The Ultimate Prison Survival Guide

If you have time, utilize this prison survival guide to get an idea of what to expect from prison and how to not only survive, but to thrive during your sentence.

If you have been convicted of a crime and are reading these words, chances are that you have been sentenced to spend some time in prison. This can be a scary time for offenders and their family and friends, especially if you are going to prison for the first time.

Even though the United States of America incarcerates the most people out of any country in the world, there are limited research and educational resources for inmates, family, and friends. Each institution or system (be it federal or state) may have their own informational guides.

However, for offenders who are facing the incarceration for the first time, there is a lot to know before entering prison. If you have time, utilize this prison survival guide to get an idea of what to expect from prison and how to not only survive, but to thrive during your sentence.

How to Prepare for Going to Prison

If you have been to prison before, chances are that you know the ropes, or at least what to expect. However, if you are going to federal prison for the first time, there are some things that you can do to prepare.

Involve Family and Friends

  • Family and friends should be as involved as possible from the beginning, as they will be essential to making the prison experience bearable. If maintaining contact with friends and family is on the table for you, go a step further to establish a point of contact (POC) – someone who can help get your affairs in order, manage hiring an attorney, manage your finances, and be there for anything else you might need. If you are able to, memorize their phone number before you go to prison so you can call them once you are in.
  • The same goes for all friends and family you wish you stay in contact. If you are able, compile a list of these peoples’ phone numbers and/or addresses and email addresses. Leave a copy with your POC and bring a copy with you so you can put them on your approved contacts list and stay in touch with them.

Research the Facility

  • Research the facility that you are sentenced to – there is usually at least minimal information online. You can use a state-by-state database search engine to search for facilities. Learn about the facility’s different levels of security and what the implications of each are.

Get Your Finances in Order

  • Try to get your finances in order and prepare financially for supporting yourself in prison. Some inmates are able to work jobs that generate income, while other may run “side hustles” – doing chores and tasks for other inmates – to make money. The alternative is to have money deposited into your commissary account. To survive in prison, a rough estimate of $500 to $750 is needed to purchase items at the commissary store and pay for sending letters/emails and making phone calls. Offenders sentenced to longer imprisonment will want to purchase items at the commissary that can help fill time – a television, an MP3 player, etc.

Address Health Needs

  • Take into consideration your physical health and shape. Try to put in order any necessary medical procedures, prescriptions, eyeglass wear, dental work, or check-ups. Although you may not have time to work out or pursue physical fitness training before being booked into the facility, be aware that maintaining physical fitness while in prison may be difficult but necessary. Since all exercise will mostly be bodyweight, try finding some workout plans ahead of time that you can do without any equipment.

Prepare Mentally

  • Just as importantly, prepare mentally for prison. Know that this time is meant to strip away your freedom and serve as a punishment for a crime you committed. If you go in with the proper expectations and mindset, the realities of the environment will not be as unknown and then perhaps not as overwhelming.

You Still Have Purpose

Lastly, start to think about hobbies, activities, or pursuits that you can engage in while in prison that will give you purpose. There are classes, programs, religious services, jobs, and other opportunities that, depending on your conviction and security level, are available to you. Do not despair while you are in prison, but rather, try to find something that makes getting up every day worth it.

What to Expect in Prison

Your first days in prison may be some of the most important of your sentence. As a new inmate, others will be watching you to see how you fit into the existing culture. As with all new experiences, you will adjust over time.

The best approach to take is to obey orders and keep to yourself. Be extra observant to learn the lay of the land, and being respectful will prevent you from creating enemies too soon.

As you become more familiar with the way your prison works and the people around you, you will become more aware of who you can trust and who is presenting information to you with their own agenda or angle.

First Day in Prison

The Intake Process

When you first arrive at prison, you must undergo an intake – or admission and orientation – process that will most likely take up your whole first day and carry on for several days to weeks afterwards, depending on the type of facility you are at. Do not be surprised if you spend a good chunk of the intake process waiting in a cell or a room between interviews and assessments.

Much like being booked into jail, when you first get to prison, you will be fingerprinted, photographed, and strip-searched.  These searches will be conducted by a guard of the same sex. While they can be invasive, you will eventually get used to them if they happen to you in prison. They will check inside of your mouth, your hair, under your arms, and will ask you to squat and cough.

The intake process is a good time to bring to attention any major medical or psychological concerns you might have. In prison, no one is looking out for you, or your needs. You must be your own advocate and be persistent with trying to address what you need.

You will most likely also be asked to sign an agreement to follow the rules of your facility, as well as a release for staff to monitor your mail and phone conversations.

Be aware that the intake staff know everything that they need to know about your crime and conviction. Even if they fish for more details on your crime, do not volunteer additional information.


During intake, you will undergo several assessments to gauge your medical and psychological condition. These will be conducted by health services, the psychology department, and the team from your unit.

They will be looking for mental health risks such as suicide and self-harm, medical needs that will need immediate attention, as well as educational, religious and criminal background and any other pertinent information for the staff at your particular facility.

