Prisonology interviews Michael, a former inmate, on his experience on that first day of prison and gives some advice on how to best handle it.
After arrival at prison and the intake processing, you will be introduced into the general population of inmates. It is a strange feeling to look at this group of strangers and be thinking that they will be a part of your life for the duration of your sentence. Like many experiences you have gone through thus far, it is expected that you will be nervous. In this section we prepare you for what to expect and give you some insights so that you adjust quickly to institutional life.
The most important things to remember about your first few days in prison are the count times. You must be in your cell at the appropriate times (around midnight, 3am, 5am, 4pm and 9pm).
It is not uncommon for other inmates to supply you with temporary items that you will need upon arrival at the Camp or Low. Please remember, BOP Policy prevents an inmate from accepting property from another inmate. However, things like shower shoes, sneakers, soap, deodorant, shampoo and a razor, are all pretty easy to get from someone until you have a chance to go to the commissary.
Keep your prison ID with you at all times and memorize your inmate number before surrender. You can find your number at the BOP website (Inmate locator) a few weeks prior to surrendering to prison.
Fellow inmates will give you a lot of information but put it into context with all that you will read here at Prisonology. Some information from inmates is not as accurate as they will lead you to believe.
Get your information into the TRULINCS system as soon as possible. The sooner your visitation, phone and email contacts are entered, the sooner you can begin communicating with the outside world.
Be slow to introduce yourself. Inmates know who is new at the institution and the ones who want to be friendly will introduce themselves. Remember, this is not a social setting so do not feel compelled to do the “meet and greet” with everyone you see.
Get clothes that fit you. Inmates often get clothes that are too tight as they anticipate losing weight. If you lose weight, you can get a new uniform, so love your body from day one.
New inmates typically are put on a top bunk so take precautions to make sure you do not roll out of bed and onto the floor, 5 feet below.
Walk the track when you can on the first day. Every prison has a walking track and you can always find someone who wants to walk and talk.
If you find someone who you are comfortable with on that first day, ask them to show you around the compound so you know where everything is located.
Read the bulletin board in the Unit (dormitory) every day to see which topics management is communicating to staff and inmates.
You will constantly see inmates not conforming to rules. Other people violating the rules is not an invitation for you to join in. Obey the rules!
G.B. (Inmate) First Day Of Prison
"Today is Friday and it's my fourth day and I have most of the counts down they are at 7:30AM, 10,12,2,and 4. I basically go into my dorm (first floor) and they say "got you". It takes 2 seconds. My bunk is on the 2nd floor in the corner. I'm on the top bunk and my bunkmates name is Mitch. He has been here a number of years and it seems like he is well respected.
I've been getting myself organized more and more each day. My mattress was surprisingly thicker and more comfortable than I was expecting. I was able to exchange and get a very thin pillow that I like. The dorm is freezing although it is very hot outside. They also have a huge fan that is blowing almost all the time. It's great because it drowns out all the snoring and talking. There is no need for me to wear earplugs. The toughest thing is getting up and down from the top bunk. My bunk bed is wedged in a corner (sort of like the corner table at a restaurant) where you can see everyone. I have a small ladder and will figure out how to manage it soon. I'm told 300 pound guys do it everyday, so I should be able to figure out an easy way.
I wake up at 5:00AM and the lights come on about 5:30AM although the time varies somewhat each day. Breakfast is served between 5:30 and 6:20. I went yesterday. It's grits a couple of days, cereal a couple of days (only bran flakes). Doesn't seem to be a reason to ever go to breakfast. I bought a jar of peanut butter and Quaker Instant Oatmeal at the commissary, so I will have that. They used to sell bread, but don't do that anymore. I actually got out of bed really late this morning (7:15AM) because I had no where I needed to be until 7:30AM. Most people don't like the food, but so far, I've found it to be pretty good. I think the people at the soup kitchen where I worked would consider this a feast. Most the time they give me much more than I can eat. I don't think I will need to buy much food (other than snacks) at the commissary each month. The last meal is between 4 and 5, so I'll need something to eat later in the evening. I bought granola bars, cashews and almonds. They even sell ice-cream here, but you have to eat it right way or it will melt. I saw Snickers Ice-cream bars on the list and will definitely have that one day. They served hamburgers and french fries for one meal, 1/4 chicken with mashed potatoes, carrots and 4 mini-chocolate donuts for another meal. I'm told people count down the number of days they have left by the number of hamburger days left. They serve hamburgers every Wednesday afternoon. My number is a little too high to do that exact calculation at this point. They do sell calculators in the commissary.
