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FAQs on Federal Prison from an Attorney

By Spodek Law Group | October 20, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 20, 2023)

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 01:38 pm


FAQs on Federal Prison from an Attorney

Going to federal prison can be an incredibly scary experience. As an attorney who has worked with many clients facing federal charges, I know that most people have a ton of questions about what federal prison is actually like. In this article, I’ll try to answer some of the most common FAQs I get from clients about federal prison life, rules, and more. My goal is to paint a realistic picture so you know what to expect. Here we go!

General Federal Prison Life FAQs

What is the daily schedule/routine like in federal prison?

The daily schedule in federal prison is pretty regimented. Here’s a rough breakdown of what a typical weekday might look like:

  • 6:00-6:30am: Wake up call. Officers will make rounds to wake up all inmates.
  • 6:30-7:30am: Breakfast. Inmates head to the cafeteria for breakfast.
  • 7:30-10:30am: Work. Inmates report to their assigned jobs (laundry, kitchen duty, etc.)
  • 10:30-11:30am: Count. Officers conduct an inmate count to ensure no one is missing.
  • 11:30am-12:30pm: Lunch. Back to the cafeteria.
  • 12:30-3:30pm: More work.
  • 3:30-4:30pm: Free time. Inmates can exercise, socialize, read, etc.
  • 4:30-5:30pm: Count.
  • 5:30-6:30pm: Dinner.
  • 6:30-9:30pm: Free time.
  • 9:30pm: Lockdown. Inmates must be in their cells for the night.

Weekends and holidays usually have more free time. But as you can see, inmates in federal prison don’t have much autonomy over how they spend their days. Officers keep a close eye on everyone’s movements and activities.

What are the facilities and living conditions like?

It really depends on the specific federal prison facility. Some are quite old, with shared cells and communal bathrooms. Newer facilities tend to have more modern amenities, like air conditioning, nicer rec rooms, and sometimes even shared tablets. Here are some generalities:

  • Cells are small, often 6×8 feet or so, with a bunk bed if it’s shared.
  • Most inmates share a cell with 1 other person.
  • Cells have a combination toilet/sink.
  • Showers are communal.
  • No A/C in older facilities. Can get hot in the summer.
  • Rec rooms have TVs, games, sometimes exercise equipment.
  • Food isn’t known for being very good.
  • Medical facilities vary. Can be difficult to get treatment.

Overall, federal prison facilities are a bit nicer than state prisons. But they are still prisons, so creature comforts are limited. It’s important to remember that.

How much interaction do inmates have with each other?

There are opportunities for inmates to interact throughout the day. During meals, in the rec room, exercising, etc. But it’s not a free-for-all. Prison staff limits groups gathering together, for safety and security. Interaction is more regulated in higher security facilities. So there is some socializing, but inmates don’t spend all day mingling freely.

What types of jobs do inmates have?

Every able-bodied federal inmate is required to work. Here are some of the most common prison jobs:

  • Kitchen worker: Help prepare meals
  • Orderly: Clean common areas
  • Laundry: Wash clothes, bedding, etc.
  • Groundskeeper: Maintain outside areas
  • Warehouse: Assist in the warehouse
  • Education/vocation tutor: Help other inmates

Inmates don’t get to pick their jobs. The work keeps the prison running smoothly. It’s also seen as a way for inmates to acquire skills and stay out of trouble.

What is a typical federal prison cell like?

As I mentioned earlier, cells in federal prisons tend to be small, maybe 6×8 feet or so. Older units will have bars on the doors, while newer ones have solid doors with small windows. Inside the cell, you’ll find:

  • 1 or 2 bunk beds
  • Combination sink/toilet
  • Desk and stool attached to the wall
  • Lockers or shelving for personal items
  • Sometimes a small window

Cells are cramped, but livable. Inmates are allowed to decorate a bit with family photos, books, and approved posters. Officers perform regular searches though. Overall, the cells are fairly sparse and sterile environments.

Can inmates go outside at all?