What you can bring

Any clothing or items that you come in with will be inspected by staff to determine if you can keep them. In general, the only items that you should bring with you are up to two sets of glasses, prescription medication, and a list of contacts to put on your telephone/mail/visitation list.

You could also try to bring a money order and/or cash to deposit into your commissary account so that you have money to spend.

What you will be given

You will most likely be given an identification card, a set of prison clothing, and a mattress roll with bedding and perhaps some toiletries and a towel. Most likely you will be given all you need for a few days until you can get fitted for other clothing or purchase things from the commissary.

Introduction to Programs

In some prisons – especially federal ones – you may undergo several days to weeks of orientation where you will learn about various services, classes, and programs available to you. These can range from programs for drug addicts to sex offenders, religious programs, group therapy sessions, GED and other educational opportunities, etc. It is highly recommended that you take advantage of these opportunities.

They are excellent ways to pass time. In addition, it is proven that inmates who make a conscious effort to improve themselves and learn while in prison will adjust better to society once released, as well as lower their chances of being reincarcerated.

During the intake process, you may also be assigned to a specific job. Before these assignments take place, try to learn about the various job opportunities that exist so you can make a request at job assignment time (although it is not guaranteed you will land that job.)

Housing, Bathrooms, Laundry

Cell Life

There are different types of housing for inmates, and you will be placed based on your convictions, medical and psychological screenings, and other factors determined by the facility. If you are housed at a low or medium security level facility, you may share a cell with at least one other person.

Cells are outfitted with bunks and in some cases a toilet and/or sink. Again, depending on your security level, you may be permitted to purchase a television or radio to have in your cell.

When you are first taken to your cell, greeting your cellmates is an important first impression to make. Knock and introduce yourself, identifying that you were assigned to that cell. Ask which bunk the existing cellmate(s) would like for you to have, and be patient if they need to clean it off.

Be respectful of the fact that your cellmate(s) have been in prison longer and can offer you advice. However, be firm in who you are and do not present yourself in a way that will get you taken advantage of or walked all over.

While no one wants additional cellmates, it is a generally accepted fact that each cell will get more inmates. Do not feel bad for making the space more crowded. In addition, it is evident that inmates are not able to choose where they live, so do not worry too quickly about who you have been bunked with.

If you do not give them any reason to have issue with you, you should be able to avoid any conflict. If you do desire to move bunks, inmate releases often open up new spaces, and you can initiate a transfer if you desire.

Be sure to keep your bed made and cell tidy. If there are lockers, store your items inside of one.

Showers and Toilets

Shower and toilet facilities will vary based on the security level and facility you are placed in. Some cells contain toilets while others are dormitory style, lined up against a wall. Privacy should not be expected in any case, but rather considered a luxury. There may or may not be curtains or swinging doors for dormitory style toilets.

The same goes for showers. Some facilities may have showers that are curtained off for single use, or there may be several heads in a room. Irregardless, do not expect privacy in prison. Although it may take some getting used to, you will eventually adjust to a communal lifestyle.

Inmates who have been in prison for a while know that showers and bathrooms become more crowded later in the morning. If your facility’s rising hours are 5 a.m., those who want to shower and use the bathroom in peace know to be up by then.

Laundry, clothing, and bedding

Each facility has its own wardrobe of what inmates wear. This may include shirts and khakis or jumpsuits and undergarments. Most likely you will be issued a pair of boots and/or slip-on shoes. Depending on the weather you can also receive a winter coat if necessary.

In addition to clothing, you will receive sheets, towels, a wash rag, and blankets. You may also be able to purchase a variety of clothing and shoes from the commissary store.

Some prisons have washers and dryers for inmates to do their own laundry on the unit. Others, like federal prisons, may have inmates put their wash into laundry bags and take them to be washed at the laundry room (sometimes by staff.) There may be restrictions on how often laundry can be done.



Inmate counts occur several times a day as a security measure. These are conducted to ensure that all inmates are accounted for. There are several different types of counts that are conducted, and each facility determines what is necessary. For all counts, you should follow orders exactly and stand or sit quietly. Sometimes counts run long depending on if someone is missing or other factors, but do not appear to be annoyed or fidget.

Official counts are when inmates are required to return to their bunk or cell and stand to be counted. These usually occur once to three times a day.

Census counts might be conducted once inmates have dispersed to various jobs, classes or programs to ensure that they are in the expected place. If you do not have an activity to be at, you will be required to return to your cell or bunk for this count. These can also be referred to as ‘lockdown counts,’ which means that inmates will be accounted for in all areas of the prison.

A more detailed count such as a bed book count is conducted with a normal count does not match up. You will be asked to state your identification number, and your face will be matched up with your picture.

Counts can also be randomly held during bad weather, fog alerts or other emergencies. In these cases, you may be confined to your cell or unit until the weather clears or the emergency is resolved.

Searches and contraband

Inmates are periodically searched at random or routinely for contraband. These searches are also ‘shakedowns.’

In most cases, searches will be pat-downs. A guard may call you over, in which case you should raise your arms to your sides. If you have something in your pocket, you will be asked to remove it. Less frequently you will be strip searched, which is done in extreme cases. Sometimes after visitation, an inmate will be asked to strip so that a guard can do a visual search for contraband.

