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Federal Prison: How It Works and What to Expect – Lawyer Overview

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

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 09:16 pm


Federal Prison: How It Works and What to Expect – Lawyer Overview

If you have been sentenced to federal prison, you will become the property of the Bureau Of Prisons (commonly known as BOP). If you have been given a federal sentence, it’s likely that you’ll be spending several years behind bars; but if you know what to expect right away, your life in prison will be much easier. If you want to know how to prepare for federal prison and survive in your new environment, simply follow these steps.

Getting Ready for Prison

Bite your tongue

If the judge doesn’t allow you to self-surrender to the prison where you have been designated, you will be handed over to the U.S. Marshals Service. Do not speak to a Marshal or let them overhear a conversation about your case or anything else for that matter. Nothing you can say will make the situation any better and it might even make things worse: just because you have already been convicted doesn’t mean that you can’t be charged with something else.

  • Don’t ever forget that anything you say can become evidence against you later. The less you say, the better.
  • Once you’re in custody of the Marshals, you’re in their world. They can make your life miserable if they want to. Don’t give them a reason.

Line up some reading material

Most federal prisons allow magazines and books to be sent to inmates—on the condition that they are sent directly from the publisher or a retailer like Amazon. If you’re self-surrendering and you know which prison you’re going to be in, consider taking out a subscription for magazines/journals or ordering a couple of books from Amazon to read.

  • Alternatively, give your friends and family a shopping list of books/magazines and let them take care of ordering things. There’s no web access in prisons, so make your selections before you enter prison.
  • Though choosing reading material may be the last thing on your mind before you start your time in federal prison, being prepared for reading material (as soon as you’re allowed to have it) can help you feel less lonely and more comforted when you begin your sentence.

Learn the rules

Try to find out as much as possible about how the system works in the prison you will be living in. If there is an official rule book for the prison, read it. You can be punished for breaking a rule that you didn’t know existed. Breaking the rules will not only aggravate personnel but inmates as well. It makes life harder for everyone. Ignorance of the rules is no defense. Information is power.

Learn as much as you can about life in federal prison before entering

While the Bureau of Prisons does put out some basic information about life in prison, books like the Federal Prison Handbook and certain websites provide decent information to help you prepare.

  • Know what kind of prison you might get sent to first. There is a big difference between a minimum security prison than a maximum security or Supermax.
  • Cash is not necessary; in fact, it will be confiscated. It’s best to go in with a US Postal Service money order as they are widely accepted in all prisons (federal and state).
  • Additionally, don’t let anyone know that you have money. Pretend that you’re poor and penniless. That way there’s no danger of other prisoners trying to extort money from you.

Learn the rules

Try to find out as much as possible about how the system works in the prison you will be living in. If there is an official rule book for the prison, read it. You can be punished for breaking a rule that you didn’t know existed. Breaking the rules will not only aggravate personnel but inmates as well. It makes life harder for everyone. Ignorance of the rules is no defense. Information is power.

Surviving in Prison

Make use of your cellmates

Do not be overly friendly with your cellmates, but do ask some questions. Some may have been in prison before and will be able to give you information about the prison you are being sent to as well as the system itself. You will have to judge for yourself whether to believe any of the information. Use common sense and try to figure out if that person has a reason to lie or mislead you. Some convicts will try to intimidate new inmates or mislead them for fun.

Be careful.

Choose your words carefully

Anything you say to guards or prisoners, no matter how innocent you think it is, can be used to hurt you, manipulate you, or be taken out of context. Avoid discussing dangerous conversational topics. Otherwise, it can easily get you into trouble. Obvious subjects to steer clear of are religion, politics, racial issues, or your own personal feelings about someone or their family and friends.

  • Don’t refer to the people doing time with you as inmates. Use the term “convicts” or “guys” instead.

Keep a low profile

Keep a low profile and try to blend into the background when you are in prison. Stay under the radar of guards and other prison employees. Basically, don’t draw attention to yourself if you can avoid it. Remember that the nail that stands out gets hammered in. Watch and learn.

Surviving in federal prison can be scary, but if you respect your fellow inmates and stay aware of your surroundings, your time inside will be a lot smoother. It might be tempting to join a prison gang for protection, but you should avoid this, since gangs will easily rope you into committing crimes, which will lead to a longer sentence if you’re caught. Don’t trust anyone, even if they’re nice to you and help you, since many people will take advantage of you at the earliest opportunity.