Yes, most federal prison facilities allow inmates outside time each day in designated recreation yards. The yards are fenced-in areas that may have grass, basketball courts, weight pits, running tracks, etc. Inmates can get some fresh air and exercise. But the time is limited, maybe 1-2 hours per day. Weather permitting of course. Access to the rec yard is a privilege that can be taken away.

Rules and Restrictions in Federal Prison

What types of rules do inmates have to follow?

The Bureau of Prisons has a whole list of prohibited acts and disciplinary severity scales. Some examples of major prohibited acts include:

  • Assault
  • Possessing weapons or drugs
  • Escaping or attempting escape
  • Setting fires
  • Rioting or inciting a riot

In addition, every facility has its own set of rules inmates must follow, like:

  • No swearing or abusive language
  • No gambling
  • No fighting or horseplay
  • No stealing or borrowing other’s property
  • Making your bed and keeping cell clean

There are a ton of rules. Inmates have to stay in line to avoid added punishments.

What happens if an inmate breaks the rules?

There are a range of disciplinary consequences if a federal inmate is caught breaking the rules:

  • Loss of privileges – No TV, commissary, rec time, etc
  • Solitary confinement – Being put in the Special Housing Unit (SHU)
  • Loss of good conduct time – Adds time to your sentence
  • Cell restriction – Only allowed out for meals and shower
  • Forfeit earned statutory good time – Longer time in prison

The severity depends on the offense. But the consequences can be pretty harsh. Officers in federal prison don’t mess around.

Are inmates allowed to have visitors?

Yes, visitation is allowed in federal prisons, but it is limited. Here are some key rules about visitation:

  • Only approved, background-checked visitors on inmate’s list
  • Visits must be scheduled in advance
  • Only certain days and hours
  • Usually 1-2 hour visits
  • No physical contact allowed
  • Conversations monitored by officers

It can be tough for family and friends to make the trek for short, no-contact visits. But it is an opportunity inmates have to see loved ones periodically.

What types of things are inmates allowed to have?

The list of approved personal items federal inmates can have is pretty short. Here are some common approved items:

  • Photos of family/friends (limited to 5×7)
  • Wedding band without stones
  • Address book (20 pages max)
  • Letters, books, magazines
  • Legal materials
  • Eyeglasses, dentures
  • Religious items (medallion, prayer rug)

Things like cash, cell phones, computers, or weapons are prohibited. Officers search cells routinely, and excess or unauthorized items may be confiscated.

Federal Prison Life Hacks

What are some tips for getting by in federal prison?

After representing many federal inmates over the years, here are some of the life hacks I’ve heard for making time go smoother:

  • Keep your head down and don’t cause trouble
  • Find a prison job you enjoy
  • Make friends, but be selective who you trust
  • Stay busy with hobbies – reading, exercising, games
  • Take advantage of counseling and education programs
  • Don’t take anything from other inmates
  • Stay positive and try to keep a schedule

The keys are staying out of drama, staying busy, and taking it one day at a time. Easier said than done, but mindset is everything.

What should someone do on their first day in federal prison?

The very first day in federal prison can be disorienting. Here are some tips for navigating it:

  • Keep your eyes open and mouth shut
  • Observe routines/rules
  • Be polite to staff and inmates
  • Don’t share too much personal information
  • Ask staff if you have questions
  • Learn the layout of the facility
  • Figure out the meal/work schedules
  • Set up your cell neatly and comfortably

The goal that first day is mainly to keep a low profile, get the lay of the land, and stay out of trouble. It gets easier once you learn the ropes.

What are some things for families to know about federal prison visits?

Visiting a loved one in federal prison can be daunting. Here are some tips for families preparing for visits:

  • Review dress code/security rules in advance
  • Get to facility early, go through security
  • Bring valid ID
  • Lock personal items in car or locker
  • Expect to be searched
  • Bring change for vending machines
  • Discuss appropriate topics ahead of time
  • Be patient with limited physical contact

The more families know what to expect, the better the visit will go. Inmates appreciate the effort visitors make.


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