Cell searches are also conducted, often while prisoners are eating. These may be in depth where your things are looked through or less invasive and guards are mostly checking for the smell of alcohol and other visual issues.

There are two types of contraband – hard and soft. Hard contraband includes drugs, alcohol, weapons and sometimes pornography. Soft contraband includes food stolen from the food hall, excessive items, and other items that you are not permitted to have based on the facility’s rules.

Being caught with hard contraband will result in receiving an incident report that could result in a transfer to a higher security level, loss of good behavior time, solitary confinement, or months of loss of privileges (mail, visitation, phone.)

If you are caught with soft contraband, depending on the guard, you may be told to throw it away, or they may let you keep it. In some cases, an incident report could be written up if you are caught with soft contraband, which would most likely result in a few weeks to months loss of privileges.

Daily Life

What and where you eat

Food in prison may transport you back to high school days. While it is not anything to write home about, it is meant to sustain you nutritionally.

Breakfast can consist of: cereal (hot or cold), milk, danish, eggs, potatoes, fruit, pancakes
Lunch and dinner can include: hamburgers, hot dogs, lasagna, tacos, burritos, chicken patties, pizza, spaghetti, macaroni, rice and beans, casserole dishes, etc.

Lower security prisons have food/chow halls where you will line up for food and sit to eat. If you are confined to solitary confinement or are in a higher security level, you may have food brought to you on a tray. If you eat in the chow hall, be aware that there may be an unofficial seating arrangement amongst inmates.

Try to get a lay of the land from your cellmate(s) or another inmate. If you happen to sit somewhere where you are unwelcome, merely apologize and move to find another seat.

Although seconds are usually not allowed, food is available for purchase at the commissary store. This is most often prepackaged.

If you are able to land a job working in the kitchen, chances are higher that you will be able to eat more food or create specialized dishes for yourself and other inmate staff in the kitchen.

What you can buy at commissary store

There are a variety of things that can be purchased from the commissary store. On average, it is recommended that you budget around $200 per month to make purchases. Some prisons place a limit on how much can be spent per month at the store – the federal prison system caps it at $360 monthly.

Usually, you have an assigned day and time that you can visit the store. Some institutions require you to fill out a form where you mark what you would like to purchase.

You will either turn the form in ahead of time or bring it with you to the store. Items will be retrieved and handed to you through an opening in a glass wall. Bring your laundry bag to carry the items back to your cell in.

Items available for purchase may include:

  • Packaged meats (tuna, sausage)
  • Packaged snacks (cakes, trail mix, chips)
  • Beverages (soda packs, tea, coffee, drink mixes)
  • Sweatshirts
  • Socks
  • Shoes
  • Pants
  • Shirts
  • Undergarments
  • MP3 players
  • Radios
  • Televisions
  • Headphones
  • Booklight
Hygienic products
  • Soap, shampoo, conditioner
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash
  • Razors, cream
  • Feminine products
  • Lotion
  • Stationary
  • Postage stamp


Institutions vary on the degree to which they accommodate for and respect different religions and religious practices.  Some are more open than others, although freedom religion is recognized in all institutions.

In most cases, there is a chapel and services are held each week for different faiths. Even if you declare a religion during your intake process, you are free to attend any services at chapel. The purpose of declaring a religion would be to participate in religious meals.

Oftentimes the prison kitchen can accommodate certain dietary restrictions for religious purposes, and in some cases, those who need to follow specific prayer times may be able to work around the normally scheduled eating times.

There are chaplains and religious leaders of various religions who may lead chapel services or are allowed to visit prisoners. Some services may also be led by volunteers from outside ministry groups or churches.

You will most likely be able to keep a religious book of your choice in your cell or at your bunk. These can often be obtained at the chapel or from the facilitator of your religious service.

How to Survive Prison

Some people may not realize that even though prisoners are confined from the world, it is not necessarily safe in prison. Think of prison like a small world of its own, with jobs, income, religion, class systems, and in some cases, violence and safety issues.

Prison is not a club where everyone is chummy. Social lines are quickly drawn, and if you are not careful, it is not difficult to offend someone or get yourself into hot water.

At the same time, it is not difficult to stay out of trouble and keep peace with other inmates. Depending on what security level of prison you are assigned to, there may be less need to be concerned about how to stay safe in prison.

Still, it is good to be aware of how to live peaceably during your sentence. Remember the following for tips on how to survive in prison.

Show Respect

One of the key principles to surviving prison is to show respect to everyone. While this does not necessarily mean that you have to be friends with everyone, it does mean that you respect others’ privacy, possessions and time.

There are simple rules, such as not reaching for another inmate’s food, cutting people in line, messing with another inmate’s things, unnecessarily touching or bumping into another inmate, looking into another inmate’s cell, staring at another inmate, sitting in another inmate’s chair during meals, etc.

Basically, all the rules that apply in the outside world in regards to respecting others should be followed extra carefully in prison.

It is also best to avoid asking other prisoners what they are in prison for. This topic may come up with someone you become close to,  but try to avoid it altogether.

