What Is Prison (Really) Like

What Is Prison (Really) Like?

The most common question that I get from people when they find out I spent four years in prison is — what is prison really like? 

I’ve talked before about how my knowledge and impression of prison was informed by pop culture. The only exposure I had to prison life was through TV shows and movies.

As far as I knew, there was no one in my life who had done time behind bars, either in jail or prison. So, I never heard any first-hand accounts of what prison was actually like. Needless to say, when my sentence came down and the court bailiff put me in handcuffs, I was terrified about what was to come. 

The thing that people need to understand is that someone’s prison experience is based on a number of factors. Everything from the crime you are convicted of to the security level of the facility, to the geographic location of the prison makes a difference. 

Answering this question with a one-size-fits-all answer doesn’t work. However, I will share a little bit of my prison experience, as well as stories from others. Hopefully, you will get some sort of understanding as to what prison is really like. But I should point out that unless you’ve lived in captivity, it really is impossible to relate.

That being said, let’s get to today’s blog question: what is prison (really) like?

In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • Looking at prison through a free world lens
  • The factors that affect an inmate’s prison experience
  • Prison is loud and uncomfortable
  • Everyone is on a strict schedule
  • Medical care is the worst
  • Prison food really is as bad as they say it is

Looking at prison through a free world lens

Most prisons are like little cities that operate with inmate labor. Most facilities have a dining hall, a medical clinic, classrooms, a gym and recreation area, a library — even a beauty shop. 

While that might sound like a good time, I’m here to tell you that IT’S NOT. I have heard people argue that prison inmates “have it made” because they have meals provided, a bed to sleep in, they don’t have to work a job, can sleep or watch TV all day, and hit the gym when they feel like it. 

But what people don’t understand is that they are looking at these “amenities” and “privileges” through the lens of someone living in the free world. I promise you that a prison library or gym is not at all what you are picturing in your head.

That “library” might literally be a rolling cart with a few books on it. The “gym” is most likely a small room with a few pieces of old, (probably) broken equipment. And if you want to work out, you have to do it in your prison khakis and boots. Unless you can afford a t-shirt and sweatpants, which isn’t easy when you make 15 cents an hour.

Every minute of every day is controlled, so you can’t just hit the gym when you feel like it. If you don’t get up for breakfast at 4 am, you won’t eat until lunch at 11, and the last meal of your day is at 4 pm. 

Yes, you do have to work or go to school full-time. There is no sleeping all day and doing whatever you want. Everything you do is monitored and controlled, and it’s on the prison schedule. You have no say in anything, no choices at all. Living in captivity is no joke, no matter how “nice” it might seem on TV. 

The factors that affect an inmate’s prison experience

Before I get into the things that I remember about prison life, I do want to explain that there are a number of things that can and will affect an inmate’s prison experience. 

First, there is a huge difference between men’s prisons and women’s prisons. They are very different places with different social hierarchies and rules among the inmates. 

Another factor is geographic location. A prison located in an urban area with a lot of gang violence is going to be a lot different than a prison in rural Missouri. The same can be said for security level. There is a big difference between maximum-security and minimum-security when it comes to freedom of movement, programming, and earned privileges.

Another major factor in the prison experience is the crime that the inmate is locked up for. If you are in for a crime of violence or sexual assault against children, you are the lowest of the low in prison society. Often, prisons will segregate the “cho-mos” from the rest of the prison population for everyone’s safety and security.

Some states even have special prisons for “protective custody” inmates, which can be anyone from a cho-mo to a former police officer. Anyone who is at high-risk for getting a beat down will be segregated from the general population.

Prison is loud and uncomfortable

As YouTuber Jessica Kent explains, prisons are extremely loud and uncomfortable — no matter where you are locked up. Depending on which prison you are in, you won’t have any control over the lights. Which means, they automatically come on early in the morning and won’t go off until after count time at night. 

If you can’t sleep in a brightly lit, loud environment, then you are in trouble. There is no comfort inside of prison. No cushioned chairs or couches, and definitely no comfy beds. Everything you sit or lay on is hard metal or plastic, and it’s extremely cold.

There’s usually no air conditioning or heating in prison, either. Which means summertime is hot and miserable and the winter is cold and miserable. 

If housing is dormitory style, you might find yourself in a room with 50 people trying to live together in a small space. And all of those people are hungry, uncomfortable, and forced to separate from their family and friends. It’s literally a recipe for disaster.

I should also mention that depending on what prison you are in, there are a lot of fights and violence. And if you get caught up in it, you’ll end up in the hole for a long time. 

