Prison Life: How do I Stay Connected?

In earlier lessons, we described a criminologist’s theory about adjustments in prison. He theorized that adjustment patterns in prison follow a U-shaped graph. People hold close ties to society when they are coming into the metaphorical “U.” As they approach the center of their sentence, perspectives shift. Their values and behaviors tend to blend with those of the prison society. Then, as the individual moves closer to the end of his sentence, he begins ascending the right vertical side of the “U.” Perspectives shift again. He leaves the culture and values of the prison society behind and identifies with the value patterns of the community he will return to after release.

I felt that pattern, even though I served an 18-month term for securities fraud. Surrendering to federal prison, leaving behind my family, my dog, my friends and career really hurt. As I moved into the midway point of the term, I adjusted well. I was exercising, writing, preparing for the career I wanted to build. Then, I started to inch closer to my release date, I started to feel that anxiety again, eagerly awaiting my liberty.

Prison life changes the way people think. People who never experienced confinement make the mistake of identifying a prisoner’s disciplinary record as an indication of his preparation for living in society. Staff members may say that a person who received a single disciplinary infraction—no matter how trivial—obviously has not learned right from wrong. After a person lives inside for a while, he recognizes that blemished disciplinary records are often symptomatic of the prison system’s poor design.

People outside of prison may not think of paying someone to “steal” food from the kitchen. Inside, life is different. For some, buying vegetables and fruit from kitchen hustlers becomes as common as brushing one’s teeth.

As a person passes time inside, it’s easier to be more temperate in our judgment of others going through the prison experience. After a few years inside, a person that once led a professional career may talk about a 12-month sentence as being insignificant. Before going to prison, people may think a year in prison would be life altering. As time passes, the prison term feels less unsettling, possibly because everyone in the community serves time.

The longer a person serves, the more susceptible he becomes to being conditioned by the system. A man who enjoyed a rich social life outside, filled with family, friends, and business acquaintances, may go through a meltdown period. As holidays pass, a person may sense the loss more acutely. Out of site out of mind. Mail comes less frequently.

For many, money to buy commissary becomes a problem. Outside resources get depleted. These factors of prison life tend to push people deeper into the abnormal society that exists behind prison fences. Unless people make conscious efforts not to do so, they begin to pick up the prison vernacular. They embellish sentences liberally with vulgar and profane language. Some become skillful at understanding the rules—not so they can abide by them, but so they can navigate their way through them without being caught.

Prisons can make a person feel as if he’s lost hope and control over his own destiny. As people move deeper into their sentences, they may feel more separated from society. After a few years pass, they might only be able to communicate with other people in prison. People in prison can lose touch with the society outside of prison fences if they don’t take action.

Unfortunately, a common myth in many prisons is that the easiest way to serve time is to leave outside society behind as they enter the prison. The problem with that theory is that the more a person conditions himself to live in prison, the more he simultaneously conditions himself to fail in society.

My partner, Michael Santos served 26 years in prison. Rather than separating himself from society, he made conscious, deliberate efforts to grow stronger in every way. As a result of his daily efforts to connect with others, he succeeded in opening relationships. Those relationships led:

• To bringing mentors into his life,
• To earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree
• To publishing several books,
• To his coordinating friendships with numerous business leaders,
• To his building multiple income streams, and
• To his getting married during his 16th year of imprisonment.

Instead of struggling upon release, Michael launched a lucrative career. In Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, Michael attributed his success to rejecting that myth that adjusting in prison requires a person to forget about the outside world. Efforts he made to connect with law-abiding citizens opened numerous opportunities for him, and he urged others to do the same.

In our opinion, people ought to work toward maintaining close ties with society. That strategy worked well for our colleague, Shon Hopwood and it worked well for me. Shon developed mentor relationships that had a huge influence on his ability to launch his legal career upon release.

Instead of lamenting over lost relationships, make efforts to forge new ones. Create a strong support network. Strong relationships help people overcome challenges and obstacles upon release.

The BOP publishes policies indicating that it encourages people to maintain close ties with the community. Those statements tend to belie policies by which people have to live in prison. For example, as a general rule, prisoners are not allowed to visit with people they did not know prior to incarceration. Another rule limits people from the amount of time they can spend on the telephone. Further, disciplinary sanctions frequently include taking telephone and visiting privileges away.

People should expect obstacles as they try to connect with society from federal prison. It makes sense to invest time and energy to grow in spite of such barriers.

