Mornings in Federal Prison

Over breakfast yesterday with a client at Lovi’s Deli in Calabasas I was asked, “Justin, what is the best way to master your mornings in federal prison?”

I told him that was the best question I have been asked about federal prison in a long time. I proudly shared my thoughts with him–and now with you.

How were my mornings in federal prison?

As soon as the guard cleared the 5:00am count, I would begin my day. First order of business? Coffee.

At 5:05am, I would fill my coffee cup with Folgers coffee I bought in the commissary, then walk to the bathroom. There was one hot water spout. I would fill up the cup, stir the coffee, then return to my cubicle. For ten to fifteen minutes I would enjoy my coffee. If I had them, I would enjoy a few apricots or plums.

From the beginning, I liked waking early while the dorm slept.

One hundred and twenty men were in D dorm at Taft Federal Prison Camp. I would estimate 5% of them were up at that hour. One of them, of course, was my friend Michael Santos.

While enjoying coffee in my cubicle, I would plan on out my day:

  • What blog do I want to write today?
  • How many miles should I run?
  • How should I allocate the rest of my phone minutes?

I would also reflect on my prior day, and access if I followed through on my plans and priorities. In federal prison, I nearly always did.

Mornings in Prison | Master Mornings In Federal Prison

Mornings in Prison | Master Mornings In Federal Prison

At 5:20am I would walk to the quiet room. With me were my dictionary, pen, notebook and one or two books I was reading. Some mornings I joined Michael Santos in the quite room; some days I choose to work alone. Regardless, I focused.

In my 20s, I was a lazy slob. No joke. I approached most things with a causal indifference. I made a lot of money, but it was not earned. I used connections to advance my career. I had some talent, but I did not have the commitment it takes to succeed.

In prison, I knew my days of laziness and indifference were over.

I would only succeed in the future by changing nearly every aspect of my life. The reality that I would have to change drove me from the moment I woke up. Mastering my mornings in prison meant I would have to educate myself.

From 5:20am to 6:30am, I read a business, ethics or leadership book. While reading I would take notes, and write down words I did not know on a white index card. Till this day, I still refer to notes I took from those books. In fact, I wrote a blog in prison about my note taking strategy. You can read it here.

At 6:30am I would walk to the chow hall. I went to the chow hall every day in federal prison, except for two days. On July 4th 2008, I was sick. The other day was May 20, 2009, the day I walked out of Taft Federal Prison Camp.

Fitness and diet were critical components of my prison term. I had no interest in the cookies and cake they offered in the chow hall. Mastering my mornings meant showing discipline both with my studies and diet. I derived a sense of confidence and satisfaction sticking with oatmeal, banana and a cup of coffee.

At 7:00am I would return to the quiet room. For the next 45 minutes I would write my daily blog. When I was in federal prison there was no email. I think that was good for me. I know men who are on that email terminal all day, every day. At some point it can become a distraction. After mailing my blog, I would get ready to hit the track.

At 8:00am I would walk to the track with my friend Andrew Altchek, who tragically died in prison on March 21, 2010. Andrew would talk about his book. I liked to inquire about his life before prison–it reminded me of The Great Gatsby. Andrew and I would also discuss our upcoming exercise routine, and we would commit to “struggling”. In other words, we believed running had to involve struggling, an ability to push yourself and endure pain.

From 8:15am to 10:00am I ran. Running was usually the high point of my day. I loved it. Within a month, I was running 10 miles a day. Ten miles is 30 laps around that dusty, dirt track. I still have dreams that I am running that track.

“Attention all campers, the compound is now closed. Report back to your designated housing unit and prepare to stand for the 10:30am count–the compound is now closed,” we heard some guard say over the loud speaker at about 10:10am each morning.

At 10:10am I walked back to my dorm. I would grab clothes and go to a shower stall to change–never change in your cubicle or in front of other prisoners. I would prepare my lunch (rice, beans, tuna, tomato sauce, onions, tomatoes) and eat until 10:30am. Following the census count at 10:30am, I would shower, change, then head right back to the quiet room.

At 10:45am, I would call home. Mastering my mornings in prison meant always putting on a strong front when I called home. I loathed the prisoners that complained. On every call, I proudly told my parents how hard I was working.They were excited to learn of my plans after prison. It was not their fault I ended up in prison, I frequently reminded them. And I closed by telling them the time at Taft Federal Prison Camp was a gift I would not waste. One on call I told my mom, “I have never been happier!” She responded by saying, “I would not tell to many people that. They will think you are insane.”

Mastering my morning in federal prison was possible because I pursued my values. I think anyone who has a successful morning routine is in touch with their values. In my case, I was pursuing education, fitness, diet, discipline, etc. Every action I took aligned with my values.

At 11:00am, I returned to the quiet room to work. Depending on the day, I would continue writing, blogging, studying new vocabulary words or read. The last many months were spent working on Lessons From Prison. By noon, I was ready to head to the kitchen to perform my prison job. I was exhausted in the kitchen! On a number of occasions I feel asleep standing up.

My morning routine in prison got my life back on track. When I began I did not have aspirations to be a federal prison consultant or speaker on ethics and white collar crime. My only interest was forming new values and educating myself. The rest has taken care of itself.

Since it worked in prison, I have continued waking early. Like my time in federal prison, I still spend time in the morning accessing whether my actions and behaviors synchronize with the person I would like to become, the person my parents raised me to be.

I encourage every white collar defendant reading this to form their own morning ritual in federal prison. Own it. Master it. Defend it to those that love and support you. Ignore the haters or those who will be jealous of your efforts. Those haters, I know, will some day call you looking for work.

Let my routine help guide your. Let your mornings in federal prison guide you to a better life and future. I hope my experience benefits you.


Justin Paperny

P.S. Want help mastering your morning in prison? Schedule a call here.

P.S.S You can grab a free copy of Lessons From Prison here.