What is prison like for my family member/friend?
Prisoners receive an induction to the facility every time they enter a prison. This Admission and Orientation interview covers the expectations of the prison, prisoner regulations and the process if they breach any of those regulations. They will also at this time receive information about the layout of the prison, their rights and responsibilities as a prisoner. During this orientation your family member/friend receives an institution handbook that has visiting procedures and everything else they need to know about prison life, including: prison address/phone number, directions, and information about local transportation – they can provide this to you when they call.
The handbook gives them information about identification requirements for visitors, days and visiting times, visits dress code, items authorized in the visiting room, special rules for children, items visitors may bring to give to the inmate, safety information, general function of the staff, daily jail life, work opportunities in jail, preparation for release from jail programs, correspondence procedures, prisoner accounts, numeracy and literacy opportunities, prison smoking policy, medical services and more.
The prison is responsible for ensuring that your family member/friend understands the information in this interview. For non-English speaking prisoners an interpreter or brochure in the prisoner’s language is provided.
While this interview is occurring prison staff are assessing the new inmate and will refer anyone who appears to be having difficulty coping with this new and often frightening experience of being in jail to the Psychology Services Department. Feeling depressed and hopeless is not uncommon for a person especially if they have not experienced jail before so they can be highly anxious about the unknown. Sometimes, inmates consider committing
suicide due to all of the pressure they are under. Prison staff are trained to monitor inmates for signs of suicidal behavior, and refer all concerns to the Psychology Services Department. Prisoners are not always willing to discuss their feelings or thoughts with prison staff. If you have concerns that your family member/friend is very depressed and thinking of suicide contact the prison.
I have listed some recognizable signs of depression for you to look out for. This is not a complete list. If you suspect that your family member/friend is thinking of committing suicide ask them.
- Lack of enjoyment in usual activities,
- Withdrawal (staying away from others, reducing phone calls and /or visits),
- Hopelessness (giving away possessions, stating that there is nothing to live for),
If you notice any of these signs PLEASE alert a staff member right away. Your input can save a life.
Each prison has a special housing unit and a medical facility. When your family member/friend arrives at the facility they will be seen by medical staff for a health check and to see if they need any medications for physical or mental health problems. Often, a period in jail presents an opportunity for your family member/friend to have a health check-up and receive medication for medical and mental health issues that they may not have received in the community. I have spoken with prisoners who have said they were unaware they had a health problem until they were diagnosed in jail so a prison sentence isn’t all bad. There is also the opportunity to access dental care.
The Bureau’s professional staff provide essential medical, dental, and mental health (psychiatric) services equal to what a person receives in the community. Community consultants and specialists attend the jail so your family member/friend will get a high standard of health care.
The Bureau’s food service program emphasizes heart-healthy diets, nutrition education, and dietary counseling for specific medical conditions.
Numeracy & Literacy
Prisons offer a variety of programs for inmates to acquire literacy and workforce skills to help them obtain employment after release from jail. All prisons offer literacy classes; English as a Second Language; parenting classes; wellness education; adult continuing education; library services; and instruction in leisure-time activities. It might be surprising that leisure-time activities are something that need to be taught however, many people who
find themselves in jail lack the skills to entertain themselves in pro-social ways and this skill deficit is what finds them committing criminal offences.
In most cases, inmates who do not have a high school diploma or a General Educational Development (GED) certificate must complete a literacy program for a minimum of 240 hours or until they obtain the GED.
Non-English-speaking inmates must take English as a Second Language. Occupational and vocational training programs are based on the needs of the inmates, general labor market conditions, and jails needs. An important component is practical training, which inmates receive through prison job assignments and work in Prison Industries. Prisons also provide post- secondary education in vocational and occupationally oriented areas.
Some traditional college courses are available, but inmates must pay for this coursework themselves.
Parenting classes help inmates develop necessary skills while in jail when they may be thinking clearer and don’t have as many complications preventing them from concentrating or paying attention.
Recreation and wellness activities encourage healthy lifestyles and habits. Prison libraries carry a variety of fiction and nonfiction books, magazines, newspapers, and reference materials. Inmates also have access to legal materials to conduct legal research and prepare legal documents.
Most of the reasons a person commits crime can be addressed in jail by employment, education or intervention programs. Your family member/friend can learn some skills that could assist in gaining employment upon release by working in prison industries. Employment is a factor that reduces a prisoner’s risk of re-offending so learning work skills is encouraged. The community expects that prisoners are going to be released in a different frame of mind than when they went to jail. This requires an increase in self-worth, self- confidence and skills. Feeling on an equal par with peers helps build an individual’s motivation to remain crime free.
All sentenced inmates are required to work if they are medically capable and not in full time study. Prison provides employment in areas like food service or the warehouse, or work as an inmate orderly, plumber, painter, or groundskeeper.
Inmates earn 12¢ to 40¢ per hour for these work assignments.
Approximately 16% of sentenced inmates who are medically fit work in Federal Prison Industries (FPI) factories. While working in factory operations, such as metals, furniture, electronics, textiles, and graphic arts they gain job skills. FPI work assignments pay from 23¢ to $1.15 per hour for these roles.