Many people get depressed during confinement. They lose focus, or have a hard time completing activities that they used to accomplish routinely—like reading a book, studying, exercising, or sleeping. They just get sad and vegetate. They have built an idea of their worth as a human being according to the success, accomplishments, or life they lived prior to prison.

For those that fail to take action, prison distorts a self-image. Confidence can slip away, resulting in a debilitating depression.

Our team argues that leading a values-based, goal-oriented adjustment can make all the difference. It can empower people. Prison provides an excellent opportunity to sublimate energy and develop new skills. Pursuing meaningful goals in the midst of struggle can boost self-esteem. Consider:

• Working to build or develop a stronger vocabulary,
• Learning a foreign language,
• Writing a book,
• Losing weight,
• Earning credentials, or
• Developing new skills.

To succeed in prison, as anywhere else, master the environment. If a person lets the environment master him, depression can set in.

Prison Life – Visiting Policies:

In order to receive visits in federal prison, each person must mail a form to his prospective visitor. The prisoner’s counselor provides the visiting form. Once received, the prospective visitor fills out every blank, then returns the form directly to the counselor. The counselor will search a federal database to check on whether the proposed visitor has been truthful about reporting a prior criminal record. A prior criminal record will not necessarily preclude a person from being added to a visiting list. But if a prospective visitor lies on a visiting form, and the counselor notices, the lie may end consideration for the visit.

If the counselor approves the application, he will update the visiting list. Prospective visitors should send visiting forms through certified mail; it’s not uncommon for counselors to say that they did not receive a visiting form. With a return receipt, a person can show the counselor who signed for the form and it may be tracked down.

Two weeks may pass or longer may pass before a counselor updates a visiting list with new visitor. A person in prison should get confirmation that the counselor has approved a visitor prior to requesting the visit. Family members may be added more quickly than two weeks if they’re listed on the pre-sentence investigation report.

People new to the federal prison system should provide visitors with accurate information on:

• Route to the prison, which they can get from prisoners,
• Days and times of the week that visiting is authorized,
• Advise visitors to bring rolls of quarters for use in vending machines—a good rule is about $10.00 per person,
• Remind visitors to bring picture identification, along with the prisoner’s name, housing unit, and registration number,
• Advise visitors on dress code: no colors that match prison uniforms (khaki, green, or orange), no colors that match staff colors (gray), no sleeveless shirts, no sweat pants, no open-toed shoes for women, nothing too provocative or revealing,
• Women may bring a clear plastic bag or baggie to hold change, but purses, handbags and diaper bags are generally not allowed into the visiting room.

By providing prospective visitors with as much information as possible, prisoners lessen some of the hassle associated with prison visiting.

In most institutions, prisoners are limited to 10 non-family visitors and 10 family visitors on their approved list. But they may remove and add visitors by submitting new lists to their counselor. Making frequent changes to visiting lists causes more work for counselors, and they’re not always appreciative.

In county jails, visits may take place through a window with a telephone device. Most federal prisons, on the other hand, offer contact visits. It’s like visiting someone at a bus station, or an airport. Seats are assigned.

Visiting rooms in camps are easier, allowing people to sit in movable chairs around tables, or even on outside grounds. Most prisons with security ratings higher than camps have theater-style seating in the visiting rooms, and no tables. That means prisoners sit in parallel lines, side-by-side, and shoulder-to-shoulder with their visitors. After a while, it’s not uncommon for the seating arrangement to cause neck aches, as the people have to look to their sides in order to talk.

Rules allow people to embrace and kiss their visitors at the beginning and at the end of the visit. During the visit, prisoners may be allowed to hold hands. They are not allowed to kiss during the visit.

Cameras are placed at strategic locations throughout the visiting room and guards constantly roam around the room keeping a vigilant eye for behavior they consider inappropriate. Many will not hesitate to terminate visits for the slightest violation of visiting-room rules. If children run around the room without adult supervision, the guards may issue a warning, or they may terminate the visit.

Prisoners should instruct their visitors not to bring anything when they come except a picture ID and change to sodas, chips, cakes, and sandwiches from a bank of vending machines.

Visitors should not dress too provocatively. If staff members think a woman is dressed inappropriately, they may deny entry into the room. Skirts must not be too short, and clothing should not be too tight. It’s a good idea to dress as if going to church, or on a job interview.

In secure prisons, officers will strip searched people in prison before and after the visit. Prisoners in camps might not be searched at all. Except in rare instances, staff members will not search a person coming to visit a prisoner. The exceptions are when they suspect the visitor may be trying to smuggle contraband.

