As a former inmate, I often get questions about the sleeping situation in prison. The common belief seems to be that prisoners sleep their time away, and get out of bed just to eat and go to the bathroom.
The images most people seem to have in their mind are of prisoners locked inside a tiny cell, surrounded by bars and concrete, and they having nothing to do but get fed through a tiny hole in the door, sleeping on their bunk 24/7. However─for the most part─that just doesn’t happen.
In this blog post, I’m going to talk about the ins and outs of sleeping in prison. Since jail is a completely different animal, I will touch on that, too. Keep reading, because I’m about to answer the question: can you sleep in prison?
This blog post will cover:
Honestly, just hearing this question makes me laugh, and the simple answer to this questions is: ABSOLUTELY NOT. Even if you are in a SuperMax prison or in AdSeg (administrative segregation), which in some prisons is called, “the hole,” or the, “SHU,” (segregated housing unit), and you are locked in your cell 23 hours a day, sleeping the entire time just isn’t an option.
First of all, there are count times in prison, and they happen every few hours. Where I was incarcerated, the count times were at 5:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 4:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m., and midnight. The 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. counts were, “I.D. counts,” which meant when the officer came to your room, you had to show your photo I.D. when they counted you. At other times, they conducted, “head counts,” so the officer would come by and count the number of people in the room.
You had to be counted twice during each count time, so two officers would come by within a few minutes of each other to count. With the exception of the midnight count, you always had to be sitting up in your bunk, with TVs and radios turned off, and you had to stay put while the officers were on the wing. That meant no getting up to go to the bathroom or grabbing ice from the day room for a drink.
If you were caught sleeping during count, that was a violation and you would be punished. Usually, the punishment turned into, “extra duty” hours, which meant that you had to complete different tasks when the officers needed help.
At the women’s prison, where I was incarcerated, there were six women in one room. When the officers came into the wing for count time, they loudly announced their presence. If someone in the room was sleeping, the roommates would wake them up so they could sit up and be counted without getting punished.
Count time usually lasted anywhere between thirty minutes to three hours. If the officers’ count matched perfectly, it wouldn’t last long. But often times, they would mess up and have to come through for a recount, and it would take forever for count to clear.
The count times alone meant your sleep was always interrupted at some point during the day or night, but sleeping all day wasn’t an option because in most prisons, everyone was required to have either a full-time job or be a full-time student.
Between work or school and other required classes and treatment programs, most prisoners were required to be somewhere from early morning until the evening. When you did get a chance to sleep, the conditions were less than ideal.
There is a weird hierarchy in prison, based on sleeping mats. Your bunks are made out of metal, and each bunk has a sleeping mat. The people who have been in prison the longest have the best mats. They are newer and thicker, and much more comfortable compared to the old, beat up mats that newbies get.
The reason this happens is because when someone is moved out of their bunk, they have to leave their mat, and the prisoners left behind will start swapping out the mats to get the best one they can find.
The older mats are so worn that there is almost no cushion at all. Other times, they are incredibly lumpy and extremely uncomfortable. The biggest reason mats get torn up is because the inmates would use string in the mats for other things.
The older mats are stitched with string that you can tear out to use as floss, sewing string, or hair string. Inmates do the same thing with their prison-issued coats. They tear out the string in the inner lining and put it to good use. Nothing goes to waste in prison.
You are also issued a pillow, two sheets, and a pillowcase, and when you leave the room, your bed must be made.
If you want to sleep during the day, it is extremely difficult because so much is going on. People are constantly in and out of the room, your roommates hang out and watch TV or listen to music, and the light is always on. Inmates are also extremely loud,
You have zero privacy in prison, so being able to find a quiet, cozy place to take a nap is impossible. During my four years behind bars, I can count on one hand how many times I was in my room alone long enough where it was quiet enough that I could take a nap.
At nighttime, lights out doesn’t mean quiet time. However, because most everyone had to get up early in the morning for a job or school, the majority of inmates were quiet and respectful, and allowed everyone in the room to try to get some sleep.
You always had to use headphones at night for your TV or CD player, so there was no loud music. And, there was rarely shouting or conversation going on. If that happened, it was in the communal bathroom area outside of the rooms.
If someone in your room snored, there was nothing you could do about it. Many people had to get up in the middle of the night to go to their jobs, so if they needed to get up and get ready to go to work at 2 a.m., you had to deal with it.
Depending on the facility, you may hear the big heavy electronic doors opening and closing for a variety of different reasons. There was also an issue of safety when you were trying to sleep. Inmates who were in a facility filled with gangs and violence didn’t often feel safe, and rolling over to get some sleep was hard because you were always on edge.
Getting a decent night’s sleep in prison was literally impossible.
I wanted to bring up the sleeping conditions in jail because they are quite different from prison. In county jails, most inmates are all housed in a giant pod that has cells inside. No matter if you are inside or outside of your cell─or if it is day or night─it is always loud.
While I’m not the biggest fan of the A&E show 60 Days In, it does give people a decent glimpse at what life is like in a county jail. Most jails don’t issue anything other than a nasty, worn out mat and a blanket that doesn’t cover your entire body. So, good luck sleeping in those conditions!
Being in jail can really mess up your body clock. Your sleep schedule will be completely destroyed, and you will always feel tired and hungry. It’s a crazy environment, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
So, can you sleep in prison? You can grab a few hours every now and then. But, if you can’t sleep without it being dark and quiet, then you are out of luck.
One of the first things I did when I was released was buy a brand new mattress, sheets, and pillows. Never again will I take getting a good night’s sleep for granted. Are you surprised by the sleeping conditions in prison? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Prison Talk: Getting a Full Night of Sleep in Prison https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avDcAiitQf0 60 Days In: The Inmates Discuss Sleeping in Jail (Season 3, Episode 13) | A&E https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0XK43nyOrg
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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