What Do Prisoners Do All Day?

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Over two million prisoners spend their day-to-day lives in prison across the United States. This large number of people live under the ever-watchful gaze of prison security to ensure inmates follow the rules. 

Understanding their plight behind bars can help develop empathy toward people trying hard to change their lives during imprisonment. 

There’s a special word for realizing that everyone you meet has an entirely different life that is as complex, full, and equally challenging as yours, and that word is sonder. 

What is a day in the life of a prisoner like? What do they do in prison, and how can they cope with their restricted life behind bars?

This article opens a window into the daily life of prisoners inside correctional facilities in the United States. This piece offers a moment of sonder and an opportunity to explore the hidden daily lives of people behind bars. 

If you have an incarcerated loved one and need information about their life in prison, you can visit LookUpInmate.org. You can get contact information of the current prison facility where your loved one is housed and start communicating with them. 

A Day In The Life Of A Prisoner

Peering into the life of a prisoner is a challenge, especially with the level of security in correctional facilities. However, you can have insight into the experiences of those who went through prison life.

Here is a tour of the routine lifestyle of people in prison conditions. Note that maximum security prisons will have a more rigid daily routine as people incarcerated in these facilities include the most dangerous criminals in the country. 

How Do Prisoners Spend Their Days?

Place yourself in the shoes of someone behind bars and start this unique prison journey for the first time. At the start of the day, you’ll quickly realize that prison life is a life of routine, rules, and repetition. 

In most prisons, inmates have schedules that dictate what they’ll do for the rest of the day. Note that not all prisoners have the same schedule.

Morning Exercises

Some prisons start their typical day early, at 4:30 AM, while others begin at 6:00 AM. During this part of the day, you can do some morning exercise in the prison yard, communal area, or prison cell

You’ll usually wake up from the prison facility’s alarm and get counted. Congratulations, you’ve just completed your first hour of prison life

Telephone Calls

Some prisons provide a time window for telephone calls in the morning or afternoon. You can stop by the prison’s telephone booths to talk with a family member

Prison facilities only allow “collect calls” to preapproved contact numbers you’ve submitted to the prison authorities. You can’t just call anybody, and it may raise issues if you do so. 

Also, remember that correctional officers monitor all phone calls done in prison. So make sure your calls are not too personal. Usually, you get a few minutes of call time with your loved one, so make the most out of it. 


Now it’s time for the first meal of the day. You’re hungry and want to grab something to eat. However, where will you get your food inside prison

In a typical prison, meals are served in a mess hall or “chow hall.” Here prisoners line up to get their food. 

Most prisons serve hot meals for breakfast. Oatmeal, milk, and cereals are almost standard, aside from the stuff you can buy from the prison’s grocery store or prison commissary

The commissary is the only place where you can buy stuff in prison that’s not contraband. You can’t have family members casually bringing you things they’ve bought outside without the approval of the prison authorities. 

As you eat your serving, you may wonder who cooks the food. Prison meals are prepared by inmates assigned to work in the prison’s kitchen. 

Travel To Work Site

Once done with breakfast, you’re off to work. Prison life isn’t just spending hours on end inside your cell. Correctional officers understand the importance of activity and the potential dangers of idleness in a prison environment.

After your breakfast, you can now head to your working area. In prison, there are workplaces you can get assigned to. You’ll do the tasks and chores in that area for a specified period, similar to doing jobs outside. 

Work and School

The Department of Corrections provides policies about prison work, and state prisons can assign inmates to different tasks. Examples of prison jobs that you can do inside a correctional facility are the following: 

  • Prison support like kitchen duty, cleaning, laundry, and clerical or office work
  • Agricultural support in prisons with the land they can use to plant crops or raise livestock
  • Manufacturing support where inmates can make license plates, craft furniture, and even do computer repairs

In some cases, prisons have school or learning programs to enhance prisoners’ skills while they serve their time behind bars. 

Prison education is a crucial part of the rehabilitation program of the government. 

Research made by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, shows that enhancing the education of inmates has a positive effect in reducing the likelihood of an inmate returning to prison. 


Same as breakfast, when it’s time for lunch, you’ll head to the mess hall again and get your portion. The menu may vary each day. You can have pasta, a sandwich, and a serving of fruits and vegetables. 

Off-Duty and Time Outside

After lunch, you’ll typically have a few moments of free time, which you can use to relax. 

Most prisons will have a dayroom, where you can socialize with other cellmates. Some prisons may have board games like chess, which allow you to have a match with a fellow inmate. 

You can play cards and dominoes, watch television, listen to music, and relax. 

You can have time outside and spend a few minutes in the prison yard. Off-duty time can be a way to recharge if you’re in a prison facility with a scenic view. 

For example, the Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Alabama, has a music room, pool tables, and a craft room for its inmates. The prison camp has a gorgeous landscaped yard that makes gardening duty a perk. 

You can also spend time off-duty reading and writing. Some prisoners wrote fiction and self-help guides that revealed their experiences while behind bars. 

Prison facilities are responsible for providing recreational activities to ensure prisoners’ well-being. 


Like during lunch, you’ll line up again in the mess hall and get your serving. The menu for dinner also varies daily. You may get a selection of chicken, burgers, hotdogs, and burritos. Some prisons may also provide flavored drinks. 

After dinner, you’ll return to your cell block and have the rest of the night until prison officials remind you of sleeping time. 

Self-Help Organizations

Sometimes, you need someone to talk to in prison or a place to retreat and recover. State and federal prisons alike provide support through the cooperation of self-help organizations. 

