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 What Should I Know Before Being Admitted to Prison? 

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Michael Santos

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Michael and I got to prison in different ways. Authorities charged Michael with violating laws related to drug trafficking. Those charges carried the possibility of multiple decades in prison. As he wrote in Earning Freedom, authorities confined him from the day that they arrested him. He started in detention centers, and then U.S. Marshals transported him to prison. My charges, on the other hand, related to violating securities laws. As a result of those charges being “white collar” in nature, I surrendered to prison voluntarily—and never saw a pair of handcuffs until the day that I began serving my sentence.

Not all people convicted of white collar offenses get surrender to prison voluntarily. But as far as our team can tell, all people get to prison in one of two ways.

Those classified with minimum-security may be able to report individually—known as self-surrendering. As described in earlier sections, it’s an advantage for several reasons. As an immediate benefit, people that surrender voluntarily don’t get thrown into the crowded and dehumanizing mix of the prison transit system. Another benefit with self-surrendering is that it confirms a federal judge did not see the person as a threat. Prison officials give consideration to the judge’s discretion. When assessing, or classifying prisoners that self-surrender, BOP officials give credit that results in a lower score on the custody and classification system.

Thoughts on Self-Surrendering:

Unless a person has a valid reason to postpone the surrender date, it may be best to start serving the sentence as quickly as possible. Intuitively, many people want to postpone their surrender date.

In our accompanying course, available at, we offer many examples of successful journeys through prison. Members of our team have real depth and breadth of experience. I’ve worked with more than 1,000 people that have self-surrendered. As an attorney, our partner Shon has worked on sentencing memorandums for more people than he can count. And Michael has written about and interviewed more than 1,000 people that have gone into the prison system.

Our personal experience convinces us that unless there is a valid reason, it’s best to surrender to get started in prison at the soonest possible time.

From the time a person becomes a target of a criminal investigation, it feels as if the person is serving time. The criminal charge interrupts an ability to earn a living. It disrupts the family and social life. It’s as if the person is serving time, but the time is not counted toward satisfying the sentence.

Our team has worked with people that repeatedly request the judge to postpone the surrender date. Sometimes there are valid reasons to postpone a surrender date. For example, a person may have family or business complications to resolve. Judges have discretion to suspend the surrender date. For some people with whom we’ve worked, judges postponed a surrender date by several years. Through our courses and consulting practice, we teach from those stories.

On the other hand, we’ve worked with many people that postpone their surrender to prison simply because they want to procrastinate. Those people serve time without the time counting toward the sentence. They can’t get their life together. Once they do get to prison, they realize that their fear of the unknown was the worst part. They adjust. On the other side of the journey, when they’re counting the days to be released, they always wish that they had surrendered earlier. Some realize that they wasted time by postponing their surrender.

Every case is personal and individual. In some cases, it’s best to rip the band aid off and start the process of healing with an early surrender date. For people without financial resources, we recommend getting to prison as quickly as possible. Those that have complicated businesses to operate may have valid reasons to postpone their surrender.

Getting Designated:

After the judge imposes sentence, a designator for the Bureau of Prisons will assign the individual to report to a particular prison. BOP policy states that:

individuals ordinarily will be placed in prisons with the lowest classification rating for which the prisoner is eligible within 500 miles of his residence.

Those that want to see the locations of all federal prisons may visit

The system is crowded. It may not always be possible for the BOP to designate a person to serve the sentence in an institution within 500 miles of the person’s residence.

  • Some regions have fewer prisons than other regions.
  • Some people may want to participate in programs that are only available in prisons outside of the region.
  • Some people may need specialized medical care that is only available outside of the region.

The First Step Act includes a provision regarding this 500-mile guideline. And people may be able to participate in programs, or advocate for themselves to influence a transfer to a specific prison. But it’s important to remember that judges sentence people “To the custody of the Attorney General,” BOP officials have enormous discretion with regard to where a person serves the sentence.

