What’s it Like to Live in a Women’s Federal Prison Camp?
By Jennifer Myers, Associate Prison Professor
A judge stunned me when he sentenced me to serve three years in a federal women’s prison camp. I was guilty. But I guess I still believed that I wasn’t going to prison. My journey from indictment to sentencing took two and a half years. The waiting wore me down.
My sentencing to federal prison was only the beginning!
Soon, I’d surrender to a female, federal prison camp. I had no idea what to expect. At the time, I couldn’t find a consultant who specialized in working with women going into prison. I researched, then I hired the best prison consultant I could find. Yet he was a man and he didn’t have any experience with the challenges women face when going to prison.
Still, as soon as I hired the prison consultant, I felt better. I would have preferred to have found a qualified woman, someone who understood the nuances of being a woman in prison. But I found it comforting to talk with someone who understood. He had served time in federal prison. I soaked in all of the information he gave me as we spent hours in person, and on the phone. I made lists, and lists, of questions I had about federal prison camp and what it would be like, as I tried to grab onto some sense of control. With my surrender date only a week ago, my world was quickly going to change.
I soaked in all of the information he gave. We spent hours in person, and we spoke over the phone. He answered my questions about federal prison camp. From him I learned what I could expect. Those conversations gave me a sense of control. I hired him one week before my surrender date. I knew that my world would change quickly once I surrendered to prison.
But, what would my new world look like?
The prison consultant told me to blend in. He suggested that I follow the rules. I should keep to myself and not reveal much about my crime was—even if someone asked. Talking about the crime wasn’t ‘prison etiquette,’ he said. Despite his guidance, I felt thrown into chaos as soon as I stepped onto the range where a counselor assigned me to live.
Federal Prison Camps for Women are Loud!
I couldn’t find peace and quiet. Privacy didn’t exist. Nothing belonged to me. The first night, I didn’t even have a pen or a bottle for drinking water. The women were ALL over the place. They were talking, laughing, running down aisles, going to the showers, doing their hair, sitting in each other’s cubes.
I mean, it was really, really LOUD, and….social!
The atmosphere surprised me. I guess I imagined it would be easy to keep to myself. But, the minute I surrendered to federal prison, it felt like high school all over again. But this was prison.
My moment of quiet came at the end of my first day in prison. At 9:00 p.m., a door suddenly opened. From my top bunk, I saw a guard. At the time, I didn’t know this was ‘count’. Something I’d quickly learn to get used to. The guard walked up and down the aisles. She looked left to right. She counted the 150 women who lived on the floor. She made sure no one escaped. I felt relieved for the silence. The minute the guard shut the door, noise erupted again! The door tore open. Then the guard yelled, “I said….QUIET!!”
I went to sleep that night like I was on an airplane. My bunkie who slept below snored like a chainsaw.
This was prison.
I value the prison consultant I hired. But there were so many things he couldn’t know. He was a man who’d been incarcerated in a man’s federal prison camp. Men sit around and do their thing. They play cards. They work out. Women gossip. Women need relationships.
I don’t know how many women came up to me asking where I was from. They wanted to know what my charge was (“was it money, or drugs?”). They wanted to know how much time did I got. Then, they’d share their story. Whether you’re inside prison, or not, women love to talk. There are benefits to this in prison. Honestly, you will make close friends with some of the women you are locked up with.
Some friendships may last for a lifetime!
Being Social in a Federal Women’s Prison Camp
I met the woman who ended up being my best friend in prison, the second day. We were waiting for our mail to be passed out. We became inseparable. I was known as, “the girl with the blonde hair who hangs out with the girl who always wears a dress” (she was Pentecostal, and wore a prison jumper, since she wasn’t allowed to wear pants). This friendship was one of the best take-a-ways I have from prison. Although we’ve both been released for many years, we’ve stayed friends ever since.
Women inside prison create family units. They adopt prison “moms” and “sisters”. Nurturing is a natural part of being female. This need for nurturing doesn’t stop just because you are incarcerated. prison in prion spend a lot of time engaging in relationships—and there’s ALL kinds. Of course, there will be women you won’t want to spend time with, or like, and yes, there can be violence in federal prison. But, usually, most violence consists of a cat fight that breaks-out over a girlfriend. Usually, if someone gets into a fight in federal prison camp, they’re shipped out. There’s zero tolerance for violence in a federal prison camp.
Still, considering we were from different social classes, living in close quarters, with hardly any privacy, we all got along quite well.
And, yes… you CAN buy make-up and hair color at the prison store!
Some prisons even have a cosmetology school where ladies can get their hair done. In the federal prison camp for women where I served time, in Alderson, West Virginia, each housing unit had a hair room. We had blowdryers, curling irons, and flat irons. Over time, I had a full bag of make-up I purchased from Commissary (the prison store). Although, everything you buy at the prison store can be very expensive, having some extra items could make time more comfortable. Sometimes, there’s nothing like throwing on some eye shadow or lip gloss to make you feel better, whe you’re having a tough day in prison!
All of this surprised me.
Women even found a way to get the prison clothes they wanted. Whether it was a white t-shirt dyed pink, or a perfectly-worn Champion sweatshirt passed down, or even new Dockers, turquoise pants rumored to be given out at Laundry one day—women are determined to look good…even in prison.
Of course, these are just a few aspects about being incarcerated in a women’s federal prison camp. They surprised me. No one told me about what life would be like inside. There are a plethora of other experiences a woman faces in a federal prison camp. For example, women live around male guards. How does a woman cope? How does a woman get a tampon in prison? How does a woman get Motrin for Cramps, see a Gynocologist, get shower shoes that fit, or find help with other medical issues that women can face.
Needless, women find ways to take care in prison. But I can help!
Focus on being productive. Work toward transformation. Don’t waste time.
I help women prepare for success in federal women’s prison camps.