Six Prison Survival Questions from a Prison Law Blog Reader

Six Prison Survival Questions from a Prison Law Blog Reader

The Prison Law Blog recently received an email from a man whose son is about to go to federal prison (sadly, we hear from family members in this situation all too often).  The son is being charged with one count of transportation of child pornography and, understandably, his family is concerned for his safety and general prison experience.  Since such fears are common to all who enter prison, we’ve decided to present this information, not in a private email, but in Question & Answer format so that the information is available to other similarly situated persons.

Q) Are federal prisons safer and better run than state prisons?

A) Generally speaking, federal prisons tend to be run more professionally than many state prisons.  This is particularly the case when comparing a regular low security federal prison or medium security federal
prison to a county work camp or prison. Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities are uniformly funded, and national
program statements, policies, and regulations dictate operations.  This alleviates the problem of wardens and
superintendents being a law unto themselves which is common in some jurisdictions.

Still, there is an inherent amount of threat and danger in any prison in the country, regardless of the security level.  While virtually any prisoner can survive a federal prison camp or low-security facility, life can be more difficult at a
medium security prison, and especially at high-security facilities (called “United States Penitentiaries” or “USPs”).  As it is in every jurisdiction, the higher the security the prison, the more likely violence, and other troubles will occur and
the more severe the prison culture becomes.

Q) Should my son seek protective custody due to the nature of the offense?

A) This is something that he will have to decide for himself.  Guessing here, I’m assuming that the son
doesn’t have an extensive criminal history and will receive a sentence of less than 30 or 20 years.  If these variables
are correct, the son will be housed either in a low-security federal prison or a medium security federal prison.  By
category, sex offenders are precluded from placement in a federal prison camp (minimum security), unless the restriction is waived (which is done very rarely). Likewise, federal prison inmates with sentences in excess of 20 years have to be housed in a medium security federal prison and those with sentences in excess of 30 years have to
be housed in high-security federal prisons (unless this restriction is waived).

In all likelihood, if the son is designated to a low-security federal prison he will be fine, regardless of what prison it is.  If the son is designated to a medium-security federal prison, then a judgment call must be made.   This would require him to walk the yard for a few days until he can come to his own conclusion.  But any conclusion must include an analysis of the cost of either action:

  • If protective custody is the decision, then the son will need to be prepared to be locked in a Special Housing Unit cell — think of a double-bunked solitary confinement cell — for a period of months.  Then, he could be transferred to another prison, or merely released back into the same prison, with the stigma of being a “check-in.”  This is a label that will probably follow him.  As such, this option should not be taken lightly.
  • If staying on the compound is the decision, then the son needs to keep an eye out for himself.  As long as no one directly threatens him — or attacks him — then he will be fine.  Usually, fellow prisoners will give a warning prior to assault by informing the person that they need to go to protective custody “or else.” Note that many sex offenders are merely shunned or ostracized, as opposed to assaulted, at the lower security levels.

One factor which the son should take into consideration is the nature of the institution.  Since the son is going to be incarcerated for a sexual offense, he will likely do better if he is incarcerated in a Sex Offender Management Program (SOMP) prison.  While this indicates that there will be sex offender treatment programs available, it also indicates that a larger proportion of the incarcerated population will be in for sex offenses.  This will make for an easier prison
experience.  It is often helpful for defense counsel to ask for a judicial recommendation for such placement at
sentencing.  While the BOP is not required to honor a judge’s recommendation as to the place of confinement, it is
one factor in the placement decision that can make a difference.

Q) Will all of the other prisoners know what my son is in prison for?

A) Theoretically, no.  There is no easy way for a prisoner to locate such information, but experienced convicts can locate it.  Usually, this requires the use of an outside contact to go to, the federal government’s online electronic court records service.  There any prisoner’s name can be run (called “running someone’s ticket”).  This will result in records of the instant — and past federal — charges being returned. If an outside contact to a prisoner isn’t that savvy, they could just Google the prisoner’s name and look for articles or inclusions on sex offender registries.  The prisoner’s paperwork could also be demanded, but this is becoming more troublesome since federal prisoners are now barred from possessing their Pre-Sentence Investigative Report (“PSIs”), due to this exact reason.  But the vast majority of prisoners won’t go to this extent, they’ll just ask.