If a judge authorizes a person to self-surrender, but traveling to the prison is too costly, the person has the the option of accepting free transportation through the prisoner transport system.  If the option is available, our team recommends surrendering voluntarily to prison. Avoid traveling in chains and steel cuffs if given the option.

Bringing Items into the Prison:

If self-surrendering is an option, people may want to know what they can bring with them. With few exceptions, the short answer is nothing other than medical necessities and identification.

Rules in the BOP apply to all facilities. Yet wardens have enormous discretion. Some wardens or staff members may authorize a person to enter the prison with sneakers, athletic apparel, medication, religious articles, wrist watches, radio, or other personal items of limited value. In our experience, however, prisons prefer people to surrender without any personal items. Those that want clarification from the prison where they’re going may want to call for clarification before surrendering. They also may download an inmate handbook from the prison by visiting the website for more clarity.

Although the prison system provides the necessities for an individual to survive, it also offers access to a commissary. People with financial resources may purchase various items to ease the burdens of confinement. As with anywhere else in America, people with financial resources may have an easier adjustment.

Prisoners have a right to keep legal documents in limited amounts. For that reason, it may make sense to write important phone numbers, addresses, and other information on a page and place that page in an envelope marked “Legal Material.” Bring that material to the prison when surrendering. It may also make sense to put the information in a self-addressed envelope and place it in the mail the day before surrendering. This information will prove valuable when settling into the prison and setting up approved lists for phone calls, visits, and emails.

Besides considering money and legal documents, consider any information from a physician that documents medical conditions. If a person is taking prescriptions, it would be wise to consult the formulary on the BOP website. The formulary will show all medications that the BOP authorizes. If the medication is not listed on the BOP formulary, it may be wise to ask a physician for a different prescription that complies with the formulary. It may also be wise to bring a 30-day supply of medication to the prison.

If an individual suffers from a bad back, from weak knees, or from any ailment that prevents the individual from specific work details, from climbing stairs, or from climbing to a top bunk, get a letter from a physician. It’s best to document medical conditions in the PSR. Letters from doctors can also prove helpful. Think about steps to coordinate these letters that may be helpful prior to surrendering to prison.

Prisons usually allow people to keep their eyeglasses with them when they report. Once inside the system, however, it may not be so easy to replace the eyeglasses. Those who wear eyeglasses ought to check the prison policy before they report. Ideally, they should bring two pair of durable eyeglasses with them. A spare set of eyeglasses will help a person if the primary set loses a screw or breaks.

Create a Contact Plan:

Whether a person surrenders to prison voluntarily, or arrives via a law enforcement transport system, the first step will be to go through the admissions process. That process may take several hours. It’s a good idea to let a family member, friend, or attorney know that they should expect a call within 24 hours of surrendering. Even if a person doesn’t get immediate access to a telephone, he should be able to ask another person in prison to make a call to someone that can relay a message. The message should be basic: “I’m fine and I will call within a few days, or as soon as I can access the phone.”

If the contact person does not receive the message, it may be because authorities locked the individual in the SHU upon arrival. On occasion, that happens because the person arrives at the prison before appropriate paperwork arrives. If no one checks on the paperwork—including the PSR, Statement of Reasons, and Judgment order—the person may languish in the SHU for several weeks.

People should have an advocacy plan in place in the event that contact is not made with the support group within a day or two. Their loved ones or attorneys would be in a better position to make inquiries with the BOP to resolve the matter. A person in prison may not have access to a telephone if he is in the SHU.

Being Processed Inside:

The first stop for people being admitted to prison is the Receiving and Discharge (R&D) Department. Moving through R&D is like a booking procedure. If the person has been arrested before, he will find the process familiar. Sometimes a person will be processed through R&D in fewer than two hours. Other times the booking process can take a full day. Everything depends upon staff availability and the number of people being processed at a given time.

