When people found out that I had spent four years in prison, the question they asked me most was – what was prison like?
I’ve talked before about how pop culture influences my knowledge and impressions of prisons. My only exposure to prison life was through TV shows and movies.
As far as I know, no one in my life has served time in jail or prison. So, I’ve never heard anything first-hand about what prisons actually look like. Needless to say, when my sentence came and the bailiffs handcuffed me, I was terrified of what was to come.
What people need to understand is that someone’s prison experience is based on a variety of factors. Everything from the crime you’re convicted of to the security level of the facility to the location of the prison will make a difference.
Answering this question with a one-size-fits-all answer won’t work. However, I will share a little bit about my prison experience, and the stories of others. Hope you got some idea of what prison is really like. But I should point out that it’s really impossible to empathize unless you’re living in captivity.
That being said, let’s start today’s blog question: What does a prison (really) look like?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
- Prison from the perspective of the free world
- Factors Affecting Inmates’ Incarceration Experience
- Prison is noisy and uncomfortable
- Everyone has a strict schedule
- medical is the worst
- Prison food really is as bad as they say
Prison from the perspective of the free world
Most prisons are like small cities, labored by inmates. Most facilities have canteens, clinics, classrooms, gyms and recreation areas, libraries – and even beauty shops.
While this sounds like a good time, let me tell you, it’s not now. I’ve heard it argued that prison inmates “make it” because they have food to eat and a bed to sleep in, they don’t have to work, they can sleep in or watch TV all day, and go to the gym when they feel sick and love it.
But what people don’t understand is that they view these “amenities” and “privileges” through the lens of someone living in the free world. I assure you, a prison library or gym is not at all what you pictured in your head.
That “library” might really be a cart with a few books on it. The “gym” is most likely a small room with a few pieces of old (possibly) broken equipment. If you want to work out, you have to be in your prison khakis and boots. Not easy to earn 15 cents an hour unless you can afford a t-shirt and sweatpants.
Every minute of the day is under control, so you can’t hit the gym when you feel like it. If you don’t wake up at 4am for breakfast, you don’t have lunch until 11am and your last meal of the day is 4pm.
Yes, you must work or attend school full time. There is no sleeping and doing what you want all day long. Everything you do is monitored and controlled and on the prison timetable. You don’t have any say, no choice at all. Life in captivity is no joke, no matter how “nice” it looks on TV.
Factors Affecting Inmates’ Incarceration Experience
Before I start telling what I remember about life in prison, I do want to explain that there are many things that can and will affect a prisoner’s prison experience.
First, there is a big difference between a men’s prison and a women’s prison. They are very different places with different social classes and rules among the prisoners.
Another factor is geographic location. Prisons located in urban areas have a lot of gang violence, which is very different from prisons in rural Missouri. The same goes for security levels. There is a big difference between maximum security and minimum security in terms of freedom of movement, programming, and earned privileges.
Another major factor in the prison experience is the crime for which the prisoner was held. If you are in prison for a violent crime or sexual assault of a child, you are at the bottom of prison society. Often, prisons segregate “cho-mos” from the rest of the prison population for everyone’s safety and security.
Some states even have special prisons for “protective custody” prisoners, who can be anyone from a cho-mo to an ex-cop. Anyone at high risk who is knocked out will be isolated from the general population.
Prison is noisy and uncomfortable
as YouTuber Jessica Kent Explain that no matter where you are being held, prisons are very noisy and uncomfortable. Depending on which prison you’re in, you won’t be able to control the lights. This means that they will automatically turn on in the morning and will not turn off until the end of the evening timer.
If you can’t fall asleep in a bright, noisy environment, you’re in trouble. There is no comfort in prison. No upholstered chairs or couches, and certainly no comfortable beds. Everything you’re sitting or lying on is hard metal or plastic, and it’s very cold.
Prisons also typically have no air conditioning or heating. That means hot and miserable summers and cold and miserable winters.
If the housing is dormitory style, you may find yourself in a room with 50 people trying to live together in a small space. All of these people are hungry, sick, and separated from family and friends. This is practically a recipe for disaster.
