What Is Life Like in Prison?

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After receiving your criminal conviction, you may wonder how you should prepare for prison life. Or maybe your loved one is headed to prison, and you are looking for ways to help them adjust.

What is the daily routine of an inmate like? How do they make their lives in prison worthwhile? How do they cope with their medical issues and prison violence?

You can read this article to prepare yourself for your prison assignment in advance. 

This article will also come in handy if you have a family member or friend headed for prison.

It will also discuss what inmates can expect regarding healthcare, personal safety, and educational opportunities while in prison.

lookupinmate.org gives you access to inmate records in over 7,000 jails and prisons across America, providing you with an overview of what prison is like. Our blog section also offers a wealth of resources on the U.S. criminal justice system.

Federal Prison Basics: What Are U.S. Prisons Like?

The state’s Department of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) use a classification system for deciding where to place law offenders. 

Unlike jail sentences, a sentence for a state or federal violation would mean staying somewhere farther away from your loved ones’ residence.

Regardless of your location, some factors can help your transition to your new environment. 

The Factors That Affect an Inmate’s Prison Experience

Different correctional facilities have specific qualities that affect an inmate’s quality of life.

Prison Security Levels  

Federal prisons have a five-level security classification consisting of: 

The higher the security, the fewer freedoms prisoners have. Inmates have to live in solitary confinement and have non-contact visits at higher-security prisons. 

Male and Female Institutions 

Female prisoners stay in dorms instead of cell blocks. The security level at women’s correctional facilities is similar to the minimum- to medium-security men’s prisons.

Most female offenders serve prison sentences for nonviolent crimes. Their convictions often result from drug abuse or physically or sexually abusive relationships.

Geographic Location

The environment inside state prisons in rural areas is more likely to be less violent than facilities in urban areas where gang violence is rampant.

As for the inmate’s connection to their loved ones, the distance of a prisoner’s facility from the homes of their family can affect the social ties between them.

A Day in the Life of a Prisoner: What Does It Feel Like To Be in Prison?

Entering prisons is very different from transferring to a new home—hardly anyone has time to prepare to become an inmate.  

Once in prison, you lose your ability to control the space you live in and how to occupy it, including what personal objects you can place around you.

As Seen On TV: Life in Prison Is Not Life

Crime and incarceration have become sources of entertainment. Film and TV show producers successfully captivate audiences with stories of danger and deviance in prison complexes. 

At the same time, news reports and documentaries expose the public to the inhumane conditions in prison. As a result, the public generally considers prisons a dangerous place where escapes, riots, and hunger strikes occur. 

However, the media fails to cover the other aspects of prison life, including inmates’ daily work and educational activities, which we will discuss in more detail below. 

Incarceration does not need to be a dead end for an inmate. This article aims to help you or your loved one navigate through prison life and make it a period of growth until the prison term ends.

Preparing for Prison

If time permits, you should research the prison’s admission process, life, and culture. You can also search for correctional facilities whose security level is the same as your prison destination.

Some criminal attorneys were former inmates who now offer legal services. Their law offices put out blogs that feature valuable advice. 

You should consider consulting these professionals, especially if they had similar charges in the past. They may have even served prison time at the same institution or a facility with the same security level as yours.

First Day In Federal Prison: Listen and Learn 

When you get on the transport vehicle that will take you to prison, former inmates suggest you act the way you would on your first day of school. 

Make an acquaintance or two but avoid attracting attention. Staying obscure can protect you from bullies who are seeking a target. 

Avoid asking questions in a frightened tone so you do not appear weak.

Once you arrive at your facility, be aware of everything around you and try to catch up very quickly. 

Former inmates warn that prison officials can give harmful advice to new inmates when they ask what happens on the first day in prison. 

So, avoid inquiring from officers about this matter when you enter your facility.

First Stop: Reception

For first-time inmates, the reception area is the receiving and discharge (R&D) station for the booking process. Officers will take your photograph and fingerprints and issue your inmate ID card.