If a person surrenders in the morning voluntarily, he may be the only person being processed. In that instance, he could be on the prison compound before lunch. If a person arrives on a bus with 50 other people, he may not get to the compound for eight hours or longer.

Officials will lock the prisoner inside of a holding cell that is consistent with his security score. People that have been classified as minimum-security will be held in separate holding cells from people that are going into adjacent, higher-security prisons.

Once staff members lock people in the appropriate holding cells, they pass out many intake forms. Each person will need to complete the intake forms, and they become a part of the individual’s Central File.

The central file follows the person throughout the term in the BOP. It includes the PSR and the Judgment order provided by the court. Over the duration, staff members add various forms and reports that document progress. The case manager keeps the central file in order. People have a right to review the contents of the central file, and generally may do so after submitting a written request to the case manager.

Intake forms ask the individual to identify whom the BOP should contact in case of death or emergency. They offer insight into a person’s medical history. Other forms provide consent for the person to receive mail and they confirm that the person received a copy of the “Inmate Handbook.”

The handbook details all of the rules, rights, and responsibilities of every person in the prison. By confirming receipt of the handbook, the person immediately becomes responsible for adhering to the rules and regulations. If a person doesn’t follow the rules, authorities will subject him to the code of disciplinary proceedings. For that reason, those that have access to the Internet should review inmate handbooks available for download through the BOP website, or through our courses at

Besides filling out many forms, staff members will take a new mug shot of every incoming prisoner. They will record his fingerprints. They will strip search him. They will provide him with a new set of clothing. In most cases, prisoners have a choice of mailing home the clothing they wore into the institution or donating it to the prison. Prisoners who arrive at a prison wearing their own clothing would be wise not to wear anything they particularly value.

  • In Lessons from Prison, Justin describes intake procedure in detail. Get a free copy of Lessons from Prison by visiting

Before moving a person from R&D to the next station in the admissions journey, a series of staff members will interview each new prisoner. After reviewing the central file, a case manager will ask the prisoner whether there is any reason he feels he would be in danger if he were to mix with the general population. That may be an intimidating question. A response may be institution specific. Obviously, minimum-security camps and low-security prions have very low levels of volatility. Medium- and high-security prisons will be more volatile.

People that fear for their safety do not have many options. If they have a valid reason, they may ask to check into protective custody (PC). PC is an area of the Segregated Housing Unit where inmates are kept locked in their cell for 23 hours each day and isolated from others. The living conditions and privileges are much more spartan than in the general population. Relatively few people in prison choose this option.

Besides case managers, a representative from Health Services will interview each person in the holding cell. They will review the PSR and any medical records to determine whether the person has any special medical needs.

Staff members from psychology and the custody departments may also ask questions. A counselor may also speak with the person before processing him into the system.

Identification (ID) Card:

Once the Receiving and Discharge department processes the person, an officer will give each person his identification card. The ID includes the mug shot and registration number. People in prison are supposed to have the ID card with him any time he leaves the housing unit. If a person loses the card, staff will charge him a fee to replace it. Being without an ID card may result in a disciplinary infraction.

Admissions and Orientation (A&O) Unit:

People that go to minimum-security prisons will ordinarily go directly to the camp. Those going to low-, medium-, or high-security prisons may go to unit reserved for new prisoners. They may remain in that Admissions and Orientation Unit for several days or weeks while they await placement assignment to more permanent housing quarters.

While in the A&O unit, prisoners become acquainted with the prison routine. They usually are not assigned permanent jobs or quarters until after they have completed the A&O program. A&O prisoners may or may not mix with the general population outside of the unit, in the chow hall, in the recreation areas, library, or any common areas besides the individual housing units. It’s a good idea to use time in the A&O unit to gather information about routines and resources available in the prison.

Callout Sheet:

Every federal prison publishes a daily printout, the Callout Sheet. The callout sheet is like a schedule of events. All people in prison have a responsibility to check the callout sheet daily. It lets the person know whether he is required to report to various departments at a given time.

