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Few people reading this guide would have ever predicted that they would one day join the ranks of the more than 2.2 million Americans currently serving time in jails and prisons across the country. Incarceration is often assumed to be the deserved fate of only the most evil among us—people like murderers, rapists, and kidnappers. In reality, prison is increasingly the fate of many relatively “normal” people who have either made a severe error in judgment or who have run into the reality of increasingly strict laws and regulations where even relatively minor infractions can result in prison time. Every day accountants, lawyers, housewives, students, and small-time drug dealers are sentenced to time behind bars.
For those people unaccustomed to the workings of the justice system, unfamiliar with the massive bureaucracy that is the Bureau of Prisons, and unaware of the rules that dictate inmate life, the prospect of walking into a federal prison is understandably daunting. Fortunately for them, this guide has been written.
During my time as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in Washington, D.C., I was made amply aware of the failure of the justice system to effectively prepare and educate the inmate-to-be. This does not stem from any particular malice, but rather it simply results from the fact that prison preparation is not viewed as a priority in an overburdened system that processes tens of thousands of investigations and prosecutions each year.
When I was introduced to this guide I was immediately struck by its honesty, accuracy, and attention to detail. I was especially impressed by the fact that the author refrained from sensationalising his description of life in federal prison—a trait that was missing entirely from other publications that I had come across. Quite simply, this guide provides a straightforward, comprehensive, well-written, and honest account of what to expect in federal prison. It is therefore an extremely important tool in helping to educate and inform the individual facing time in federal prison and should be required reading by not only the inmate-to-be, but also by his or her relatives and attorney.
The guide contains a lot of information for the uninitiated to take in all at once. Therefore, my advice to the individual facing federal prison is to read carefully and highlight any passages that he or she finds especially pertinent, particularly those that relate to essential steps for preparation and key rules that govern inmate behaviour. Before surrendering or being taken into custody, leave the guide with friends, relatives, or an attorney who can consult it and convey details back to you once you are incarcerated.
While the obstacles ahead of you may seem insurmountable now, like so much in life, approached with the right mindset, surviving the challenges that time in federal prison presents will help to make you a better and stronger person.
Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
Current Managing Director
Federal Prison Consultants
If you are reading this, chances are you are currently going through a difficult and stressful time. As a former federal inmate, I have some idea as to how you feel. Not long ago I was happily going about my life when I was tipped off that federal special agents from the Department of Education were looking for me and that there was a warrant for my arrest. Within months I was living in a small concrete cube struggling to adjust to my new life as a federal prison inmate.
While I was eventually able to make the adjustment, it was clear that if I had been equipped with the right information, the entire transition could have been far more comfortable. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) did nothing at all to help prepare me for my time behind bars, and my lawyer, like most lawyers, having never proceeded past a prison visiting room, was not much better.
Left to recollections from TV and movies and a lot of disinformation provided by the Internet and poorly written books, my imagination ran wild, and in the weeks and months leading up to my surrender I was a nervous wreck. After a few months in prison, it was clear that many of my worries and anxieties prior to my surrender were unfounded and unnecessary. On the other hand, some issues arose that I had never considered, and it was only after significant hardship, inconvenience, and confusion that I resolved them on my own.
While incarcerated, I began researching and compiling information that would help other people sentenced to federal prison to effectively prepare for and successfully adjust to life behind bars. The result is this guide. Prison is another world, and no matter how difficult this time is now, you are fortunate to have been given the time to research and prepare for your life as a federal inmate. Use this time wisely and take some solace in the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have gone through this before and thousands are facing your same circumstances now. You are by no means alone. Indeed, as of early 2012 the total federal inmate population was 216,651. And this number is only expected to grow, with the BOP recently reporting that it estimates the total inmate population will reach almost 230,000 by the end of the fiscal year 2013.
Prison – Day One
Whether you are self-surrendering or are being delivered by JPATS, your first day in prison will be one you will not soon forget. Everyone reacts differently to pulling up outside the walls or razor-wire fences, knowing that this is their new home.