I should also mention that depending on the prison you’re in, there will be a lot of fighting and violence. If you get caught in one, you end up in the hole for a long time.
Everyone has a strict schedule
When you’re in prison, you have a strict schedule that starts early in the morning and ends late at night. When I’m in reception and orientation — the first place you go when you’re sent to prison — you’re cut off from the general population. This means you have to eat first, and breakfast is at 4:30am.
When you’re at R&O, you have to get up at 3:30am to have breakfast. Then, you have lunch at 10:30 am and dinner at 3:30 pm. You can’t get any other food, you can’t get a commissary, and every minute is controlled. This was easy for the guards, as all R&O prisoners were kept in a single room warehouse. You cannot leave until you are allowed in the yard.
Once you’re in the gen pop, your day will start at 5:30am in the early hours of the morning. Then, you eat breakfast (when it’s your turn) before you go to work or school. Everyone in the prison works or goes to school full time, seven hours a day.
After school or work, you might get some playtime or go to the library. You can also take evening classes such as NA or AA. During the day, there are five separate count times where you must stop what you are doing and be counted by the guards.
The last count is at 10:00pm, when the sun clears the lights are off and it is time to go to bed. I’m not kidding when I say every minute is under control. Prison inmates have no say in how their day goes.
I should also mention that most of the prisoners’ actions are usually one-liners, without speaking. It’s not like you can go for a walk to school with your friends, laugh and have a good time.Honestly, one of the best representations of prisons I’ve seen lately is the Netflix series squid game.
The bunks in the large warehouse where all the contestants are held are reminiscent of prison dormitories. Everyone wears the same clothes, their movements are controlled in a straight line from one place to another – and their every move is watched by men with guns.
medical is the worst
Prison is scary when you’re healthy. But it’s the absolute worst when you’re sick. It’s bad enough that the level of medical care in prison is so low, but what really struck me was how difficult it was to get poor medical care.
First, if you are not feeling well, you must fill out a form, then wait for your housing unit’s time to make a “sick call.” When your housing unit is called, you have to “drag your ass” across the camp to the medical clinic and line up to see a nurse. That is first come first served.
Then you have to sit for an hour or two in a cold, bright, uncomfortable clinic, waiting to be seen. No matter what you do there, the nurse will give you ibuprofen and send you back to your residence.
Prison inmates have zero access to over-the-counter medication unless their commissary provides it. This is extremely rare. Whether you have a cold or pneumonia, they give you ibuprofen first and then tell you to come back if it gets worse.
You will not be asked to leave work if you are not feeling well. If you are very sick, you may be able to “take time off,” but it won’t be easy.
I should also mention that people use sick calls to visit their girlfriends who live in another housing unit. People who aren’t sick go to the line anyway so they can sit quietly next to their girlfriend in the middle of the clinic for an hour. It’s really bad when you’re legitimately sick.
Prison food really is as bad as they say
The last thing I want to mention about prison life is the food. Prisoners are given three meals a day, usually around 5am, 11am and 4pm, and you are the general population. The main protein dishes, such as chicken pot pie, will be served on the tray. It will also include veggie sides and bean sides (if I don’t see pinto beans or northern soybeans anymore, it’s too soon).
For dessert, there is usually jelly or pudding. But in nice weather, you get something amazing like apple crisp. Drinks available are water, tea or koolaid. In the morning, you can drink milk or coffee.
All food is processed waste in large boxes, cans and bags. While most prisons have gardening programs and land to grow fresh food, contracts with food suppliers are more important.
You get limited portions of food, and trying to be quick and getting caught can get you in trouble. But usually the seconds aren’t worth it because the food is so disgusting.
The only thing that keeps me full is the food I buy from the commissary. I’m lucky to have someone send me money on a regular basis so I can cook my own meals in the microwave. I’ve become such a prison cooking goddess that I should probably write a cookbook. I can make amazing things with some ramen noodles, ritz crackers and a bag of chicken.
Do you think you can survive prison life? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: A Day in the Life of a Prisoner What is it like to get life in prison? What is prison life really like?