What Are Minimum Security Camps Like?

Many movies depict prison life, including one made about my experience that led me to a minimum security camp. They help us get a frame of reference about what to expect inside.

In Con Air, Nicholas Cage and John Malkovich dramatize a group of super-bad convicts who take over a plane that’s transporting them from one prison to another by the U.S. Marshal Service. That type of film may influence perceptions Americans have about prisoners.

The Shawshank Redemption, starring Timothy Robbins and Morgan Freeman, is another popular film depicting prison life. That film hit the big screen in 1994, showing prison life from several decades earlier. Those watching the film will see the underground economy in action. They’ll see how relationships develop with different characters.

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Tom Hanks has a role in The Green Mile, which doesn’t show much about prison society, but Tom Hanks gives an excellent performance as a firm-but-fair prison guard, The man playing Percy does an outstanding job at portraying a sadistic guard.

Describing prison in a film is a little like describing anything else in a film. We see parts of the society, but not all of society. There will always be exceptions in prison, and our team strives to teach others how exceptions can make all the difference.

Different Security Levels, Including Minimum Security Camps:

In truth, films are as accurate about one type of prison as they are inaccurate about another. Most prison films showcase the high-tension life of maximum-security living. Those types of prisons can be volatile, and where there is volatility there is danger. One morning may begin like any other. By nightfall, the prison may be on an indefinite lockdown while guards conduct an investigation on reasons behind bloodshed or an orchestrated disturbance.

With so many people serving multiple decades, life in the penitentiary is subject to drama, or major interruptions and disturbances. It’s violent. In the past, penitentiaries required prisoners to be 26 or older. Now, however, penitentiaries hold hundreds of offenders who are still in their teens. The long sentences they serve suggest that they’re never going to leave. Some people in prison, however, look for other strategies to advance their release dates.

Prig’s Story:

“I messed up when I first came in. I started running with a few guys from the neighborhood in the beginning. They introduced me to a guy who used to move a lot of drugs before. He led me to believe that he was still active in the game. Him and me were hanging out and we got to talking. I told him about some connections I had outside, and he agreed to help me out. I figured I’d put two guys together and make a little stash of cash to help me through my bid. Maybe I could even save something for when I got out. Instead of hooking me up, the guy was working with the feds to bring down his own sentence. He had an agent meet my friends outside. They got busted when they were trying to put a deal together and we all caught new charges. I was only serving five years at first. I finished that term and now I’m starting a brand new 188-month sentence.”

Minimum Security Camps (aka Federal Prison Camp):

Minimum security camps, on the other hand, do not have the volatility or violence. Tension is ubiquitous and explosive in a penitentiary setting. In minimum security camps, people get along as well as strangers would get along in a large housing development. People are civil and pretty much mind their own business. Few want to be pushed up the ladder of security, so people let a lot of annoyances pass them by in minimum security. In the penitentiary, people are harder, with some people acting as if they’re evil incarnate. The majority of men in prison camps are much more contrite, or courteous, in demeanor, just passing the time until they can go home.

With the passage of the First Step Act, we anticipate many more incentives in the federal system. Those incentives will motivate people to work toward earning higher levels of liberty and qualifying for the earliest transition to home confinement.

Bob’s Story:
“I was in the minimum security camp at Fairton for about nine months. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected prison to be. The place was clean, the food wasn’t bad, and I didn’t feel any tension between the guys. If I wanted to avoid someone, I could stay to myself.

“There were fewer than 100 guys serving sentences in the federal prison camp and I didn’t feel much in the way of harassment from anyone, staff or inmates. With the help of an orderly, I coordinated a prison job for myself in the library. It was just a small room with lots of books and I passed my days catching up on reading. I hadn’t read at all since I was in college because work kept me too busy. During the time I was at the camp I read about 30 great books and I lost 25 pounds. I’m back down to the same weight I was when I was in school and I feel better than ever. My wife loves the new look. She says the prison sentence probably gave me an extra ten years to live.”

Administrators free up space for new offenders in the penitentiaries by pushing those that qualify for lower security in medium-security prisons. Higher security levels have much higher cost-per-man to operate because of staffing and other measures. As a result of people transferring from penitentiaries to mediums, the atmosphere in medium-security prisons is not much different from that in the penitentiaries. In mediums, officers regularly find weapons during their shakedowns. Drug and alcohol use is more prevalent. Group disturbances like food strikes, work strikes, and riots are not without precedent. Prisoners in the medium may be serving life sentences and just as serious about their commitment to convict society as their brethren in the penitentiary.

Hector’s Story:
“I wasn’t feeling the medium-FCI at all. I started my bid behind the gates at USP Pollock. From there I went to the penitentiary at Allenwood. Everything was cool at Allenwood. Then I got a sentence cut and they shipped me over to the medium in McKean, in Pennsylvania. Nothing but a bunch of fake-ass muthafuckas. They say they go hard, but them bitches be tellin’ the police everything. The lieutenant came with some of his bullshit at me, and I told him to send me right back to the pen. I wanted serve my time with men, not with a bunch of crybabies.”