The callout sheet is available in the same place every day, usually by the unit officer’s desk. The callout sheet lists names in alphabetical order with the prisoner’s registration number. It includes the time and location of all appointments. Staff members publish callout sheets Monday through Friday, except holidays, after the daily 4:00 p.m. census count.

If the callout sheet lists an appointment—known as a callout—and the person fails to report, a staff member may write a disciplinary infraction, accusing the person of being out of bounds for missing the callout. During the A&O process, prisoners generally have callouts every day.

Admissions and Orientation Program:

In the federal system, all prisoners must participate in an A&O Program. This involves a series of lectures that take place over a day or two. A specific person, like a counselor, is usually assigned to coordinate the A&O program. He coordinates staff members from various departments that come speak with the people in A&O. People may ask questions during A&O, but we’ve found it best to remain silent and listen. It’s best to get information from other people that are living in the world of confinement and get out of A&O as quickly as possible.

Be cautious about asking too many questions during A&O. Although people may be curious, it’s generally not a best-practice technique to questions in a public forum. Those questions give away personal information to an experienced prisoner. Some prisoners will spread rumors, and information can prove toxic to a person’s reputation in prison. Remember the submarine metaphor. Be silent and aware while going through prison.

Prior to going through the A&O process, inmates will get a handbook which includes all rules, regulations, and information concerning the operation of the prison. People in prison should study the handbook closely. They may find details that can prove helpful during the adjustment process.

Final Word:

After prisoners complete the A&O program, they become a part of the general prison population. Our team likes to quote a study by Stanton Wheeler a criminologist. Dr. Wheeler suggested that prisoners come into the system with values that closely resemble the society they left behind. As prisoners move deeper into their sentences, the prisoners gradually pull away from the values of that society. They become more familiar with prison culture and adapt to the world inside. The men become “prisonized,” so to speak.  They begin using the vernacular that exists in the fences and participating in activities that they otherwise would not consider.

As the prisoner passes beyond the halfway point of his sentence, and starts moving closer to release, the criminologist suggested that prisoners go through another value shift. They move back in line with behavior acceptable in the society he left behind.

Wheeler suggested that prisoners adapt according to this U-shaped curve. Society outside of fences is above the “U” and society inside the fences is below the “U.” Stanton Wheeler published his study in 1961, but I find it just as valid today. All prisoners, theoretically, move through the U.

After the prisoner leaves the A&O Unit and joins the general prison population, he must adapt to this abnormal society. The prisoner will have to make choices from options that do not exist in the world outside of fences. Ramifications follow those choices. Dilemmas present themselves every day.

  • Do I respond to problems in a manner that is appropriate for the society in which I live outside of prison?
  • Do I respond to problems in a manner that is appropriate for the prison society in which I now reside?
  • What are the ramifications of each decision I make?

Although every prisoner can control his own behavior, he cannot control the behavior of the thousands of other people serving time alongside him. In order to survive the sentence with minimal aggravation, and to grow through it, prisoners need a strong mind and a sense of balance.

Our team and the lessons we provide in our courses at offer enormous insight. We highly recommend that people learn from those courses to prepare for best outcomes.

A model inmate (from the vantage point of prison administrators) is one who abides by every prison rule, who holds a full-time job—preferably in the prison factory—and asks for nothing outside the ordinary. Our experience, however, suggests that people in prison should strive for something more.

Rather than offering a “how-to-live-in-prison course,” we teach people how to get best outcomes. People should use time in prison to prepare for successful lives upon release. Members of our team did not only make it through prison successfully, we got out of prison and built successful careers. Anyone can do the same if they learn to make values-based, goal-oriented decisions. We’re confident our courses can help people get best outcomes.

The following chapters offer basics about living in prison and navigating obstacles. We offer vignettes with hopes of both teaching and inspiring people. Prison is different. Learn how to master it with courses we make available at

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