If you were taken into remanded custody at your sentencing, you will have already spent weeks or months in holding facilities, transfer centers, and county jails. You will have already endured being fed little and being shackled and handcuffed for many hours at a time as your car, bus, van, or plane made its way to your designated prison. Having already seen the workings of the prison system, for you the site of your final destination may be more of a relief than anything else. There are perks that come with a permanent home, even if that home is prison: regular exercise, your own cube or cell, your own bed, a commissary, access to ice machines and microwaves, regular reading material, and the chance to get into a livable routine.
For those who are self-surrendering and seeing the prison for the first time, nervousness, apprehension, regret, and disbelief are all common emotions. There is also a very surreal aspect to traveling to prison on your own recognizance. It is against all basic instincts to present oneself for incarceration. In my case, I flew into Boston alone the night before I was scheduled to surrender and took a taxi to a hotel near the prison. On the day of my surrender, I got up, tried to eat something, and then actually walked about fifteen minutes down the road to my new home. Years later, that slow stroll to prison is still fresh in my mind. If you are dropped off at the prison by friends or relatives, this can obviously be a very emotional time. Say your good-byes, take a deep breath, and proceed to the entrance.
The Intake Process
Although not especially involved, the intake process can take quite some time, mostly spent waiting. If you were taken into custody at sentencing, then you will already know that the justice wing of the government and all of the agencies that comprise it work at their own pace. Your convenience and comfort are of absolutely no concern to them whatsoever. You are a federal prison inmate now, subject to the whims of prison staff and the regulations and procedures of a very large bureaucracy. There is little you can do but be patient. If you are self-surrendering, do not be surprised if you are told to wait for an hour or two before being called in for processing by Receiving and Discharge (R&D). Regardless of how you arrived at the prison, once the intake process begins it may take anywhere from one to four hours. If you are arriving from another institution and the staff is busy when you arrive, you may be placed in the hole for days or weeks until they have time to process you. (See “Welcome to the Hole” later in this chapter.)
You will begin the intake process by being quizzed on your identity and crime to ensure that someone else has not reported in your place. Once your identity is confirmed, you will usually be locked in a holding cell while you wait for an officer to process you. If you are lucky, you might be allowed to skip this step.
You will then be taken to an area to be strip-searched. The search may be conducted in a place where multiple BOP staff members can see you. It was during the strip search, standing naked before a prison guard while other officials walked by glancing at me casually, that the reality of my situation really began to sink in. Rules, regulations, and security always trump inmate comfort and peace of mind. As you stand naked before your intake officer (thankfully, the BOP does not allow males to perform strip searches on females and vice versa), he or she will look up your nose and in your mouth and ears. The officer will tell you to shake your hair out, put your arms to your side, hold your arms out with palms up and down, and lift your feet before bending over and spreading your buttocks. If you are a man, you will be told to lift up your testicles. If you are a woman, you will be told to squat. (For women, the strip search will take place even if you are menstruating.)
In extreme cases where there is strong evidence indicating that an inmate poses a serious security threat and is in possession of contraband, a manual body cavity search may be performed. This procedure involves the probing of bodily orifices using fingers and instruments. There are strict rules regarding manual body cavity searches, and it is extremely unlikely that you will be subject to such a search.
While going through a strip search is degrading, the bright side is that it is over quickly. It may help to keep in mind that millions of others have gone through this same process and millions more will go through it in the months and years to come.
After being strip-searched, you will be given a temporary change of clothes consisting of beige-colored khaki pants and a button-up shirt. If you self-surrendered, the clothes you were wearing will be sent home. Let your family know that they should be expecting this so you do not cause them any undue concern when a box of your belongings shows up on the doorstep.
After changing into your new clothes, you will be fingerprinted, photographed, and issued your new bright-red prison ID in addition to a copy of the Admissions and Orientation Handbook. Keep your ID with you at all times. In addition to having your inmate identification number on it, which you will be asked for constantly, the card is instant proof that you are who you say you are. You will be asked to show it frequently. Also, read the handbook. It is important to know what the official rules are, even if those rules are often skirted or interpreted with Orwellian-like logic.