The bottom line: do not draw attention to yourself, especially by being a nuisance to others.

Keep Your Word

Do not make empty promises that you cannot keep. When you give your word and break it, you are sure to make enemies.

Perhaps one of the worst mistakes you can make is turn on or give an inmate you trust reason to turn on you. If you break your ties with friends in prison, you may end up being an outcast from all groups.

Consider Your Allegiances and Avoid Gangs

There are social alliances in prison, oftentimes determined by factors like race or background. When you arrive in prison, do your best to keep to yourself, observing the different groups that already exist. Do not rush to befriend other inmates, but wait to see where you naturally fall into the existing order of things.

Once you commit to a certain group, be loyal. If you break allegiance, you may be outcast from all groups.

Be on the lookout for an inmate who tries to take you under their wing. While it may be tempting to accept this type of “friendship,” oftentimes these can turn into exploitive relationships. There are pimps in prison, and you do not want to become their victim in exchange for protection.

It is imperative to not get caught up into a gang, which are more prevalent at higher security level prisons. While it may seem like a good idea to have a group that “has your back,” the reality is that in prison, everyone is looking out for themselves. If you were to get into a position where you would need protection from your gang, you may not receive it.

If you do join a gang while in prison, other gangs will see you as a target. Just like in the real world, those who are not part of gangs usually elicit very little attention from gang members. So joining a gang is a sure way to put yourself into more danger.

Plus, as part of a gang, you will be required to do things that will land you more prison time if you get caught. When you are in a gang you cannot pick and choose which order to obey – you obey all of them, and you risk getting caught and staying in prison longer.

Once you join a gang in prison, you cannot get out. Gang affiliation does not end once your sentence is over, so you would have a target on your back even when you are released. If you do not still do whatever your gang requires of you, it is often possible even outside of prison to be in danger.

Don’t be a Snitch

One of the most important things to know about being in prison is how to interact with guards. The number one rule: do not tell guards things about other inmates. Collaborating or fraternizing with guards will earn you intense scrutiny from other inmates.

Your sentence length will not be affected by snitching, and even if a guard happens to reward you, the way you will be treated by other inmates will make life miserable.

Most guards will see you like everyone else – an incarcerated individual. You should not try to attempt to befriend them. Simply respect them, following orders without resisting, and you most likely will not receive many problems from them.

Do Not Discuss Your Crime

If you discuss your crime with other inmates or with visitors or on the phone, anything you say could be used against you in court. Phone conversations are monitored, and mail is read. And even though you should try to be trustworthy for other inmates, do not assume the same of others. Keep the details of your crime to yourself.

Avoid Drugs, Gambling, and Illegal Activity

There are certain activities that may be tempting to participate in while in prison to pass time or dull your senses. Many of these activities might give you an adrenaline rush, but try to avoid them at all costs. They include gambling, using drugs, engaging in sexual acts with other inmates and any additional illegal acts that could earn more prison time.

Gambling is an activity that will most likely incur you debt. In a place where it may already be difficult to manage financially, the last thing you want is to owe someone something. This can cause strain on your friends and family if you keep asking them for money, and it can greatly impact your quality of life if you are unable to purchase necessary items from the commissary.

Drugs and alcohol find their way into every prison, whether they are snuck in by visitors, inmates or guards or made in the prison.

Any inmate caught high or drunk or possessing alcohol or drugs will earn an infraction that could get them transferred to a higher security facility, time in solitary confinement, loss of privileges or more time earned on their sentence. Inmates will be subjected to drug and alcohol testing at random, so avoid using these substances.

Avoid drugs because they are not only illegal and will earn you more time to your sentence if you are caught, but you can also contract diseases. The same goes for engaging in sexual activity – you run the risk of contracting an STD, not to mention that engaging in homosexual behavior is not respected and will earn you a bad rap.

Lastly, if you are caught with contraband – items that you are not supposed to have – you could also earn more prison time. Do not accept contraband from visitors, inmates or guards.

The Bottom Line…Keep Your Mouth Shut and Your Head Down

There will be a lot to adjust to in regards to prison culture and staying safe. The best way to avoid trouble is to keep to yourself.

Do not be afraid to stand up for yourself or avoid unsafe or risky situations, even in the face of peer pressure.

You will most likely earn more respect if you stick to your principles without making trouble for anyone else.

Prison Communication

Maintaining communication with family and friends while you are in prison is one of the best things you can do to stay positive while in prison. It also helps with the re-entry process when your sentence is up if you are aware of what has been happening in the lives of your loved ones while you were gone.

On their end, being able to communicate with you while you are incarcerated will dispel any false ideas they may develop about how you have changed or what you might be like when you are released.

There are guidelines when it comes to all forms of communication with the outside world. Many of these are more important for your family and friends to be aware of. For you, the most important thing to remember that almost all forms of communication – sending mail, phone calls, emails, and video chatting – costs you something.

It is important to have a financial plan so that you can afford to make initial contact with people.


There is nothing like actually touching and seeing the people you care for, so visitation is important for inmates and their families and friends.

Remember that like many things, visitation is a privilege that can be taken away based on your behavior.

