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What's Daily Life Like for a Prisoner?

What's Daily Life Like for a Prisoner?-1

"What's life like on the inside?" is a question many former convicts face once people learn of their stints in prison. So much of our culture depicts prison with an overwhelming sense of dread and isolation, the average person can't help but view it with a certain sense of mystique. Who wouldn't be at least a little curious?

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You'll find no judgment for your curiosity here (actually, rewarding curiosity is our jam!). After all, if you've never really had an encounter with the legal system, chances are slim you've seen the outside of a prison, let alone the inside.


So, what is prison really like for those sentenced there? What happens in the daily life of a convict?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's a highly disciplined life with many constraints. Yet at the same time, interesting opportunities for fulfillment are made available to those living life behind bars.


No Escape From the Daily Grind (Even in Prison)

It would be impossible to perfectly summarize the lives of every incarcerated person in the United States. