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Deciding who you live withㄧwhether it be a boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, or roommateㄧis one of those things in life that is essential to your happiness. If you live with someone you don’t like or get along with, it can cause an infinite amount of problems. But, what do you do when you have no say in who you live with?
When you go to prison, you have absolutely zero input on who you share a cell with. Or, if you are in dormitory housing, you have no choice who you share a bunk with. Instead, the prison administration classifies you, and that affects which housing unit you are in and who your roommate(s) will be.
In one of my most interesting prison stories (according to my friends), I was moved into a new room when I scored a job at canteen because I was living on the wing that housed only food service workers. I should note that I was incarcerated at a facility that housed everyone from minimum to maximum-security, and they mixed custody levels inside the housing unit.
I did four years for marijuana possession and cultivation, but I was housed with inmates based on personality classification (which I will explain in this post) not security level.
So, I was moving my stuff into the room and setting up a TV on my bunk. You always have to have your headphones on, so I had them on while I was putting my things away. When I turned the TV on, it was playing the show Snapped, which is a true crime series about women who “snap” and kill their husbands.
As I am watching this show (which my roommates couldn’t see or hear), one of my new roommates walks into the room. She introduces herself to me as Sandra, and she was incredibly sweet. After we talked for a minute she left to go to her job. At that point, I look back at the TV, and the story they are talking about is the case of a Missouri woman named Sandra Plunkett, who killed her husband and is now serving a life sentence. Yes, you guessed it, that was my new roommate.
However, the next day she got into a fight at her job and officers took her to the hole. That was the last time I ever talked to her because she was moved to another housing unit after she was able to get out.
So, this fun story leads me to today’s question: How can a prisoner change their cellmate AKA “cellie?”
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
Every inmate that enters prison both at the federal and state level is “classified” when they are first taken into custody. The process usually takes about 30 to 60 days, and you go through a slew of tests: education, personality, addiction history, criminal history, mental health, etc…
Of course, the classification results mean different things based on the state and the facility. In my experience, they assigned housing based on personality, not custody level. It’s not necessary for me to get into the details, since they are different in every state, but basically they divided us up into three personality types: aggressive, non-aggressive, and neutral.
They wouldn’t put a bunch of aggressive inmates in the same room together, so they always tried to have a mix of personality types. But, with overcrowding, sometimes they couldn’t even do that.
Some prisons will assign housing based on custody level, and if you have special mental health needs or treatment needs, many facilities have special housing units for those inmates. There are also faith-based dorms, honor dorms, and housing based on work detail and length of sentence.
Most prisons have either one-person or two-person cells or dormitory housing. Depending on the facility, the dorms can look like a big warehouse that is loaded with dozens of bunk beds. Sometimes, the bunks are divided into cubicles with half-walls, like during the first few seasons of Orange Is The New Black.
The one-person and two-person cells are usually in prisons with higher custody levels, while the dormitory housing is for the lower security levels because there is more freedom of movement. Some cells are locked up to 23 hours per day, while in dorms you can move around during daylight hours to other parts of the housing unit or yard.
I actually lived in a unique housing situation. At WERDCC, we had college, dorm-style housing, with six women in one room (two single beds and two bunk beds), and we each had a key to the room.
The bathroom, shower, and laundry facilities were shared by all of the inmates on the wing, and we also had a dayroom where we could play games, cook in the microwave, or watch TV. However, we couldn’t leave the wing without permission, and the heavy wing doors were always closed and locked unless an officer opened them.
If you want to move rooms or change your cellmate, the quickest way to make that happen is to get violent. A fight will automatically send you to the hole, and in the prison where I was incarcerated, you were never placed back in the same room after leaving the hole.
However, you couldn’t choose where you were going to live and who you were going to live with. That was always up to the administration, and they don’t take requests when you are leaving the hole.
I will say, though, that if you get along with the officers and case workers, you have a long sentence, and you don’t get into any trouble, there are ways to get people moved into your room that you want to be there.
Some prisons do have a formal request process when it comes to housing, but it is up to the staff to approve or deny the request. Also, if you are in a gang, they will make sure that you don’t live with opposing gang members, and if you have a “known enemy” from the streets, you can fill out paperwork to make sure that you are never housed with that person.
Depending on the facility, they might have “happy moves” occasionally to allow inmates to choose their roommate and housing unit. But, you have to be on your best behavior to participate in that. Studies have shown that the more inmates get along with their cellie, the better off they are. So, it makes sense for prisons to grant move requests.
Still, with overcrowding being so bad in our prison system, it’s amazing they have any process at all when it comes to assigning bunks to inmates. Cells made for one are housing two inmates in many locations, and those made for two are housing three.
In the six-woman room I was in, it was designed to house four. But, they just added some bunk beds to increase it to sixㄧand we were all in a 10×10 room.
There are reasons to move inside prison. If you change jobs, custody level, or you are close to your release date, the administration will assign new housing. When that happens, you must fit everything you own inside a metal box (if you’ve been there for a long time, they will allow you more than one box) and load up a cart.
Then, you have to push that cart to the new housing unitㄧwhich can sometimes be on the other side of campㄧand help is not allowed.
Just like moving in the real world, it’s a pain in the butt. So, if you can stand your cellies and bunkies, it’s best to just stay where you are until they let you walk through the gate.
Does the classification and housing assignment process surprise you? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Do Cellmates Matter? A Study of Prison Peer Effects under Essential Heterogeneity https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/249471.pdf Snapped: Sandra Plunkett https://www.oxygen.com/snapped/season-14/blogs/sandra-plunkett
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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