Besides exhibiting good behavior to retain visitation, there are some other things to keep in mind when it comes to seeing your family and friends.

Create a Visiting List

When you are first booked, many facilities require you to create a visitation list that gives the names of those you hope to receive visits from. Keep in mind that not all of the people may be approved to visit, as staff check the list for people who have their own history with the law.

Also keep in mind that you have a limit on number of visitors and amount of visits per month, so not all people on the list may be able to come at once. For federal prisons, the limit is four visitors at a time.

Who can be on the list? For many facilities, the list can include:

  • Parents (including foster and step)
  • Children
  • Spouse
  • Siblings
  • Other relatives (grandparents, aunts/uncles, cousins, nieces/nephews)
  • Friends (there may be a limited number)
  • Sponsors
  • Clergy
  • Attorneys
  • Parole advisors
  • Employers
  • Sponsor

Some facilities will not notify your friends and family once they have been approved. If you receive news from the prison regarding your approved list, be sure to confirm with your visitors that they are allowed to come see you.

Schedule and Length of Visits

Each facility has its own visitation schedule and rules about how long a visit can last or how often you as an inmate can receive visitors. Know that you will have limited time – sometimes as short as fifteen or thirty minutes to as long as a few hours – with those who come to see you. Make the most of it.

While each facility has its own limits on number of visits per month, expect the range to be somewhere between four and six.

Do’s and Don’ts During a Visit

While visitation is a valued service for inmates, prison staff and guards are always on the lookout for suspicious behavior. Do not accept contraband from a visitor, and avoid making it seem like this type of exchange is happening.

Be respectful of other inmates and their visitors around you. Also, do not expect to have physical contact with your visitors beyond a hug, handshake or brief kiss. Conjugal visits with a legal spouse are not permitted in federal prison, and only four states allow conjugal visits – California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington.


Receiving Mail in Prison

Mail is permitted to be exchanged between an inmate and family, friends, legal representatives, and others. Sending mail from prison is another practice that will cost you financially. Still, especially if it is one of the few forms of communication that you can carry on, it is worth it.

What to Avoid Writing

Like with all forms of communication, mail is monitored. While staff are mostly looking for contraband, be aware that anything you write about your crime could be used against you in court.

Many correctional institutions, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, has inmates sign a release that allows prison staff to open, read and inspect all incoming mail. In medium and high-security prisons, outgoing mail may also be inspected. In some, inmates are not allowed to seal the envelopes themselves.

Books, Magazines, and Newspapers

In some cases, you may also be allowed to receive soft-cover books, magazines, and newspapers that have been ordered and shipped directly from a publishing or book distribution company.

Receiving items like these will aid you greatly in keeping up with current news, occupying your time and keeping your mind active. You must ask your family or friends to send these items to you if your facility allows.

Telephone System

Most prisons allow inmates to make phone calls. Usually, there will be phones in inmate housing units. Inmates are not allowed to receive incoming phone calls from family and friends – only you can initiate a call.

Create a Caller List

Some prisons may require you to create an approved callers list, which will be checked by the prison staff. You must know the phone numbers of each person you wish to call, so try to collect those before you are booked into prison and have your person of contact send them to you.

Sometimes calls cannot be made to cell phones, especially if they are collect calls. Those you are hoping to call may need to get a landline number, preferably local to your facility for cheaper calling rates.

Length and Call Limit

There is usually a limit on how many phone calls you can make and the duration of each call. While each facility has varying guidelines on this, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) allows inmates 300 minutes of phone calls per month (with 100 extra minutes in the months of November and December.) Each call duration is 15 minutes long, and you must wait an hour between each call.

Cost of Calling

Rates of calls vary between states and facilities, sometimes being as high as $0.21 per minute for debit/credit calls and $0.25 per minute for collect calls. The Federal Bureau of Prisons charges $0.06 per minute for local calls, $0.21 per minute for long distance calls, and up to $0.99 per minute for international calls (minus Canada and Mexico, which are cheaper.)

Forwarding Services and Three-Way Calling

Some families have tried using Google voice and other call forwarding services for cheaper calling. While some state prisons may let this slide, the Federal BOP sees this is as forwarding a call to an unauthorized number, which is not allowed.

Three-way calling is also prohibited. Telephone privileges can be revoked based on behavior or breaking rules.

As with all forms of communication, your calls will be monitored by prison staff. Keep this in mind when talking about your crime, as anything incriminating you say can be used as evidence in court.


The Federal Bureau of Prisons and some state prison systems have electronic messaging available. This is similar to email, but much simpler and not free for inmates. The Federal BOP utilizes a system called Trust Fund Limited Computer System (TRULINCS) that links with a platform called Corrlinks for family and friends.

To use TRULINCS, you must enter the email addresses of those you want to correspond with into the TRULINCS system. You can have up to thirty people on your contact list. Once you have done this, the recipient will receive a notification to set up an account with Corrlinks.

Once they do, you can send messages to each other. To use TRULINCS, inmates are charged $0.05 per minute of composing a message. Other prison systems may have varying costs, such as a cost per message sent.

