Smuggling narcotics and other illegal items into prisons has been a problem since at least 1809, when the first files and saws entered a prison ship’s lockup by way of gingerbread cakes. The problem continued in 1899, in Maryland, when four inmates escaped by using saws that had been baked into pies.

In 1921, Lucky Tommy” O’Connor used an ample supply of guns and bullets smuggled inside bread and cake to escape from the Cook County Jail in Chicago. He fled “the joint” just in time to avoid his execution.

In 1934, Robert Mais, a Richmond, Virginia jail inmate, received guns his mother sealed inside cans of baked chicken.

The list goes on, with with escape-assisting implements smuggled inside via chocolate and frosted pound cakes, cans of fruit, and more.

Nowadays, most prison and jails do not allow “care packages” from home, especially those containing home-cooked food. Therefore, smugglers turned more toward making a prisoner’s stay a bit more tolerable by introducing drugs into prisons and jails, and a common means of delivering the contraband is through the U.S. mail. For example, liquid LSD can be applied to the back of postage stamps, and paper is often coated with liquid fentanyl, Suboxone, and/or K2.

FYI – The two main ingredients of Suboxone are Buprenorphine and Naloxone. Buprenorphine is an opioid which is actually more potent than morphine. The drug is used to help suppress withdrawal symptoms in someone with opioid addiction. However, it’s still an opioid.

To help combat the delivery of illegal drugs and other contraband to lockups, some locations in North Carolina have turned to a new service called TextBehind.

Beginning in October of 2021, all inmate mail, including cards, hand-drawn artwork from children, and letters, must be sent directly to TextBehind, where the company will make copies of the mail and then forward digital reproductions to the prison mail rooms where the recipient inmates are housed. Prisons receiving the digital files will print the copied mail and then issue it to the prisoners.

Thus, the end of contraband entering prisons through the U.S. mail. However, it won’t stop prison staff, shady attorneys, and visitors from bringing it inside. And, of course, drones are used to airdrop contraband, such as the incident last week in Virginia, where a drone dropped a package containing several pounds of marijuana and tobacco (tobacco products are banned from prisons and are considered as illegal contraband). The bundle also included three cellphones and a USB-C to lightning converter. The drone operator, however, missed their target, a privately-operated prison that houses over 1,500 inmates, and instead dropped the illegal goodies onto the grounds of a nearby private school.

And then there’s the woman who smuggled a fully loaded handgun into a prison visitation area by concealing it inside her “lady parts.” I know, if you wrote that scene in a book, no one would believe it. But it happened. Really, it did.

Mr. X is a former business professional who committed a crime that landed him in federal prison. He’s out now and agreed to share his story with the readers of The Graveyard Shift. Off we go …

GYS: Describe your first day in prison.

Mr. X: The place itself wasn’t as bad as it was being away from my family. I kept wondering how they were, what they were doing, and what they were going to do. Also, my gut was craving my medication. Of course the prison staff didn’t care about either of those things. Don’t get me wrong, they treated my okay—they didn’t beat me or anything like that. But it was obvious that I was just a number. Even though what I’d done was not violent they still treated me as if I were another Charles Manson or Jeffery Dahmer.

Still, I was an addict and I needed medical help. But some of the guards thought otherwise. One thought I was faking and told me to knock it off or he was going to put me in the hole. I didn’t know what the hole was at that point, but it didn’t sound good. Another guard, a female, managed to get me to the medical department. That was a real experience. I wound up being really sick—lying in the floor vomiting quite badly into a metal trashcan. A nurse kept peering at me through a small, thick glass window. After twenty minutes or so she came out and told me to fill out a sick slip (a request to see the doctor) and the doctor would see me on his next visit to the facility, in two or three days. I ended up toughing it out, going cold turkey in my cubicle. My bunkie (cellmate) helped me through the ordeal.

GYS: You were in a federal prison, right?

Mr. X: Yes, it was a minimum security federal prison. Before I was arrested I never knew there were such places.

GYS: You mentioned a “bunkie.” Tell us a little about sharing a living space with another inmate.

Mr. X: Honestly, I was horrified at the thought. I’d never been in trouble before. I’d always obeyed the law—until I was sick. I’d never stolen anything, or hurt anyone. I never would either. So to be dropped in a dormitory with 300-400 criminals was a real shock to me. There were honest to God bad guys in that place. I met bank robbers, big-time drug dealers, and even a mafia underboss. On the other end of the spectrum were the tax evading doctors, lawyers, and dentists. I learned that lots of people in federal prison are business people—the guy next door—who committed white collar crimes. Crooks, yes. But harmless.

I will say this, I never met anyone in the system who didn’t deserve to be there. Me included. Sure, I heard lots of men proclaim their innocence, but that’s basically BS.

My bunkie, the man who slept in the upper bunk above me, was a decent sort of guy. He’d been drafted to play pro sports, but couldn’t seem to leave the drugs alone. Long story short—he got caught with a couple of kilos of cocaine before training camp. Next thing he knew he was living in a concrete building with several hundred men, many of whom had followed his college career on TV. What a shame.

GYS: How did you spend your days?

Mr. X: Well, if you believe what you see on TV and in the movies—the rock breaking and planning the next escape—you’ll be a little disappointed. Every inmate has to have a job. For the first year my job was in the prison kitchen wiping tables and keeping the little chrome napkin holders full. I worked the evening shift which also meant I mopped the floor after dinner was complete. The rest of the day I spent taking classes, reading (I read over 500 books during my time in prison), or out on the recreation yard playing Bocce whenever I could get in a game. The Italian guys monopolized the Bocce courts. Oh, that’s one thing about prison—the place is strongly divided into ethnic groups. Italians hang out together, Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, etc. Even the TV rooms are segregated, and the wrong person better not wander into the wrong room.

When I finally made my way to camp for the last year, my job changed to working in landscaping. That was pretty relaxing—hard work, but relaxing.

GYS: Sounds as if your days were full. How about the evenings and nights?

Mr. X: I didn’t get out of the kitchen until around 7 p.m. so I missed a lot of action on the yard—the football, basketball, and soccer games. But I did get a chance to hear some of the music played by the various prison bands. They’d set up the music equipment on the yard and play for the guys. Some of the bands were really quite good. Even the bands were all ethnic based.

Did I mention food on the holidays? Special meals were prepared on various holidays, such as Mexican food on Cinco De Mayo.

Anyway, the yard was cleared at 9 p.m. We all had to be back inside our dorms for 10 p.m. count. They were very strict about the count rules. We had to stand perfectly still by our bunks—no talking—while two guards came by to count us. Any violation meant a trip to the hole (the hole is a no frills/no privileges jail hellhole inside the prison). After count was cleared (a buzzer sounded) we were free to watch TV, play cards, do laundry, cook food, visit guys in other cubes, etc. We just couldn’t go back outside.

Nighttime was also the time when guys got tattoos, drank alcohol, did drugs, etc. It was also the time to steer clear of the showers unless you wanted to participate in the goings-on in there. The showers were place to go to dole out punishment on someone. Groups of prisoners would grab an offender (someone who had disrespected them), drag the guy into a shower stall, and then beat the daylights out of him. And if he told what happened he got it worse the next time. Of course other things I won’t mention happened in there, too. Needless to say, I showered in the morning and in the early evening, during the safe times. It didn’t hurt that my bunkie was the size of a small bulldozer, either. People generally left him alone. I was shown professional courtesy—you didn’t mess with the bunkie of guys who could rip off your head with one hand.

Lights out was at 11 p.m. I was usually in bed reading by 10. I had to wear earplugs (the commissary sold them) to sleep because of the noise. Lots of talking at night. And the snoring! Oh God! Imagine trying to sleep in one large room full of men that snore like lions.

It was tough.

Leavenworth Prison dorm – circa 1910

We were permitted to purchase small radios and earbuds from the commissary, so I’d lie in my bunk at night listening to the sad-sack songfest played by radio DJ Delilah. Those tear-jerking tunes and pitiful stories about the lovesick, lonely fans of her show added to my misery and homesickness, yet I’d listen night after night until I drifted off to sleep.

And so it went, day after day and night after night. Three long years of no change, nothing new, same-old, same-old, and a clock ticking at the pace of a snail on barbiturates.

