3 Stages of A Federal Prison Term (U Shaped Curve)

Of all the blogs I have written about life in federal prison, none will be more important than this one. Of course, it will only be helpful for you if you apply this knowledge, then study your results.

The suggestions I offer here may be different than what others may have told you to do. I suppose there are a number of ways to have a productive prison term. The federal prison advice I offer worked for each member of our team and for thousands of our federal prison consulting clients. I urge you to use your own judgment in determining what path is best for you to follow.

In Lessons From Prison, a book I worked on with Michael Santos while I was serving my federal prison term, I wrote about the 3 stages of a federal prison term. We described these stages by breaking down the Metaphorical U-Shaped Curve.

The U-shaped curve measures your path through imprisonment. To better understand the theory, think of freedom as being above the U and the prison community as being below the curve of the U.

3 Stages of A Federal Prison Term

3 Stages of A Federal Prison Term

Stage 1 of 3: As you move down the U in stage 1, you will embrace the odd reality of leaving your community behind. You will focus on all that you are missing: your family, your own toilet, sex, privacy, your freedom. You may also spend days, as I did, obsessing how you ended up in federal prison. It can be hard to accomplish clearly defined goals in stage 1—more on that later.

Stage 2: In time, however, you will begin to slowly adjust and become more comfortable to imprisonment. Most prisoners in stage 2 fall into a routine of table games, TV and exercise. Generally, prisoners reach stage 2 when they are halfway done with their prison term. In other words, if your sentence is 24 months, you’ll enter stage 2, or the bottom of the metaphorical U, at 12 months.

Stage 3: Ascending the U! As you ascend the U in Stage 3, your anxieties will return. This time, however, your anxieties don’t have to do with leaving society. Your anxieties exist because you will soon be returning to society. By stage 3 you will have mastered and been conditioned to imprisonment. Rather than worrying about only spending $360 a month in the commissary (stage 1) or enjoying your four-hour exercise sessions (stage 2), the thoughts of bills, dealing with a probation officer and rebuilding your life take over.

As I shared with Dr. Phil, “Regardless of whether a man served a sentence of one year or ten years, when the release date approached, a new kind of anxiety set in.”

I saw this anxiety amongst many of my fellow prisoners. For example, I noticed a former banker, who was just weeks away from his release, pace all day.

When I asked him if he was okay, he said, “How the hell am I going to get a job and support a family. I think I should have turned down the halfway house. I need more time to figure this out.”

I had the opportunity to spend more time with this prisoner. When I asked him about his early experiences in federal prison, he expressed a lot of regrets. His biggest regret was serving time by forgetting about the outside world. Through our conservations, I learned some fellow prisoners told him forgetting about the outside world—and all of its distractions—would be an easier way to serve time. He followed their guidance to better adjust in stage 1 and was paying the price for it while he ascended the U in stage 3.

The key to serving time successfully is to master stage 1. I will spend the rest of this blog offering advice on how to master stage 1 of your federal prison term.

But how? Again, I am sure there are a number of opinions on how to master the first stage of a federal prison term. Let me share our thoughts.

To master stage 1 you must immediately focus on embracing reality and mastering discipline. Easier said than done, I know.

3 Stages of A Federal Prison Term

3 Stages of A Federal Prison Term

Upon my surrender, I knew what I was supposed to do, but that does not mean I did it. Frankly, it was not until Michael Santos helped me understand how I was wasting my prison term (page 147 of Lessons From Prison), that I began to really prepare. Until that conversation with Michael, I adjusted like many of my fellow prisoners: I exercised all day and talked about the good old glory days . Worst of all, I said, “Hey, I have a degree from USC. It will all work out.”

The truth is my USC degree meant nothing in federal prison. What good was that education from a fine school if I did not apply it correctly?

I will always regret waiting until I was deep into stage 2 of my federal prison term before I began preparing. If you are going to federal prison, you have an opportunity to profit from my experiences.

Too many prisoners upon their surrender (including me) lack discipline in those early days. And most do not have mentors like Michael Santos to get them on track. Let our team mentor you to ensure you are prepared to master prison and ascend the U in stage 3 with strength and confidence.

When you surrender pay attention to your surroundings. Rather than obsess over missing your favorite tv show or your favorite pillow, study and pay attention to your new environment. Those observations should help you understand who is productive and who is not. Do not form any friendships until you are certain the person is productive and disciplined.