Also, at the R&D, officers review the items in your possession that you can bring with you to prison. They limit the allowed personal property for sanitation and security reasons. Federal prisoners receive a set of clothing, bedding, and hygiene items.

Inmates who voluntarily surrender can keep the following items:

  • Prescription glasses
  • Legal documents
  • Social Security card and other ID cards
  • Wedding band
  • Medical or orthopedic devices
  • Religious items approved by the warden

Law firms also advise you to bring $200 to $500 cash for your prison trust fund, which serves as your bank account in prison. 

Inmate Registration Numbers

Prisons have their unique numbering conventions when assigning inmate identification numbers. 

Federal inmates get an eight-digit register number. The last three digits correspond to the numeric code of the federal sentencing court’s location. 

Admission and Orientation Program

Admission and orientation meetings can take 28 days. These meetings include evaluations and learning about the prison’s regulations and programs.

Inmates undergo interviews so prison staff can determine what issues detainees face that can require the attention of the health, psychology, and dental service departments.

These interviews also help prison staff decide on the inmate’s housing location (bunk or cell unit) and the type of healthcare they need to receive if any. 

During these interviews, former prisoners advise against volunteering information about group or gang affiliation or testifying against co-defendants. Corrupt officials may pass these details to other inmates.

How To Greet Cellmates

After receiving your bedroll, your unit officer will give you your bunk assignment. 

To find your unit officer, ask for directions from someone wearing the same uniform as you. 

If you need more help locating your bunk, ask questions from your unit officer instead of a fellow prisoner.

Once you find your cell, knock firmly but respectfully. Then introduce yourself to your cellmate, like “My name is Rob. They told me to bunk in here.” and ask which bunk is yours.

Your cellmates should take an hour to clear the empty bunk bed and extra locker.

Some inmates may not welcome you to their space in medium- or high-security prisons. They will likely point you to another cell or look for the head prisoner of your race in the housing unit to resolve the issue. 

If the cell’s occupants are unwilling to help, find another inmate to ask who you should speak with on the matter. 

Federal Prison Staff

Fellow inmates are watching others’ actions, including yours. Prisoners do not want an administration sympathizer. So stay polite and professional but distant with prison staff. 

Speak briefly with the unit officer when you are retrieving mail.

How To Talk to Prison Guards

Avoid mentioning another inmate’s name in front of a guard unless your fellow prisoner permits you. 

In higher-security federal prisons, bring a fellow detainee with you whenever you have to speak to a guard or meet the lieutenant.

In case of any issues with the prison personnel, you may have to formally report your grievance. 

Meanwhile, when a corrections officer asks if anyone is threatening you and someone is indeed making threats, you should request for placement in protective custody before providing any names. 

Food in Prison

Inmates eat three meals a day. In lower-security prisons, inmates eat meals in a large dining hall, also called their “chow hall.” 

The cafeteria-like area has a serving bar, but inmates receive set meals and cannot choose what or how much to eat. Moreover, prisons do not allow second helpings.

Meanwhile, in high-security prisons, prison guards bring the meals to the inmates’ cells on a tray. 

The breakfast menu in prison consists of fruit, oatmeal, grits, bran flakes, bread, pancakes, margarine, and jelly. Milk is only available during breakfast, while water and flavored drinks are available during all three meals. 

Lunch and dinner generally have chicken, beef patties, boiled or scrambled eggs, beans, lasagna or macaroni, baked potatoes, corn, vegetables, and different soups, like cream of potato, vegetable, bean, or egg noodles. 

Prisoners with money in their trust fund accounts can also buy food items from the commissary. 

Is Prison Food Really As Bad as They Say It Is?

In at least 36 states, prisons prepare alternative meals for inmates who are facing disciplinary action. Nutraloaf is one of the disciplinary food that erring prisoners get in 18 states.

The loaf consists of grits and oatmeal, carrots, spinach, dried beans, tomato paste, and vegetable oil that is baked for 30 to 40 minutes. Reports say that this brick-like loaf has a bland and unappealing taste.

A Washington state prisoner filed a complaint against this brick-like meal in the 1990s. 

