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 Prepare Early if You Want Best Results in Prison 

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Michael Santos

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Make Progress in Federal Prison by Preparing

As the previous lesson showed, when an individual surrenders to a minimum-security camp, the 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. When an individual surrenders to the camp in mid-morning, at 9:00 am, guards will lock him in a holding tank for several hours. As depicted in the narrative of the previous lesson, throughout the day other staff members will come by to conduct their intake responsibilities for all new arrivals. Once complete, a guard drives the inmate from the intake area of the main prison to the adjacent camp. The new prisoner 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.

As an aside, at Prison Professor, we’ve been referring to the staff members as guards and we’ve been referring to the individuals who serve time as prisoners. From this point forward in our lessons, we will use the vernacular of the prison. 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.

At Prison Professor, our experts who mastered the system did not see any emphasis on “corrections” within the system. We also know that some clients will consider the term “inmate” as a patronizing term. Nevertheless, in an effort to prepare individuals for the challenges of confinement, we would like them to know and understand the environment in which they’re going to live.

Rather than continuing a fictional narrative of Greg Samsa, through which we taught the last lesson, we will teach from a clinical perspective on this lesson to provide an overview of what a newly arriving inmate 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 inmate to his bunk, the inmate 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 inmate 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 new inmate 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. At Prison Professor, we advise our clients to anticipate that first day. But they should also anticipate a response. Unfortunately, most of the people who proceed through a prison sentence fail to prepare. As a consequence, their time inside becomes a meandering journey. They lack purpose or a clear definition of the intended outcome. The collected wisdom that a new inmate will hear from others in the prison is that 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.

Our experts at Prison Professor have a different perspective. We advise on a more data-driven approach. Statistics show that individuals who proceed through prison without a plan:

  • 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 an individual begins with a clear idea of the best possible outcome, the individual can reverse engineer a plan to succeed. At Prison Professor, our experts work closely with clients to establish that path to success. Those who choose to design their own path may consider working through 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?

An individual 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 individual 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 individual 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 some time getting used to experiencing. A new inmate 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 inmate may have a hard time resting. It’s simply part of the journey. An individual 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. Experienced prisoners 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. New inmates will benefit from an understanding of what to expect from living conditions in prison, especially the bathrooms.

Housing Units and Bathrooms:

At Prison Professor, our experts have experience of serving time in several different minimum-security camps, low-security prisons, medium-security prisons, and high-security prisons. Prisoners in both medium- and high-security prisons serve their time in cells that are equipped with toilets and sinks. Showers are in a common area, available to the men who live in an individual housing unit.

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 inmates; 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. Inmates 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 inmates will continuously be around. It doesn’t matter where an inmate is within the institution, he will always be vulnerable to prying eyes, listening ears, and body searches.

The bathrooms are open also. The inmate 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 inmates should understand. With the total absence of privacy for people in prison, inmates 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:

  • Wait your return before showering.
  • Do not look at other men when showering.
  • If a custom exists for prisoners 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.
  • Clean area after using shower, bathroom, or sink.

Those instructions may seem very basic. Yet many new inmates 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, the inmate should clean the area around his bed. Staff members will be finicky about tidiness in the housing unit. Each inmate 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 inmate should look around his assigned area. If the inmate 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 the inmate walks toward the outside of the unit, he will see a “call-out sheet.” Inmates may think of the call-out sheet as an appointment book. Staff members will schedule inmates to participate in specific activities every day. In the first days and weeks, the inmate 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 inmate must train himself to check the call-out sheet on a daily basis. If a staff member uses the call-out sheet to schedule an inmate for an appointment, the inmate has a responsibility to attend. Inmates 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 an inmate 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. Inmates 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

Inmates 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 inmate’s initial adjustment. Institutions will vary with regard to scheduling new inmates for A&O, depending on population levels. Inmates should expect to attend A&O during the first days or weeks of their arrival. During A&O, all new inmates 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 inmates should keep the following in mind:

  • An inmate should not say anything during the A&O meeting that he would not want spread around the institution.
  • Although a new inmate 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 inmates. Inmates should locate the work assignment that suits them best prior to A&O and do everything possible to secure the job that suits him best.

Some inmates enter prison with a 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. One of our experts from Prison Professor tells the story of a white-collar offender who repeatedly asked staff members during A&O how he could help. Other inmates who participated in the A&O session spread news about the question throughout the inmate population. As a consequence, the inmate 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 inmates who are capable of working. Inmates provide a significant portion of the labor that maintains the institution. A job that will appeal to one inmate may not interest another. Below we provide a listing of some job assignments that inmates will find available in any prison:

  • Food Service: Inmates prepare all the meals. As such a large number of inmates 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 inmate orderlies who bear responsibility for keeping an area clean.
  • Maintenance: Inmates may work as electricians, plumbers, or on jobs that require skilled labor.
  • Landscaping: Inmates 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. Inmates who work in UNICOR may earn a higher wage than inmates who work in other prison jobs.
  • Commissary: A few inmates will be assigned to work in the commissary. Those positions require inmates to maintain the store and perform stocking services.
  • Education: Inmates 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 inmates as clerks. Those who have typing and clerical skills may appreciate the solitude of such jobs.