Prisons in busy, metropolitan areas generally limit the quantity of hours a person may spend in the visiting room during a given month. Many systems rely upon “visiting points” to control the amount of time a person can spend in the visiting room. On weekdays, each hour the prisoner spends in the visiting room may count as one point; on weekends and holidays, every hour may count as two points. Administrators may further limit weekend visits by only allowing people to spend alternating weekend days in the visiting room. Every prison has its own visiting rules. People learn institutional rules and visiting times on their first day inside.

Prison Life – Inmate Telephone System:

The Inmate Telephone System (ITS) strictly controls telephone access. Staff members monitor all calls. Sanctions for violating rules may be severe. As always, it’s best to know the rules and follow them assiduously. Staff members are quick to impose sanctions when it comes to telephone use, or anything that connects people to society.

Whenever a person makes a call, an automated recording interrupts a few times to announce that the call is from a person in prison. As with visiting lists, counselors will authorize access to the telephone. People may pay for calls by purchasing credits from the commissary. Every person in prison will have his own Personal Identification Number (PIN). In order to place a call, the person uses the PIN, which creates a call record that staff monitor. Staff members monitor all calls on the ITS system with surveillance equipment.

Again, penalties for violating any rules of the ITS system are extremely severe. The telephone represents a primary link between many people in prison and their families. Yet for any type of disciplinary infraction that involves a prison telephone, the prisoner should expect to lose his telephone privileges (and perhaps his visiting and commissary privileges, too) for extended lengths of time.

One of the common offenses is the three-way call. That may be a regular feature outside of prison. The BOP’s perception of a three-way call is that it’s equivalent to a capital offense. Another is using the phone to violate any of the prison’s rules. For example, using the phone to instruct someone outside to send money to another prisoner’s account. Or using the phone to conduct a business. Prisoners should not discount the seriousness of telephone violations, because penalties are severe.

Like anywhere else, it’s best to anticipate problems before they surface. If a person has financial interests outside, it’s best for the person to create a well-informed strategy long before surrendering to prison. We recommend that people learn rules and learn what has worked for others, then coordinate a plan of action with people they trust. If a person needs to have “business conversations,” it’s best to talk with an attorney first. Then have the attorney contact the BOP for a written opinion on whether certain discussions are authorized over the phone. Do not engage in business discussions (including stock sales or even the transfer of money from one account to the other) without having a clear, and preferably written understanding of what staff members will permit. People in prison should expect staff members to monitor all telephone conversations.

Prison Life – Melvin’s Story:

Melvin waited in the county jail to be sentenced. The county jail did not have a restriction on three-way phone calls. He made them regularly to communicate with his family. After he received a 20-year sentence, the county jail placed him in segregation while Melvin waited for transfer to a BOP facility.

He waited in SHU for five weeks, without access to the telephone. Then the U.S. Marshals picked him up and transferred Melvin to prison. When he arrived, however, administrators learned that they did not have his PSR. As a result, instead of placing him in the A&O Unit, then sent Melvin to SHU. He waited in SHU for a week before his counselor told Melvin that his PSR had arrived and he would transfer to the general compound.

“I haven’t spoken with my family for almost two months. Can I make a phone call?” Melvin asked his counselor.

“Sure. I’ll issue you a PIN number, but you’ll have to submit a phone list. Give me a list of numbers and I’ll make sure your phone account is activated by tomorrow.”

“But I don’t have my property with me and won’t know all the phone numbers I want to add to my list until I receive my phone book.”

“That’s no problem,” the Counselor answered. “Just give me the numbers you remember. When you receive your property, give me a new list to add to it. You’re allowed a total of 30 phone numbers on your list.”

Melvin transferred to the A&O unit the following day. He called his mom. While talking with her, he asked her to connect him to his sister. His mother made the connection.

Later that evening, a lieutenant paged Melvin. The lieutenant read Melvin his Miranda rights, then told him that he was being charged with making a three-way phone call. Melvin said that it was his first day on the compound. No one told him he couldn’t make three-way calls. The lieutenant said the matter would have to be referred to the Unit Team, and then the disciplinary hearing officer.

The following day, Melvin went to the Counselor who had activated his telephone account. He explained that no one had warned him about not making three-way calls, and the Counselor realized that because Melvin was in the SHU, he had missed the A&O presentation which detailed the rules of the ITS.

“Don’t worry about it,” the Counselor said. “I’ll leave a note with the DHO stating that you had not yet gone through A&O when you made the call.”

Melvin then went before the Disciplinary Hearing Officer. When he did, the DHO asked Melvin one question—whether he made the three-way call. Melvin admitted that he did. When he tried to explain, the DHO cut him off, saying he didn’t want to listen. The DHO found Melvin guilty of the violation. He sanctioned him to loss of telephone privileges for one year, loss of visiting privileges for six months, and loss of commissary privileges for 90 days.