However, an appeals court ruled that the law only requires prison food “to maintain (inmates’) health” and the meals do not necessarily have to be “tasty or aesthetically pleasing.”

Inmate Counts 

Prison officers conduct prison counts daily to ensure there are no missing inmates. These counts include:

  • Official counts or stand-up counts – You stand up in your cell when the prison guards walk by your cell to count. In other correctional facilities, inmates remain standing until the guards finish counting.
  • Census counts – These counts happen on weekdays and are mainly for job and school attendance.
  • Bed book counts – Prison officers usually conduct this after several recounts at a housing unit, specifically if the actual attendance does not match that unit’s official attendance.
  • Adverse weather counts – Officers conduct stand-up counts during power outages, bad fog, turbulent weather, or when a prisoner goes missing.
  • Emergency counts – Officials organize these counts for all other types of emergencies.

Showers And Toilets In Prison

Bathroom facilities in dorm-type housing are accessible 24 hours a day and do not have a time-lock feature. Bathrooms include toilet cubicles with swinging doors.  

In cell-type housing, each cell has a bathroom that inmates share. In a growing number of federal prisons, the toilets in cell units are push-button and lock out if you flush twice within five minutes.

In dorm-type housing, inmates can shower alone or with others. You can enter an empty shower stall only if nobody has left a shirt or towel on the door to reserve the spot.

Laundry, Clothing, and Bedding

All federal prisons provide inmates with the clothing and bedding they need. Prisoners receive shirts, khaki pants, button-up shirts, boxers, a winter jacket, a pair of work boots, a blanket, a bed sheet, towels, and a wash rag.

Inmates also get a laundry bag and a laundry number. The prison assigns detainees their laundry dates. Prisoners bring their bags of dirty clothes to the laundry services section for washing and drying. 


The commissary is the in-prison store where prisoners can buy food, clothing, and other items. 

The prison administration assigns inmates their shopping day weekly, based on their registration number. 

The national maximum inmate spending limit is $360 per month. The calculation excludes the amount spent on over-the-counter medicine, postage stamps, and copy cards. 

Prison Activities

Inmates have a daily schedule that involves helping with the correctional facility’s maintenance and fulfilling the prison population’s needs, including laundry and food services.

In other prisons, private companies employ inmates to be part of their production team.

Doing the Work

Inmates work at any of these departments in their respective prisons:

  • Facilities (electrical, painting, plumbing, landscaping, and other maintenance jobs)
  • Food service  
  • Education  (adult continuing education classes and leisure and law library)
  • Recreation (sports, music, hobby crafts)
  • Commissary
  • Laundry 
  • Prison compound grounds
  • Safety (recycling, distributing cleaning and sanitation supplies)
  • Religious services (chapel service and library, religious classes)
  • Barbershop
  • Housing units (janitorial duties)

Federal Prison Industries, Inc. or UNICOR factories also use inmate labor to produce various products, from military electronics to prison uniforms.

Everyone Is on a Strict Schedule

Inmates follow a schedule set by their correctional facility. Wake-up times, meals, and lights-out times can vary. Breakfast can start as early as 5:30 AM and prisoners can also eat dinner by 4 PM.

Attendance is a must during count times. Being in the wrong place during a count may result in an incident report. 

Controlled Movements

Federal prison inmates can only move from one location to another within their facility when corrections officers call out “Activities move!” over the public address system. 

These moves include going to the recreation area, starting work, getting ready to receive medication or insulin shots, and returning to housing units.

Medical And Dental Care

The speed at which inmates receive medical attention depends on the kind of health condition they are experiencing.

The BOP classifies medical problems into five categories:

  • Medically necessary (acute or emergent) – could be life-threatening or can cause an inmate’s health to deteriorate or have an irreversible loss of function. Examples include stroke, internal bleeding, severe trauma such as head injuries, heart attack, pregnancy complications, detached retina, or sudden loss of vision.
  • Medically necessary (nonemergent) – not immediately life-threatening, but the condition may cause pain or discomfort that could impair an inmate’s normal body function. The condition may also lead to possible treatment later if the inmate does not receive immediate care.