After receiving your prison ID and your new outfit, you will undergo a brief interview to determine if you are in any immediate danger should you be placed into general population. Those inmates who have violent gang affiliations or who cooperated with the government in return for a reduced sentence may be sent to a separate area, isolated from the other inmates. Because space is limited, do not expect to avoid general population without a very compelling reason. And since most institutions use the hole to separate inmates from general population, don’t even think about offering up any reasons that you should be isolated unless they are genuine and serious and warrant you spending your entire sentence alone in 23-hour-a-day lockdown.
The final stop in the intake process is a nurse or physician’s station, where you will be given a quick interview to confirm the medical history information in your PSI, note if you are currently taking any medications, and determine if you are suicidal. Answering in the affirmative to the suicide question is not an option unless you really do feel like you are about to kill yourself. In such a case, you will immediately be taken to a suicide-watch cell, where you will remain under 24-hour supervision for days or weeks until prison staff are confident that you are not a danger to yourself.
If you are placed in a suicide-watch cell, other inmates, as part of their work assignment, will take turns sitting outside your cell watching you every minute of every day as they maintain a detailed log of your every action. Needless to say, this is not desirable. More alarming is the fact that if the BOP believes you are indeed suicidal, they are legally allowed to forcibly medicate you with powerful anti psychotics and other drugs. The right of the BOP to force inmates who are deemed to “pose a threat to themselves and others” to take medication was upheld as recently as March 2012 by The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California.
Your First Few Weeks on the Inside
Your first few weeks on the inside will likely be the most difficult time of your sentence as you struggle to adjust to a completely new and foreign world and to come to terms with the fact that, for quite some time to come, this will be your new home. Your behavior during this initial stage of your sentence is critical in shaping how the remainder of your time will play out.
The Thirteen Golden Rules of Inmate Etiquette
Your first few weeks—in fact, your entire stay in prison—will be made entirely more tolerable if you adhere to the thirteen golden rules of inmate etiquette. Obeying these rules will help to positively shape your reputation, which will follow you throughout your sentence.
1. Don’t Rat
If you and another inmate have a problem, settle it among yourselves. Do not go to the CO. Do not go to the psychologist or counselor or Unit Manager. If you see something going on that shouldn’t be, keep it to yourself. It’s none of your business. You are an inmate, not a cop.
The only exception to this rule that I can think of is if you genuinely feel that your life is in danger. In this case, the CO will have you moved to the hole. An investigation will follow. If you are lucky, you will be moved to another institution. If you are not, the other inmate will be moved or it will be decided that there is not a sufficient threat. In both of the latter scenarios, you will be placed back in general population where you will forever be labeled a coward and a rat.
Halfway through my stay, two men got into a fight over who would sit where in the TV room, an all-too-common occurrence. Both were sent to the hole. Six weeks later, one of the men returned to the unit. The other man did not. The rumor quickly spread that the man who had returned had gone to the Unit Counselor saying that he feared for his life. This resulted in the other man, who was very well liked in the unit, being shipped to another institution. From then on, the inmate who had returned to the unit was labeled a rat and was completely ostracized. Most people avoided talking to him, even his former “friends.” Nearly every day, he found notes on his cube that read “RAT.” He was verbally abused and was relegated to the far corner of the TV room. He was lucky to avoid any physical violence.
Now, if his life was truly in immediate danger, perhaps going to the Unit Counselor was the only action he could have taken, and his resulting situation was just an unfortunate reality of prison life. It is far more likely that he panicked and made a rash decision. And, regardless, the entire situation could have been avoided altogether if he had not gotten into the fight in the first place, which would have been the outcome had he been content to simply sit a little further away from the TV.
2. Don’t Cut in Line
Prison is stressful, and many inmates are ready to snap. Be respectful, and don’t give them a reason to explode. If there’s a line, get in back. You have plenty of time.
3. Don’t Reach
In the chow hall, when you are in line and when you are sitting down eating, do not reach across another inmate’s tray or person. If you need something, ask for it. Again, it’s a matter of basic respect. Little things can be magnified a hundred times in prison and quickly get out of hand. Be polite.
 See Appendix 3.
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