What Is Life in Prison Like?

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Imagine a world where children read bedtime stories through handwritten letters, and the prospect of a family trip is nowhere in sight. Around 2.7 million children in the U.S. don’t have to, as it’s the reality they face daily with a parent spending life inside a prison cell.

So, what lies within those prison walls? What is life actually like for people confined to this alternate reality? What can and should you do to support a loved one facing the challenges of incarceration?

Life in prison can be difficult to imagine unless you’ve experienced it firsthand. This article peels back the shroud that covers the towering walls of the prison system, governed by its own rules, routines, and challenges.

For more information, visit LookUpInmate.org. Dive into our extensive database and get the lowdown on the individual policies and rules of over 7,000 correctional facilities in California, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, and other states in the U.S., which can help you navigate the complex world of the prison system.

Life Behind the Wall

Depending on who you ask, life behind the confines of prison can mean very different things. Some say it’s a different world where one isn’t in control of their time, privacy is scarce, and loneliness is real.

For others, it’s a place where they can find themselves, with ways to cope and support systems set in place.

What Does It Feel Like to Be in Prison?

Stepping into prison for the first time is like stepping into a new world. The stark environment, the loss of personal freedom, and the separation from loved ones can hit inmates hard.

If you’re new to prison, it’s normal to feel anxiety, fear, and uncertainty as you adjust to your new surroundings and the reality of incarceration.

Stay long enough, and you’ll encounter many other problems, like PTSD, sleep deprivation, and a higher tendency to violence.

Is Prison Life Hard?

Yes, prison life can be tough. Prisoners’ days are structured, and they have little say in how things go. Being cooped up with other inmates with their personalities can also get pretty tense, which can cause clashes.

Let’s also not forget the complete lack of privacy and constant watchful eyes. Life in prison can feel suffocating. And on top of all that, being away from the outside world, especially loved ones, can affect prisoners mentally.

That said, some things can make prison life easier. For one, stability and routine can help bring a sense of order to a convict’s life. Many prisons offer educational programs, from getting their GED to vocational training and college courses.

Getting to know fellow inmates can also give a sense of camaraderie and emotional support. And while seen as a negative, solitude offers personal reflection and growth.

The Definition of a “Life Sentence” Has Changed

Over the years, the definition of a “life sentence” has gone through some serious makeovers. In the early 20th century, serving a life sentence meant spending around 10 to 15 years behind bars, after which a prisoner could seek commutation or a reduction in punishment.

Fast forward to 1972, life sentences became much harsher for prisoners, raising the minimum year requirement for parole eligibility to 20. By 1973, parole was no longer an option for anyone with a life sentence.

Today, serving a life sentence meant just that – a life in prison without parole. It’s reserved for individuals who committed serious crimes like murder, aggravated sexual assault, and kidnapping. And the chances of commutation are slim, like 1% in Louisiana.

Prisoners As More Than a Number

People behind the prison walls are individuals with unique stories, hopes, and struggles. They’re not just numbers or statistics. Fortunately, there’s been a shift in how the general population view and treat inmates.

The United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice now recognizes the importance of rehabilitation, giving inmates an opportunity for a better future while tackling the root causes that landed them in the criminal justice system.

“How Much Time Do You Do on Life in Prison?”

A sentence’s duration can vary from 2 to 99 years, depending on where a prisoner is locked up, the crime they committed, and the specific terms handed down by the judge.

In the U.S., a life sentence means a lifetime in jail or until something like a pardon, parole, or commutation changes an inmate’s fate. But a “life without the possibility of parole” or “life with no mercy,” on the other hand, means just that.

Federal Prison Life Resources

Navigating the complex world of the federal prison system can be overwhelming. Fortunately, various resources can help inmates better understand the comings and goings of the prison system.

Federal Prison Basics

To truly understand the federal prison system, you must learn the basics, such as the legal process and the inmates’ rights and responsibilities.

Guide to Federal Trials

If you’re looking for legal insights from cases argued and determined in the U.S. Circuit and District courts, the University of Chicago Library Guides is the resource. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) offers handy guides relating to the federal courts.

Federal Bureau Of Prisons

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is a federal law enforcement agency under the DOJ. Their mission is to keep society safe by keeping offenders in check and providing them with programs and services to rehabilitate inmates and reintegrate them into their communities.