The word limit for sending a message through TRULINCS is about 2,000 words (13,000 characters.) You cannot attach any media. Keep in mind that there may be a delayed delivery time, as all incoming and outgoing mail is read by staff.

In light of this, avoid talking about your crime through this messaging system. Also, refrain from asking the recipient to pass on a message to someone else.

Prison Life

Recreation and smoking

Beyond eating and sleeping, you may wonder what inmates do all day. Most inmates have access to a variety of recreational pastimes, with the exception of inmates in solitary confinement or special housing units. A day in the life of a prisoner should include engaging in pastimes that lift their spirits and keep their minds and bodies active.

For outdoor recreation, there is usually a ‘yard.’ This may just be an enclosed concrete space outside where inmates can do various workouts or enjoy fresh air. Other prisons may offer more extensive outdoor pastime opportunities with basketball courts, jogging courts, soccer or softball fields, or tennis or bocce ball courts.

There may also be indoor basketball or volleyball courts. In some cases, there may also be an exercise room with machines, and there are usually opportunities to take fitness classes (aerobic, yoga, high intensity, dance, etc.) Other available recreational pursuits may include pool tables, televisions, tables for card games, music classes, art classes, crafting classes (leather), photography classes, etc.

Smoking and tobacco is not allowed in prison. In some facilities, there is an underground market for tobacco and other drugs. If you are caught with it, however, it is considered contraband, and you could incur an infraction.


Studies have shown that the more education an inmate obtains, the lower their chances are of being reincarcerated after their initial release. Plus, higher educated released inmates have a higher chance of finding employment after prison.

Unfortunately, the percentage of inmates that have access to higher education or GED classes is low, with about only a quarter of the nation’s prison inmate population possessing a college education.

If your institution offers furthering education opportunities that you can take advantage of, try to include these into your daily routine. Inmates who already possess a high school diploma or GED are eligible to participate in furthering education opportunities (vocational training, adult continuing education (ACE), apprenticeships, classes, etc.)

Some facilities allow inmates to pursue furthering their education through correspondence, which can apply to obtaining a real high school diploma, a college degree, and career training. Keep in mind that you will have to pay the fees associated with furthering your education this way.


Most prisons enforce that every inmate has a work assignment. Inmates with illnesses or injuries that prevent them from working may be exempted by health services. Having a job in prison not only helps give inmates something to do, but it helps the prison to run more efficiently.

Some facilities pay inmates minimal salaries for working their jobs. Some do not, but the skills that the inmate can learn from the assignment can be invaluable upon release. Pay scales may be based on the level of skill the job requires or the level of physicality. You should not expect to be paid more than $10-$30 per month for any job.

You will be given a work assignment during the intake process. Try to familiarize yourself with possible jobs available, as you might be able to request a specific one. Do not expect to be placed in a higher-tiered job right away, as you may have to work up to the higher paying jobs. Inmates who wish to work but do not need or want to be paid can also apply to work.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons categorizes jobs into three tiers: janitorial, skilled, and clerical.

Some of the jobs that may be available include:

  • Cleaning
  • Wielding
  • Construction
  • Teaching
  • Agriculture/gardening
  • Operations management
  • Cooking
  • Laundry
  • Supervision
  • Financial management
  • Plumbing

Medical and Dental Care in Prison

The hard truth about the healthcare system in prison is that it is not at the level of medical care you can receive on the outside. Overall, most inmates report that healthcare is poor and often experience issues with receiving adequate care.

There has been an ongoing struggle from inmates, justice groups, and advocates for better healthcare in prisons. Inmates in some states have access to legal resources that help wade through advocating for better healthcare.

In some cases, medical professionals may be able to visit an inmate in prison to address health concerns. You are always able to include your healthcare provider on your contact or visitation list, although they may not be authorized to treat you even if they do visit. Check with your facility’s medical guidelines.

Keep in mind that you may have to pay for medical services in prison. Many state prisons charge copays and other fees for dental and medical work.

When you are first booked into prison, you will undergo a medical screening, which examines your past medical history and your current state of health. If you exhibit signs of illness, especially contagious, you may be held in an isolated cell until you heal or are given appropriate medication.

Medical Care

So you will not be as frustrated when you are facing a healthcare issue, be aware from the get-go that one of the biggest complaints about receiving medical care in prison is the length of time it can take to be seen or treated. In federal and some state prisons, you will fill out a medical ‘triage’ form with your complaint.

These are sorted and addressed by severity of medical needs, not necessarily by order of submission dates.

Most prisons do not have doctors in the clinic, but rather, mid-level practitioners (MLP’s.) You will be treated by the MLP unless your condition requires more advanced medical attention, in which case you may be scheduled to see a physician. In emergency situations, you will be taken to a hospital. Emergency needs are life-threatening, such as a stroke, hemorrhage, heart attack, or a severe injury.

While it may vary for states, the federal prison system classifies medical needs into five categories:

  1. Medically necessary – acute or emergent (heart attack, stroke, etc.)
  2. Medically necessary – non-emergent (diabetes, cancer, etc.)
  3. Medically acceptable – not always necessary (joint replacement)
  4. Limited medical value (cosmetic)
  5. Extraordinary (organ transplants for other individuals)

Usually, medically necessary – acute or emergent needs are treated immediately. Non-emergent medically necessary and medically acceptable medical needs may take longer to receive care or will not at all. Inmates with chronic diseases often experience the most frustration, as their latent but life-debilitating diseases are not at the top of the treatment priority list.