Everyone is on a strict schedule

When you are in prison, you have a strict schedule that begins early in the morning and ends late at night. When I was in Receiving & Orientation — the first place you go when you are sent to prison — you are segregated from the general population. That means that you have to eat first, with a breakfast time of 4:30 am.

You are required to get up at 3:30 am when you are in R&O and go to breakfast. Then, you have lunch at 10:30 am and dinner at 3:30 pm. You have no access to any other food, no access to the commissary, and every minute is controlled. Which is easy for the guards since all R&O inmates are housed in a one-room warehouse. You don’t get to leave until you are cleared for the yard.

Once you get to gen pop, your day will start at 5:30 am with morning count time. Then, you go to breakfast (when it’s your turn) before going to work or school. Everyone in prison works or goes to school full-time, which is seven hours per day.

After school or work, you might get some recreation time or get to go to the library. There are also evening classes you can attend, like NA or AA. Throughout the day, there are five separate count times, where you have to stop what you are doing and be counted by the guards. 

The last count time is at 10:00 at night, and when it clears, the lights are out and you must go to bed. When I say that every minute is controlled, I’m not kidding. A prison inmate has no say in how their day goes. 

I should also mention that most inmate movement is usually in single-file lines with no talking. It’s not like you can just stroll to school with your friends, laughing and having a good time. To be honest, one of the best representations of a prison I’ve seen lately was on the Netflix series Squid Game

The bunks in the big warehouse where all of the contestants were kept was very reminiscent of a prison dorm. Everyone was wearing the same clothes, and their movement was controlled in a single file line from place to place — with men that have guns watching their every move. 

Medical care is the worst

Prison is terrible when you are healthy. But when you are sick, it is the absolute WORST. It’s bad enough that the standard of medical care in prison is so low, but what really blew me away was how difficult it was to access the crappy care.

First, if you aren’t feeling well you must fill out a form and then wait for your housing unit’s time to go to “sick call.” When your housing unit is called, you have to “haul ass” across camp to the medical clinic and get in line to see a nurse. That is first come, first serve. 

Then, you must sit in the cold, bright uncomfortable clinic for an hour or two and wait to be seen. And no matter what you are there for, the nurse will give you ibuprofen and send you back to your housing unit.

Prison inmates have zero access to OTC medication, unless their commissary offers it. Which is extremely rare. No matter if you have a cold or pneumonia, they are going to give you ibuprofen first and tell you to come back if your symptoms get worse. 

There’s also no calling out of work if you don’t feel well. You might be able to get a “lay-in” if you are sick enough, but that’s not easy to do. 

I should also mention that people use sick call as a way to see their girlfriend who is living in another housing unit. People who aren’t sick will go anyway and make the line longer just so they can sit next to their girlfriend in silence in the middle of the clinic for an hour. This really sucks when you are legitimately sick.

Prison food really is as bad as they say it is

The last thing I want to mention about prison life is the food. Inmates get three meals a day, which are usually served around 5 am, 11 am, and 4 pm when you are in the general population. The tray will have some kind of main protein dish, like a chicken patty. It will also include a veggie side and bean side (if I never see a pinto bean or a great northern bean again, it will be too soon). 

For dessert, there is usually jello or pudding. But on the really good days, you’ll get something amazing like apple crisp. The beverages available are water, tea, or koolaid. In the morning, you can get milk or coffee.

All of the food is processed garbage that comes in large boxes, cans, and bags. Despite the fact that most prisons have horticulture programs and land to grow fresh food on, the contracts with food suppliers are more important.

You get limited portions of food, and getting caught trying to grab seconds will land you in the hole. But as a rule, the seconds aren’t worth it because the food is so gross.

The only thing that kept me fed was the food I bought from the commissary. I was blessed to have people who would regularly send me money, so I was able to make my own meals in the microwave. I became such a prison culinary goddess, I should probably write a cookbook. I can make amazing things with some ramen noodles, ritz crackers, and a bag of chicken.

Do you think you could survive prison life? Let us know in the comments below.

Sources:

A Day in the Life of a Prisoner

https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/07/12/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-prisoner

What is it like to get life in prison?

https://prisonwriters.com/life-in-prison/?gclid=CjwKCAiAhreNBhAYEiwAFGGKPMlE1C_MqBIhNZv6Ggy5l4iwbFyk7D8BohF84hZ8p8AcgUwu_rWpnxoC2LYQAvD_BwE

What is prison life really like?

https://nymin89.medium.com/what-is-prison-life-really-like-bfda2f9c7c96

About the Author Natalie

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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