Federal Prison Facilities

While the DOJ has standards for correctional facilities and jails, such as inmate rights, food and healthcare services, and inmate programs, federal prison facilities may have different guidelines.

For instance, Federal Prison Camps (FPCs) have limited or sometimes no perimeter fencing.

Check out LookUpInmate.org for more information regarding the unique guidelines of your loved one’s facility. Our database provides a list of prisons, which you can search by state, and the respective websites and contact information to find individual facility policies.

Preparing for Prison

Getting ready for prison can be as straightforward as setting personal goals or diving into more detailed tasks, like researching the specific guidelines of the facility.

For example, you can read the “Prison Survival Guide” from the Prison Fellowship to learn more. This non-profit organization that supports and assists incarcerated individuals and their families.

How to Locate an Inmate

You have access to various resources that can help you locate an inmate. The Department of Justice (DOJ) provides a resource page where you can find federal prison and inmate information directly from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

Use our one-stop inmate lookup site to access records for more than 7,000 U.S. correctional facilities. To locate an inmate, you only need a full name, gender, and date of birth.

Prison Security Levels

Prison security levels are like a way of ranking prisons based on how secure they are. The BOP has five, each with its features. These are:

  • Federal Prison Camps: Also known as minimum security institutions, FPCs don’t have many guards around, inmates live in dorms, and sometimes there are no perimeter fences.
  • Low-security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs): These prisons have double fences and mostly dorm or cubicle housing. Low security FCIs also focus on vocational training and drug treatment. They also provide work programs like manufacturing, food service, or maintenance.
  • Medium security FCIs: These facilities use electronic detection systems for better perimeter fencing. While inmates live in cells with more guards to monitor them, medium security FCIs have more work and treatment programs available.
  • High security United States Penitentiaries (USPs): Unlike previous prisons, USPs have highly secure perimeters, provide inmates with single and multi-occupant cell housing, and advanced surveillance systems.
  • Administrative facilities: Unlike other correctional institutions, administrative facilities have particular purposes, like the detention of pretrial offenders, treatment of inmates with serious medical problems, or the housing of extremely dangerous prisoners.

How We Can Help

Remember, you’re not alone in this. There are organizations, like the DOJ and BOP, and support networks dedicated to helping inmates and their loved ones face the challenges of prison life.

Additionally, LookUpInmate.org’s extensive database can assist in finding an inmate. Getting information about a correctional facility, such as policies and guidelines, can also help you better navigate the prison world.

First Day in Federal Prison

To understand why getting acquainted with the basics of prison life is vital, you should imagine yourself setting foot in federal prison for the first time.

So, let’s say you’ve been convicted of a crime, and today is day one of your incarceration. While each facility may have its distinct atmosphere, general aspects apply to a new inmate’s experiences, including the following:

An Introduction to Prison Life

Inmates should pay close attention to the schedules, procedures, and specific expectations within the prison’s confines.

Once you’re in your new environment, it’s all about adopting a new set of rules and routines. Take the opportunity to carefully observe and familiarize yourself with the facility’s inner workings.

Communicating With the Outside World

Maintaining communication with loved ones while incarcerated is extremely important.

Get the lowdown on communication methods, like phone calls, snail mail, and emails. In addition, you must also learn about your facility’s guidelines and communication protocols with the outside world.

How to Greet Cellmates

Depending on the security level of the prison facility, you might find yourself sharing a living space with other inmates. Begin your prison experience positively by introducing yourself and demonstrating respect toward your fellow detainees.

Remember that each person has unique experiences, and by building positive relationships with them, you can help create a more harmonious environment.

Food in Prison

Prison food is often not enough to satisfy any cravings you may have.

Unfortunately for inmates, food standards have fallen in many facilities nationwide, with meager portions, unappetizing dishes, and a total disregard for dietary requirements.

You can turn to the prison commissary, a store where inmates may purchase snacks, like chips, crackers, and even sodas, for extra sustenance. The key is to become acquainted with the prison’s meal schedules and any specific dietary restrictions they may have.

Showers and Toilets in Prison

Privacy in prison is almost non-existent. While medium- and high-security prisons will have sinks and toilets in each cell, bathroom facilities are generally communal or shared.

Despite this, each prison has its own set of rules and etiquette regarding showers and toilets. Prison facilities also have expectations for cleanliness and considerations for privacy.