It’s okay to have superficial relationships with people, but always think before you speak so you don’t say something you’ll regret. Keep your head down, don’t draw attention to yourself, and serve your time quietly and calmly.

First Day in Prison

One of the most challenging moments for the new prisoner is arriving at the facility. Many questions about what happens on your first day in prison arise, including:

  • Will I be safe?
  • Where will I live?
  • Will I get along with my cellmates?
  • Who will I talk to?
  • Where do I go if I need help?
  • Can I handle this?

Luckily, you’ve come to the right place. This page will answer all of these questions about what happens on your first day in prison.

The R&D Interviews

These interviews help prison administrators determine where to house inmates and whether they will be placed in the general population. Numerous potential issues can prevent inmates from being placed in the general population, including:

  • Tuberculosis or other infectious diseases
  • Acute medical or psychological concerns
  • Separation orders amongst inmates

Sex offenders are sometimes restricted from entering the general population at rougher medium or high-security federal prisons.

Following this interrogation, less fortunate inmates are confined to the Special Housing Unit to await placement in the general population. Other inmates are allowed to enter the prison compound.

Initial Interrogation Pointers

Inmates should hold their cards close during these initial interviews. As with interrogation by law enforcement officials, prison staff members are not necessarily there to help new arrivals. Some of the questions will help administrators place new arrivals in an appropriate housing unit. Other questions will evaluate the inmate’s intelligence or academic level.

Inmates should only answer questions that can’t harm them. If interviewers inquire about sensitive matters, inmates should politely decline to respond or act dumb. These questions may include:

  • Gang Affiliation
  • Cooperating with the Government
  • Cooperation with Prison Authorities

Prison officials already know what they need to know. There is no need to put yourself in a corner from day one. Corrupt prison officials have been known to disclose this information to other inmates.

Likewise, asking prison officials what happens on an inmate’s first day in prison is often misguided. At best, prison guards will provide uninformed opinions. At worst, they will offer dangerous advice.

Entering the Inmate Housing Unit

Following the R&D experience, inmates are released to an open compound and directed to their housing unit. While some facilities have staff escort inmates, other facilities point inmates toward the cluster of housing units to walk independently.

I made my way to a cluster of housing units alone. No prison guard guided me except to say, “Go to that building and give the guard your bed book card.” When I reached the intersection of two buildings that housed approximately a thousand inmates, I asked where the F-North Housing Unit was. The guard pointed me in the right direction. After climbing the stairs to my housing unit, I located another guard and presented my bed book card. She pointed me to my cell and said, “Unpack.”

What Can You Take for Your First Day in Federal Prison?

Generally, inmates are permitted to bring the following items when surrendering to federal prison:

  • Two Pairs of Glasses
  • Wedding Band
  • Religious Medal
  • Legal Materials
  • Prescription Medications

Do not volunteer information about group or gang affiliation. Also, don’t disclose testifying against co-defendants or related information. This is a fishing expedition. Don’t play into it by keeping your cards close. Likewise, hold questions about what happens on your first day in federal prison. While everyone has their own perspective, the one perspective you don’t need is that of prison staff.

What Do Prison R&D Officials Issue You?

Once in R&D, new arrivals’ possessions are reviewed to determine what is permitted. They receive a set of prison clothes and are photographed and fingerprinted. Staff issue an identification card with the inmate’s photo, name, height, and inmate number. This is similar to the jail booking process.

Inmate Housing Options

For example, inmates in Federal Prison Camps and low-security Federal Correctional Institutions are typically housed in open dormitories. These are usually partitioned into groupings of a few bunk beds.

Federal Inmates at medium-security federal prisons and high-security United States Penitentiaries are typically housed in cells with locking doors. These cells often house two to four inmates.

It is generally better trying to make it at the prison before giving up. While many inmates think about seeking protective custody on day one, this can lead to problems. Give it a chance first.


Going to federal prison can be an intimidating experience. However, by learning the rules, keeping a low profile, and respecting your fellow inmates, you can make your time there safer and easier. Be prepared before you arrive by lining up reading materials, learning about life inside, and knowing what to expect on your first day. With the right mindset and preparation, you can survive federal prison.

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