These medical conditions include heart disease, diabetes, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, cancer, tuberculosis, HIV, and infectious disorders.

  • Medically acceptable (not always necessary) – includes procedures that can improve an inmate’s quality of life, such as joint replacement and treatment of lipoma, skin tags, and other noncancerous skin conditions.
  • Limited medical value – has little or no long-term medical value except to provide inmate’s convenience (like cosmetic procedures and removal of noncancerous skin lesions)
  • Extraordinary – organ transplant; requires a medical director’s review and regional director’s approval.

The BOP also provides dental services for cavity treatment and issues that prevent inmates from eating or sleeping. However, nonemergency cases can stay on the waiting list for a long time, even several years.

Medical Care Levels

Each federal prison has a BOP-designated medical care level. The four levels are: 

  • Care level 1: Inmates who are 69 years old and below with medical needs that clinician evaluations can address every 6 to 12 months. Level 1 conditions include diet-controlled diabetes, mild asthma, and HIV.
  • Care level 2: Stable outpatient inmates who require clinician evaluations every month or every six months with occasional consultation by medical specialists.

Level 2 conditions include medication-controlled diabetes, epilepsy, and emphysema (a lung condition that causes shortness of breath).

  • Care level 3: Outpatient inmates with complex or chronic medical and mental health conditions that require frequent clinical contact to prevent complications or hospitalization.

Level 3 conditions include cancer in partial remission, severe congestive heart failure, severe mental illness in remission on medication, end-stage liver disease, and advanced HIV infection.

  • Care level 4: Inmates that require 24-hour skilled nursing care due to severe impairment.

Level 4 conditions include cancer on active treatment, dialysis, high-risk pregnancies, stroke or head injury patients, major surgical treatment, and quadriplegia.

Is Medical Care Worse in Prison?

Former inmates state that prison life can be hard on healthy people and even more challenging for those struggling with ailments. If you are a prisoner, you cannot call in sick when you feel ill. 

To visit the clinic, inmates must fill out a form and wait for their housing unit’s time for “sick call” before they can head to the clinic. 

You join the queue and wait for your turn. The only medicine you can get is what is available at the commissary. 

Prison As Health Hazard: Healthcare, Psychology, and Religion

Prison Policy, a nonprofit organization, reported that prison healthcare prioritizes treatment for acute health issues instead of treating chronic conditions or preventing them. 

The report showed that one in five inmates has only made one health-related visit since entering their facility.

Seventeen percent of state prisoners have acquired infectious diseases (including hepatitis B and C), which is higher than the percentage in the general U.S. population. 

Also, 23% of older inmates (above 55 years old) have been diagnosed with heart disease and diabetes.

Psychology Services

Prisons have psychology services departments that offer classes and programs to inmates, including stress, alcohol, and anger management classes, and parenting skills classes.

Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program

Federal inmates near their release dates get priority for the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), a nine-month intensive program. 

Admission to the RDAP results in getting housed in a unit separate from the general population.

The inmates in this program have daily schedules, like school, work, and vocational activities.

Education In Prison

Every federal prison’s education department runs different programs for its inmates. These programs include:

  • Literacy programs for prisoners who lack a high school diploma or General Education Development (GED) certificate
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for non-English speaking inmates
  • Vocational and occupational training programs based on labor force needs of the correctional institution and conditions in the general labor market
  • Adult Continuing Education (ACE) activities
  • Parenting classes to maintain parental bonds with family members during prison serving time

Correspondence Programs

Inmates can also enroll in correspondence courses to obtain a college degree while in prison. However, prisoners must shoulder their expenses for their chosen distance learning program.

Detainees still depend on paper-based, mail-in courses even if they have access to the internet through the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS). 

This paid email service is limited to communications with personal contacts in the outside world. 

However, in some states like California, state prisoners are making academic advances due to onsite secondary education. 