Laundry, Clothing, & Bedding

By law, inmates are entitled to clean, suitable clothing, linen, towel, and sleeping mat. And in most federal prisons, prisoners typically have access to weekly laundry services, where one can have their undergarments laundered.

However, even as a prisoner, you’re still responsible for your laundry and keeping your clothing and bedding in check. So, you must understand the laundry procedures, dress codes, and guidelines for maintaining personal hygiene that are available in your facility.


The commissary is like a store within the prison walls, where inmates can score snacks, hygiene products, and stationery.

But note that prisoners aren’t allowed to carry cash. Some prisons issue commissary stamps as currency, while others provide each inmate with an electronic ID card to an account where their job earnings go.

Hence, you must understand how the commissary system works in your institution, including the list of items you can purchase and access funds to make purchases.

Searches & Shakedowns

Security is a top priority for prisons. As an inmate, you can expect searches known as “shakedowns” to happen regularly to maintain order and safety.

It’s essential to understand the procedures and protocols for these searches to stay compliant, minimize misunderstandings, and avoid potential issues.

Inmate Work Assignments

Correctional facilities generally give work assignments to inmates based on the facility and the prisoner’s abilities, training, and ambition. While this usually involves janitorial work, other duties like welding, operating forklifts, and teaching may be available to prisoners.

New prisoners should take the time to explore the available work opportunities, the steps to follow when applying for an assignment, and the expectations regarding work hours and conduct.

Controlled Movements

Sometimes, prisoners can “move” from one location to another. These movements are well-organized, documented, supervised, and managed to ensure everyone’s safety and compliance with the custodial requirements and re-integrative services.

You may be subject to shakedowns for certain moves, such as visitation or transfers. Be prepared to follow the protocols and procedures during these controlled movements.

Inmate Counts

Correctional officers or prison staff regularly conduct inmate counts throughout the night at designated times to keep track of the prisoners. Several inmate counts include official, census, bed book, adverse weather, and emergency counts.

How to Talk to Prison Guards

Maintaining respectful communication with correctional officers is essential. Learn to professionally address and interact with guards, following established protocols and guidelines.

Address them using titles like “Officer” or “Sir.” Be cooperative and avoid confrontations.

Federal Prison Staff

Prison staff come from diverse backgrounds and fulfill different roles within the correctional facility. Examples of functions include correctional officers, teachers, case managers, counselors, and nurses.

Each staff member has a unique role in maintaining order, providing services, and supporting inmates.

Familiarizing yourself with the different staff positions and understanding whom to approach for specific needs or concerns is essential.

Prison Transfers

In some cases, inmates may be transferred to different facilities for various reasons, like medical and disciplinary reasons.

Learn about the process and reasons for transfers and the protocols and expectations associated with this transition.

Remember, each prison may have specific rules and procedures, so it’s essential to acquaint yourself with the particular guidelines of the facility you are in.

Information for Family Members

Knowing how to stay connected and provide support is essential when you’re a family member or loved one of someone serving time in federal prison. Here are some things to consider:

Search for an Inmate

When locating a specific inmate, resources are available to assist you. LookUpInmate.org is one of those handy resources. It offers comprehensive databases where you can search for prisoners and gather information about their current whereabouts.

How to Send Money

Incarcerated people may need financial support while in prison, such as to purchase goods from the commissary.

Fortunately, you can provide monetary aid in several ways, including electronic deposits, postal money orders, or a Western Union service.

Inmate Visitation

It’s a legal requirement that inmates receive at least four hours of visiting each month. While most prisons often allow for more, visitation rules can differ from prison to prison.

Before visiting your loved one, you must be well-acquainted with the facility’s visiting rules, regulations, and procedures. These protocols include who can see an inmate, visiting schedules, dress codes, and physical contact protocols.

Inmate Email

Some prisons provide email services for inmates, allowing faster and more convenient communication. The Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS) application enables inmates to access electronic messaging.

However, the policies can differ from one prison to another, with some not permitting email communication as a means of contact with prisoners. If you’re a family member or friend, you must understand the email policies of your loved one’s facility.

Postal Mail

A letter to an individual serving time in an American prison must go through the U.S. Postal Service. Federal prisons generally don’t accept mail from other couriers or delivery services. Additionally, inmates may have restrictions regarding how many letters they can send.

