjustments:

  • Bunk assignment, and
  • Job assignment.

Initially, a person’s influence over those decisions may seem minimal. After surrendering to the camp, an officer will assign the person a bunk in accordance with what is available. Over the weeks to come, people will be released, opening new bunk assignments. In time, a person should be able to maneuver his way into a bunk assignment that is more appropriate for his peace of mind.

With regard to job assignments, a person may succeed in maneuvering his way into the right job from the start. Since at least a few weeks will pass before the A&O procedure begins, the person will have some time to make inquiries about the different job options in the institution. They will differ in various prisons, but people will talk.

Within a few days of surrendering, a person who asks the right questions will find out everything he needs to know about the different jobs available. Since staff will not assign a person to a job detail until after he completes A&O, each person will have time to perform his due diligence and learn which job would work best for him.

Once he locates the right job he can coordinate steps to secure the position. It’s not always possible to secure the best job at first, but a person should try. A person who doesn’t find his own job will see that a counselor will assign him to a job that might not be a good fit. Once a counselor assigns a job, the counselor may decline to make a job change for between four and six months.

The pay scale will not be an issue. Most jobs in federal prison begin with an average pay of $15 per month or less. In time, earnings on a limited number of jobs will reach a maximum of about $150 per month. Obtaining answers to the following questions concerning jobs will be more important than pay scale:

  • What hours does the job require?
  • What are the requirements of the job?
  • Describe the supervisor on the job.
  • Tell me about the people with whom I’d have to interact on the job.
  • Does the job offer any opportunities to work on my own projects of interest?
  • Does the job present any vulnerability for disciplinary infractions?
  • Do I have to wear steel-toe boots on the job?
  • How busy will the job keep me?
  • What kind of dirty work does the job require?
  • What would you say are the worst parts of the job?
  • Will the supervisor object if I read or write when I’ve completed my assigned duties on the job?

Different jobs will appeal to different people. Job preferences may also change as a person grows through the journey of confinement. In the beginning, many people prefer jobs that will keep them busy. The activity may take the individual’s mind off the pains of confinement.

On the other hand, people who have set clear goals and pathways to achieve those goals may want to lobby for a job that offers as much free time as possible. Others will search for a job that offers peace and a semblance of solitude, in an office, perhaps.

Once the individual finds the job that suits him, he may ask for an introduction to the supervisor. If the supervisor signs the person’s “cop-out” requesting employment, the person can hand the signed cop-out to the counselor before the end of A&O. If the new person follows that process, he stands a good chance of securing the job he wants. We encourage people to read through all of our content at Prison Professors to learn more about how to prepare for a successful journey through prison.

Federal Prison Commissary:

Federal prisons make it possible for people to purchase food, clothing, hygiene, and recreation supplies. A person must minimize expectations of what he will find in the commissary, as the selection is very, very small. A simple search through Google of “Federal Prison Commissary” will yield many current examples, or people may click on the following link to see the types of products available in a typical commissary.

People will have access to shop in the commissary, ordinarily, one time each week. Administrators authorize people to spend a predetermined amount in accordance with the most recent Program Statement concerning commissary.

Although that amount is subject to change, the spending limit is currently less than $350 per month. Expenditures for telephone usage, email, stamps, and some medical products are excluded from that limitation, and administrators ordinarily boost the spending limit during the month of December. The spending limit will reset at zero on a given date each month; balances will not roll over from one month to the next.

A person with financial resources should expect to spend several hundred dollars to ease his first months in the prison. Those expenditures are not necessary, but they will help ease frustrations. As an example, we asked people to use the commissary list that we link to above as a guide. They filled out what they would purchase upon their entry into an institution.

Photo ticket133
Copy Card6.516.5
Ironman Watch35.75135.75
Book light12.95112.95
Shower Shoes6.516.5
Turkey Breast3.8527.6
Brown rice1.251012.5
Tasters Choice14.24.2
Saltine Cracker1.8511.85
Tooth bush.91.9
Dental floss1.611.6
Mach 3 Razor12.35112.35
Mach 3 Blades18.5118.5
Shave Cream3.913.9
Jergens lotion5.2515.25
T shirt10.95221.9
Sweat Shirt14.2228.4
Sweat Pants14.2228.4
Gain detergent5.8515.85
Plastic bowl5.515.5

Since the total amounts to $416.50, a person would have to break those purchases up over two separate months, because the spending limit would not allow him to purchase all of the items during one month. Also, notice that the list does not include expenditures for shoes; a person would have to order shoes through the recreation department or the counselor. Those costs may add an additional $200 to the list. Accordingly, with telephone and email expenses, people should budget about $800 to settle into a journey through federal prison. The commissary list shows how an individual easily could require another $500 per month to live “well” in prison. Of course, a person could survive in prison without spending any money at all.

Unit Team:

Within the first month of confinement, the person will meet with his unit team. The Unit Team consists of the following staff members:

  • Unit Manager: The person in this position is a department head. Unit Managers report to the Associate Warden of Programs. A Unit Manager is responsible for overseeing the programs of all people confined to the housing unit. But Unit Managers will defer to subordinates, who have more direct interactions with each person.
  • Case Manager: The Case Manager is responsible for keeping track of matters that concern:
    • Custody and classification,
    • Release date,
    • Release to a halfway house,
    • Transfers,
    • Progress Reports.
    • Court matters,
    • Detainers,
    • Probation
    • Outside agencies,
    • Unit Disciplinary Committee.
  • Counselor: The Counselor will oversee the following:
    • Job assignments and job changes,
    • Visiting lists,
    • Bunk changes after initial assignment by Officer in Charge,
    • Unit Disciplinary Committee.