The clothes they give you here are very big. They pretty much don't sell or give you things smaller than "extra large". I kept asking for small sizes and I could tell they were laughing at me after I asked a couple of times. I got issued size 36 pants and triple extra large shirts (I wore 32 pants before I reported). I was able to downgrade to size 34 and extra large shirts. I guess it's prison style to wear everything very big. I will have a special visitor uniform to wear during visits. The prison staff ordered that for me. I guess they want to make sure I look nice when I see visitors.
There is a very large weight lifting area that is outside with a roof over it. I didn't see walls unless they come down manually. The exercise room has an number of high end stairmasters and old type bikes. I saw one recumbent bike in there and I'm not sure if it works. They also have 3 pool tables. I saw a ping pong table somewhere, but I can't remember where. All the grounds are kept very clean. The inmates work at doing it. It sort of reminds me what the grounds look like when your at college right before your parents come and visit. All the flowers look perfect and everything is spotless so they can trick your parents to think it looks like that everyday. However, it really looks like that everyday here.
I think the bathrooms in the dorm look very clean, but I've been warned to wear my shower slippers in there and never let my feet touch the ground. It's a little complicated to get dressed and undressed in the shower without letting my feet touch the floor and not soaking my clothes. I'm told that I will get the hang of it soon. It's not like a locker room where I can get undressed by my bunk and just walk in with a towel around me. That's not allowed.
No one sleeps under their bed covers here. Beds have to made in the morning and made perfectly, so the strategy is to sleep on top of your bed with an extra sheet and blanket so when you get out of bed, you don't have to make it. Just tighten it up a little. Since I'm on the top bunk, it is a hard to make it because I have to pull out the entire bed. I'm just going with the flow and doing what everyone else does. I have a small locker near my bed and am learning how to fold clothes so they fit in the smallest area possible. I only have 4 brown shirts and 3 pairs of pants that I need to wear everyday, so I will have to do laundry frequently. They have a bunch of laundry machines near my bunk. You have to buy the detergent but the machines are free. For some reason people here put laundry detergent in the washer and then add some Ajax to the washer. Doesn't make sense to me. The laundry detergent seems like it should work. I still have a good amount of space in my locker because I had to use most of my initial $320/month commissary allotment on new boots, sneakers, sandals and that ate up a lot of my money. Next month, I will probably buy more shirts, socks, etc. If I'm going to work out, I will need more clothes so I'm not doing laundry every other day.
They have TV rooms here. There are bunch of TV's but I haven't watched any of them yet. I have a Walkman radio that I bought that I can use to listen to the TV's, but I haven't taken it out of the wrapper yet. They also have a theater here. I haven't been inside it yet, but they show movies every night at 5 and 7pm. On weekends they show recent releases. I haven't had a weekend here yet, so I don't know much about what goes on. I've met a few of the Jewish guys here and we have services at 6pm tonight and I will go there. A few people know I play tennis, and I guess they have spread the word a bit. Now I walk around and people that I have never met come up to me and tell me they heard I'm a great tennis player. I try to play it down a bit. I watched a couple of guys play the other day and they definitely seem better than me. They have racquets that you can take out on loaner for the tennis, racquetball, and ping pong courts. Sort of like you are at a country club. Just show your ID and you get it. I haven't done any sports yet, but I will probably play something this weekend. You can also buy a tennis racquet, but I think someone told me it was special order and that would probably eat up most of my commissary allotment of funding. I might have to wait. Some things don't eat into your commissary money, so I should probably check that. Phone calls (23 cents/min), email (5 cents/min), and postage doesn't count against commissary money limit.