Understanding the limitations and other policies like privacy, proper ways of addressing letters, and what inmates can and cannot receive by mail is crucial if you’re a loved one trying to maintain communication with a prisoner.

Telephone Calls

Inmates have the opportunity to make phone calls. However, the policies for making and receiving telephone calls and their associated costs vary from state to state and prison to prison.

For example, prisoners in California can make unlimited phone calls free of charge under the Keep Families Connected Act.

Inmate Registration Numbers

Each inmate has a unique identifier, the inmate register number, to identify each incarcerated individual. With this number, you can send money to an inmate or search for them and their facility using LookUpInmate.org’s locator.

Healthcare, Psychology, & Religion

In American prisons, inmates have access to healthcare, psychological services, and opportunities for religious practices.

Listed below are the available medical and dental care, the different levels of care provided, and the procedures for accessing these services.

Medical and Dental Care

Incarcerated individuals have the right to get medical and dental care in prison. Prison officials emphasize dental health as it affects the prisoner’s overall health.

As a loved one of a prisoner, it’s essential to understand how inmates can access medical and dental care within their prison system and the processes they must go through when seeking treatment.

Medical Care Levels

The BOP classifies each inmate and each federal prison into one of four medical care levels. These are:

  • Care Level 1: These are inmates who are generally healthy and under 70 years old. They may need evaluation and monitoring but nothing too serious.
  • Care Level 2: Inmates with this designation are stable outpatients. They must see a clinician at least once every three months for evaluation.
  • Care Level 3: These are incarcerated individuals with chronic conditions and are considered fragile outpatients that require frequent clinical treatment.
  • Care Level 4: Inmates with acute or chronic medical conditions that demand significant medical interventions are classified under this level.

Psychology Services

Prison psychologists play a critical role in providing mental health services to prisoners. They often deal with criminals like murderers, sexual predators, and death row inmates. They typically work in maximum security prisons for detainees with mental illness.

You can support an incarcerated loved one by learning about the different psychology services offered, such as counseling or therapy, and the processes for accessing these services.

Practicing Religion

Practicing religion can be vital for many inmates. Fortunately, the First Amendment protects inmates’ right to practice religion. Congress also passed a law preventing prisons from burdening religious practices under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program

The BOP offers prisoners the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) and other drug treatment programs that help inmates overcome substance addiction.

If your loved one requires assistance with substance abuse, learn about the availability of such programs within their facility and the steps for them to enroll in these programs.

Prison Activities

Inmates have opportunities for educational and recreational activities while in prison.

You can support an incarcerated individual by exploring how educational programs, correspondence courses, recreational activities, and hobby programs can help inmates stay engaged.

Education In Prison

Many correctional facilities offer educational programs to help inmates enhance their skills and knowledge. From introductory literacy courses to vocational training and college-level classes, these programs provide opportunities for personal growth and prospects.

Family members and friends can encourage their incarcerated loved ones to explore the educational offerings of the correctional facility where they belong.

Correspondence Programs

Besides formal education, correspondence programs offer self-paced learning opportunities. These programs allow inmates to study various subjects through correspondence, giving them valuable knowledge and a sense of accomplishment.

Supporting your loved one’s participation in correspondence programs can be a meaningful way of contributing to their personal development.

Inmate Recreation

Recreation is crucial for inmates’ mental and physical well-being. Federal prisons put up recreation centers to help provide support.

Recreational activities typically include fitness programs, sports, and leisure pursuits, like movies and arts and crafts.

Encourage your loved one to engage in recreational programs offered within the facility, whether organized sports, fitness classes, or other activities that pique their interest.

Radios and Mp3 Players

Entertainment is essential to daily life, even in prison. Depending on the prison facility, incarcerated individuals are sometimes allowed to have radios or MP3 players, which can provide entertainment and connection to the outside world.

As a loved one of a detainee, you should familiarize yourself with the protocols and regulations regarding these devices in your loved one’s facility to help give them access to the recreation and music they love.

Inmate Leisure Libraries

Prison libraries can be a haven for inmates seeking intellectual stimulation or a break from their daily routine. Inmate leisure libraries offer a range of books, magazines, and other reading materials for recreational purposes.

Encourage your loved one to use these resources to explore new interests, escape into fictional worlds, or gain knowledge in various subjects.