Depending upon which source is believed to be correct—Social Security or the census—Johnson Vandyke “Van” Grigsby was born in either February of 1888 or February of 1886, respectively. Grigsby, the son of freed slaves, however, said March of 1885 was the month and year of his birth.

In 1900, Grigsby and his family moved from their home in Shelby County, Kentucky to Kokomo, Indiana, the county seat of Howard County. Seven years later, Grigsby, an African-American, killed a white man named James Brown. The pair had been playing a game of five card stud poker in a saloon in Anderson, IL. when the two men engaged in a fight.

During the altercation, the men, as men often do, cursed at one another. Then racial slurs were uttered. As the fracas became intensely heated, Brown pulled a knife on Van. So Van left the bar to retrieve a knife of his own. When Van returned Brown picked up a chair and threw it at him. In response, Van lunged at Brown, with his knife, and subsequently stabbed Brown to death.

Grigsby, as the story goes, plead guilty to second degree murder in order to escape the electric chair.

Convicted of second degree murder in 1908, Grigsby began a new and extremely long chapter in life when he was delivered in a horse-drawn cart to the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City. The trip lasted several days.

When he arrived at the prison on August 8, 1908, the same year the four-cylinder, twenty-horsepower Model T was first offered and sold for $825, Grigsby left behind his life as a free man and became “prisoner #4045.”

Upon his release in December 1974, inmate Grigsby had served 66 long years in the penitentiary, with 50 or so of those years spent in a ward for the insane. A doctor, though, finally examined him and declared that he was “not crazy.”

In spite of being a model prisoner who passed the time by reading (and re-reading) the Bible, a dictionary, and a complete set of encyclopedias from A_Z, he’d applied for parole 33 times before finally being released.

As a free man once again, Grigsby had to adjust to life on “the outside” as someone who’d been secluded from the world for nearly seven decades. While Grigsby’s former daily life had consisted of staring at concrete and steel and barbed wire, life beyond the prison walls passed him by, and when he finally stepped outside the front gate an entirely new world was there to greet him. The stark differences were surely like the moment in the Wizard of Oz film when things instantly transformed from black and white to vivid color. There were no subtle changes.

*The Wizard of Oz premiered on the big screen in 1939, eventually making its way to television in 1956. Grigsby was behind bars for both. Judy Garland, who played Dorothy in the film, was born in 1922 and died in 1969. Her entire life and career took place during Grigsby’s period of incarceration.

In fact, during Grigsby’s time inside, he’d missed such “firsts” as …

    • The first candy apple.
    • The introduction of Skee ball (my favorite beach boardwalk arcade game).
    • The invention of gin rummy.
    • Erector sets.
    • The painting of marker lines on roadways.
    • Electric blankets.
    • The first traffic lights.
    • Fortune cookies.
    • Hamburger buns.
    • Lincoln logs.
    • Supermarkets.
    • Tow trucks.
    • Light switches.
    • Grocery bags.
    • Toasters
    • Eskimo pies.
    • Band-Aids.
    • Water skiing.
    • Bulldozers.
    • Cotton swabs.
    • Cheeseburgers.
    • Gas chamber executions.
    • Masking tape.
    • Tilt-a-Whirl.
    • Corn dogs.
    • Recliners.
    • Bubble gum.
    • Ice cube trays.
    • Reuben sandwiches.
    • Sunglasses.
    • The first frozen food.
    • Car radios.
    • Chocolate chip cookies.
    • Electric guitars.
    • Golf carts.
    • Trampolines.
    • Parking meters.
    • Stock car racing.
    • Shopping carts.
    • Beach balls.
    • Soft-serve ice cream.
    • Yield signs.
    • Twist ties.
    • Deodorant.
    • Slinkies.
    • Tupperware
    • Credit cards.
    • Cat litter
    • Hairspray.
    • Cable television
    • Frisbees.
    • Coolers.
    • Wetsuits.
    • Barcodes.
    • WD-40
    • Ziplock bags.
    • Radar guns
    • The first man on the moon.
    • The FBI was established only one month prior to Grigsby’s incarceration.
    • 13 U.S. presidents had come and gone.
    • National Anthem was adopted.
    • U.S. engagement in Korean and Vietnam Wars began and ended.
    • Alaska and Hawaii became U.S. states.
    • Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
    • President Kennedy was assassinated.
    • Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Grigsby’s entire life passed by in dreary stagnation while the world continued to rapidly spin and twirl and advance in gigantic leaps and bounds. Is it any wonder that when his feet did finally hit the pavement outside he’d stepped into a world that was unrecognizable to him. By the way, the first ready-mix load of concrete was delivered in Baltimore, Md. in 1913. The Hoover Dam, made of concrete, was constructed in 1936.

It must’ve been like finding oneself on a distant planet … a new world filled with magic and awe. He most likely saw a traffic light for the first time in his life. Music and art and speech, and cars, and trains, and stores and, well, everything—all brand new and shiny and spinning and flashing and whirling and whirring.

He was a 90 year old man who was launched directly from 1908 nearly 70 years into the future, a world where he was instantly expected to adapt. But, as should have been expected, Grigsby found himself unable to cope with such drastic change and voluntarily returned to prison, where he remained for 17 additional months before he was again released. This time, though, at the age of 91, he was out for good. He ended up in the Marion County Health Care Center, though, where he found much comfort at being told when to get up, when to eat, when to bathe, and when to go to bed. This being the only way he knew to live and to survive.

Grigsby’s situation is all too familiar to many men and women who serve long periods of time behind bars. Time, people, and life pass swiftly by, leaving long-serving ex-prisoners confused and lonely and, upon their release, they find it difficult to obtain employment in a world that’s unlike the one they knew prior to incarceration.

The stigma of being a convicted felon is already a huge hurdle to overcome when job searching, but add to it the lack of modern day skills and sudden forced adjustment to the unknowns makes the effort almost insurmountable without a hand up from friends and family. Unfortunately, it’s commonplace that friends and family have long since turned their backs on the folks serving extensive prison terms. That, and decent housing and educational opportunities are often unattainable for felons.

Therefore, the exasperated former inmates often see no way to survive without returning to what they know … criminal activity.

For these people to survive as productive citizens, somewhere, somehow, sometime, someone has to offer a true second chance. They need the opportunity to hold their heads high and not hang them down in shame for the balance of their time on earth. A means to earn back their rights and to remove the “scarlet letters” from their chests.

Of course, we all realize that some of these folks will never change and prison is, without a doubt, the best place for them. But others do regret the bad choices they’ve made, and they do indeed want and welcome change.

But to forever brand former prisoners, and to not provide a support system that keeps them current with the times and technology is, well, it’s not good for them nor is it good for society.

Johnny Cash told Grigsby’s story in a song called Michigan City Howdy Do..

When Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were sentenced to relatively short sentences as a result of a college admissions scandal. Both women served their time at FCI Dublin, a federal prison in Dublin, Ca. located 25 miles east of San Francisco. The Federal Correctional Institution, Dublin (FCI Dublin) is a low-security prison for female inmates. The facility also has an adjacent satellite prison camp housing minimum-security female offenders.

Huffman, bless her heart, barely had time to blink, have a shower, and enjoy fine prison dining before her time was up and she was back at home (11 days).

Loughlin, though, had to do hard time, counting the days one by one until she would once again be a free woman. I’m sure returning to society after serving her grueling two-month sentence was an eye-opening experience as it is for others who serve long sentences behind bars—the world had changed, planes now fly around the world, we have cell phones and microwaves and color TV.

However, no matter how short the sentence, prison policy and procedure remain the same for all. It’s a regimented system that helps maintain tight control over inmates, even the prisoners whose lifestyles on the outside are gold-plated. Once someone enters “the system” they become part of the prison population. They’re no longer movie stars, bankers, doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, or drug dealers. They’re simple another inmate who’s known by their last name and register number.

Here’s a sample of what life is like at FCI Dublin

  • Upon arrival at Dublin, inmates are taken to the Receiving and Discharge (R&D) area for processing and clearance by the Medical and Unit Staff.
  • If cleared, new inmates are housed in the Admission and Orientation (A&O) sections of the Housing Unit.
  • Within 28 days of arrival, inmates will participate in the Admissions and Orientation Program. However, if the physical screening indicates an individual has medical needs, they’re housed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU, AKA “the hole”) and are not released to the general population (GP) until the Staff Physician clears them for housing with other inmates.
  • A Counselor and Case Manager is assigned to each inmate.
  • Each inmate is expected to work within their assigned unit when asked to do so by the Unit Officer.
  • Beds must be made by 6:30 a.m. daily, except for weekends and holidays.
  • Unit Orientation is conducted by the Unit Team within seven (7) days of the inmate’s arrival.