Melvin was beginning a 20-year sentence. He had a seven-year old daughter who didn’t understand why her father quit calling, and why she couldn’t visit him any longer. When Melvin tried to explain that to the DHO, the DHO told him that he should have thought about his daughter before he was convicted.

Melvin’s sanction is not uncommon or particularly harsh when it comes to violations of the ITS. If Melvin were to receive a second violation for a telephone infraction, he would receive the same sanctions, in much longer increments. Many people in prison have lost telephone privileges for five years. Since telephones and visiting are considered a privilege, and not a right, people should make every effort to understand every rule concerning the ITS completely before they find themselves ensnared in a problem as Melvin did.

If a person is caught using a cell phone, they likely will transfer to a higher-security prison, and they may be charged with new criminal conduct. They will likely be denied access to telephone and visits for several years.

Correspondence Policies:

In most cases, people in prison have a Constitutional right to mail. It is only in the rarest of instances when BOP officials or the courts deny a person access to mail. For many, mail is their primary means of communicating. They may use the U.S. Postal Service, or the Corrlinks mail system.

The Corrlinks, or Trulincs system, is a quasi-email system that is available to people in federal prison. We call it a “quasi” because Corrlinks differs from email people have become accustomed to in the broader society.

As with telephone systems, people must submit a names and contact information for people with whom they want to communicate through Corrlinks. Staff members will authorize the communications. Once approved, people in prison can send digital messages through the system. Staff members or an automated system will scan the message. After a couple of hours, the message gets sent to a Corrlinks server. Intended recipients can check the server. They access the message through Corrlinks.

Corrlinks does not have the same instantaneous speed as email, but it’s a much more efficient way to stay connected than the U.S. Postal service.

In order to receive regular mail, prisoners must sign a form indicating that they authorize staff members to open and inspect all incoming mail before it is delivered to the inmate. The only mail that may be delivered to the inmate without having been previously opened must be properly marked on the outside of the envelope as legal mail. Once an individual arrives at his particular institution, he should check with his Unit Team or the mailroom to find the exact rule on what that institution considers “appropriately marked” legal mail; policies vary from one institution to another.

Generally, staff members will not open mail if it adheres to the following guidelines:

• Law firm name on return envelope
• Personal lawyer’s name written above law firm name (may be hand written), identifying him as a lawyer,
• Clearly marked “Legal Mail: Open only in the presence of [inmate name and number].

Prisoners may not send or receive packages without written authorization from the Unit Team. If an envelope weighs more than one pound, mail room staff will consider the envelope a package. They may reject the package if it does not include a prior authorization. For that reason, when ordering books, it’s best not to order more than two at a time. Further, regarding books and magazines, they should come from a bookstore or publisher.

In high, medium, and administrative-security facilities, prisoners must send outgoing mail in unsealed envelopes. They should expect staff members to read through the mail before they seal and send the mail. In low and minimum-security institutions, people may seal their outgoing mail. But all mail may be inspected and read prior to leaving the institution.

Regardless of a prison’s security-level, if a person is not under some type of exceptional mail limitation, he will be able to send mail to his attorney, the court, media representatives, or government officials in a sealed envelope. This type of mail is sent through a special mail outgoing mailbox. Staff members will not inspect mail sent from that box unless they have reason to suspect wrongdoing.

Although people in prison may send and receive mail to people in the community, rules prohibit them from writing to people in other prisons unless they have prior authorization. In order to correspond with people in other prisons, both prisoners must receive approval from the wardens of their respective institution. It is not uncommon for wardens to grant permission for family members to correspond, but both people in prison need approval before corresponding.

Final Word About Prison Life and Staying Connected:

Staying connected with society is of vital importance. People should create opportunities to build new relationships with law-abiding people during their confinement. For many, the alternative is bad. They may live in prison for years. When they return to society, they may be completely out of step with the world. There is a scene in The Shawshank Redemption about one character who finally makes it out of prison after having served a lengthy term. Finding himself unable to cope, he hangs himself.

With 2 million people serving time in American prisons, confinement does not present quite the same stigma in many social circles that it has in decades past. Prisoners should reach outside the fences at every opportunity that comes. In fact, they should do more. In order to prepare themselves, they ought to make conscious efforts to invite new people into their lives. Communicating with law-abiding citizens represents one of the best methods for people to grow, even while growing through struggle.

Justin Paperny

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