Inmate Law Libraries

Access to legal resources is crucial for inmates navigating the legal system. Inmate law libraries provide resources, such as legal books, reference materials, and computers, to assist inmates in understanding their legal rights and pursuing legal matters.

Trouble in Prison

While prison life can be challenging, knowing the resources and programs available to address various issues is crucial. Here are some aspects to consider:

Administrative Remedy Program

Prisons often have an administrative remedy program to address inmate grievances and complaints. This program provides a formal process for inmates to seek resolution for their concerns during incarceration.

Inmate Discipline Program

Correctional facilities, whether county or state prison, will have disciplinary systems to maintain order and safety.

Understand the inmate discipline program, including the rules, consequences, and procedures for reporting and addressing disciplinary infractions.

Special Housing Units

Special housing units (SHUs), sometimes known as solitary confinement or segregation units, are designated areas where inmates may be placed for disciplinary or security reasons. Inmates in SHUs often may pose a danger to others.

The BOP and the U.S. Department of Corrections (DOC) sets the standards for the operation of SHUs. These units exist to uphold order and ensure public safety within correctional facilities.

Prison Black Market

In the prison black market, inmates can buy items and services unavailable in official channels, like cigarettes, drugs, food, and other things, such as the commissary.

You should understand the potential issues concerning the prison black market and encourage your incarcerated loved one to avoid risks.

Alcohol & Drugs

Prisons strictly prohibit the use of alcohol and illegal drugs.

Encouraging inmates to stay away from these substances can help them avoid the consequences of drug and alcohol infractions within the prison system.

Smoking in Prison

According to the BOP, smoking in prison, including all federal correctional facilities, is prohibited. However, some states still allow smoking within prison walls.

Violence & Sexual Assault

Unfortunately, violence and sexual assault within prison environments are significant problems that prison facilities must address.

As a loved one of an inmate, you must encourage them to report any violence or sexual assault incidents to prison authorities.

Help for Special Populations

Specific prison populations may require additional support and protection. Learn about the resources available to particular groups, such as:

Protective Custody

Inmates who require protection from other inmates may be placed in protective custody, a form of imprisonment or care to keep a person safe from harm.

Unfortunately, protective custody is not automatically granted; inmates may need to prove they’re at risk of harm to receive such custody.

Sex Offenders in Prison

Sex offenders are seen as a vulnerable group in the prison system, with many facing harassment, attacks, and brutalization from other inmates.

Prisons have programs and protocols for managing inmates convicted of sex offenses, such as lighter prison sentences or segregation.

LGBT Inmate Concerns

LGBT inmates are among the most vulnerable in the prison population and may face unique challenges and risks. Several resources and support networks are available online to address their specific needs.

Female Prisoners

Female prisoners have their own set of circumstances and concerns. Fortunately, several resources and programs are tailored to support female inmates, such as the First Step Act (FSA) and evidence-based recidivism reduction (EBBR) programs and productive activities (PAs).

Other Prison Life Resources

Additional resources can assist your loved one during their time in prison. Consider the following:

Admission & Orientation Program

Many prisons have an orientation program to help newly arrived inmates acclimate to their surroundings.

Understand the components of this program and the information it provides.

Legal Correspondence

Inmates often need to correspond with legal professionals.

Learn about the procedures for legal correspondence and how to facilitate effective communication.

What to Do When Questioned by Law Enforcement

Inmates must understand their rights and know how to respond if law enforcement officials question them in prison.

You must also familiarize yourself with your loved one’s prison guidelines to help them uphold compliance and avoid unnecessary troubles.

Inmate Financial Responsibility Program

Some prisons have programs to help inmates manage their financial responsibilities while incarcerated.

You can explore these programs and educate your loved one on financial management within the prison system.

Federal Prison Policy

Each federal prison operates under specific policies and guidelines.

Strive to stay updated and informed about the policies relevant to your loved one’s facility to understand their rights and responsibilities better.

Prison Terms Glossary

The prison system has its jargon and terminology.

You can refer to a prison terms glossary, like the one offered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), to familiarize yourself with standard terms and acronyms in the correction system.

International Prisoner Transfer Treaty Program

In some instances, international prisoner transfer treaties may allow for the repatriation of foreign nationals to their home countries. If a loved one is in another country’s prison system, you can explore the possibility of transfer under these treaties.