San Quentin State Prison’s initiative to offer college programs within the prison system began in 1996. This inspired other California correctional facilities to do the same.

Inmate Law Libraries

Federal prison libraries have TRULINCS computers that allow inmates free access to legal research materials. However, the database only contains references related to federal case law. 

Prisoners can stay in the library for two hours at a time. Printout and photocopy services come with a fee.

Inmate Recreation

Federal prisons typically have indoor and outdoor recreation areas. Inmates refer to the outdoor area as their big yard, where they play various sports. Prisons can have one football field and smaller areas for basketball or tennis. 

Some facilities have gym equipment like treadmills and ellipticals in their indoor recreation areas. These places also feature a section for arts and crafts, a band room for musical instruments, pool tables, table games, and TV watching.

Radios and Mp3 Players

Federal prisons allow inmates to listen to music through the prison system’s MP3 player service. Prisoners can buy MP3 devices from the commissary and download songs through TRULINCS for a fee. 

Inmates can buy up to 15 songs daily. Each song is worth about $1.35. These players—which cost around $90 at the commissary—also have FM functionality. 

Inmate Leisure Libraries

Prisons’ leisure library has books, which inmates can borrow for two weeks at a time. The library generally does not loan out reference books. 

Inmates can also join inter-library loan programs in some federal prisons that partner with community or state libraries.

Practicing Religion

Prisoners can join three hours’ worth of weekly activities for their chosen faith, organized by the correctional facility. 

Chapel libraries have reading and video resources. You must sign up at the library to watch religious videos in the viewing room.

Federal inmates can keep a Bible or Koran in their cells. However, officials ban faith objects if these items pose security risks. Prisons also make allowances for Muslim and Jewish diets.

The Struggle To Stay Sane

The American Prison Writing Archive, a digital archive that has first-hand testimonies of inmates and prison staff, shared a collection of prisoners’ writings describing how corrections officers complicated the simplest tasks. 

According to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit organization, officers confuse prisoners with their inconsistent routines and rules. 

Inmates reported feeling disoriented amid arbitrary procedures on laundry, personal hygiene supplies, and daily schedules. Prisoners said they found it impossible to get things right no matter how hard they tried.

Trouble In Prison

Part of becoming an inmate is losing your privacy. You can get into difficult situations while in prison, such as violating rules or experiencing maltreatment from prison staff. You can also experience different inconveniences.

Prison Is Loud And Uncomfortable

You may have to sleep with dozens of people in one room if you are in dorm-style housing. 

You do not have control over the lights. Officers turn on the light early in the morning and turn them off late at night.

Beddings have minimal cushions. Heating and air-conditioning systems are generally absent. As a result, the temperature is extremely hot in the summertime and cold during the winter.

Former prisoners and psychologists suggest that inmates buy earplugs or musical devices with headphones to help block out the noise.

Avoiding junk food, caffeine, and watching violent TV shows before sleeping is another popular piece of advice.

Inmates can also try journaling and reliving a positive memory until they feel calm.

Searches and Shakedowns

A shakedown is another term for a body search done by prison officers to check an inmate for contraband. 

These shakedowns—pat-down or body searches and cell searches—can happen any time of the day, including when inmates eat in the chow hall. 

The presence of “hard” contraband—alcohol, drugs, and weapons—will result in confiscation, an incident report, and loss of privileges. You can lose access to the commissary, email, or phone for 30 to 90 days. 

Meanwhile, officers may order you to dispose of “soft contraband”—excess property and stolen food from the food service department. Sometimes, officers may also allow you to keep these objects.

Administrative Remedy Program

Inmates can file grievances or complaints about adverse disciplinary actions. However, former prisoners recommend consulting a lawyer before using the administrative remedy program. 

Inmates must use all available internal channels in prison to settle a grievance before filing a petition in court. Prisoners can also learn more about the Administrative Remedy Program through the law library’s TRULINCS computers. 

Inmate Discipline Program

Committing a prison violation results in an officer filing an incident report against you. This is what inmates call a “shot.” 