At Prison Professor, we teach clients to understand that two factors have a significant influence on prison adjustments:

  • Bunk assignment, and
  • Job assignment.

Initially, the inmate’s influence over those decisions may seem minimal. After surrendering to the camp, an officer will assign him a bunk in accordance with what is available. Over the weeks to come, people will be released, opening new bunk assignments. In time, the inmate 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, an inmate may succeed in maneuvering his way into the right job from the start. Since at least a few days will pass before the A&O procedure begins, the inmate will have some time to make inquiries about the different job options in the institution. They will differ in various prisons, but inmates will talk. Within a few days of surrendering, an inmate who asks the right questions will find out everything he needs to know about the different jobs available. Since staff will not assign an inmate to a job detail until after he completes A&O, each inmate 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 an inmate should try. An inmate 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. All inmate jobs 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 inmates 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 inmates. Job preferences may also change asa person growth through the journey of confinement. In the beginning, many inmates prefer jobs that will keep them busy. The activity may take the individual’s mind off the pains of confinement. On the other hand, inmates 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 inmate’s “cop-out” requesting employment, the inmate can hand the signed cop-out to the counselor before the end of A&O. If the new inmate follows that process, he stands a good chance of securing the job he wants. At Prison Professor, our experts have other ideas that new inmates may consider to enhance the prospects of their being hired in the job that will suit their particular needs best.

Federal Prison Commissary:

Federal prisons make it possible for inmates to purchase food, clothing, hygiene, and recreation supplies. An inmate 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 clients may click on the following link to see the types of products available in a typical commissary. Inmates will have access to shop in the commissary, ordinarily, one time each week. Administrators authorize inmates 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 rollover.

An inmate 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 Prison Professor experts 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, an inmate 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; an inmate 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, inmates 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, an individual could survive in prison without spending any money at all.

Unit Team:

Within the first month of confinement, the inmate 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 inmates confined to the housing unit. But Unit Managers will defer to subordinates, who have more direct interactions with each inmate.
  • Case Manager: The Case Manager is responsible for keeping track of inmate 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 the inmate arrives in an institution, the Unit Team members will meet with the inmate for the Initial Classification. Prior to that initial classification meeting, the case manager will have reviewed the inmate’s PSI and the Judgment order. Based on those documents, the Case Manager will launch an automated plan to monitor the inmate 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 an inmate is scheduled for release within a year, he will meet with the Unit Team every three months. If an inmate’s release date is within two years, he will meet with the Unit Team every six months. If an inmate’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 inmate’s new job assignment. He also will advise the inmate on whether he has received any visiting forms from friends or family members who are petitioning for visiting approval.

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

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

In addition to sentencing inmates to prison, and imposing financial sanctions like fines or restitution, some judges impose the Cost of Incarceration Fee (COIF). Inmates who must pay the Cost of Incarceration Fee will have to comply with Program Statement 5380.06. That Program Statement requires that inmates pay the fee to cover the average cost of incarceration; in 2011, that fee amounted to $28,893.40 per year, according to the Federal Register. The Unit Team will require the inmate 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 inmate can choose not to participate. Yet inmates who refuse to “volunteer” for the program endure harsher consequences inside. Inmates who are in “FRP Refuse” status may expect the Unit Team to respond by:

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

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

Inmates who position themselves well for RDAP will want to know when they can enroll in the program. For most inmates, statements made during the Presentence Investigation will be the deciding factor on whether an individual qualifies for RDAP. Once in prison, the inmate will meet with a representative from the Psychology Department for an initial screening. That meeting will not take place until the inmate is within a specific number of months to release. In a minimum-security camp, interview meetings concerning RDAP will take place when the inmate is about 33 months to release. In a low-security prison, those interview meetings will take place at about 46 months. In high-security prisons, the RDAP interview meetings will take place when the inmate advances to within 60 months of release. Inmates enter the RDAP program in accordance with the scheduled release dates. The highly sought-after program requires administrators to give priority enrollment to inmates with the nearest release dates. While waiting for RDAP, staff member may require the inmates to participate in less formal drug-awareness and counseling programs.


Depending on sentence length, program participation, or other factors, inmates who begin serving their sentences in one prison may transfer to other prisons before the expiration of their sentence. When inmates 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 an inmate’s desire to transfer to a prison where a specific educational or vocational training opportunity is available. Staff members will initiate transfers of inmates for a variety of reasons that will include:

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

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