What Is Daily Life Like in Prison?

Life behind bars can be challenging and repetitive. There’s a strict routine in prison, including set meal times, work duties, and designated free time.

Inmates must stick to the rules and avoid conflicts with staff and fellow inmates. Keeping things tidy is essential, so personal hygiene and maintaining clean cells are priorities.

However, it’s not all gloom and doom. Inmates have opportunities for education and job training, which can help when they are ready to reintegrate into society.

Understanding the “prison code,” a set of common-sense principles, can help navigate prison life safely and smartly. It’s all about finding a balance and making the most of the situation while planning for a better future.

Here’s What It’s Like for a Woman to Serve Life in Prison

Hundreds of thousands of women are locked up in the U.S. As of 2021, over six thousand are serving life sentences. Here’s what it’s like for some of them to serve life in prison:

Linda, 70, sentenced to 30 years to life. Incarcerated at age 43 in 1992.

Linda, now 70 years old, reflects on the many women she served time with who remain incarcerated, attending parole boards without being released. She often wonders if she will face a similar outcome or if her life will ultimately end within prison walls.

Andrea, 64, sentenced to 20 years to life. Incarcerated at age 46 in 2001.

In the face of the initial strangeness of incarceration, Andrea found solace through her involvement in church activities. She spends her days engaging in reading, bible studies, and pursuing her interests.

Assia, 35, sentenced to 18 years to life. Incarcerated at age 19 in 2003.

For Assia, serving life in prison means being separated from her children and living with the consequences of her past choices. Despite this, she found purpose in caring for a 9-week-old baby girl whose mother is absent.

Cheyenne, 32, sentenced to 19 years to life. Incarcerated at age 29 in 2016.

Cheyenne asserts her strength as a fighter and a strong Black woman. She believes her commitment to God and taking full responsibility for her actions are essential aspects of her journey. She takes short- and long-term proactive steps, such as keeping her faith, to move forward.

Deborah, 49, sentenced to 25 years to life. Incarcerated at age 27 in 1997.

In the privacy of her bedroom, Deborah finds solace and escape from the confines of her prison cell. She closes her eyes to picture herself free, unlocking the front door, and enjoying simple pleasures, like going for a drive or laughing as loud as she wants.

Elizabeth, 52, sentenced to 20 years to life. Incarcerated at age 22 in 1989 and released on parole in 2019 after serving 30 years.

Elizabeth spends her days observing other individuals who, like her, have faced multiple parole boards and lost hope, unable to see a way forward. But Elizabeth is determined to give back to society and remains committed to personal growth.

Gloria, 53, sentenced to 20 years to life. Incarcerated at age 35 in 2000.

Gloria, a domestic violence survivor, and a “lifer,” contemplates the striking difference between her previous life as a cherished individual and the stark reality she now faces. She recognizes that she no longer has a place in her loved ones’ lives. Despite that, she asserts that she’s still an average person. She hasn’t yet developed a prisoner’s mentality.

Haydee, 52, sentenced to 15 years to life. Incarcerated at the age of 26 in 1993 and released on parole in 2019 after serving 26 years.

In the past, Haydee could work actively, performing tasks such as floor cleaning and maintenance. However, due to her declining health, she now finds herself confined to her room, feeling unproductive and reliant on taxpayer support.

Jennifer, 21, sentenced to 19 years to life. Incarcerated at age 17 in 2014.

Jennifer spends her time in prison writing. However, she struggles, unable to articulate what she should say. She still carries the feeling of being expected to do something significant.

Kat, 43, sentenced to life without parole. Incarcerated at age 34 in 2009.

In society, there is often a negative perception of individuals serving LWOP (life without parole), particularly when it comes to women. However, Kat firmly believes in the transformative power of personal change and actively chooses to address her mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Leah, 44, sentenced to 21 years to life. Incarcerated at age 23 in 1997 and released on parole in 2019 after serving 21 years.

Leah acknowledges that she cannot alter her past. She recognizes that her time in prison is more about making positive changes. She’s learning to make better choices and handle situations without resorting to violence.

Patrice, 36, sentenced to 25 years to life. Incarcerated at age 16 in 1998.

Patrice acknowledges the role of punishment in holding individuals accountable on behalf of the state. However, she also desires to demonstrate personal accountability for the pain she caused others.