There is a library and a law library. They are small. I took out a John Grisham book to carry around with me. The email room has about 30 terminals and the phone room is very similar. There is really no wait to use anything. The only wait I've found is waiting at the commissary. you give them a piece of paper with all your items checked off and they call you when your stuff is ready. It's pretty much like a CVS in there, but you can't do the shopping. A group of inmates work under supervision of a BOP guard behind a glass wall and they fill the shopping list. They then check you out in front of a register and you bring your laundry bag to fill up and go back to your bunk and try to squeeze everything in your locker. They're not too big. I have a lock on mine, and I started locking it, but pretty much everyone just leaves their lock on their locker without locking it. My bunkmate says NO ONE would come into our area to take anything. I guess they would have to deal with him if anything was ever missing.
The medical facilities are pretty bad here. They won't issue me my medication. I hope when they see I need XXXXX and YYYYYY after some time they will issue it to me. For now, I'm mixing Tylenol and drinking instant coffee with sugar and Coffeemate that I bought in the commissary for my headaches. It doesn't work as well as Excedrin, but there isn't much I can do. The Physician Assistants just tells me that I can't get it. I know they can order it, but they just don't want to. The camp doesn't have a Doctor on staff anymore. I guess they are going to hire one soon. I saw the Psychologist who treats all 900 people here. The story I get from the medical people is that everyone thinks they need medication.
Overall, I feel fine and am getting adjusted more and more each day."
J.D. (Inmate) First Day Of Prison
"My first days were overwhelming, but the outpouring of support from the other guys was just great, everyone is very nice, interested in where I was from and how long I had [sentence]. I am doing 18 months and after good time and halfway house I'll probably be out of here in 13.5 months according to the calculations, so I am considered by most of these guys to be "on vacation" and that once I got a job and a routine, I would be packing for the halfway house.
My first days here I received several pairs of sweatpants, shirts and even a pair of sneakers - after a few days, my ankle is thanking me. The showers are very similar to those of a health club, all enclosed, same for the toilets, they are kept clean and cleaned by inmates each morning. The laundry room is adequate and I have had no issues with not being able to get mine done. There are 3 TV rooms, 1 has a pool table in it. I haven't really gone to watch TV, because the inside part of the room is technically reserved for the people who have been there a while and you do need a radio to listen to the TV. I did make my first commissary order, but I didn't by a radio, over time I will and of course during football season. The library has 6 computers for email and electronic law library, plus 4 TV's's to watch DVD's which are provided by the library which are not bad movies as well as VHS tapes (haven't seen one of those in a while).
I have not ventured into the educational opportunities, but have heard that there are not many to choose from. GED is of course offered, and they have several bible classes. Other than that ,I don't think any other educational classes are offered right now. I have several backgrounds, I have been a restaurant trainer for many years, I also have radio and aviation backgrounds. I asked the counselor if it was possible for me to teach a restaurant management and restaurant basics class and I am pursuing this with the head of the education department. I wanted to do this because it gives me a job outside of the rumored landscaping job most get if they can't find a job of their own. In addition, most guys going to halfway houses to find jobs would have an easier time with some restaurant knowledge since this field is always looking for people as their turnover is outrageous and is often 'felon friendly', so we'll see if this goes over.
Sleeping is getting better, I unfortunately am near one of the only light to stay on after 'lights out', so I have learned to use my scarf as an eye shade, so it's getting better. My routine is depending on breakfast, I'll get up, get ready, and hope breakfast if it something substantial, not just grits. After that I hit the track (weather permitting) or the treadmill, check emails, lunch is served everyday at 10:30/10:45, dinner at 4:00, then the track or treadmill again, shower, movie at 7, emails, 10 o clock count, call home then read until I start falling asleep. That's my day so far, which I'm sure will change once a job is assigned. I'll keep you posted. Thank you for allowing me to share this experience, more to come."
L.S. (Inmate) First Day Of Prison
"After going through checking in at the medium security prison, a corrections officer drove me for 5 minutes in a golf cart to the camp. I'm nervous; don't know what to expect. I glance about. Can't imagine spending an hour in this place, let alone years. Crowds of inmates dressed in brown stand about watching. Seen from the windows of the van they appear sinister, threatening. We're ordered to climb out. Eyes follow us; cat-calls ring out: Fish! Here come the fish! (Prison slang for new inmates.) We're led in a line to a squat building. We enter into a long, low room filled floor to ceiling with narrow little bunk beds. And men. And lockers.
Our first minutes at the camp are filled with bustle and commotion, yelling and questions and fist bumps. I only remember snippets.
