05. Living Conditions
"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear."
- Mark Twain
We all have a vision of what prison life entails. However, those are usually based on TV prison shows or movies, neither of which reflect federal prison life. Federal prisons are safe, they are clean, the well run by trained staff and they are concerned about inmate care. You should not expect a warm welcome and red-carpet service, however, the BOP’s goal is to return you to society upon completion of your prison term.
For those who have never been incarcerated, the prospect of spending months or years in prison may seem daunting. However, people adjust quickly to prison life, they may not like it, but they do learn to adjust.
Prison life is about living in a confined space with limited resources and restrictions on outside communications. The pace of life slows down dramatically as compared to that of living in your community. It takes time to adjust to not having a cell phone, jumping in a car to run errands, picking up the phone to get things done, or most importantly, sitting down with your family at the end of the day. What prison life is about is structure and routine.
To keep order in prison, the BOP operates prisons with many rules and regulations. Exceptions to these rules are few and, at times, seem to defy logic when followed. There are rules and instructions that mandate what you are to do and where you have to be every minute of the day. There are set times to count inmates, to eat, to get items from the Commissary, to go to sleep, to wake up and to exercise. This section gives you an idea of what that life looks like. It is not pleasant, but it is manageable.
Life in federal prison at minimum camps and low security prisons is a relatively safe environment as it relates to chances of assault. These lower security facilities house inmates that typically have committed non-violent crimes (mostly drug related) and have sentences with 10 years or fewer remaining. Some inmates may have been in prison for many years before being moved to these lower level security prisons, but their behavior has justified their ability to be there.
Most prison compounds have differing degrees of security facilities. Prison camps are often referred to as “satellites” to the higher security prisons that are located nearby. The facilities are completely separate and there is never any interaction between the inmate populations. Other facilities are stand alone or contained within the boundaries of a U.S. military base. Examples of these are Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, AL which has a camp and Ft. Dix in New Jersey which has both a low and a camp.
Inmates are allowed to move about within the confines of the compound, going to work, dining hall, recreation, religious services, or to their cell. Some inmates even leave the compound to work in the community. There is minimal amount of prison supervision, particularly at camps, and the daily routine of prison life keeps the prison in order.
You will meet different people, from all types of backgrounds who are imprisoned for a variety of charges. With that said, prison life is very much segregated based on race, though racial tension is pretty much non-existent. While inmates all interact with one another, race plays a significant role in the social setting of activities, meals and faith. This should not imply in any way that sitting and interacting with inmates of different races or religions is to be discouraged nor that it indicates an environment of intimidation. It is just an obvious fact of prison life. Walk into any prison dining hall and you will see whites in one section, hispanics in another, asians in another and African Americans in another.
The greatest challenge for someone going into prison is overcoming the boredom and the separation from the family. Prison is very much a self-paced program where you can do as little as you want or you can achieve as much as you want. Many people come into prison unhealthy and out of shape and leave in the best shape of their life. Others learn languages, learn to play an instrument or reflect on classic literature. It is up to each individual to turn this time into something productive, or to simply pass the time and go home.
Once you get into a routine of work, get to know the people, understand the rules and get involved in some activities, prison life can move at a pace comparable to that of life in the free world. It is not the best life, but it is a life. You will learn to focus again, laugh, interact and begin to plan what life will look like in the years to come. Prison is not an end, but the beginning of the ending an unfortunate part of life.