“A Unit is a self-contained inmate living area which includes both housing sections and office space for Unit Staff. Each Unit is staffed by a Unit team directly responsible for those inmates living in the Unit. The Unit Staff offices are located in the Units, so staff and inmates can be accessible to each other. The Unit Staff includes a Unit Manager, two (2) Case Managers, two (2) Correctional Counselors and one (1) Unit Secretary. When available, the Staff Psychologist, Education Advisor and Unit Officer will sit in on a Unit Team meeting and be considered a part of the Unit Team.” Federal Bureau of Prisons

  • After completing the orientation program, approved inmates will move into general population.

Rules, Rules and More Rules!

  • Inmates are not authorized to be in any area which is less than ten (10) feet from the perimeter fence.
  •  Entrances to housing units are “Out of Bounds” to inmates who do not reside in a particular unit. Out of Bounds infractions could result in disciplinary action.
  • Clothing is issued by the facility and is marked with the inmate’s name and Register Number.
  • Official inmate attire must be worn while at work and during weekday breakfast and lunch meals. Inmates who alter institution clothing (cutting off sleeves or pant legs, etc.) are subject to disciplinary action and will be required to pay for damages. Blouses must be buttoned at all times, minus the top button.
  • Sexual relationships between inmates are prohibited.
  • Inmates must dress in an unprovocative fashion.
  • Boots must be worn while in uniform.
  • Pregnant inmates may be approved by Health Services to wear a jumper during their pregnancy.
  • No hand holding or other physical contact between inmates.
  • Each inmate is responsible for sweeping and mopping her personal living area.
  • Lockers must be neatly arranged inside and out. Inmates may have one completed hobby craft item in their room—oil painting, leather craft, ceramics, etc., and one project in progress. Additional completed projects must be sent home at the inmate’s expense.
  • Inmates are not permitted to possess cash or coins.
  • Inmates may not retain Polaroid photos.
  • Sun bathing is prohibited.
  • Haircuts and hair dye are only permitted in the designated Beauty Shop.
  • Inmates are not permitted to go outside when heavy fog is present.
  • If any person desires to send money to be placed on an inmate’s account, they must send it in the form of a U.S. Postal Money Order. Checks, cash, letters, pictures, etc., may not be included in the envelope.
  • Inmates must present their photo identification/inmate account card to shop at the commissary.
  • Inmates may shop only once per week.
  • Large dollar items (radios, sneakers, watches, etc.) are available for purchase – Special Purchase (SPOs).
  • Inmates are limited to spending $320.00 dollars per month no matter how much money is in their account. Inmates refer to the funds in their accounts as “money on the books.” “I only have three dollars on the books. I sure will be glad when my mom sends me more money.”
  • All inmates are to be in full uniform with beds made and the room ready for inspection by 6:30 a.m. each workday. On the weekends, beds will be made prior to the 10:00 a.m. count.
  • Counts are held at 12:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m., 4:30 a.m., 4:00 p.m., and 9:00 p.m. There is an additional count on weekends and holidays at 10:00 a.m. Inmates are required to stand during the 4:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. counts. Special counts may be called at any time. Inmates are not permitted to talk or move during count times.
  • All inmates are subject to mandatory random drug testing. Refusal results in severe disciplinary action.

Time to Work!

  • All medically cleared inmates are required to work. Jobs include orderly duties (cleaning, etc.), library clerk, landscaping—mowing, weeding, and more. FCI Dublin operates a Call Center where inmates are properly trained to process incoming phone calls for directory assistance. They’re taught to accurately and efficiently use a computer, as well customer service, sales, and telephone manners and techniques.
  • The Food Service Program provides on the job training which includes menu planning, budgeting, procurement, preparation, serving and sanitation. Inmate work assignments in Food Prep include clerical work, cooking, baking, meat cutting, salad preparation, and dish washing.
  • General wake-up time for all inmates is 5:00 a.m.

Meal times:

Weekday schedule

Breakfast – 5:30 a.m. to 6:15 a.m.
Brunch – 10:45 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Dinner – Units rotated after the 4:00 p.m. Official Count (Unit A at 4:15, Unit B at 4:30, Unit C at 4:45 etc.).

Weekend schedule

Breakfast – 6:30 a.m .to 7:15 a.m.
Brunch – 11:00 a.m .to 12:00 p.m.
Dinner – Units rotated after the 4:00pm Official Count.

  • Visiting hours are – Saturday, Sunday, and Federal Holidays 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
  • Any inmate who cannot provide proof of a high school diploma or GED certificate within 60 days of arrival will be enrolled in the GED program. MANDATORY attendance is required until the inmate has achieved a GED certificate.

Time for School!

FCI Dublin offers the following educational programs:

1. General Education Development (GED)

2. English as a Second Language (ESL)

3. Vocational/Occupational Training

4. Adult Continuing Education (ACE)

5. Post-Secondary Education (PSE)

6. Family Program

7. General Library Services

8. Law Library Services

9. Apprenticeship Program

10. Recreation Program

Yes, Inmates Enjoy Reading

Leisure libraries offer a variety of reading materials, such as  fiction, non-fiction, reference books, and periodicals and newspapers. Federal institutions also participate in an interlibrary loan program with local, state, and college libraries.

Fun Time

Special Activities may include inter-unit holiday tournaments, bingo, and ping-pong.

Early Release

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 allows the BOP to grant a non-violent inmate up to 1 year off her or her term of imprisonment for successful completion of the residential drug abuse treatment program. If drugs are not a proven part of an inmate’s background they are not eligible for the program.

Job Training for Women

FCI Dublin offers programs to assist in preparing women for non-traditional jobs, such as auto mechanics, electricians, plumbers, forklift operators, propane tank filling, and painters.


Several programs are available for female inmates who have a history of physical and/or sexual abuse and/or traumatic life events

In-house mental health programs are designed to help inmates with severe emotional, cognitive, and behavioral problems.


It’s certainly no secret that jail and prison food can be absolutely disgusting. Therefore, it is also no surprise when prisoners take it upon themselves to upgrade the quality of their daily cuisine.

They do so by using items purchased from the commissary, a few ingredients stolen from the kitchen (kitchen workers earn extra money by pilfering food to sell to fellow inmates), from prison/jail gardens and, if they’re lucky, someone smuggles something in from the outside that’s really good, such as real meat.

By the way, most of the food items smuggled from the kitchen are concealed inside the pants of the workers. Officers often tend to skip the crotch area when conducting pat-downs, so yes, that delicious piece of leftover cake or chicken breast was once, well … right “there.” Yum …

Prison culinary pros use only the best of cooking tools, such as a sharpened vegetable can lid (one edge folded over for safe gripping), used for slicing, dicing, and chopping. Lids are honed to a fine edge by rubbing across a concrete surface. They’re actually quite sharp, sharp enough to glide through a tomato with ease. They’re also sharp enough to slice human flesh with equal ease.

Plastic garbage bags can be used for steaming and boiling, and in place of microwavable bowls.

Most commissaries sell microwavable bowls but some prisoners cannot afford such luxuries, so they cut 4-6 inches off the bottom of a plastic bucket and it serves nicely as a microwavable cooking bowl.

Five gallon bucket bottoms of various heights and depths make excellent pots for cooking stews, soups, and pasta, as well as being utilized as nice serving containers for large groups—birthday, holiday, or Super Bowl and “release eve” parties.

An 8″-10″ bucket bottom with multiple holes drilled through are fantastic colanders. For an even better product, simply cut a slot on each side to serve as handles to prevent the burning and steaming of fingers.

If the facility does not provide microwaves or, if you’re confined to a cell without access to a microwave, well, you’ll have to be a bit more creative, such as perhaps using a stinger to generate heat.

Stingers are used to heat liquid and/or boil water

Stinger – spoons

A stinger is a device made from electrical wire and two metal objects, such as razor blades, spoons, forks, or even parts from fingernail clippers.