The Federal Bureau of Prison has an Inmate Financial Responsibility Program
(IFRP) which requires inmates to make payments from their earnings to pay
for court-ordered fines, victim restitution, child support, etc. Inmates working in
FPI who have financial obligations must pay 50% of their prison earnings to the IFRP.
Some inmates must pay a ‘Cost of Incarceration Fee’. Most fine and restitution money goes to crime victims or victim support groups through the Crime Victims Fund administered by the Office for Victims of Crime in the Department of Justice.
Community members expect that a prisoner is being rehabilitated while in jail. Prisons run intervention programs that most prisoners are eligible to engage in, in some cases must engage in, that help develop new skills. These skills will help them know what to do if they find themselves heading down the same path when they are back in the community.
Prison is a place people go as punishment for committing crime so accepting that their choices have let them down goes a long way to achieving the attitude that will enable a prisoner to learn some skills that ensure they won’t be sent to jail again. There is a chain of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that can lead to a person’s offending. This is called an “offence or relapse pattern”. Individuals need to gain an understanding of why they offended – the situations, feelings, thoughts and behaviors that led to their offending to ensure they don’t relapse in the future.
It’s estimated that 60% of prisoners have substance abuse problems or addictions. The Federal Bureau of Prison’s aims to rehabilitate inmates as doing so is proven to decrease reoffending rates. A variety of substance abuse services, such as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs are offered through the Psychology Department.
Individual and group counseling is also provided by the Drug Treatment
People who take on the challenge of a rehabilitation program work very hard. They have to be honest with themselves and the other members of the group. Support from family and friends can be important to each person’s success. How much support you give is your decision. It must be comfortable for you and your family member/friend.
Self-management is a big part of not offending. This means a person taking ownership of their behavior – being responsible and active in making decisions not to offend, to avoid the things that may lead to their offending, and to seek help when they need it.
Having a support network of people in a community who understand their offending behavior can increase the chances of a person living an offence- free life, and of the community they live in being safe from their offending.
A support person can be anyone who the offender trusts, who knows about that person’s offending history, and who is willing to help that person live an offence-free life in the community.
As a support person, you will need to be willing to actively support the person in staying offence-free. This includes being aware of the warning signs and high-risk situations that may lead to offending; not condoning or accepting offending-related behavior; confronting the person about inappropriate behavior, and helping steer them away from high-risk situations.
You may want to hear about the work they are doing, support the changes they are making and encourage them to continue the process when the get released from jail. You may be invited to attend the program graduation ceremony. Be aware that some prisoners are not going to want other prisoners to know about their family so they may or may not want you to go. Respect them in this decision as they are trying to protect you and themselves.
Having an understanding of the intervention program you family member/friend completed in jail will help you understand how to look for warning signs, and what to do when you see them, such as intervening or alerting someone who can better deal with it, such as another member of their support network.
You will also help the person be aware of risky situations and warning signs that trigger offending and take action to ensure they don’t act on these.
The stages along the pathway are:
- Pre-contemplation – No acknowledgement of having a problem.
- Contemplation – Weighing things up.
- Determination – Making the decision to change.
- Action – Taking practical steps to achieve change
A person’s level of motivation for change is an outcome of their “decisional balance” – weighing up the costs and benefits of changing versus the costs and benefits of staying the same.
Segregation of violent prisoners
A family member’s biggest worry is about the realities their loved one is likely to experience while in jail. This often centers on the violence portrayed in movies and in the media. While violence can and does occur, correctional facilities take every precaution to ensure that every prisoner is safe from the violence and threats of another. This can only be done if the threats are brought to their attention and often this is not the case. Prisoner’s are called derogatory names and experience various types of consequences for informing on someone who has threatened or assaulted them. Prison is an alpha male nightmare. Most of the prisoners I speak to say the only way to get through it is to do your own time and not get involved in anything but your own business. This is not easy when a prisoner is required to share a unit, work environment and exercise yard with other prisoners who they may have
had relationships with or conflict with in the community prior to going to prison. But they need to find a way to avoid getting involved.
Predatory and assaultive inmates will be placed in a control unit setting. When this occurs the Bureau of Prisons will still provide an inmate confined within a control unit the opportunity to participate in programs and activities however they will necessarily be restricted in order to protect the security, good order, or discipline of the unit and the lives of those that may have been threatened.
Programs are still available to an inmate confined within a control unit.
If granted parole by the U.S. Parole Commission, your family member/friend will need a parole plan prior to release consisting of an offer of employment and a place to reside. They will have more success gaining an offer of employment if they have completed work programs in jail and gained some marketable skills.
The job must pay at least minimum wage and not require travel out of the state as they will have obligations to report to a parole office. You might be surprised to know that almost 1% of the population are on parole.
They will also require a place to reside which can be almost anywhere (parents, wife, friend) but must be legitimate and will need to be approved. The proposed parole plan is thoroughly investigated by the U.S. Probation Officer and must be approved before your family member/friend will be released from jail.
The release plan is attached to the parole application and other supporting evidence of program completion, education completion and other evidence outlining your family member/friends suitability for parole for the parole hearing.