How Do I Avoid Problems and Make Progress in Federal Prison?

Our team strongly recommends people begin preparing for success at the earliest possible time. It’s never too early, and it’s never too late to sow seeds for a better outcome. And there are always steps a person can take.

Shon may not have known that he was going to become a lawyer when his judge sentenced him to more than a decade in prison. And Michael did not know he would begin building a real estate portfolio worth millions of dollars within months of concluding his prison term. And when my judge sentenced me for securities fraud, I certainly did not know that I would be building a consulting practice and digital marketing firm right after my release. The preparations we make early put us on a pathway for success after struggle.

What does it mean to succeed upon release? To some it means becoming a viable, contributing member of law-abiding society. That appears to be a high hurdle for many people who leave prison. When we define recidivists as those individuals who were arrested again within five years after their release from serving a prison sentence, recidivism rates in this country exceed 50 percent. That means more than one out of every two people in prison can expect to have problems with the law again after their release from confinement.

People coming into the system ought to be cognizant of those high rates of failure. They should prepare to ensure that they are a part of the minority of men who are not prisonized— conditioned by the system to fail.

Sociologists use the term prisonization to define trying to blend in with the prison society. They adopt the norms and values of the men around them. Many of those norms and values are completely at odds with the values that exist in society.

In maximum-security prisons, for example, people earn respect by developing fierce reputations. Many project images as having zero tolerance for any type of abuse, and they’re willing to take any problem to the wall. As some say, it’s easy to get respect in prison, as long as the person is willing to pay the price. That price, of course, may result in life in prison. Such attitudes are not restricted to maximum-security.

Blake and Fly’s Story:

Blake had only been in prison for a few months when he was confronted with a problem. At the time, he had a few years remaining to serve. He had been assigned to the top bunk in a 12-man room. Fly slept beneath him. One morning, around 6:00 a.m., Blake was climbing onto his top bunk. He farted. Fly was offended at Blake’s rudeness and the two men fought.

Fly was getting the better of Blake. Sensing that Fly was taking his manhood, Blake pulled out a weapon he manufactured previously. With a razor, he started slicing Fly’s face as if he were dicing a tomato. Had Blake found an artery, he certainly would have killed Fly. Instead, Blake’s slices just made crisscrosses across Fly’s face, from forehead to chin, ear to ear, and across his eyes.

Staff members called an ambulance for Fly to go a local hospital. Staff sent Blake to the SHU and he faced criminal charges that will add significantly to his sentence. Some may think this started because one man farted while climbing into bed at 6:00 in the morning. In reality, both men chose how to respond. Their response resulted in a sad ending for both men.

Prison is an unnatural world that can strip away life as a person knows it. The less prisoners expect while living in confinement, the easier it is to move through the term. When people make the mistake of associating their manhood, their honor, their dignity, with how others perceive them in prison, they move closer to prisonization. The more they move into that trap, the more vulnerable they make themselves to enhancing their problems and prolonging their stay in confinement.

To avoid problems and to make progress in federal prison, work toward maintaining and building close contacts with society, keep a stable personality, refuse to become a part of a group, and focus on goals. Those who want more out of life than a prison reputation ought to exercise personal discipline and avoid confrontations.

Rudy’s Story through Federal Prison:

Rudy came to prison with a 13-month sentence. He was well spoken. At first glance, no one would think of him as a person with criminal values. During his first week in prison, Rudy walked into one of the vacant television rooms. It was 6:00 in the morning and he wanted to pass an easy 20 minutes watching the early morning news until it was time for him to report to work. The sign on the door of the TV room said “General TV Viewing.” Rudy didn’t perceive any problem with what he was doing.

Ironhead walked into the room at 6:10. Disregarding Rudy, Ironhead changed the channel. He watched rap videos, he said, every morning in that room. “Well, you’re not going to watch rap videos in here today,” Rudy told him. “I’m watching the news.” Rudy changed the channel back to the news.

Rudy said that he wouldn’t have come off so assertively, but Rudy sensed that he couldn’t allow Ironhead to bully him.

“Man fuck all that,” Ironhead got in Rudy’s face. “This is the video room and I’m a watch videos.”

“The sign on the door doesn’t say ‘Video Room,’ Rudy objected. “The sign on the door says ‘General Viewing.’ I’m watching the news.”

Apparently, Ironhead didn’t know how to respond to this frail white guy standing up to him. He didn’t change the channel. Instead, Ironhead started playing his radio so loud that the thump, thump, thump was blasting through the headphones so that Rudy couldn’t watch television.

“Would you turn that down,” Rudy said. “I’m trying to watch the news.”

“Tough shit white boy,” Ironhead said. “You’re in jail. Get used to it.”

At 6:20, Rudy had to leave the room to report to his job assignment in the kitchen.

Rudy put himself into a volatile situation, one that easily could have been avoided. Although some would have admired his brass-balls response to Ironhead. They didn’t appreciate the risk to which Rudy exposed himself. Rudy responded in the way he did because, as he said “I didn’t want to leave Ironhead with the impression that I could be bullied.” As a newcomer to the prison, Rudy didn’t anticipate where his actions could have led him.

People coming to prison ought to realize that other prisoners develop a sense of entitlement, or ownership, to the most trivial matters. Hardened people in prison may consider a particular metal folding chair, control of a television room, an individual job to be worth fighting to protect, with weapons if need be. Having lost everything of any value in their lives, many people in prison tend to form a link with the inanimate object.