Inmates receive medication and insulin shots at meal times, oftentimes visiting what is called the “pill line” to receive medication. Sometimes inmates are allowed to carry prescribed medications with them.

Dental Care

For the most part, only minimal dental care is provided, especially if an inmate does not have a life-threatening dental need. Cavities or issues that cause enough pain to inhibit eating or sleeping will be treated first, while less emergent issues like having a tooth pulled or a filing put in are placed on a waiting list.

Sometimes it can take up to years to be seen for non-emergent issues. The lack of routine dental care should be combatted as much as possible by an inmate by practicing good mouth hygiene care. Remember that things like toothbrushes and paste must be purchased from the commissary store.

Psychology Services in Prison

Inmates who have struggled with mental health issues before prison may find that these problems return or get worse while the inmate is incarcerated. And if you have never experienced mental health issues before, do not assume that you cannot develop them while in prison. It is a difficult environment to be in and can crack even the strongest of minds.

Most prisons have a psychology department that deals with all mental health and psychological issues with inmates.

Psychological Assessment

When you go through intake, you will undergo a psychological assessment by a psychology department staff member. They are looking for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depressive disorder. They will note their findings in your psychology data file and inform you about available classes, programs or group counseling sessions.

Classes, Programs, and Counseling

While individual therapy is less common – although a possible service – for inmates, there are a variety of programs and services that are available for an inmate to join.

These can include group therapy for anger management, criminal thinking, smart recovery, the Non-Residential Drug Abuse Program, the Non-Residential Sex Offender Treatment Program, drug education, and other classes that may address other mental health needs.

Based on your conviction, you may be required to complete certain classes or programs, such as drug education or the Non-Residential Drug Abuse Program or Non-Residential Sex Offender Treatment Program.

Voluntary participation in these services can sometimes play into if you will be released at the end of your sentence, depending on your psychology data file.

In other cases, participation in programs like the Non-Residential Drug Abuse Program may qualify you for placement in a halfway house. Lastly, you may be considered for security level transfer depending on your participation in programs.

Psychology Screenings and Treatment

Psychologists will perform psychological intakes for inmates who are referred to receive a screening for potential mental health problems. In some cases, the inmate may refer themself, while other times guards or psychologists who are monitoring the prison population will order the screening.

The psychologist will determine if the inmate needs to be treated or take prescribed medication.

If medication is needed, the psychologist will coordinate with health services that can prescribe what is needed.

There are sometimes libraries that contain psychology and mental health books that inmates are allowed to borrow. If these exist at your facility, consider taking advantage of educating yourself for the benefit of your own health and also to be aware of other inmates’ mental health issues.

Suicide Watch

If you ever consider suicide or self-harm, you are encouraged to notify the psychology department immediately.

Do be aware, however, that in some cases you will be placed on suicide watch, which means confinement to a single cell with only a mattress.

Special Prison Survival Tactics

LGBTQ Prison Life

Unfortunately, the hard truth for inmates who identify as LGBTQ is that prison life may prove to be more challenging than it is for inmates who identify as straight. Statistically, higher rates of members of the LGBTQ community are incarcerated from the general population than the general population.

Legislation has shifted over the last several years in the aim to offer more protection for LGBTQ inmates, such as efforts to reduce crimes of rape against transgender inmates or determining where an inmate will live based on their biological vs. self-identified gender. But these inmates should still expect challenges once in prison.

Many LGBTQ – especially transgender – inmates may find themselves spending a lot of time in solitary confinement for their own protection from rape or even death. Statistically, because higher rates of transgender inmates may face sexual abuse while in prison, higher rates do spend time in solitary confinement.

To survive prison as a person who identifies as LGBTQ, try to avoid drawing attention to yourself. If you are harassed, not reacting may be the best thing you can do. Carry yourself with confidence to diminish your chances of being victimized. At all costs, avoid accepting protection from another inmate, as they may end up expecting some sort of sexual favors or payment in return.

Female Prison Life

Life in prison for a woman can be more difficult than it is for men, not to mention that they often face greater factors of stress regarding life outside of prison. The rate of female incarceration has grown exponentially over the past several decades, with the highest number of female inmates in the world being held in the American prison and jail system.

To add to the equation, a majority of incarcerated women are mothers. Depending on the inmate’s and her family’s needs, her children may be placed into the foster care system during her sentence. The financial challenges for women in prison can make it difficult to stay in touch with children.

High rates of female inmates are single mothers and the sole provider for their children, so they most likely do not have anyone who can deposit money into their commissary account to make phone calls or send letters. Not only must women pay for everything that male inmates do, but they also have to purchase feminine products.

Women who are taken to prison or jail while pregnant usually give birth at a local hospital. In most cases, their infant is put into the foster or adoption system. The Federal Bureau of Prisons offers a program called Mothers and Infants Nurturing Together (MINT) for inmates who are in the last three months of their pregnancy, have less than five years on their sentence and are eligible for furlough.

