Former Inmate #12345-678: My Time in a Federal Prison Camp
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.