First Day In Prison | First Day in Federal Prison

Chances are, you will remember your first day in prison for the rest of your life. While the experience can differ between different prisons, new admissions generally go through the same intake process. Below we discuss what happens on your first day in federal prison.

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First Day in Prison

First Day in Prison

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

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

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

My First Day in Prison 

Kristin Davis, who journaled about her experiences in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, wrote about going “inside the wall.”

“In prison speak, going ‘inside the wall’ is the lingo used by inmates when they refer to entering a real prison facility. It is not about the prison’s actual wall but more about the feelings this wall provokes. The wall represents a sense of finality, and it also represents a place of danger and intense fear.”

This page’s goal is to explain the first day of incarceration and help soon-to-be prisoners understand what is about to happen, how to manage it safely, and how to deal with the stress and anxiety of the process.

Prison Transport Bus

Incarceration becomes a reality while on the bus or van en route to the prison. At this point, inmates realize there is no turning back, no chance of an alternative to imprisonment. During transport, all new arrivals experience some level of anxiety. No one wants their concern to show, but it is there, even for those who have already served many years and have experience doing time.

How to Act on the Prison Transport Bus

Newly committed inmates should exercise control over their reactions while in transport. Everyone is nervous, but if an inmate asks fearful questions, they’ll create the impression of being weak. The bus ride to prison is like the first day of school: first impressions are critical because others are deciding who will be left alone and who will become a target.

Inmates on the bus try to find others who have something in common. It is best not to choose anyone who looks like they will be easily intimidated as a buddy.

However, inmates should not choose someone who acts like a bully either. Associations in prison can either be a strength or a downfall. Prisoners should choose others who will add strength, not those who attract bullies.

Everyone’s goal, especially as a first-time offender, is obscurity. Prisoners want to project strength. They want to show that they can take care of themselves but not attract attention or stand out.

By remaining unremarkable, being friendly, and making an acquaintance or two, inmates are better prepared to start their term of incarceration on a firmer footing. When problems present, they will be able to manage the issues effectively.

My Prison Transport Bus Experience

I’ll never forget the first time I approached prison from a transport bus. We were a group of thirty, many of whom had served time before. The energy was palpable; everyone was on edge.

All of us were peering through the steel security grates on the bus windows at the approaching menace. Everyone had the same general question: what happens on your first day in prison?

As our bus pulled into the parking lot, we saw a massive structure of concrete, steel, and spools of fencing and razor wire. Two perimeter patrol vehicles pulled up with armed prison guards. We waited.

The guards unlocked a fence and motioned the bus inside. The fence was locked behind us. A large steel door slid open, and our bus pulled into a vast, dimly-lit garage.

Our names were called one after another. As each name was called, the rest of us became even more anxious until we were called. Then anxiety became internal panic.

Once off the bus, we were thrown up against a wall and forcefully pat-searched. The air was knocked out of me as a hand bit into my stomach. We had to line up with the others who had just experienced the same sadistic ritual of dominance.

Receiving and Discharge (R&D)

Every inmate first proceeds through Receiving and Discharge (R&D) when first entering prison. R&D is where new arrivals are cataloged and inventoried. Inmates are booked into the prison system and their specific prison facility. This experience is similar to booking at a county jail.

While the first day in prison experience can differ based on security level and specific facility, several commonalities are typical.

Processing in R&D

The R&D process typically starts with a strip search for contraband. This requires inmates to stand before correctional officers, run their fingers through their hair, open their mouths, and squat and cough.

Prison staff inventory civilian clothing and personal property. All personal property is seized and inspected. Allowed items are returned to inmates (e.g., contact lists, legal paperwork, glasses, etc.). The remaining property may be mailed home, donated to a local church or Goodwill, or destroyed.

Once the strip search is complete, inmates are issued prison clothing. They are also fingerprinted, photographed, and issued inmate identification cards. These inmate identification cards are used in the dining room, commissary, and other areas of the prison. Inmates must have these ID cards in their possession at all times.

Inmates receive a bedroll consisting of two blankets, two sheets, a washcloth, a pillowcase, and a few essential hygiene items when exiting R&D. 