Boiling Water

So, what sort of dishes are concocted from these piecemeal ingredients and crude cookware? Well, for starters …

Jailhouse Tamales


  • One bag of plain corn chips
  • One bag of spicy hot chips – Cheetos, Doritos, etc.,
  • Hot water – (only the amount needed to transform mixture into a thick mush/paste)
  • Hot sauce


  1. Place all chips into one chip bag
  2. Mash/crush/pulverize the chips
  3. Add just enough hot water to transform mixture into a thick mush/paste
  4. Knead mixture well
  5. Drain excess water, if any
  6. With mixture/dough still inside chip bag, mold into shape of a tamale
  7. Let “tamale” “cook” (let it stand for 5 minutes or so).
  8. Remove tamale and top with hot sauce
  9. Enjoy

Spicy Tuna Surprise


  • One can of tuna
  • A hunk of stolen kitchen cheese
  • One package of Ramen noodles (flavor is optional)
  • Jalapeños – stolen from kitchen, jail garden, or purchased from commissary


  1. Break noodles into smaller pieces
  2. Cook noodles per package instructions (add hot water heated with stinger)
  3. Drain tuna and then place it into a bowl
  4. Top tuna with jalapeño slices/wheels
  5. Add cheese crumbles or slices
  6. Mix seasoning packet into steaming hot noodles
  7. Top dish with prepared noodles
  8. When cheese has melted to desired consistency … enjoy

The Spread

Serving large groups—parties, social gatherings, etc. By the way, it’s a sign of respect to invite someone to join in on a spread.


  • Top Ramen Soup (one package per guest)
  • The kitchen sink – whatever you want to add—tuna, corn chips, chicken pieces, summer sausage, popcorn, etc.


  1. Place noodles and spice mixes inside a plastic garbage bag
  2. Add any and all other ingredients of your choosing (see list above). Be creative
  3. Add enough hot water to “cook” the entire dish into the consistency of a casserole.
  4. Tightly close the garbage bag and allow mixture to “cook”
  5. When done, cover a tabletop with a newspaper or similar item and “spread out the ingredients.”
  6. Everyone uses a spoon to dig in and share this delicious “spread.”

Sweet and Sour Pork

This one is basically disgusting. It’s made by combining pork rinds, the kind sold in bags like chips and Cheetos, with a sauce made from jelly, Kool Aid, and one Top Ramen seasoning packet. Yum.



  • Elbow macaroni
  • Mixed vegetables
  • Butter
  • Hot sauce
  • Salt


Before preparation can begin, the cook must shop for the ingredients needed to make this delicious dish. Acquiring the goods involves either stealing the macaroni, vegetables, and butter from the chow hall, or to have someone who works in the kitchen steal the items. Of course, if a fellow inmates steals for someone else they’ll expect something in return. This could be an invitation to share the prepared meal, a trade of stolen goods for another item such as soup, cakes, tuna packets, stamps (prison currency – see note at bottom of article). Or, reimbursement could come in the form of a service, such as shoe shines, laundering clothes, a haircut, artwork to send home and, well, the list is practically endless. Like the cake smuggled from the dining hall, these and other items are often concealed inside the inmates’ pants.

  • Okay, with the ingredients in hand, the jailhouse culinary artist boils macaroni in the unit microwave, overcooking it until it reaches mushy consistency
  • Roll pasta into little balls
  • Use thumb to flatten the centers of each pasta ball, creating small dumpling pockets.
  • Fill the dumplings with vegetables, hot sauce, and soy sauce
  • Seal each dumpling by smooshing the gooey pasta mix over the vegetable mix until they’re encased
  • Brush each dumpling with melted butter,.
  • Toast the dumplings

*Toasting is accomplished by wrapping food in paper and then place next to hot pipes. Or, when hot plumbing isn’t available, by using a homemade toilet paper oven where a rolled TP cylinder is set on fire. The inside of the “oven” burns first which generates a more intense heat that’s perfect for cooking and toasting.

Note: Inmates are not permitted to take food from the dining hall. 

Dessert – Homemade Convict Cake



Peanut butter


Water (as needed)



  • Start by disassembling the Oreo cookies, then scrape off the white center goo, setting it aside for later use.
  • Next, crush the chocolate cookies into tiny particles. The smaller the better.
  • Mix the cookie dust with water until it transforms into a a paste-like consistency
  • Mold the “dough” into cake layers.
  • Spread the leftover white gunk across the top of the cake. It is the “icing on the cake.”

Peanut butter may be substituted for the Oreo white stuff. Or, the two may be used together.

  • Top the cake with M&Ms.

Just like Mom used to make!


Romantic meal

Postage Stamps as Prisoner Currency

United States postage stamps are the universal currency in most prisons. Inmates use them to purchase goods and services just as the folks on the outside use actual dollars. For example, in prison the value of a single stamp (not so long ago) had a value of $.50. Therefore: if the inmate who stole the ingredients to make the potstickers mention above charged $1.50 (a high price, by the way) for the pasta and vegetables, then the prisoner who received the goods would handover three stamps for the service provided. Inflation (increases in stamp prices) may have caused a slight price jump.

Other items could be used as currency, too, such as Ramen Noodles.

By the way, inmates are limited to a certain number of stamps. The rules, however, do not stop them from stockpiling and hiding their “currency.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) policy “limits the quantity of the sale for various items per Commissary visit, such as the equivalent of one (1) book of postage stamps per sale. Inmates may have no more than the equivalent of 40 1st Class stamps in their possession at any time.” If caught with more than the allowable number of stamps the inmate would be subject to disciplinary actions (loss of commissary, phone privileges, visitation, etc.).

*** A fantastic and unique opportunity! ***

Today is the final day to sign up for a seat at this incredible daylong seminar!
Attend scene-inspiring classes taught by three of the country’s top forensic and law enforcement experts. To sweeten the deal, bestselling author Lisa Regan details how to write a gripping crime novel.
*This daylong seminar is virtual, live, and interactive.

On January 23, 2021, Writers’ Police Academy Online will once again offer an exciting and unique daylong live and interactive seminar. This course, “Criminal Investigations: Writing Believable Make-Believe,” features three of the country’s top investigators and forensics experts who will present detailed sessions on cybercrimes and security, 3D crime-scene mapping using drones and lasers, and an in-depth, behind the scenes chronicling of what happens when a victim of sexual assault seeks care in a hospital setting.

As a bonus, USA Today & Wall Street Journal bestselling author Lisa Regan details how to use the elements of fiction to craft a gripping crime novel.

Sign up today to reserve your seat!

“Criminal Investigations: Writing Believable Make-Believe”

Schedule and Class order:
(All times are EST)

10:30 – Login and Test
10:45 – Welcome

11:00 – 12:20
Digital Breadcrumbs: Tracking People in Cyberspace ~ Instructor, Josh Moulin

Nearly every investigation involves some aspect of technology, whether it is used to commit the actual crime or contains evidence of criminal activity. In this information-packed session, you will learn how cybercrime investigators trace activity on the Internet, how mobile devices are tracked, how digital forensics is used to uncover evidence, and how law enforcement obtains information. Additionally, this course will cover techniques that suspects may use to try and hide their activity from law enforcement such as the darknet, anonymizing services, and anti-forensic tools.

12:20 – 12:50

12:50 – 2:10

Sexual Assault: When a Victim Seeks Care in a Hospital Setting ~ Karmen Harris, RN, SANE-A

Based on a scenario, the class will explore what happens when a victim of sexual assault seeks care in a hospital setting. In this class, we will walk through the process of the medical-forensic exam and further explore how trauma is identified, the elements of documentation and forensic photography, evidence collection, and other aspects of the fascinating intersection of forensic science and nursing.

2:20 – 3:40

Using 3D Laser Scanners and Drones to Document Crime Scenes ~ Instructor, RJ Beam

3D scanners used by engineering firms have slowly been gaining traction in police work. Take a walk into a real homicide scene to see how the 3D reconstruction helped secure a conviction. Learn about how 3D scanners work and how drones can augment the creation of a 3D recreation.