3 Stages of A Federal Prison Term: If you are focused on discipline, your day will begin to take shape. From our perspective that day should include:

• Waking early
• Writing
• Studying
• Programming
• Growing your network
• Fitness

Let me reiterate that it doesn’t matter how educated you are if you do not put your education to work. While knowledge is great you must be focused on implementing this knowledge. If I may go one step further, that knowledge must be implemented consistently—in other words, every day. To gain a better understanding of what consistent implementation looks like read Earning Freedom by Michael Santos.

After you begin to apply the knowledge you have to study the results. For example, in February 2009, I had the opportunity to meet with a professor from a business school in the Midwest. She flew out to interview me about ethics and white-collar crime. She and her students had been reviewing my blogs. During that meeting she suggested that there could be a significant market for me in the corporate compliance space.

Until that time, I was focused primarily on writing about my experience and offering in federal prison tips. So clearly I was implementing what I was learning through my daily blogs. But after getting this feedback from the professor, then studying the size of the corporate compliance market, I immediately began to refine my approach. Besides writing only about federal prison, I began to study and write more about ethics, philosophy and I spent hundreds of hours studying and writing about the fraud triangle. The Fraud Triangle is a critical component to my lectures.

3 Stages of A Federal Prison Term

3 Stages of A Federal Prison Term

If you can implement new actions on a daily basis, and learn when to pivot, you will not only be a person of discipline, you will develop self esteem. After all, there is nothing better than following through on clearly defined timelines and commitments!

Succeeding in stage 1 also requires you to set clearly defined goals. You must also manage your time effectively. I was stunned at how much downtime or wasted time I saw in federal prison. It really takes discipline to avoid the TV room or sleeping more than is necessary.

I urge you as a soon to be prisoner to be ruthlessly selfish with your time. And to be ruthless with your time you must be disciplined. If you are not aware or disciplined with your time, others will steal or waste it. Rather than wasting time walking around the track with people who bring no value to your life, invest the time to re build your life or to improve bad habits that have held you back. If you can do that you will feel better and stronger when you begin ascending the U in stage 3.

In stage 1 you must learn to avoid or disregard the haters. It really does take discipline not to be influenced by others. It takes discipline to keep pushing when people tell you your efforts are useless and will not matter one bit in prison or after prison.

I wrote in a previous blog that often times prisoners have good ideas but they often times give up before starting. Why? Well to begin they are not disciplined and they are too easily swayed by others who are looking to negatively influence them. Some may have a bad habit of procrastinating. Regardless of the motive, to succeed during stage 1 of your federal prison term, you must act—consistently act—from the moment you walk into prison.

Let me reiterate there are a number of ways to serve time in federal prison. Some, I know, will tell you to forget about the outside world. Some, I know, will tell you to “chill” and “decompress” after surrendering. “Take it easy,” they will tell you, “you have been through a lot. You can start preparing when you have six months left to the halfway house.” By that time, of course, they are mired with anxiety as their release date rapidly approaches.

Our team encourages you to take decisive action. You must make a conscience choice to choose action over inaction, discipline over procrastination and a life of meaning and relevance over a life of excuses and monotony.

3 Stages of A Federal Prison Term: Let me manage expectations.

Nowhere in this blog did I write that your disciplined actions in federal prison term would immediately lead to your desired results. You will have to work on days you think no one cares or on those days you would rather do just about anything else. I had those feelings in prison. Even worse, I was sharing my life on the internet and opened myself up to scrutiny from people telling me to give it up and try something else.

Thankfully, I choose to stay disciplined and committed to my plan. Rather than obsess over how others would perceive me, I learned to stay focused on the end game: emerging from prison strong and ready. I just wish I started those preparations in stage 1, not stage 2.

As I wrap up this blog, let me add one more tip to ensure you master stage 1. Besides setting goals, document your journey! I am not telling you to do it through a blog, as I did. There are other ways to document your journey. Whatever you choose to do, just commit to writing for 15-20 minutes a day. Do you realize how much content you will produce if you write for just 15 minutes a day? Tons!

I invested the time to write this blog because I know what it is like to come home from prison unprepared—I get those calls each week. You now know what to do. The question is will you procrastinate or take immediate consistent disciplined action during your first stage in federal prison? The choose is yours.

I wish you well.

Justin Paperny

P.S. If you wish to speak with me, click this link to schedule a call.