Initial Interviews

Following this search, inmates are placed in holding cells to await further processing. Inmates are then typically interviewed by various members of the prison staff, including the:

  • Psychology Department
  • Health Services
  • Special Investigative Supervisor (SIS)
  • Classification Officer
  • Unit Team

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

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

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

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

Initial Interrogation Pointers

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

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

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

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

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

Entering the Inmate Housing Unit

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

When approaching the housing units, it can be smart to verify with a guard which is the correct dormitory. Since this is the first time others observe new arrivals, other inmates will pay close attention and make snap judgments.

Inmates should look for their housing unit officer upon entering the designated housing unit. Their unit’s guard may be standing by the front door, walking around the housing unit, or in their office. Unit officer offices are located off of the main day room.

As new arrivals walk into their housing unit for the first time, they should locate the unit officer and hand over their bed book card (a black-and-white card with their photo, name, inmate number, and description). The unit officer will direct them to their assigned cell. If there isn’t a mattress on their assigned empty bunk, the officer will locate one for the inmate.

Tips on First Entering an Inmate Housing Unit

If a new arrival has trouble locating their housing unit, they should find an officer and ask for assistance. While it might feel more comfortable asking another inmate, it’s usually safer to ask a guard. Inmates are known to play tricks on new arrivals.

It is normal to feel uneasy when exposed to new situations and circumstances. New arrivals should try to appear as relaxed as possible when entering their housing unit and searching for their cell or bunk.

The best persona new arrivals can project is an average guy or gal at peace with the situation. It’s ok to be curious, but it’s not acceptable to act like a tough or angry person. This may incite someone to test their true mettle.

My Experience First Entering an Inmate Housing Unit

My experience first entering an inmate housing to serve a prison sentence unit may be illustrative.

I made my way to a cluster of housing units alone. No prison guard guided me except to say, “Go to that building and give the guard your bed book card.”

When I reached the intersection of two buildings that housed approximately a thousand inmates, I asked where the F-North Housing Unit was. The guard pointed me in the right direction.

After climbing the stairs to my housing unit, I located another guard and presented my bed book card. She pointed me to my cell and said, “Unpack.”

While this is nerve-wracking, new arrivals make it through this process. New arrivals’ slip-on blue “bus” shoes, white t-shirt, and khaki-colored pants with elastic waistband highlight them as a “new fish.” Even with these obstacles, the name of the game is to remain calm, avoid missteps, and quietly integrate into prison life. 

First Day in Federal Prison

First Day in Prison FAQs

An inmate’s first day in federal prison is a stressful period. This is true for both prisoners and their family members. While there are many moving parts, the below FAQs will help you better understand what happens on your first day in prison.

What Happens on Your First Day in Prison?

Upon arrival, either as a self-surrender or a prisoner in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service, prisoners are first taken to Receiving & Discharge (R&D). This occurs every day of the week, 24 hours a day. Typically, inmates arrive at R&D within 30 minutes of arrival.

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

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

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

  • Two Pairs of Glasses
  • Required Medications (e.g., blood pressure medication)
  • List of Addresses and Phone Numbers
  • Legal Paperwork
  • Wedding Ring (with no stones embedded)
  • Simple Religious Necklace

Some prisons permit new arrivals to bring a U.S. Postal Money Order made out to their legal name and inmate registration number. It is also a good idea to bring a modest amount of cash (e.g., $200-$500). This way, if the procedures are different, the money can be immediately deposited directly into your trust fund account.

There are a few options for items that R&D guards will not permit inmates to keep. These items can be mailed home, donated to a local Goodwill, or destroyed.

Who Will You Speak to When Entering Prison?

In addition to booking new arrivals, prison officials from various departments also interview new inmates to conduct admission and orientation interviews.

These interviews determine if the new inmates can remain at the prison, appropriate housing, and if security or medical concerns preclude placement in the general population. Additionally, these interviews indicate if certain types of care are required (e.g., physical healthcare, mental health care, etc.).

Remember to not ask prison staff about what happens on your first day in prison. Prison staff are notorious for providing bad, and even dangerous, advice to new arrivals.

What Types of Questions Are Inmates Asked During the R&D Interviews?

Prison staff asks new arrivals a variety of questions. Some of the questions will concern mental and physical health. These are fine for new inmates to answer.

But during the first day in prison, prison security staff will also ask questions about your case and other security-related matters. Simply put, they already know what they need to know.