3:50 – 5:10

Creating Dynamic Crime Fiction: How to use the elements of fiction to craft a gripping crime novel ~ Instructor, Lisa Regan

In this class you will learn how to combine several elements of fiction to create a crime novel that is authentic and riveting. You’ll learn tips and tricks for plotting effectively to keep readers turning pages. You’ll learn how to develop characters who are relatable and intriguing. We’ll discuss how to write believable dialogue that moves your story forward. You’ll also receive tips for incorporating information from law enforcement and other experts into you work. Finally, we will discuss advice on self-editing.


Final words

There’s more to locking up offenders than simply providing a place to sleep, two or three meals per day, and making certain those who are incarcerated remain behind bars until they’ve either served their time or a court sets them free. Jails are, among many other things, responsible for an inmate’s medical care during their periods of incarceration.

The U.S. incarcerates a staggering number of men and women each year, over 10 million if you’d like to place a figure on the number of people who enter “the system.” And, what many people aren’t aware of is that approximately half of all people who find themselves on the wrong side of the bars have some sort of serious chronic health condition. 64% suffer from mental illness. And nearly 3/4 of our nations jail’s population has a history of substance abuse.

Due to cultural, financial, and other issues, jail inmates are more susceptible to infectious diseases than people in the general population. They’re prone to sexually transmitted diseases and hepatitis. They’re more likely to suffer from cancer, blood pressure issues, conditions that cause strokes and heart disease.

Since jails have invariably become the destination for so many offenders who are ill, well, it is the taxpayer who must pay their medical expenses. This is a cost that’s expected to rise at an approximate rate of 5.5% over the next five years.

Therefore, some sheriff’s offices (sheriff’s are responsible for maintaining most county jails in the U.S.) are turning to healthcare insurance plans for their inmate populations.

Catastrophic Inmate Medical Insurance (CIMI), for example, is a policy that covers both arrestees and prisoners who require medical treatment when they’re away from jail facilities. Examples include injuries that occur prior apprehension of a suspect, and for those who may be taken directly to the hospital rather than the jail (injuries received during arrests—K-9 bites, falls, lacerations, etc.). CIMI has been around since at least as early as 1996, so this is not a new program.

According to the National Sheriff’s Association, “CIMI Coverage Benefits and Highlights include but are not limited to:

$250,000 per inmate, per plan year

Deductibles as low as $1,000 per inmate, per plan year (eligibility requirements vary by state)

No minimum number of inmates (eligibility requirements vary by state)

No pre-existing condition exclusions

Most “prior to booking” claims covered

Inpatient and Outpatient Hospital Services including:

Pre-admission Testing

Emergency Room Treatment

Daily Hospital Room and Board”

*Source: National Sheriff’s Association


*** A fantastic and unique opportunity! ***

On January 23, 2021, Writers’ Police Academy Online will once again offer an exciting and unique daylong live and interactive seminar. This course, “Criminal Investigations: Writing Believable Make-Believe,” features three of the country’s top investigators and forensics experts who will present detailed sessions on cybercrimes and security, 3D crime-scene mapping using drones and lasers, and an in-depth, behind the scenes chronicling of what happens when a victim of sexual assault seeks care in a hospital setting.

As a bonus, USA Today & Wall Street Journal bestselling author Lisa Regan details how to use the elements of fiction to craft a gripping crime novel.

Sign up today to reserve your seat!

Former inmate #12345-678 received a sentence of 37 months to be served in federal prison, followed by 3 years supervised probation.

The following is his account of serving time in a federal prison camp. The tale is his and he’s told it with hopes that it will help with your fiction and with your understanding of prison life at the federal camp level. Like others with real-life experiences, he sees mistakes in books that feature scenarios in which he has first-hand knowledge. Mistakes that could be easily avoided by simply conducting a bit of research.

The writing below is a combination of his and mine. I apologize for any errors I may have made during the process of trimming the story to fit this space. Please do examine the details because even the smallest could breathe life into what could be a boring scene. More importantly, though, this information could help with accuracy.

Off we go, to the federal prison camp in Anytown, USA.

My name is ***** ************ and I served a little less than three years of a 37-month prison sentence. The judge who sentenced me was a no-nonsense guy who handed out maximum terms like someone who rubber-stamps envelopes for a living. But I did what I did and into the system I went, leaving behind two children and my wife, a stay-at-home-mom, who had no source of income at the time. I’ll always stand by the notion that my sentence was far lighter than hers. But that’s a different story.

NOTE: Parole was abolished in the federal prison system in 1984. In lieu of parole, inmates sentenced after 1984 are instead eligible for “earned good time.” With no infractions during their period of incarceration, inmates may earn up to 15% of earned good time, thereby reducing their sentences at a rate of 54 days per year served, or 85 percent of the ordered term of imprisonment. Prisoners sentences prior to 1984 are still eligible for parole.

I was asked to talk about my time at “the camp” so that’s what I’ll do, saving the rest for another day. By the way, it’s sort of like therapy talking about this stuff, so thanks for listening and thanks for understanding that I’m not making my name public, for obvious reasons.

If you believe what you see on TV and in the movies—the rock breaking and planning the next escape—you’ll be disappointed at life in a federal prison camp, especially the camp where I was assigned. It was a privately-run facility out in the middle of nowhere, and the staff was, at best, extremely slack.

I will say this about prison life in a higher custody level institution—a minimum security federal prison, one that’s a step above a camp and the kind where I first started serving my time—the person who wrote the TV show Orange is the New Black definitely did their homework because they hit many points spot on. Maybe I’ll be back to talk about the time I did there behind the razor-wire-topped double fences. They also had helicopter wire strung over the outside areas to prevent a chopper from landing during an escape.

In the camp where I served time, there were no fences. No razor wire. No dogs or corrections officers patrolling the perimeter. No towers. And oftentimes, only three or four guards worked some shifts, supervising 1,000 inmates. Fortunately, for them, there was never any real trouble and that’s because the men serving time there were within ten years of release—short-timers—so they tended to behave so they wouldn’t be returned to prisons where conditions were far more severe. Actually, inmates policed themselves, meaning if another prisoner got out of line, well, the situation was “handled” from within without staff knowing the problem ever existed. The only telltale signs were the occasional cuts and bruises on the faces of the inmates who received “jailhouse justice.”

It’s a real privilege to be at a place where supervision and custody is more relaxed. But make no mistake, prison is prison, and serving time is an awful experience. My first couple of months of incarceration were had. I missed my family, my friends, my house, my yard, my car, real food, my bed, my pillow, my dog, soft sheets, walking on grass, fresh air, and so much more. Beyond those things, though, my focus was on the date of my release, three long years in the future. Nearly every minute of every day, my thoughts were of three years, three years, and three years. I darn near drove myself crazy. I became depressed, much like many newcomers to prison. It was simply overwhelming.

But an old-timer, a prisoner who’d been locked up for over twenty-five years with as many to go, sensed my mental state and told me his secret for handling life on the inside. His advice was to not dwell on the length of the sentence, nor on the date of release. Instead, he told me, to focus on only one day at a time. Do today, today and tomorrow will take care of itself. Do my work, read a book, listen to music, draw, study, exercise, or even pour myself into church, but think no further ahead than the weekly commissary day or the next weekend softball game.

Once I got myself into the “do today, today” rhythm things turned around for me. Time even seemed to go faster, and much easier.

At camp, as it is at most federal prisons, each inmate is required to have a job, such as painting, carpentry, electricians, landscaping, gardening, auto mechanics, factory work, sewing, and more. Each facility is like a small city, and nearly all the jobs you’d find in your area are also needed within prisons. During my first year in I worked in the prison kitchen wiping tables and keeping the little chrome napkin holders full. Later, when the position became available, I worked as a clerk in the chaplain’s office.

While in the dining hall I worked the evening shift, which also meant I mopped the floor after dinner was complete. The rest of the day I spent taking classes, reading (I read over 500 books during my time in prison), or out on the recreation yard playing Bocce whenever I could get in a game.

The Italian guys monopolized the Bocce courts. Oh, that’s one thing about prison—the place is strongly divided into ethnic groups. Italians hang out together, Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, etc. Even the TV rooms are segregated and the wrong person better not wander into the wrong room.