These inmates may be placed into a residential reentry facility meant to assist the new mother and child in successful reentry to society. Programs like this are not widely available at state prisons or jails, however. Abortion services are available to female inmates if they so desire to take that route, although mothers are not supposed to feel pressured into taking this route. If an inmate does decide to, she will most likely be taken to a clinic or healthcare facility nearby that can perform the procedure.

Cross-gender supervision is an issue that many facilities have sought to address, but the rate of female guards is much lower than male guards, and female inmates may find themselves supervised by men. Incarcerated women are at a much higher risk for facing sexual abuse or victimization from guards. The best course of action is to avoid isolation. Once you find other inmates that you trust, try to stick together, especially when in vulnerable situations like changing clothing or using the restroom.

Studies have also shown that women may face more stringent and frequent punishments than male inmates for breaking prison rules. This trend is influenced by a number of factors. As with anything, placing women in an environment that was designed for men will result in different behaviors. Women are often punished for infractions such as ‘disrespect’ or ‘derogatory comments.’

Keeping in mind that they are often guarded by males, it is not hard to believe that women have an uphill battle simply because of gender differences. The best approach – although it may be the hardest to adopt – is to keep your mouth shut around guards. Do not talk back or make snide comments, as you are more likely to receive a punishment for doing so.

Surviving Prison as a Sex Offender

In general, inmates who have been charged with a sex offense crime may face higher levels of stigma and disdain from the inmate population. This applies especially to those convicted of a sex offense that involves a minor, even if it is the distribution of child pornography.

Many sex offenders may find themselves in solitary confinement for their own protection, depending on the level of security they are housed at. Lower level security prisons may be less threatening for sex offenders, as other inmates may be less inclined to do anything towards another inmate that would cause them to earn more time on their sentence.

At medium or high-security prisons, your chances of facing issues or even danger are higher. If possible, it is a good idea to try and stay in shape physically so that you can ward off potential physical danger.

In general, it is not a good idea to lie about your crime if asked. If the truth of your crime is discovered, you will be even more at risk because of your dishonesty. The best course of action is to be honest but reserved. Do not draw unnecessary attention to yourself.

Accept that you will be ridiculed and learn different coping strategies for yourself. There are programs and treatment options for sex offenders that you may want to participate in, as well as therapy option from the psychology department.

Some treatment programs for sex offenders are only available to inmates who are declared by the psychology department as mentally stable. Each inmate will have to determine for themselves if they wish to ask for this assessment, as there are risks of not being released to general society after prison if the assessment proves the inmate to be mentally unstable.

The Black Market in Federal Prison

Even though engaging in business or possessing contraband (including mere items such as food that you are not supposed to have) is prohibited in prison and will earn you an infraction, prisons have black markets.

These markets are a prison’s own form of economy, the big difference being that inmates always run the risk of losing privileges, gaining more prison time, or being moved to a higher security level if they are caught.

In extreme cases, the black market is where an inmate can procure drugs, tobacco, alcohol, and weapons. Possessing these items will most certainly earn you a severe infraction.

The black market is also used for trading and bartering less menacing items such as food, electronics, clothing, phones, and even services such as tattooing. In some cases, the guards will disregard this type of commerce on the black market.

The reality is that except for items snuck in by visitors, guards are often the providers of items from the outside, such as phones and even worse items like drugs.

For inmates who choose to participate in trading and bartering, the best way to stay out of trouble is to make honest trades, delivering on what you promise. Do not incur debts, but pay up with what you have. Avoid asking family and friends to deposit money into another inmate’s commissary account, as this is a red flag for illegal activity.

Surviving a Relationship With an Inmate

For prison inmates, love and relationships is one of the joys that will have to be navigated differently. Limited contact with the outside world makes it difficult to carry on a romantic relationship, let alone provide for a spouse or family. Many inmates may find that the tables are turned, and those they were once providing for are now providing for them.

Loved ones of inmates know that the best way to continue a relationship with them is to make the best of the opportunities and resources available for staying in contact. This requires a lot of time, money and effort.

If you have strong relationships before going to prison, the effort it takes to maintain them will be worth it. For those on the outside who get into contact with an inmate for the first time while they are in prison, the technicalities of maintaining a healthy relationship must be carefully considered.

For romantic partners, it is important to know that conjugal visits are only allowed at some state institutions in California, Connecticut, New York, and Washington. At the majority of prisons, physical contact is limited to a brief hug or kiss during visits.

Couples should learn to embrace a phase of their relationship that is non-sexual, as even mailing sexually illicit photographs or letters is not prohibited. Telephone conversations are monitored and can be cut off at any point.

In addition to romantic partners, children, friends, and other family members should all learn how to utilize phone conversations, letters, emails, and visits to strengthen their relationship with the inmate.

Having a loved one in prison is a difficult and vulnerable time. Sometimes these conditions are very conducive to even more honest and open of communication than experienced before. For inmates, relationships are just another aspect of life that you must choose to intentionally grow in and make stronger as you serve your sentence.