Prisons must cater to the emotional and even religious needs of incarcerated individuals. Correctional facilities should not hinder a prisoner’s freedom of religion. They can adhere to their religion and have visits from religious representatives. 

Aside from religion, prisons provide various programs to help inmates cope with mental health issues and rehabilitate them from problems like addiction. 

Programs like anger management sessions, drug and alcohol therapy, and other support sessions can help prisoners escape destructive habits. 

Here ends your short journey into prison life. Life behind bars is different from the outside world

However, it’s a place provided by the criminal justice system for inmates to rehabilitate and recover so that they can reenter society as better people than before. 

Low to Medium Security

A routine day for low- to medium-security prisons is similar to the daily schedule detailed above. 

You get a sharp morning wake-up at 4:30 AM, do all your personal needs, work assignments, and eat dinner at 4:00 PM. Before returning to your cell, you can use the remaining hours for recreational activities, calling friends and family members, or writing.

However, these activities are possible only if the prisoner displays good behavior. Unruly prisoners may be given punishments that can limit their activities throughout the day. 


Prisons that house extremely dangerous prisoners are deemed high-security facilities. Inmate movement in these prisons is limited, and surveillance systems are almost everywhere. 

In some instances, strip searches are required to ensure inmates don’t carry contraband or items that can harm others or themselves. 

It’s crucial to ramp up security in these kinds of places, so harsh disciplinary actions are sometimes employed. 

Unruly prisoners may end up in solitary confinement, and riots and disturbances made by violent prisoners can send the facility into lockdown

Example Of A Daily Prison Schedule

Here is a real-life daily prison schedule employed in actual prison facilities in the United States. This example comes from North Carolina’s 24-hour prison schedule. 

A Close Custody Inmate At Central Prison

At Central Prison, inmates assigned to kitchen duty are the first to get the wake-up call. They get called in at 3:30 AM to prepare the food for the entire facility. 

At 6:00 AM, the prison-wide wake-up call sounds, and everyone is counted. Inmate counts are required in correctional facilities. This practice involves prisoners standing in their cells and being counted.

After the count, the prisoners will get breakfast and report to their work assignments. At 3:00 PM, inmates can check their mail, do recreational activities, and relax. 

At 6:00 PM, dinner is served. Afterward, some may attend classes, self-help programs, or religious activities. At 8:30 PM, another inmate count is done. 

At 9:00 PM, inmates can have free time in their housing area, and by 11:00 PM, the prisoners are locked again in the cells, and it’s lights out. 

A Medium Custody Inmate Working On A Road Squad (Pender Correctional Institution)

In medium custody facilities, like Pender Correctional Institution, most inmates spend their day inside prison. Only a select few can work outside, like for landscaping duties. In high-risk situations, the prison goes under heightened security.

The manned prison walls serve as added security

The schedule is similar to closed custody prisons. The difference is that the squad assigned for road work has a different schedule for outdoor assignments. 

A Minimum Custody Inmate Working On A Community Work Squad (Umstead Correctional Center)

Within five years of release, prisoners are placed in minimum custody prisons like the Umstead Correctional Center. Prisoners, at first, work only within prison premises. 

Afterward, inmates transition to getting jobs outside the prison in preparation for their eventual release. 

Prison life is challenging and hidden from public view. However, after reading this piece, you have had a peek into their daily lives. 

If you need more information about the correctional facility where your loved one is housed, visit LookUpInmate.org. You’ll have access to more than 7,000 correctional facilities in the country. 

You can get information about possible visiting hours and regulations imposed in the prison where your loved one is. 

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. Does the day start with breakfast?

In most prisons, the day starts with an inmate count. Prison officials order all prisoners to remain in their cells and have them counted. Once this is done, they are allowed to do the scheduled task of the day. 

2. Will you report to work daily?

Prisoners must report to work daily, especially if the prison authorities assign them to that task. 

3. Can you have money in prison?

Actual money is not allowed in prison. All monetary funds are deposited in an inmate account, which the prisoner can access in the prison commissary. The Bureau of Prisons limits commissary purchases to avoid inmates using items they’ve bought as currency inside their cells. 

4. Are there random daily searches?

Cell searches are done in prison, but daily searches are done only if needed to maintain security. Also, cell searches are not done randomly, as there are procedures that must be observed when doing such activities. 

5. Is there free time every day?

Yes, there is free time every day. However, the schedule for free time varies per prison. Some may place this period in the afternoon, while some prisons allow it after all work is done at night. 

6. Are there daily counts?

Yes, daily counts are a requirement in state and federal prisons. The count is carried out at intervals throughout the day. Inmates should always be present during a count to avoid issues with the prison authorities. 

7. What do prisoners do for fun?

Prisoners can do recreational activities provided by the correctional facility. You can play chess or cards, watch television, listen to music, read books, and write. 

8. Do prisoners shower every day?

Prisoners and county jails should provide 24-hour access to bathroom facilities. In the case of a dedicated shower room, inmates can line up for showers every day as long as the facility is not on lockdown

9. How many hours a day do prisoners spend in their cells?

The hours prisoners spend in their cell depends on their facility. In high-security prisons, prisoners can spend up to 23 hours inside their cells daily. The out-of-prison cell time may vary in lower-security prisons. 


1. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023
2. Telephone Calls
3. FAQ: The Prison Commissary
4.Solitary Confinement Facts
5. 24 Hours in Prison

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