Speaking of bocce and the Italian guys, a mob boss was housed at our camp and when he and his entourage of lieutenants wanted to play everyone else stepped aside. The Boss was rarely seen anywhere without “his guys” around. Believe me, he lived like a king, with people doing his laundry, shining his shoes, cooking his meals, and handing over items to him that they’d purchased at the commissary. There’s a limit on how much money you’re allowed to have on the books so people on the outside would send cash to the mobster’s fellow inmates and they, in turn, would spend it as he wished.

The food at our camp was so-so. We served typical prison food—your basic frozen pseudo-meat patties as entrees. We did make a decent spaghetti sauce; however, the meat we used was that pink gooey stuff that looked like a slimy paste when thawed. Special meals were prepared on various holidays, such as Mexican food on Cinco De Mayo. Some Fridays were special for everyone because we served real bone-in chicken quarters. That was a thing at the other prison too. Guys lined up early outside the dining hall on chicken day. Rarely did someone skip this particular meal.

Cutting line was something that was taboo. It was an a**-kicking/shank-sticking infraction of unwritten inmate rules. But, members of various ethnic groups allowed other members of those same groups to cut line. Just no “outsiders.”

I didn’t get out of the kitchen until around 7 p.m. so I missed a lot of action on the yard—football, basketball, and soccer games. But I did get a chance to hear some of the music played by the various prison bands. They’d set up the music equipment on the yard and play for the guys. This special treat occurred mostly on holidays. Some of the bands were really quite good. Even the bands were all ethnic based, though, which was to be expected, I suppose. Although, one white guy was super good on the guitar and he played with several groups.

I was a bit of a loner, preferring to spend my yard time alone, walking laps around the track while listening to my radio through earbuds. The only way we were allowed to use our radios, by the way, was to listen through earbuds. Even the TV’s were programmed to send wireless signals that could be picked up on a certain radio frequency. That’s how we listened to TV programs and movies, through those ear things. Otherwise, the combined noises of several TV’s playing at once would be awful. Not to mention adding the sounds of a couple-hundred men, or more, talking, playing cards, laughing, etc.

While walking laps around the track after dark I’d see all the action since the oval circled around the entire recreation yard. The track at the camp was a dirt surface. The one at the low security prison where I started out was a nice rubber-like material that was designed to be better for the back, hips, and knees. That place was super nice as far as prisons go.

There were no fences at the camp, by the way, so there was nothing between us and the city except miles of flat land and a few bushes and trees. At night, seeing the city lights twinkle at the horizon was a lonely feeling, knowing that people were going about their lives without someone dictating their every move.

Out of Bounds signs were planted all along the outside edge of the track. We were not allowed past those points. An infraction would be considered as an escape attempt and we’d be punished accordingly. I think an escape attempt could result in an additional five years added to a sentence. Some inmates, however, saw the open fields as a means of bringing in contraband. They’d have a friend drive up a nearby road and drop off duffle bags filled with food, liquor, drugs, and other niceties from the outside. Then, at night, they’d walk a few laps and then, when the time was right, run over to scoop up the bags and bring them back inside the prison grounds.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. We were each issued a black windbreaker-type jacket. On one cool night, I was walking my usual laps around the track and I saw five guys walking along slowly, only one of those guys was a woman! She’d walked over from a nearby road and then her “boyfriends” gave her a prison jacket to wear to help conceal her identity. Every few laps she and one of the men would disappear into the shadows. A couple of laps would pass and she’d return and then disappear with a different inmate. I kept walking, not wanting any parts of that deal. Who knows how much it cost to arrange that liaison, or how much additional time would be tacked on to a sentence if an inmate was caught.

An alarm sounded at 9:00 p.m. each night, signaling the end of recreation time. Guards cleared the yard to make certain we were back inside our dorms for 10 p.m. count. They were very strict about the count rules. We had to stand perfectly still by our bunks—no talking—while two guards came by to count us. Any violation meant a trip to the hole (the hole is a no frills/no privileges jail hellhole inside the prison). After count was cleared, a loud and extremely annoying buzzer sounded and we were free to watch TV, play cards, do laundry, cook food, visit guys in other cubes, etc. We just couldn’t go back outside. Lights-out was at eleven.

Nighttime was also the time when guys got tattoos, drank alcohol, sold and used drugs, gambled, cooked meals using the microwaves, washed and dried and ironed their clothing, polished shoes, etc. It was also the time to steer clear of the showers unless you wanted to participate in the goings-on in there. The showers were the place to go to dole out punishment. Groups of prisoners would grab an offender (someone who had disrespected them or had broken an inmate rule of conduct), drag the guy into a shower stall, and then beat the daylights out of him. And if he told what happened he got it worse the next time.

Of course other things I won’t mention happened in there, too. Needless to say, I showered in the morning and in the early evening, during the safe times. It also didn’t hurt that my bunkie was the size of a small bulldozer. People generally left him alone. I was shown professional courtesy—you didn’t mess with the bunkie of guys who could rip off your head with one hand.

I was usually in bed reading by nine or ten. I had to wear earplugs (the commissary sold them) to sleep because of the noise. Lots of talking at night. And the snoring! Imagine trying to sleep in one large room full of men sounding off like roaring lions, or 100 chainsaws going at once. It was tough.

After I’d been in a while I heard about inmates having been granted furloughs—weekend trips to their homes to spend time with their family. The purpose of the furlough is supposed to help prisoners gradually become accustomed to outside life with their families. Well, I applied for one and it was approved. I went home for three days during the Christmas holidays and it was wonderful.

My wife picked me up in the prison parking lot and we spent those three glorious days together, at home, before I had to return to the camp. I was walking on air when I got back.

I’d also gone on short day trips, like to trim roses in the town parks, or to the warden’s Ruritan Club to spruce up the grounds. They were nice outings to break up your time and to see some real people, but they were nothing like my time with my family, at home. Still, seeing people and cars and trees and flowers and freedom … well, any time outside the camp grounds was like a dream.

Nighttimes, when things grew quiet and still were the worst times for most of us. That’s when we had time to think about where we were, why were there, and about our families and about life on the outside.

I’d shed more than one tear during those times, and I’d seen others do the same, including some of the biggest and baddest men I’d ever encountered.

Prison can bring the strongest of the strongest to their knees.


Writers are a curious bunch of folks who should never let walls, doors, locks, or the word NO stop them from producing high quality books.

The tellers of both tall and short tales, in fact, go to great lengths to find detail—the perfect setting, great, believable characters, and those wonderfully juicy tidbits of information that stimulate a reader’s senses.

With pen in hand and minds wide open, a writer will do whatever it takes to reach the last page of their work-in-progress, including hopping on a plane, train, car, or truck to travel to wherever information can be found. They walk, they talk, they telephone, they email, they read blogs and books, they ride with cops, attend court proceedings, and they attend awesome events such as the Writers’ Police Academy and/or Writers’ Police Academy Online courses. Again, they do what it takes and they do it all in the name of pleasing readers.

Many stories include prison and/or jail settings, as well as the residents and/or employees of each. So what do writers do? They meet with jail officials and arrange to tour their facility. Sure, it can sometimes be a very steep uphill battle to get a foot in the door to some places of incarceration. But, as it’s been said, where there’s a will there’s a way inside, or something along those lines.

Suppose, though, that you, a writer, find yourself incarcerated for a long, long time. Perhaps for the remainder of your life. What would you do? After all, your passion is the written word. You have so many stories to tell, especially the one that landed you behind bars. You’ve gotta write!

So how on earth would you obtain the information you need for your book(s)? The internet is often not available. No modern library (in many lockups you’d be fortunate if there’s anything more than a few tattered paperbacks stacked in what used to be a mop closet). You’d have very little, if any, contact with people on the outside. And, if your story involves law enforcement, forensics, etc., you can pretty much rule out the assistance of cops and CSI experts.

What would you do?

Well, one such writer, a prisoner, once reached out to me back a while back via my publisher. He sent a three page handwritten letter, complete with a very nice, well-written one-page introduction that explained the reason for his incarceration—murder. He went on to say that he’d been sentenced to life for killing a woman (a close associate of a well-known outlaw motorcycle club) during a heated argument. He also said he feels no ill will toward police. In short, he did what he did and accepted full responsibility for the act, but the circumstances hadn’t stopped his desire to write.

Interestingly, this fellow, the convicted murderer, subscribes to Writer’s Digest Magazine, which is where he read an article I wrote (published in the September 2014 issue). Yes, WD is delivered to prisons.