Low-Security Prisons:
As a rule, low-security prisons now hold men with no more than 20 years remaining to serve. Guys in the low also must have the appropriate security scoring, which generally means they are a less volatile group than those populating the mediums and highs. Administrators try to screen out those in the lows with gang affiliations, or those who have chronic disciplinary problems.

Members of our team have served several years in every type of prison. We’ve also been in penitentiaries and made progress, we’ve been in mediums and made progress, we’ve been in lows and made progress, and we’ve been in minimum security camps and made progress. For this reason, we’re convinced that people can succeed regardless of where administrators confine them.

Everything depends upon attitude, mindset, and the decisions we make while we serve our time.

In lower-security prisons, a higher percentage of people are closing in on their release dates. With more people preparing for release, there is less volatility, less likelihood for group disturbances. It’s easier for a person to avoid trouble with others.

Prison society differs from society outside. In the broader community, people call the police when they witness a crime. In prison, reporting a rule infraction to staff may expose the person to being abused by others. Each step lower in security brings a person closer to the values that govern society outside of prison.

Higher-security prisons confine people with more time to serve and with more severe histories of violence or disturbance. Even in those environments, if a person chooses a structured schedule and doesn’t disrespect others or the tacit rules of prison society (keep your mouth shut and don’t interfere with others), a person may avoid altercations.

Prisoners going inside should remember that they’re living in a volatile, explosive population that sometimes relieves pressure by acting irrationally. If a person uses critical-thinking skills every day, he becomes better prepared to avoid conflict. People can avoid problems if they choose to avoid problems, but we have to think.

As Stephen Covey wrote in his book The Seven Habits of Highly-Effective People:

• Seek first to understand before seeking to be understood.

By understanding more about how the prison operates, we become more effective at avoiding complications inside.

Census Counts:
Despite vast differences in populations, all prisons have some features in common. For example, all prisons hold census counts several times each day (yes, even in federal prison camps). Although the times for count may be institution-specific, as a general rule, staff require people in the federal system to stand for at least two census counts each day. During most counts, standing isn’t necessary.

People should expect to go through several counts each day. One institution, for example, requires staff members to count every person in the institution at midnight, 3:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m., 4:00 p.m., sometime after sundown, and again at 10:00 p.m. Additional counts may take place during heavy fog or emergencies, as defined by the custody staff.

Structure of the Day in Federal Prison:

The compound usually opens at 6:00 a.m. Provided there isn’t any fog, people are free to leave the housing units and go to the chow hall for breakfast, use the telephones or email, go to the gym or rec yard.

On weekdays, most daytime work details begin at 7:30 in the morning. Prisoners go to their work details or various callout appointments. Those who miss the work call or callout may receive an incident report for being out of bounds.

At 8:00 a.m., the shift changes for many staff members. Officers walk through the housing units to ensure that the orderlies are performing their work, that beds are made, and that no one who is supposed to be working is loitering around the unit.

Camps have “open movement,” meaning people may walk around freely. In secure institutions, some form of controlled movement exists. With controlled movement, people need to wait for a specific time, or get a pass, to move from one area of the compound to another. It’s like a pass that children in primary school use when they want to leave the classroom to go to the library or bathroom. Ordinarily, officers begin issuing passes after their 8:00 a.m. rounds in the housing units.

In medium and high-security prisons, the controlled movement procedures are substantially more rigid. Passes only authorize a person to move from one specific place to another. For example, a pass may allow a person to move from the housing unit to the library. The window of time to get from one area to the other may be ten minutes, and they may only be authorized to make the move on the hour or on the half-hour.

Most institutions have a “yard recall” at various times each day. During yard recall, all people return to their assigned areas.

At 11:00 a.m., different segments of the prison will be released to the chow hall for the noon meal. People assigned to work details eat first, and they usually have a 30- to 45-minute window before they report back to work details. Detail supervisors will take a roll call at both 7:30 and after the men return from lunch. Spontaneous roll calls also take place throughout the day. Some staff make a real effort to catch prisoners out of bounds. They take disciplinary action against those who not in their assigned area.

By 1:00 p.m. most chow halls close. As long as the men are not working, they may use the library facility, the recreation facility, or walk around the recreation yard. In institutions with open movement, prisoners may walk around freely at any time except count times and when the facility is locked down.

Around 3:30 in the afternoon, most institutions have a recall, requiring people to return to assigned quarters or work details. There will be a staff shift change and a count. When the count clears, officers distribute mail in the housing units. After mail call, the units will be released for the evening meal.

After the evening meal, most people in the prison have a modicum of free time, depending upon security level. After 8:00 pm, prisons tend to shut down, requiring the people to stay in the housing unit. They may watch television and use the telephone or email system.

Basically, people in prison schedule their lives around times that the institution sets for them.