As with the previous discussion, the higher the security level, the more likely these extraordinary steps will be taken and the more serious the repercussions to what is potentially found.  As such, if the son is designated to a rough
medium-security federal prison or a high-security federal prison (a “USP”), then he has something to worry about.  If
not, then he should be okay.  Some prisoners simply lie about the nature of their offense, while others try to deflect such questions with questions of their own or other tactics.  A “mind your own business” approach is sometimes the way to go.  This is a hard topic to advise someone about, and a lot will depend upon the son’s demeanor and presentation.

Q) Is there anything my son should be doing to prepare for prison?

A) Absolutely.  If he’s currently out on bond, he should have all of his teeth fixed (with an aim toward a long-term solution).  If he requires glasses, he may wish to consider Lasik surgery, or at least update the glasses prescription
because contacts are not a great option in prison (and are rarely approved for retention).  Some people advise hiring a
personal trainer to get in better shape (a great deterrent to problems from others), and, if possible, sign up for self-defense lessons.  He should also get his financial affairs in order.  He’ll need money sent to him monthly or every few months.  So, he’ll need someone to do so and someone who has the requisite funds.  He should also go ahead and have any surgeries or other procedures that he requires since medical care in the Federal Bureau of Prisons leaves a lot to be desired.

Q) Should I retain the services of a prison consultant for my son?

A) You could, but I would be cautious about this.  While there are several decent consultants in this arena, their use tends to fall into that of informational preparation, nothing more hands-on.  Jack Donson, President of My Federal Prison Consultants (, is a good consultant whom the Prison Law Blog is friendly with.  He worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons for 23 years as a Case Manager, Case Manager Coordinator, and in other higher-level positions with the BOP. He could provide more in-depth information through phone calls and such, if this is the avenue you wish to pursue.

Q) Are there any good books out there on surviving federal prison?

A) Yes and no.  Many of the so-called prison survival books are worthless.  But there are a few, all of which come with caveats. One of the better books on federal prison is the Federal Prison Guidebook by Alan Ellis, J. Michael Henderson & Todd Bussert.  It costs $79 from James Publishing, but they are known to offer discounts to prisoners and their families.  This book profiles the various prisons in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. But, more importantly, it provides a decent overview of programming opportunities and basic prison life in the first several chapters.

A better book, which is not federal prison specific, is Behind Bars by Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen Richards.  This book provides a more general overview of prisons and their culture but does not focus on the BOP.  Luckily, this text is much less expensive than the Federal Prison Guidebook.  Last I checked, it was selling for around $15.  This book
provides a decent introduction to prison and prison culture.

Q) Anything else my son or I should know?

A) First, we at the Prison Law Blog are here for you.  We will help you gratis however we possibly can. We will do whatever we can do to make your son’s incarceration as uneventful as possible and to answer your questions and provide advice every step of the way.  And if your son happens to be designated to FCI Petersburg, I can personally give him a helping hand.

Second, while a term of incarceration is never a pleasant experience, it is manageable.  I remember back to my time in state prison, which was a veritable hell hole.  Violence was regular, abject, and culturally accepted.  I can remember fighting weekly and thinking that someone just couldn’t take such stress, anxiety, or physical violence.  But the most amazing thing happened: I survived, and I even grew through the experience.  Humans are resilient.  While life is not always the best that it could be, even extreme hardships can be endured.  And a term of imprisonment will always come to an end.  This is the light at the end of the tunnel for those imprisoned; this is the hope which fuels our continued struggle.

About the Author

Christopher Zoukis is an impassioned and active advocate for prison education in this nation’s prison systems, a noted legal commentator and practitioner, and a prolific writer of books, articles, and legal treatises. Learn More about Mr. Zoukis and follow him on Google+.