My article is what prompted the lifer to write me with an unusual research request. A request that I strongly considered. It was a consideration that went against the very grain of my being. However, I was inclined to help because his story could’ve very well been a good one … a life-changer for someone on the outside.

There was a small problem, however, with delivering my information to this prisoner. You see, he had no idea where I lived at the time and I didn’t want him to know (return addresses are required on all inmate mail at this and other facilities). In fact, the bio in my book about police procedure states that we reside in Boston. This is a book the inmate has in his possession and he mentions it his introductory letter to Writer’s Digest.


Non-prisoners may also purchase my book!

Therefore, when the inmate wrote my publisher, he was under the impression that I lived somewhere in New England. However, it had been quite a while since we’d resided in Boston.


As many of you know, we’re frequent re-locators (and that’s putting it mildly), so imagine my surprise to see a return address that just happened to be that of a state prison located very near where we lived at the time I received the letter. Very. Very. Near. As in less than fifteen miles away.

I finally came up with with a means to give him the information he needed, via an online source. I used the internet instead of snail mail to prevent him from learning our home address. After all, he had family and friends and “business associates” on the outside.

Anyway, the point of this long-winded story with no real end is that writers should never settle for an “okay” book when overcoming small obstacles is all that stands in the way of producing a really great story.

What are some of those barriers?

  • Too chicken to make contact with cops and/or other experts. Believe me, cops love to talk about their work and, if you let them, they’ll talk about it until the cows come home. So please don’t hesitate to approach a police officer. Of course, you may have to extend an offer of a cup of coffee to start the ball rolling, but after that, hold on because your mind will soon be filled with real-life tales of car chases, shootouts, drug raids, puking drunks, and struggles with the biggest and baddest bad guys who ever walked a dark alleyway. Of course, you should probably avoid weird and scary opening lines, such as, “Hi, my name Wendy Writer and I’m wondering if you would please tell me how to kill someone and get away with it?” Or, “Hi, my name Karla Killer and I’d really like to hold your gun so I can see how heavy it is.”
  • Procrastination (I was too busy to attend the Writers’ Police Academy. Maybe next year. In some instances, “next year” may never arrive. After all, we can’t do this forever!)
  • Fear of rejection by agents and editors. Settle for nothing less than a big fat YES, and don’t stop working and writing and bettering your craft until you reach your goals.
  • Television (Please STOP using TV as a source of information!! Easy isn’t always best).
  • Allowing life to run you instead of you running your life.

I guess what I’m getting at is that if a murderer who’s serving a life sentence in a harsh prison setting is willing to go far beyond the extra mile for a scrap of important information needed for his book, then why shouldn’t all writers at least make some sort of effort to “get it right?”

How about you? Do you go the extra mile for the details in your tales?

Speaking of details …

Coming January 23, 2021, a live and interactive seminar featuring crime scene mapping using lasers and drones, sexual assault investigations, the craft of writing with USA Today & Wall Street Journal bestselling author Lisa Regan, and more!

The tin cup pictured above is an actual drinking vessel that was originally part of the fabulous dining experience for prisoners housed inside a small county jail. The lockup itself was every bit as peachy as the cup, and both the building and the stainless steel mug were well past their expiration dates when the county finally gave in and demolished the old place.

As they say, “if those walls could’ve talked” we’d have heard tales of jailhouse coffee potent enough to dissolve steel beams. A cook who somehow transformed liver and onions into a dish that even the pickiest of inmate diners enjoyed. We’d have heard about the two graveyard shift jailers who discovered two whole baked turkeys in the refrigerator and consumed most of the pair of browned birds during the course of their December 24th overnight shift. The turkeys were designated for the prisoners’ Christmas dinner.

The prisoners were still there, locked up when New Years Day rolled around. The jailers were not, courtesy of a very angry sheriff who, at the last minute, had to hire a caterer to prepare additional turkeys for the prisoners.

The old red-brick jail building, if it were able to speak before its demise, might’ve told us about the prisoner who managed to smuggle a gun inside and then dared officers to “come and get it.” Certainly we’d have heard about the roaches and mice and the general funky stench of a place with little ventilation (no air movement at all in some corners of the facility).

The jailhouse could’ve gone into detail about how prisoners were allowed a couple hours of recreation once or twice each month, and that was limited to stepping outside onto a square of concrete for a game of basketball, if the ball was inflated and that was a rarity. The others who didn’t play ball simply sat down or paced back and forth on a small patch of grass next to the court.

It might’ve spoken of the dangers facing deputies (they were called jailers at this department). Blind corners and stairwells. Hallways so narrow that the jailers were forced to walk next to the bars.

No cameras “in the back” Therefore, when jailers opened the door to enter the lockup area they had no idea what waited for them on the other side. Had inmates escaped their cells, which had happened a couple of times, deputies were sitting ducks for an ambush.

So buckle up and join me for the only peek available inside this small facility. Believe it or not, this place was located in a county within the U.S., not in a third world country. And, it was in use not so long ago.

Follow me, but don’t touch anything, including those top two strands of wire. They’re electrified. A bug zapper for humans!

As we pass through the front gate, after being “buzzed” inside, please look to your right and you’ll see the recreation yard in its entirety, a simple square of concrete with an adjoining and similarly sized patch of grass. Inmates were allowed outside once or twice per month. Since there are no day rooms inside, it was a rare treat to see and do anything that wasn’t inside a dark, damp, and smelly 6×9 concrete cell.

During recreation time two patrol deputies were called in off the road to stand guard outside the fence. They were required to watch over the activities, armed with Remington 870 Wingmaster shotguns. The 870 Wingmaster is often a go-to weapons when in the business of law enforcement.

This, the sheriff’s order to have patrol deputies oversee recreation time, left the county less safe due to having two less deputies available to respond to calls. If an emergency arose the inmates were immediately herded back to their cells. Once they were safely tucked away the two patrol deputies left the jail with sirens yelping, lights flashing, and tires squealing.

Recreation yard

Upon entering this county jail, we first set foot inside a tiny lobby. This was where citizens stood at counter to sign documents, speak with deputies and/or dispatchers, hand over money orders for inmate commissary accounts, file criminal complaints, and report crimes, etc.

The lobby  also served as the visiting room. It was where family and friends stood facing one of two small windows that were equipped with sound holes so that inmates and visitors could hear the other speak. No phones and no contact. FYI – should officers arrest and deliver a suspect to the jail they brought them through this lobby area. Therefore, visitors would be made to move behind the business counter, or other nearby area, until the prisoner and officer passed through. Super safe, right?

Visitation and lobby area. This photo was taken from behind the counter where citizens filed reports, etc. The space was quite small.

On visitation day (Sunday afternoon only), inmates were brought two at a time to a small cell where they were locked inside. The cell was on the opposite side of the wall, directly behind the two green chairs in the above image.

Inmate visitation cell.

The two small windows in the visitation cell are the reverse sides of the ones in the previous photo. Until visitations, a piece of cardboard was positioned over the windows to prevent prisoners, the trustees who cleaned the jail and were allowed to roam about freely, from seeing out into the office area/lobby.

Stepping through the doorway leading to the cellblock area (to the right of the green lobby chairs in the photo) we first pass the trustee cells. The door to these cells remained unlocked during daylight hours to allow those prisoners to complete their chores—cleaning, mopping, delivering meals, etc. Trustees were required to be inside their cells by 9 p.m. each evening, where they’d remain locked inside until 5:30 a.m. in preparation for breakfast service.

Looking out from inside the trustee cells.

Hallways and corridors were extremely narrow, which was dangerous for the jailers who worked there. The facility was heated by old and clunky boilers that needed constant service and repairs. Radiators were there, inside the corridors, but were scarce. There was no heat inside the cells. And, there was no air conditioning whatsoever.

The only airflow came through small widows. In the next image you can see one of those windows (top left corner), open and tilted in toward the cells. A portable TV sat on a wonky, wall-mounted shelf next to the window.

Narrow corridors are dangerous!

Inmates were not allowed access to the TV controls, and reception was quite poor and was achieved with “rabbits ear” and Loop” antennas. Jailers changed channels when requested, during their rounds. But prisoners will be prisoners, so they manufactured makeshift antenna controls fashioned from string or wires, using the “remote controls” to swivel the antenna to dial in stations. Not allowed but, as I said, prisoners will be prisoners.