When another person encroaches on property or a situation that a prisonized prisoner believes is his own, the altercation can escalate into a battle that should be “taken to the wall.” If someone else had been in the room when Rudy stood his ground with Ironhead, Ironhead may have felt that Rudy had challenged his manhood. It could have provoked a violent response from Ironhead.

Fortunately for Rudy, nothing happened. But Rudy could have avoided the situation altogether without sacrificing any of his own self-esteem. At the same time, he could have given Ironhead the “respect” that he craved. When Ironhead said that he used the TV room every day to watch rap video, Rudy could have said, “I’m on my way to work anyway. The room is yours.” After all, Rudy wasn’t really so determined to watch the news. He just didn’t want to be bullied by Ironhead.

People in prison need to develop and use strong critical-thinking skills, considering strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats—the well-known SWOT analysis before each decision.

Regardless of how things went down with Ironhead, nothing short of violence would change the way others in prison perceived him. Rudy was white, polite, and courteous. He had no tattoos and all of his teeth. To most hard-core prisoners, Rudy represented the establishment that they feel oppressed them for their entire lives.

In the real world, Rudy runs his own company and he plays an integral role in eight-figure deals. When people like Rudy come to prison, they may want to keep the lives they lead outside in perspective. That’s where they expect to return. Most of the people in prison, on the other hand, come from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are more accustomed to prison life, or the culture of confinement.

Just as Rudy could never become accepted in prison society unless he denigrated himself to talking in their vernacular and behaving in ways that prisoners “respect,” neither could many of the prisoners ever lift themselves up to the world in which Rudy moves outside. Rudy is best to leave the prisons to the Ironheads, and keep his eyes firmly focused on his 13-month release date.

Coping with Federal Prison Frustrations:

It is inevitable that people experience frustrations while serving time. They may encounter staff members on power trips. They will share bathroom facilities with prisoners who have the sanitary habits of a rodent. They will miss career opportunities because of prison rules. And they may receive bad news from home.

All of these factors are inevitable.

When coming into the system, people need to exercise discipline. They should prepare mentally for what is to come and to keep in mind the words of Fleetwood Mac:

• “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”

Larry’s White Collar Crime Story:

Larry received an eight-year sentence for money-laundering charges. After sentencing, he surrendered to serve his time at the federal prison camp in Pensacola, Florida. When he arrived, he received a great job on a military golf course. Then Larry received news that his mother died.

When the BOP thwarted his plans to attend the funeral, Larry flipped out. A few days later, he walked away from the camp, tried to begin his life as a fugitive. Several weeks later he was picked up again. As a consequence, authorities charged him with a new crime for escape. Further, his actions implicated his wife and she also received a fresh prison term. Now, because he adjusted poorly to a situation over which he had no control, Larry not only extended his own stay in prison, but he is served it in a more restrictive institution. Further, he now lives with the guilt of having caused his wife to serve time, too.

People should accept that factors will present themselves during a term that are beyond a person’s sphere of control. When they accept this reality, they feel free to walk away from potential conflicts that can exacerbate problems.

One strategy our team members used to minimize prison stress was pursuing goals. When we pursue goals, we restore confidence and control to our lives. For example:

• Shon restored control when he trained himself on the law and built mentor relationships,
• Michael restored control when he worked to earn academic credentials, begin a publishing career, and open businesses,
• I restored control when I began working with Michael to create content that would launch my consulting career.
With more control, people have less dependence on the system. By controlling our decisions, the less we depend on the system or others. We leave the pains of confinement behind. We’re taking action and restoring confidence.

By creating mental escapes with personal activities that are productive, people minimize prison frustrations. Reading and writing can help. These activities bring connection and lead to learning, which may lessen the pain of confinement by building a sense of productivity and industriousness. Time passes slowly when people feel as if they’re wasting it.

Growing Through Federal Prison:

Time-management skills help people grow through confinement. Serve the sentence with an eye toward the future, actually visualizing achievements during a given time frame. Think in terms of weeks, months, years, and decades. What can you do today to ensure your life is stronger, better in time periods ahead?

Every day may feel like a challenge. Yet by pursuing specific goals, people empower themselves. Our course on The Straight-A Guide can help. Learn more about our Straight-A Guide Course at A values-based, goal-oriented adjustment helps people stay away from the ocean of problems that so easily drown people in prison.

Another strategy may include keeping a journal to identify goals in specific time frames. From those goals, people can reverse engineer progress points, or milestones. People that know where they want to be in ten years should know what they should achieve in five years. They also should have three-year plans, with a complete understanding of how both the three and five-year milestones relate to the ten-year vision. When a person knows where he wants to be in three, five, and ten years, then it is easier for him to understand where he needs to be in one year. And if he can see the one-year goal, where does the individual need to be in six months? In three months?

Our team members always used long-term goals as beacons of light. They helped us through the journey, and we’re still using this strategy now.

We encourage you to do the same.

Final Word on Avoid Problems and Making Progress in Federal Prison:

Prison, like anywhere else in life is about making choices and understanding ramifications accompany choices we make. Some people choose to build an image inside fences that result in their leaving prison far less able to succeed upon release than when they began their term. A smaller percentage of people grow during confinement and move on to enjoy fulfilling lives.

People in prison should not expect to find any reward for their efforts to improve, to grow, or to redeem themselves. The system makes few provisions to incentivize personal growth, although we’re hopeful with the First Step Act.

Expect punitive conditions in prison. Despite those conditions, identify specific goals to achieve, then figure out how to reach them—regardless of obstacles that will surface.

Be prepared!