Inmate-Staff Relations:

As we’ve written earlier, the BOP has a motto: all staff members are correctional officers first, and they should treat inmates in a firm but fair manner. The vast majority of staff members follow this edict. Generally, they do not form close bonds with people in prison. In higher-security prisons, there may be minimal interactions between staff and people serving time. As men move lower in security, tensions between the two groups lessen.

People in low security, for the most part, recognize the vast majority of staff members as people who are just doing their jobs. For their part, most staff are indifferent to the people in prison. This is not to say they are lax in their duties. Many are eager to write disciplinary infractions for the most trivial of rule violations. On the other hand, if a person is respectful of authority, uses good critical-thinking skills, and doesn’t bring problems, he is likely to serve his sentence without too much interference.

Staff members are responsible for maintaining order in the institution. They regularly search people and spaces. They may speak pejoratively to a prisoner, too. A person has to let those remarks slide off. They are a part of prison life, just as living with loud and disrespectful people is part of prison life. If a person can keep cool in the face of adversity, the chances are good of making progress and preparing for a successful return to society.

Gangs in Federal Prison:

Staff in higher-security prisons sometimes have problems with prison gangs. These are prisoners who come together as groups formed along racial, ethnic, or geographical lines. They are like pseudo families, with leaders and “soldiers” that come together, usually in solidarity in an effort to control some of the illicit activities inside the institution. These include drug rackets, gambling, loan sharking, extortion, prostitution, debt-collections, and hits. Some gangs are predatory in nature, and present problems because they have members throughout the prison system. If a person has problems with one gang member, he may have problems with all the members of the individual’s gang. In this way, violence between gang members easily spills over into the general population.

Gangs are a fact of life in high-security prisons. A 1994 study by the American Correctional Association estimated that there were more than 46,000 gang members in the federal system and in the prisons of at least 35 states. To put this number in perspective, consider that there were fewer than 150,000 people in federal prison at the time.

Administrators consider gangs an extreme menace to prison management. Those that affiliate in any way with gangs may expect harsher treatment from the system. If a person has aspirations of moving to lower-security level institutions or taking advantage of the First Step Act, he ought to avoid even the appearance of gang association. Low-security prisons have much lower problems with gangs, and in camp, gangs are nonexistent.

Those sent to higher-security institutions will want to avoid attracting attention. If they have access to outside funds, they should not flaunt it. Penitentiaries are full of predators who keep an eye out for everything. They watch to see who is receiving mail, and who is regularly shopping in the commissary. One can avoid attention by accepting a regular job, choosing one’s associates carefully, and staying away from the three cardinal sins of prison:

• No gambling,
• No drugs, and
• No homosexual activity.

Most important, prisoners should mind their own business. Always.

To avoid problems, people should realize that everyone is separated from loved ones. For that reason, there’s a 24-hour tension. Some people don’t respond well to courtesy, or to seeing others visibly at ease. To the extent possible, try to live as a stoic. In higher security, try not to express too much emotion, and be unmoved by either joy or grief. Don’t allow noise, violence, or the behavior of others to disrupt inner peace. Understand all the complications that can follow an inappropriate response to a problem. Remember that dynamite comes in small packages. In other words, don’t get involved in every annoyance, because the consequences may result in harsher conditions or a longer time in prison.

Frequently people stick together in small cliques of anywhere from three to five members. They may have similar interests, enjoy eating together, exercising together, and just passing time in each other’s company. Within a group of 1,000 men, people are bound to find others with whom they’re compatible. These relationships can be healthy, providing a sense of friendship in an atmosphere where it’s easy to feel alienated from the broader community.

Some people pass time by participating in groups that are active in one of the many programs inside. Religious groups, for example, bring the men together on a daily basis for prayer or worship services. It is not uncommon to see these men embrace one another whenever they meet or shake hands each time they come together. Prisoners tend to form a camaraderie with others who come from similar social backgrounds, educational backgrounds, or geographic locations. No man has to serve his time alone, although a small percentage of people limit themselves to interacting with only a handful of others.

Final Word about Prison Society:

The security level of the institution will be the most significant factor in shaping the particular prison society. Higher-security institutions will be more volatile than lower-security institutions, and camps will basically be absent of both volatility and violence. We anticipate the First Step Act will also influence more people to avoid problems, as they will want to qualify for maximum incentives and Earned Time credits.

There’s a myth among people outside that homosexual rape is a common occurrence in prison. It happens far less frequently than rumor has it and rarely if at all in minimum security camps. As with all cases of violence, it’s more prevalent in higher security institutions. Even there, prison rape occurs relatively rarely during a given year. It happens, just not as frequently as rumor suggests. Again, for those going to a minimum security camp this is not something to worry about.

In the federal system, staff members keep a vigilant eye on the population. Not only are staff members present throughout the institution, but numerous video cameras are placed in plain view in all housing units and around the prison compound.

Justin Paperny

P.S. To learn more about life in minimum security camos watch the video below or click here.