There are a lot of misconceptions about what being in prison is like. As with most things in life, you can’t really know or understand it unless you experience yourself. Thankfully, most of us have to rely on TV and movies to get a glimpse of prison life, but Hollywood rarely gets it right.
While shows like Orange is the New Black and Prison Break do get a handful of details correct, for the most part, the prison cells and daily prison life you see on the screen is less than accurate. Minimum-security prisons are far from “white collar resorts,” and I don’t know how that rumor got started.
What’s the difference between prison security levels? Are inmates allowed to move around whenever they want? What is a prison cell like? And, can you stay in your prison cell if you want to?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
I’ve said before on this blog that no two prisons are the same. There are differences between federal and state prisons, as well as public and private facilities. For example, state prisons house inmates who have been convicted of crimes like murder, assault, robbery, and drug possession. While federal prisons house inmates convicted on federal charges like drug trafficking, identity theft, and child porn.
Inside these facilities, there are major differences among “custody levels” — minimum, low, medium, high, and maximum-security.
As an inmate, your custody level is determined by the crime you are convicted of and the length of your sentence. For example, my marijuana case would have normally been classified as a “minimum security” custody case because it was a first-time non-violent drug offense, and I had no criminal history, but because my sentence was 15 years, I was automatically placed in maximum security for the first three years of my sentence.
Each custody level incorporates different levels of security, prisoner programming, and staffing requirements. This is really what impacts a prisoner’s day-to-day life. The type of surroundings an inmate has is determined by custody level, as well as things like staff presence, housing, recreation, and work program availability.
Minimum-security inmates are usually convicted of low-level drug crimes and white collar crimes. These facilities allow the most inmate movement and offer more programming options than other security levels, but they are far from resorts.
Medium-security facilities still offer job opportunities and educational programming for inmates, but are a bit more restrictive with inmate movement. Maximum-security prisons are the most restrictive with programming and inmate movement, and this is often the type of prison that’s portrayed in the media.
When I say “inmate movement,” that is the term used for how prisoners are controlled. Facilities with open movement allow inmates to walk the campus as they please during the day to attend classes, work, chow hall, medical, recreation, church, etc…
Some facilities have restricted movement, like the women’s prison I was in. In a restricted movement facility, inmates are allowed to “move” for about five to ten minutes each hour. During those times, inmates are allowed to leave their housing unit and go to a specific destination, like the library or the rec yard.
While the inmates are “on the walk,” which is slang for inmates who are out of their housing units and walking the sidewalks from building to building, officers are strategically placed throughout the grounds to monitor the activity.
When you are on the walk, you are not allowed to stop and have conversations with other inmates, or go to a building that’s not open for movement. Once the movement time closes, you must be at your destination or risk getting into serious trouble.
In a “closed movement” or maximum-security facility, inmates are only allowed out of their cells for an hour or two each day to shower, make phone calls, go to the rec yard, etc…
In low level security facilities, inmates are often housed in dorm-style units instead of what’s traditionally known as “cells.” Dorm style can look a few different ways. It can be a large room with as many as 100 bunk beds, or a room split into a bunch of cubicles via half walls that each have at least two beds.
The prison I was in had college dorm style housing, where each housing unit had wings and hallways with doors. Each inmate had a key to their door, and each wing had common bathrooms and shower areas.
We had six people living in each 10’x10′ room, one side with bunk beds for four girls, and the other side with two “cadillac beds” for the remaining two inmates. The room also had six lockers for property and a desk in the middle with two chairs.
Cell-based housing is usually reserved for medium-security and above. This is where movies and TV often get it right. Cells are no bigger than 8’x8′ and have a single bed or a bunk bed on one side, depending if it’s designed for one or two inmates. Some facilities have triple bunks, which I assume is just as awful as it sounds.
On the other side, there’s usually a desk, a sink, and a toilet. Most cells usually have some kind of shelf to keep your property on, too. At the medium security level, your cell door can usually be kept open throughout the day. At the maximum security and SuperMax level, the cell doors remained closed.
If you are an inmate at a maximum-security or SuperMax facility, then yes, you can stay in your prison cell. Most likely at this level, you aren’t allowed to leave your cell for more than an hour or two each day. But if you have no phone calls to make or don’t want to take a shower or go to rec, you don’t have to leave.
Your food is delivered to your cell instead of going to chow hall, there are limited work assignments, and programming is done via correspondence.
At lower security levels, the answer to today’s blog post question is no — you can’t just stay in your prison cell all day. For the most part, inmates are required to attend school if they don’t have a high school diploma, or they have to get a job.
If you are a student, you are required to attend class just like a regular school day, Monday through Friday. Workers have a job with a full-time work schedule that you’re never allowed to call out of. This means that staying in your prison cell is simply not an option.
However, when you’re done with class or work, you are usually allowed to stay in your prison cell for the remainder of the day. The only exception is if you are required to attend special programming or treatment. Ultimately, you have to go where “the people” want you to go, when they want you to go there.
This post is a general view at what life is like in prison, based on my own experience and the research I did about other facilities. If your prison experience was different when it comes to housing and inmate movement, let me know in the comments below!
Sources: What's The Difference Between Minimum, Medium, and Maximum Security Prisons? https://archive.attn.com/stories/2968/differences-between-prisons#:~:text=Minimum%20security%20facilities%20often%20house,the%20end%20of%20a%20sentence. Breaking Down the Different Types of Prisons in America https://www.rasmussen.edu/degrees/justice-studies/blog/different-types-of-prisons/ Prison Housing https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4612-3812-6_4?noAccess=true
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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