Being led to a bunk. "This is yours," the guard says, pointing up at a tiny steel cot perched high above the floor atop another cot. "How will I sleep on that?" I wonder. What if I fall off?
"This is my bunk," he says, pointing to the lower steel slab. "You're my bunkie."
He seems nice enough. He holds out his fist. "What's he doing?" I wonder. Moves it toward me. I'm a little slow; finally I get it: fist bump, the universal prison handshake. I raise my fist in reply.
My bunkie ponies up some stuff for me: holey sweatpants 4 sizes too big, some shorts that could fit a cow. But I'm not complaining. I appreciate the gesture: he's trying to welcome me.
Someone hands me some more stuff - I don't see who: toilet paper, a thin brown blanket, a towel. I'm at a loss what to do next, so I decide to make my bed. Needless to say, I struggle. The bunk is about 6 feet in the air and only a few feet wide. Every time I try to slip on the sheet, the paper-thin mattress slides off and falls. I realize that there's no pillow.
My bunkie laughs, takes charge. He shows me how to knot the sheet and tuck in the thin blankets.
I climb unsteadily to my bunk. Stare about. The place is hustle and bustle; cramped; bunks stacked floor to ceiling, no open space but a narrow path through the center. It reminds me of an overpacked airport after a storm. I can't imagine a day in this place, let alone a month, or a year, or two. My sentence stretches out in front of me like all eternity. I want to walk away, leave, escape, get out. I feel isolated, cut off from the world. I don't yet understand the culture, the words, the rules, the rhythm of my new world. It's like moving to a new country.
The hard part is that, although there are a ton of rules, nothing is written down. Inmates pelt me with hours and rules and times. I wonder how I'll remember them all. I begin to write things down: time for lunch, where I can walk, where not, what to wear and when. How to wear your ID (inside your shirt so that it's hidden). Some of these rules I learn by breaking them: my fellow inmates are great traffic cops, it's better to be stopped by them than by the guards.
Slowly, I'm beginning to meet people. I'm a bit standoffish by nature and in this prison-house atmosphere I'm even more cautious. it's hard to tell who is nice and who is trying to scam me. What is clear is that some people here are weird (myself included?). There's Bob, who I've mentioned before, who appears to have stumbled blindly through life until he eventually stumbled right through the prison doors. He's here for failing to file taxes, but the way he acts, I wouldn't be too surprised if he'd never heard of the concept of paying taxes.
Then there's Bill, a man convinced of the existence of the Socialist Republic of America. In his view, that's most definitely not a good thing, given that Grand Dictator Obama is at its head, preparing to send us off to prison camps and deprive us of our freedoms.
The purpose of this post is not to trash my fellow prisoners, merely to highlight the diversity amongst us.
Second, people are surprisingly helpful in a guileless way (not merely in order to gouge me for something later). My bunkmate, can't speak all that much English but goes out of his way to make me feel welcome, plying me with spicy Cheetos (those things are hot!), ice cream and cake. Other gifts over the first days include a pair of tennis shoes, a pillow, shower shoes, and a pen and paper. These initial acts of kindness reaffirm my basic belief that most people, including felons, are good at heart.
The count is an annoying part of prison life. For the uninitiated, ‘Count’ is what it sounds like: the guards count us to make sure no "heads" have wandered off. Twice per day and three times at night the guards walk through the barracks and count all the prisoners. I'm sure it's not the most scintillating task for the guards, but for the prisoners it's doubly annoying. We have to be on time (if not early) even though it rarely, if ever, starts on time. We also have to stand by our lockers for the duration.
What this means in practice is that I can't get up before 5 a.m. (the time of the morning count) or go to sleep before 10 p.m. (the time of the evening count), both of which I'd like to do. It's a reminder that our schedules are, for the most part, chosen for us, not the other way around. The other annoyance is that the guards aren't particularly punctual. While we could get in humongous trouble if we aren't in our stop at the appointed time, the reverse obviously does not hold true.
Yesterday I had a scary experience. I woke up early, as I always do, and glanced at the clock: 5:15. I climbed down from my bunk and wandered with my towel to the bathroom. I was just starting to get ready when I looked up to see a guard glaring down at me. Turns out, the count was late and I jumped the gun. He ordered me gruffly back to my bed but did not write me up."