Officials classify prison misconduct into four types:

  • 400 series (low severity) such as unauthorized physical contact
  • 300 series (moderate severity) such as indecent exposure
  • 200 series (high severity) such as fighting
  • 100 series (greatest severity), such as killing

Special Housing Units

Special housing units (SHUs) or “the hole” are separate areas within a prison that can accommodate one to three occupants for:

  • Disciplinary segregation
  • Administrative detention pending transfer to another facility
  • Protective custody (to protect an inmate who is under threat of severe physical harm from fellow inmates)

Prison Black Market

Bartering is against prison rules. However, black markets or underground economic activities exist in correctional facilities.

Inmates usually steal items from the departments where they had work assignments, so they have something to trade with others when specific needs arise. 

Prisoners become “store men” after collecting enough items to run a mini commissary.

Alcohol and Drugs

Alcohol and drug overdose deaths in prisons increased five-fold between 2009 and 2019, indicating widespread alcohol and drug smuggling. 

Officers issue a “100 series” incident report against inmates caught drinking or getting high on drugs. This violation can mean staying in the facility’s SHU for at least a month or two.

Smoking In Prison

As a general rule, prisons issue a disciplinary incident report against anyone caught smoking.

However, the underground tobacco trade in prisons continues even if the federal prison system banned these products. The ban covers cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and smokeless tobacco, including chews and dips.

Over half of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. are cigarette smokers. 

Violence and Sexual Assault

Different prison groups use physical violence to assert their dominance and control. 

Violent incidents happen more frequently in high-security prisons, where inmates feel they have nothing to lose. 

Lawyers advise prisoners who faced harassment or experienced sexual abuse to file a complaint invoking their rights under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. 

Inmates can file a report using the TRULINCS inmate-to-staff messaging, report to a staff member, or write to the Department of Justice.

If you are an informant or sex offender who will serve time at a high-security prison, request to stay at the SHU to avoid being a target of violent attacks.

Life In “Pick-a-Part” 

The BOP may assign inmates with physical disabilities to correctional medical facilities with wards to accommodate them. 

Despite these inmates’ limitations, some would get into “pick-a-part” fights where they wield their prosthetic arm or leg. Others would use part of their wheelchair to get back at a fellow prisoner.

Some groups advocate community placement for prisoners with disabilities because most prisons do not have accessible features that people with limited mobility need. 

Help For Special Populations

Special populations refer to inmates who may need legal knowledge and support for their unique situation. They include the particular groups below.

Protective Custody

You may seek protective custody if you believe someone plans to severely harm you due to your criminal history as a sex offender or government informant. 

Legal experts advise that you refuse to report your inmates’ bad behavior even if prison officials ask such questions when you request protective custody. 

At the same time, be aware that protective custody inmates are housed in SHUs and subject to the same conditions as those with pending disciplinary hearings.

Sex Offenders In Prison

Law firms suggest that convicted sex offenders seek a judicial recommendation for the Sex Offender Management Program (SOMP) designation. 

The BOP has nine SOMP facilities that keep these offenders and provide them with psychological treatment.

LGBT Inmate Concerns

Some prisons have sensitive needs yards for inmates who belong to the LGBTQ community. These inmates have a high risk of being targeted for intimidation or violent attacks. 

Lawyers advise LGBTQ inmates to be as discreet as possible. At the same time, they must carry themselves confidently so others will think twice before bothering them. 

You should mind your own business and avoid prolonged eye contact with others.

Female Prisoners

The BOP has 29 women-only correctional facilities with minimum, low, and administrative security levels.

Female prisoners receive mental health treatment, psychological counseling, and vocational training like their male counterparts. 

Women inmates can also join educational programs, religious services, and leisure activities.

Other Prison Life Resources

This guide also looks into additional aspects of prison life beyond daily routines and strategies for coping with the general inmate population.

Legal Correspondence

Prisoners have the right to communicate with their lawyers through the mail, phone calls, and visits.

