English: Concertina razor wire at a prison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've had the opportunity to work with a number of people who are preparing for a few years in federal prison. To provide some insights into the experience, I provide the following (redacted) letter I received from an inmate who recently reported to prison to begin a 6+ year sentence. I think it gives a candid view of how the first few days of federal prison camp feel.
"I know some of this is a little repetitive for some of you, and it's driving me crazy that I can't copy and paste on this email system (Corrlinks, the inmate email system) and have to retype everything over again.
My brother dropped me off at XXXXX on Tuesday and and a van came to the outskirts of the prison campus to pick me up and drove about 10 minutes inside the to get me to the prison. There were no walls or fences anywhere except at the outskirts. The only fence I see here is the one that divides the athletic fields (softball, paddle ball, volleyball, tennis, soccer, basketball courts) from the golf course. The golf course used to be open to inmates, but it is now just for the military. The volleyball court used to be a smimming pool, but it's now filled in with sand. In the evening there are softball games and people in the stands and sitting on the grass. The players wear uniforms and you really wouldn't be able to tell that you are at a prison.
My first day was much harder than I expected. I felt all alone and had very little clothing. I didn't know anyone and was afraid it was going to be similar to County jail. I met a few people that night and started feeling a little better. I felt much better by the second day as met a few guys in my dorm and I bought clothes. Everyone wants to talk to me. I think it's because I'm the new guy. I'm told to be a little wary of some of them. Some never stop talking and keep wanting to introduce me to other people like I'm a new puppy. Some guys are genuine and some have ulterior motives. Practically everyone warns me of certain people that I have have to stay away from (just because they are little nuts, not because they are dangerous). The people that are nuts tell me to stay away from the sane people. I guess I will learn in time. I'm told to "just say no" when someone wants to monopolize my time by talking my ear off.
Today is Friday and it's my fourth day and I have most of the counts down. Since I don't have a job yet (I'll get one in a few weeks), I have to report in just about every 2 hours. It's 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 MXXXX. He's a good guy and has been to a number of prisons. I think he got 10 years for selling drugs. It was something like $5,000 worth, but I guess the drugs were "weighty". When you sell drugs, it's all about the weight. He has been here a number of years and it seems like he is well respected.
I've been getting myself orgainized 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.
You 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 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, 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 at 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 there, 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 hamberger days left. They serve hamburgers every Wed afternoon. My number is a little to high to do that exact calucation and this point, but it's a bit over 300 and I have 1 down and lot to go. 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. They ordered that. I guess they want to make sure I look nice when I see you.
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 in there. 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 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 your feet touch the floor and not soaking your clothes. I'm told that I will get the hang of it soon. It's not like a locker room where you can get undressed by your bunk and just walk in with a towel around you. You can't do that.
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 alottment 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 that I bought that you 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, raquetball, 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 alotment of funding. I might have to wait. Some things don't eat into your commissary money, so I should probably check that. Phone calls (23cents/min), email (5/min), postage don't subtract from commissary money.
There is a libray 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. They have to do that. 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 there 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.
I had to take a break from writing this email and went to do my 10AM check and the door said "come back at 2". I guess they are taking a long lunch.
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 tylonel and drinking instant coffee with sugar and coffeemate that I bought in the commissary. It doesn't work as well as excedrin, but there isn't much I can do. The PA's just tell 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 Pyschologist 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."