Do not volunteer information about group or gang affiliation. Also, don’t disclose testifying against co-defendants or related information. This is a fishing expedition. Don’t play into it by keeping your cards close.

Likewise, hold questions about what happens on your first day in federal prison. While everyone has their own perspective, the one perspective you don’t need is that of prison staff.

What Do Prison R&D Officials Issue You?

After completing the federal prison intake process, new admissions are assigned to a specific bunk within a housing unit. Before leaving R&D, prison staff issues a bedroll consisting of the following items:

  • Sheets
  • Blanket
  • Hygiene Items
  • Towel
  • Shoes
  • Pillowcase

Do Prison Staff Issue Inmates Clothing, Bedding, and Hygienic Items on Their First Day in Federal Prison?

Yes. Before being sent to the SHU or general population, new arrivals are issued various items, including:

  • Slip-On Shoes
  • Socks
  • Boxers
  • Khaki Pants
  • White T-Shirts
  • Sheets
  • Blankets
  • Soap
  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Towel

Federal inmates are provided with everything they require for a few days. New arrivals will need to head to Laundry Services for clothes fitting on their first full day on the prison compound. Once there, they are issued everything they need.

From this point, prisoners can exchange worn items at Laundry Services. They can also purchase new clothing from the commissary if so desired.

Do New Arrivals Have to Strip in Front of Guards on their First Day in Prison?

New arrivals do undergo a strip search upon entry to federal prison. This is something all federal inmates become accustomed to. A member of the same sex conducts these searches.

Those arriving for their first day in prison must take off all their clothes. They must also run their fingers through their hair, open their mouths and lift their tongues, squat and cough, and raise their arms.

These strip searches are conducted so prison officials can ensure that contraband isn’t being smuggled into the prison.

Where Are New Arrivals Housed?

After receiving their bedroll, inmates make their way to their assigned housing unit. If space isn’t available in the general population, new arrivals are placed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) pending resolution of the issue. This can also occur if a prison staff member isn’t present who conducts one of the initial interviews.

Don’t forget to read more about greeting your cellmates and how to interact with guards.

What Are the Inmate Housing Options?

Prison officials make all housing determinations. The housing type primarily depends on the prison’s security level. An inmate’s security level is a strong indicator of what happens on their first day of prison.

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

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

While some prison administrators try to place inmates of the same race in the same cells (a political concern in prison), this is often not accomplished due to staff simply not caring enough. Regardless, this can be rectified easily once the inmate enters their housing unit.

Can New Arrivals Go into Protective Custody if They Don’t Feel Safe?

Entering protective custody on the first day in prison is generally not advisable. Federal Bureau of Prisons protective custody consists of being locked in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) cell relatively indefinitely. This is akin to voluntarily entering disciplinary segregation for months or years.

With this being said, new arrivals can seek protective custody by advising R&D guards they need protection. This should trigger protective custody placement and the resulting investigation.

It is generally better trying to make it at the prison before giving up. While many inmates think about seeking protective custody on their first day in federal prison, we highly recommend against this approach. It is better to learn what actually happens on their first day in prison than to needlessly confine themselves.

What About Sex Offenders and Other Vulnerable Inmate Populations?

The only time “checking in” (i.e., seeking protective custody) is advisable at this stage is when a sex offender or informant is entering a rougher medium-security or high-security prison. Going into protective custody can be a smart move in these cases due to potential safety issues.

Note that USP Tucson is a Sex Offender Management Program facility. As such, it is a softer high-security prison. Inmates incarcerated for sexual offenses or who have a history of cooperating with the government will likely be safe at USP Tucson.

Your First Day in Prison Experts

Contact us if you are preparing to enter prison. Our team of experienced federal prison consultants and partner federal criminal defense law firms can best advise you on how to proceed. We can answer all of those hard questions like what happens on your first day in prison and what the day-to-day prison experience is like.

While your first day in federal prison is naturally scary and stressful, the Zoukis Consulting Group can help you prepare and make informed decisions. And don’t forget, we offer prison preparation and in-prison problem resolution services.

For more information about prison life and how to prepare for prison, please book a one-hour initial consultation. Our team of experienced prison consultants stands ready to assist you in your time of need.