When mailing your attorney, you should include the following information on the envelope to prevent staff from opening its contents:

  • Lawyer’s full name
  • Title as an attorney
  • Notice such as “Special or Legal Mail: Open Only in the Inmate’s Presence”

Meanwhile, note that prison officers may listen to your phone calls. As for in-person visits, lawyers must schedule these meetings with at least a 24-hour advanced notice.

What To Do When Questioned by Law Enforcement

If you have a minor child that committed a crime, here are some steps to take if the police come knocking at your door: 

  • Understand the adversarial role of the criminal justice system. The police have contacted or come to your home to catch a culprit.
  • Listen to the best of your ability. Understand the evidence and who the parties are in the incident where your child is supposedly involved.
  • Invoke your and your child’s right to remain silent. Then request that the officers speak with your attorney for further inquiries. 

Inmate Financial Responsibility Program

The Inmate Financial Responsibility Program allows prisoners to pay their court fees while serving their sentence. 

Unit staff will guide the inmate in developing a financial plan to help them fulfill their monetary obligations based on how much they earn from prison work. The BOP allows a single payment for fees worth $100 and below.

Refusal to join this program will result in sanctions, such as a $25-monthly limit for commissary spending, placement in the least preferable inmate housing structure, and a report to the Parole Commission about this refusal.

Federal Prison Policy

You can learn more about the BOP’s policies in detail by reviewing their documents with the title “program statements.” These documents lay out the protocols governing individual federal prisons.

Inmates can read these materials from the TRULINCS computers of their prison’s law library.  

Meanwhile, for additional information that can help you understand the prison system, try checking the BOP’s website, specifically the “Policy & Forms” page. See whether the available topics on this page offer any details related to your concern.

Prison Terms Glossary

Various government websites—including the portals of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission—feature a “Glossary” web page that lists the meaning of different prison terms.

Prison Transfers

The BOP transfers thousands of inmates annually. The Bureau’s Designation and Sentence Computation Center assigns inmates to a particular correctional facility based on their custody and classification score. 

The BOP transfers prisoners to different prisons by bus, van, or airplane. Officers place physical restraints on inmates during the trip to reduce the likelihood of escape. 

According to former inmates, prisoners speak politely before the trip and tell their officers if the handcuffs or ankle shackles are too tight. Any extra room will make for a more manageable journey.

International Prisoner Transfer Treaty Program

Foreign nationals can request a transfer to their home countries under the International Prisoner Transfer Program.

This program also aims to help U.S American citizens who are incarcerated overseas to return to their homeland.

Inmates can be eligible for transfer if they are citizens of a country with which the U.S. made a treaty for this program. 

Prisoners must satisfy several criteria, including serving a nonmilitary, nonpolitical, non-death penalty sentence.

The Hidden Costs of Incarceration

The BOP estimates its annual cost of incarceration fee (COIF) per federal inmate at $39,158 ($120.59 per day).

The U.S. COIF is lower than Canada’s $110,000 per year to house each inmate.

However, in 2021, Maclean (a Canadian magazine) reported that violence in prisons in Canada was rampant, with five murders occuring inside the facility last year. 

In America, homicide in state prisons is 2.5 times higher than in the U.S. population, according to a Prison Policy Initiative report in 2021.

The BOP’s COIF does not include the other expenses that inmates and their loved ones have to shoulder. Inmates spend for commissary purchases, phone calls, email usage, and education correspondence courses.

More recent annual figures are unavailable. However, in a 2022 article by the Marshall Project featuring the monthly commissary expenses of three inmates, the highest spending was $173.25. 

If this figure is the base monthly cost, the inmate’s annual expenses will be slightly over $2,000.

Information for Family Members: The Long Journey To Visit Loved Ones in Lockup

Most prisons are far away from the city centers, extending the travel time of family members who wish to visit their incarcerated loved ones. State prisoners stay in facilities more than 100 miles away from their loved ones.

The First Step Act now requires the BOP to allow much nearer release transfers for inmates, or closer than the bureau’s former cap of within 500 miles of a prisoner’s release residence.