Of course, jailers often confiscated the strings and wires, and tightly rolled up newspapers used for reaching across the hallway to change a channel. Those items are considered as contraband in lockup facilities because they can be used to strangle, commit suicide, or attack officers. Newspapers and magazine pages can be rolled and formed in ways that make them nearly as hard as wood and are often found with sharpened objects inserted into the pointed ends. Doing so makes them as lethal as any spear or other stabbing type of weapon. Very deadly.

Wires to rotate rabbit-ear antennas from side to side to help receive a better picture. No cable!

To show just how dangerous this place was for deputies, notice how close the jailer below was to the bars. He had no choice due to the swing direction of the door.

Notice the pieces of white paper poking through the bars. They’re actually envelops placed there by prisoners. This was their version of postal letter boxes. Each morning a jailer collected the envelopes and carried them back to the office where he’d place stamps on each one, if the prisoners had enough money in their account to cover the costs. Afterward, a USPS letter carrier stopped by the jail to pick up outgoing mail and drop off incoming mail.

Jailer enters corridor. Danger!

There were no light fixtures inside the cells. Instead, floodlights mounted to the corridor ceilings illuminated each block of four cells. The fixture below hangs above one of the few windows in the block. Lighting was poor to say the least.

Floodlights gave the impression of peering in at zoo animals on display.

Prisoners received their meals through horizontal slotted openings in the bars. Trustees delivered the trays.

Tray slot

Meals were prepared in the jail kitchen. Trustees received meal trays from the cooks through a pass-through window leading from the kitchen to the jail corridor. Coffee was always available for deputies, 24 hours a day. Inmates were given coffee with their breakfast. One of the perks of being a trustee was to have coffee whenever they wanted, during daylight hours. Deputies and prisoners drank coffee from the same pot, the one pictured on the countertop below.

Jail kitchen

There were no showers inside the cell blocks. Instead, deputies escorted prisoners to showers located in another area … once each week, if they were lucky.

Showers had no floor drains, therefore water spilled out in the same corridors used by the jailers when making rounds.

Showers drained into the corridors.

To open cell doors deputies/jailers used a Folger-Adams key to release a lock on a cabinet attached to the wall outside each block of four cells. The compartment was made of thick steels and contained the door controls. The same key also locked and unlocked all interior jail doors, such as the cell doors, supply closets, access to plumbing and electrical systems, and the main “in/out” door to the jail that connected to the lobby/visiting area.

Folger-Adams key

With the cabinet door unlocked, the jailer opened and closed cell doors using levers and a large wheel. Each lever controlled the lock to one cell door. The jailer pulled the desired lever down to lock a door(s) and then turned the wheel to “roll” the barred doors either open or closed. This was all performed manually. No electronic controls. Should a door not close completely, its corresponding light (below the levers) illuminated with a bright red glow.

The door to the jailer’s right (below) was the entrance to a block of four cells and a very small small, narrow day room. When the jailer opened the cell doors, it released each of those four prisoners into the day room. He’d then roll the doors shut until night. Prisoners were not permitted to remain in their cells during daytime hours.

If a prisoner refused to come out of his cell when required, the others were returned to their cells (for safety) and deputies would then go inside to “gently” coax remove the misbehaving inmate, who would then serve a few days in “the hole” for not following instructions and jail rules. The unruly inmate would also lose commissary and visiting privileges.

Wheel of Misfortune

And that, my friends, was your look inside a place not many have seen. Those who have wish they hadn’t, I’m sure.

Cheers …


My career in law enforcement started in the prison system working as a corrections officer in a maximum security facility. The aged institution was a series of old, weathered and worn brick buildings that were probably ten years past the demolition stage. Ironically, that description fit many of the prison’s residents—old, weathered, and long past their prime.

As a new employee, and someone who didn’t know what to expect, once I was permitted inside the endless fencing and razor wire, well, I was a bit apprehensive to say the least.

During our orientation period (the prison system is a revolving door of both inmates and employees—neither seem to want to stay for very long), we were told the prison housed many hard-core inmates, even brutal murderers who’d never again set foot in society.

It didn’t take long to discover how many of the prison inmates survive in such a harsh environment. To do so, many of them “obtain” things from the outside. However, getting their hands on contraband is not the easiest of tasks. Therefore, using tactics similar to those used by feral animals, they stalk their prey, focusing on weak-minded, soft-touch officers. Then, when the moment is right, they cull the timid from the herd before moving in for the kill.

The difference between this type of prisoner and a lion is that the lion hunts for food, while the desperate inmate hunts for favors, liquor, drugs, cellphones, women, and possibly freedom. His prey—new, unsuspecting prison guards who could be manipulated and conned into granting those wishes.

Thankfully, I’m not weak or meek, nor am I an easy mark, so I never once fell for any of their clever con games. However, there’s another type of prisoner that did seem to get to me at times—old-timers with sad stories who seemed to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. They could have been anybody’s grandfather, even mine. And such was the case of …

The Wheel: Page Two of My Spiral Notebooks

Tired eyes.

Skin, wrinkled like grooves etched in wet sand.

Working man’s hands.

Nails bitten to the quick.

“They tore down the mill,” I said.

Anxious eyes.

“The one near my place?” he said.

I nodded.

“I used to gig frogs at the base of that old wheel.”

“Caught some nice ones there.”

I offered another nod.

“What’re they gonna do there?”

“Convenience store’s what I heard.”

A gaze into the distance.

Staring into his past.

A deep breath.

A sigh.

A tired voice,

Nearly a whisper.

“The wheel was turnin’ that night, you know.”

I’d heard the story a hundred times before.

“I heard the water running over it when I crossed the road.”

Trembling hand through white hair.

The other, clutching fence wire.

Knuckles, white and taut.

“She screamed, but I still heard the water pouring off the wheel.

And the metal squeakin’ and creakin’.

It was loud. So loud.”

His eyes meet mine.

“Still hear it, you know. Every night, in my head.”

“I know you do.”

I know this because I hear his screams.

The ones that wake him late at night.

“I went over to her trailer to see about all the racket.”

Hand gripping hand.

Wringing and twisting.

Beads of sweat spattered across his forehead.

“She was my little girl, you know.”

Deep breath.

“I opened the door.”

Eyes growing wide.

He was there, again.

In his mind.

“He … He was sittin’ on top of her …”

Voice quivering.

“She was naked. Lips bleeding. Down there, too …”

Old eyes filled with water.

Spilling down his sun-leathered cheeks.

“I tried to pull him off.”

Voice cracks.

“Too big. Too strong.”

Anger crept in.

Teeth clenched tightly.

“I went back across the road to my house.”

Looking at, but through me.

Seeing it all again.

“To get my shotgun.

I didn’t want her to marry him. Never did like the guy.

A drunk and a bum.

Never worked a day in his life.

Beat her all the time.

Bruises and black eyes.

I seen ‘em.”

More hand-wringing.

“Loaded three rounds of double-aught buckshot, I did.

Get off my little girl!

Mind your own business, old man, he says to me.”


“Well, that bastard’’ll never touch my precious angel again.

No, sir.

Never again.”






Went home to get gun.


Life sentence.

No parole.

A beat of silence passed.

“So they tore it down, huh?”


A sigh.

“A convenience store, huh?”

I nodded.

“I’ll always hear that water runnin’.

And the metal screechin’ and squealin’.”

Wiped away a final tear.

“I know you will.”

“I’d do it again tomorrow, you know.”

I nodded.

Another beat.

Announcement from speaker.

“Count time in five minutes.”

“All inmates report to their cells.”

Voices approach.

Chatter of dozens.

Feet shuffling on concrete.

“I wish she’d found somebody like you.

Maybe we could’ve gone frog-giggin’ together, you and me.

Before they tore it down.

Or fishin’.

Crappie there are as big as your two hands held side-by-side.

They’s some good eat’n.”

Gnarled fingers through the wire.

Reaching for me,

For a simple touch.

Human to human.

Liver spotted hand.

“I’da liked that. I really would have.”

“Me, too …

Me, too.”

* The Old Man and the Wheel is a true story that crosses my mind from time to time. Today is one of those times.