Sahiah, 23, sentenced to 20 years to life. Incarcerated at age 16 in 2011.

Sahiah reflected on her initial despair when she was incarcerated at a young age. However, as time passed, she believed in a higher purpose and a divine plan for her life. She still holds onto the hope that light is at the end of her tunnel.

Stacy, 45, sentenced to 30 years to life. Incarcerated at age 30 in 2004.

For Stacy, life in prison is waking up confused, believing she’s at home and not in jail. This mixture of emotions brings her comfort and pain, highlighting the complex nature of her feelings and the longing for a different reality.

Taylor, 36, sentenced to 22 1/3 years to life. Incarcerated at age 24 in 2006

Unfortunately, society often characterizes inmates primarily by their offenses. However, Taylor believes one incident should not define a person’s identity. She questions the effectiveness of long periods of incarceration as a solution for rehabilitation.

How Is Life Outside After Being in Prison for Over 20 Years?

Life outside can be challenging and complicated for inmates who’ve been in prison for over 20 years. Take it from Michael Santos, who spent 9,135 days behind bars in different prison settings. He shares his incredible journey in his book Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term.

Michael explains that waiting for his release date always felt like a distant dream he couldn’t fully grasp. But once he finally got out, he experienced freedom in soaking in all the wonders of being part of society again.

Abolish Life Sentences

Currently, there are over 200,000 people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons. However, it’s important to note that “serving life” doesn’t always equate to a lifetime behind bars. There are often chances for sentence modification or parole after a certain amount of time.

A movement is gaining momentum to abolish life sentences, especially life without parole (LWOP). People think LWOP goes against personal transformation and violates human dignity.

The Sentencing Project recommends removing LWOP and limiting all life sentences to 20 years, except for rare cases. The American Bar Association also calls for abolishing life-without-parole sentences, which they call barbaric.


1. 18 Facts You Need to Know About U.S. Prisons
2. The Mental Health Effects of Being in Prison
3. How incarceration affects your mental health: From higher risk of PTSD to loss of self-control
4. Influence of environmental factors on mental health within prisons: focus group study
5. “Prison didn’t change me, I have changed”: Narratives of change, self, and prison time
6. What it’s like serving a life sentence in prison with no chance of release
8. Humanity in Prison
9. Rehabilitation and social reintegration of prisoners
10. Integrated approaches to challenges facing the criminal justice system
11. Inmate Custody & Care
12. Prison Security Levels
13. Types of BOP Institutions
14. Communication
15. What Prison Food Is Really Like Around The United States
16. inmate Canteen | Inmate Commissary Items
17. Prison Clothes And Bedding
18. 210 Ind. Admin. Code 3-1-10
20. Amdt4.5.5.7 Searches of Prisoners, Parolees, and Probationers
21. Work Assignments Reported by Prisoners
22. Movements
24. How to visit or send money to a prisoner
25. General Visiting Information
26. Stay in touch
27. Trulincs, (Inmate Computer System)
28. Correspondence
29. Telephone Service for Incarcerated Individuals
30. Cal. Code Regs. tit. 15 § 3282
32. How poor dental care in prison makes reentry harder for formerly incarcerated people
33. Religious Freedom in Prison
36. Substance Abuse Treatment
37. Substance Abuse Treatment
38. Prison Education Programs: What to Know
40. Library Services, Inmate
41. Administrative Remedy Program
42. Inmate Discipline Program
43. Special Housing Units
45. Contraband in prisons
46. Smoking Officially Banned in Prisons
47. Virginia Prisons Ban Smoking
48. The Case for Smoking in Prison
49. Sexual Violence Inside Prisons: Rates of Victimization
50. Protective Custody in Adult Correctional Facilities – A Discussion of Causes, Conditions, Attitudes and Alternatives
51. Visualizing the unequal treatment of LGBTQ people in the criminal justice system
52. Female Offenders
53. An Overview of the First Step Act
54. Evidence-based Recidivism Reduction (EBRR) Programs and Productive Activities (PA)
56. Powerful portraits of women serving life sentences in prison show that they are more than their crimes
57. Thousands of women are serving life in U.S. prisons. Their history of trauma is often overlooked.
58. LGBTQI-focused Organizations and Resources
59. Women’s Organizations and Resources

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