Once a person arrives in an institution, the Unit Team members will meet with the person for the Initial Classification. Prior to that initial classification meeting, the case manager will have reviewed the person’s PSI and the Judgment order. Based on those documents, the Case Manager will launch an automated plan to monitor the person through the progress of his sentence. She will set dates for interim team meetings, depending on the length of time an individual has to serve. If a person is scheduled for release within a year, he will meet with the Unit Team every three months. If a person’s release date is within two years, he will meet with the Unit Team every six months. If a person’s release date is beyond two years, he will meet with the team at least once each year for a custody review.

The Counselor will review the person’s new job assignment. He also will advise the person on whether he has received any visiting forms from friends or family members who are petitioning for visiting approval.

If the person has an outstanding financial obligation, the Counselor will present the person with a Financial Responsibility Plan. The Counselor will tally the amount of deposits the person has received in his commissary account and determine an appropriate payment plan. For people who lack financial resources, the payment plan will amount to $25 per quarter, which will nearly consume all earnings from the person’s job for most people. If family and friends deposit substantial amounts of financial resources into the person’s commissary account, the Unit Team may require the person to forfeit 50 cents of every dollar received.

In an effort to eliminate those burdensome payments during the time of incarceration, a person may request his sentencing judge to fix his monthly payments during the time of incarceration.

In addition to sentencing people to prison, and imposing financial sanctions like fines or restitution, some judges impose the Cost of Incarceration Fee (COIF). People who must pay the Cost of Incarceration Fee will have to comply with Program Statement 5380.06. That Program Statement requires that people pay the fee to cover the average cost of incarceration; that fee can exceed $30,000 per year. The Unit Team will require the person to keep sufficient funds in his account to pay such costs, in equal installments, over the course of a year.

Theoretically, the Financial Responsibility Program (FRP) is voluntary, meaning that people can choose not to participate. Yet people who refuse to “volunteer” for the program endure harsher consequences inside. People who are in “FRP Refuse” status may expect the Unit Team to respond by:

  • Changing the person’s bunk assignment to a less desirable location in the housing unit.
  • Limit the person’s commissary privileges.
  • Change the person’s job assignment.
  • Restrict visiting, telephone, or email access.

The Unit Team will respond to any questions the person may have, but Team meetings are very impersonal. From the person’s perspective, they may not offer much of value other than providing assurance of the scheduled release date. The Case Manager will tell the person about the conditions for his release, and explain that she will begin considering appropriate halfway house time as the person advances to within two years of his scheduled release date. The Case Manager will offer some basic advice, such as:

  • Your unit team recommends that you save at least $10 per month to prepare for your release.
  • Your Unit Team recommends that you participate in the following programs: Anger Management and Family Planning.
  • Your Unit Team recommends that you keep your living quarters clean and refrain from activities that will lead to disciplinary infractions.
  • Your Unit Team recommends that you stay current with your Financial Responsibility Plan.

Residential Drug Awareness Program (RDAP):

People who position themselves well for RDAP will want to know when they can enroll in the program. For most people, statements made during the Presentence Investigation will be the deciding factor on whether the person qualifies for RDAP. Once in prison, the person will meet with a representative from the Psychology Department for an initial screening.

That meeting will not take place until the person is within a specific number of months to release. In a minimum-security camp, interview meetings concerning RDAP will take place when the person is about 33 months before the scheduled release date. In a low-security prison, those interview meetings will take place at about 46 months before the scheduled release date.

In high-security prisons, the RDAP interview meetings will take place when the person advances to within 60 months of release. People enter the RDAP program in accordance with the scheduled release dates. The highly sought-after program requires administrators to give priority enrollment to people with the nearest release dates. While waiting for RDAP, staff members may require the person to participate in less formal drug-awareness and counseling programs.

For more extensive articles on the RDAP program, you may want to visit the following links:


Depending on sentence length, program participation, or other factors, people who begin serving their sentences in one prison may transfer to other prisons before the expiration of their sentence. When people choose to request a transfer, the reason ordinarily stems from a desire to move closer to a prison that is closer to home. Other reasons may include a person’s desire to transfer to a prison where a specific educational or vocational training opportunity is available. Staff members will initiate transfers of people for a variety of reasons that will include:

  • Transferring a person who wants to participate in an RDAP program that is not available in the current institution.
  • Transferring a person who has received a disciplinary infraction.
  • Transferring a person who cannot serve time on the same compound as a codefendant or other individual where a “separate” order exists.
  • Transferring a person who has received a change in custody or security scoring.
  • Transferring a person who requires medical care that is not available in the local institution.
  • Transferring a person to populate a new prison.

When staff members initiate transfers, they may occur without any prior notification. When a person wants to initiate a transfer request, the person must wait for a regularly scheduled Unit Team Meeting. The person will submit the written request on a cop-out form to the Case Manager. In most minimum-security camps, staff members will authorize people to transfer from one camp to another camp via a furlough transfer.


  • When contemplating a prison job, what would be the ideal characteristics for you?
  • In what ways could your bunk mate’s decisions influence your adjustment inside?
  • How would you expect your unit Counselor to influence your adjustment through prison?
  • What questions would you anticipate asking during the A&O session?
  • What goals do you expect to achieve during your first month of incarceration?

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