Do Inmates Prefer to Share a Cell or Have One All to Themselves?

By Prison Insight Staff

Updated: April 27, 2022

When you are sentenced to a long-term prison sentence, or even a year in the county jail, your life is no longer in your own hands. Just about everything in your life is decided for you, from what you eat to what you wear to where you live to how you spend your time.

When it comes to inmate housing, there are a number of different situations you can encounter behind bars. Housing assignments are based on the crime you were convicted of, and whether or not you are in a state or federal facility. 

Housing styles vary wildly, and an inmate has no say as to what kind of cell or room they will end up in. But if they had their way, would inmates prefer to share a cell or have one all to themselves? 

In today’s blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • Different prison housing styles
  • Most inmates prefer to share a cell
  • Does prison architecture matter?

Different prison housing styles

The first thing I noticed about jail and prison cells when I was arrested is that they didn’t look anything like I had seen on TV. Inmates are rarely placed in a room with bars and a door that is opened with a key. 

The only place you will find traditional jail cells like that are in facilities built before the 1970s. Some older prisons have cell blocks with barred cells that can hold one or two inmates. These are the kinds of prison cells you would see in older movies, or movies set in the early 20th century like The Shawshank Redemption

In that kind of housing unit, there are multiple levels with rows of barred cells that can be opened individually or all at once by a control room. The inmates are usually locked in their cells for the majority of each day and are only allowed to leave for chow hall, yard time, or a shower. 

This is a very old style of prison architecture. Many facilities built after the 1970s were built for a Direct Supervision inmate management model, which allows more interaction among inmates and between inmates and staff.

In these types of facilities, you’ll often find dormitory style inmate housing, where a number of bunk beds are in a big open room, sometimes divided up into cubicles with half-walls. You might find college dorm style housing, like in the women’s prison I was placed in.

In the college dorm model, we had two levels with 12 rooms each. Each of those rooms held six inmates. Each level had a common shower and bathroom, plus a dayroom. The inmates had keys to their rooms, and they had regular doors. Our rooms were kept open all day long, and inmates were free to move around in the housing unit.

As a rule, the more restrictive housing units and styles with single cells are in the maximum-security level prisons. The dormitory styles are for the minimum-security facilities. In the more restrictive facilities, you were more likely to be placed in a single cell or double cell. In the lower security housing units,  you could be in a room with up to 50 people or more.

No matter what style of housing unit you are in as a prison inmate, though, one thing is universal—privacy is a luxury, unless you’re put in solitary confinement.

Most inmates prefer to share a cell

The answer to today’s blog post question varies depending on who you talk to. Some inmates prefer to share a cell, while others would prefer to have one all to themselves, but this question needs some added context.

Sharing a cell can be the better way to go so you have someone to talk to, and if you are in a prison where you don’t have much freedom of movement. If you get stuck with a bad cellie (cell mate), that’s the WORST. 

I had dozens of cellies during my four years in prison, and some were so great that we became close friends. Others I wanted out immediately because they were rude, loud, and violent, or because they snored.

In my experience, most people want to share their room with someone that they got along with rather than be alone. After all, prisons use solitary confinement as punishment. Being alone for too long can be torture. Surprisingly, your sanity can depend on being around other people.

I should mention that the inmates I encountered who preferred having a cell to themselves were lifers—people who were never going to leave. They viewed their cell as their home. Since they were free to move about the housing unit each day, they preferred having their own space. 

Does prison architecture matter?

Believe it or not, the research shows that how a prison is built and how inmates are housed is extremely important when it comes to rehabilitation. When inmates are isolated and constantly surveilled, tensions can increase “psychological distress.” 

When inmates have more interactions with other inmates and prison staff—with open housing floor plans, no bars, and dayroom access—the research shows that there is “less prisoner misconduct” and “less mental health problems.” 

“In other words, good staff-prisoner relationships are important for the manageability and safety in prisons,” says Karin Beijersbergen, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement.

Beijersbergen believes, “more prison architects need to understand how their buildings can affect the lives of their residents, instead of focusing solely on aesthetics or security.”

Her study published in Crime & Delinquency concluded that, “building styles, floor plans, and other design features,” also have a significant impact on the way inmates perceive their relationships with prison staff and other inmates.

Do you think you would want a prison cell all to yourself? Or, would you prefer to share with a cellie? Let us know in the comments below.


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