Search For An Inmate

You can use lookupinmate.org to find your loved ones’ prison locations. You only need to enter the inmate’s first and last names in the Homepage’s Nationwide Inmate Records Online Check section.

Our website connects you to over 7,000 correctional institutions, including state and federal prisons.

Communicating With the Outside World

Communicating with friends and loved ones can help inmates break the monotony of prison life. 

Prisoners can keep in touch with the outside world through snail mail, telephone, the Corrlinks.com email system, and scheduled visits

How To Send Money

As mentioned earlier, inmates need funds during incarceration to pay their legal fees and buy commissary items to make their daily prison life more manageable. 

lookupinmate.org has a dedicated article covering this topic.

Inmate Visitation

Prisoners and their family members must follow prison policies for in-person visits. Inmates should complete the visitor information form, listing the names of people who can visit them personally.

lookupinmate.org’s articles on conjugal visits and the states that allow such visits will help keep marital ties alive during imprisonment.

Inmate Email

Prisoners can keep in touch with their loved ones through email when they register with the official prison emailing system run by Corrlinks.com.

After an inmate signs up and enters their loved one’s name and email information with Corrlinks, the system will send the other person an email allowing them to start correspondence with the prisoner.

Postal Mail

If you plan to write letters to inmates, you can use lookupinmate.org or visit the website of your loved one’s correctional facility to check the correct mailing address.

Telephone Calls

Inmates can use the phone to talk with their approved contacts for up to 300 minutes per month.

Most of the time, you need to fund your loved one’s phone call fees for them to be able to contact you.

Looking at Prison Through a Free World Lens

Despite the various amenities inmates have at their disposal, the public should consider the environment and ways prisoners can access these resources.

Not all prison libraries and gyms are spacious and have the most complete or modern equipment.

Inmates must always wear their prison uniforms when doing activities outside their cell, including sports or gym work. 

As discussed earlier, prisoners are always on the go, following their schedule and ensuring they are present during the various inmate counts throughout the day.

Last Piece of Advice

Be extra discerning when sharing information about your personal life until you know you can trust that person. 

What you say may be used against you, just like what officers told you when they read your Miranda rights.

Avoid asking for favors from people you do not know. Everything has its price, and people may bill you at an awkward or unexpected time. 

Listen more than you talk, learn, and endure to transition well into your prison life.

Federal Prison Life Resources: Find More Tips on Life in Prison Through Our Blog

If you are interested in other topics to help you or your loved one prepare for incarceration, you can check out related articles on the topic in lookupinmate.org’s blog section. 

To get you started, consider reading these titles: “Prison Food,” “Low-Security Prison,” “Medium-Security Prison,” and “Maximum Security Prison.”


  1. Differences Between Men’s & Women’s Prisons Women’s Prisons
  2. Differences Between Male & Female Inmates
  3. Fictional Representation of Prison in Films and TV’s Series Genre: Public and Academic Perceptions of Prison
  4. Challenging the Media-Incarceration Complex through Media Education
  5. Behind Locked Bars: The Role of Media and Mass Incarceration
  6. Entering Prison
  7. Inmate Personal Property
  8. Federal Bureau of Prisons – National Menu
  9. Trust Fund/Deposit Fund Manual
  10. Inmate Admission and Orientation Handbook
  11. The Federal Bureau of Prison’s Efforts to Manage Inmate Health Care
  12. Care Level Classification for Medical and Mental Health Conditions or Disabilities
  13. Substance Abuse Treatment
  14. Education Programs
  15. Education and Vocational Training
  16. Education Programs
  17. Freedom of religion in prison
  18. Collection Description: History, Process, Mission
  19. To Reduce Smoking Rates in Prisons, Cessation Programs Must Be Expanded and Extended
  20. The Problem of Disabled Prisoners
  21. The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Inmate Financial Responsibility Program
  22. Policy & Forms
  23. Glossary
  24. Glossary of Federal Sentencing-Related Terms
  25. First Step Act Annual Report April 2022
  26. General Visiting Information
  27. Program Statement – telephone privileges

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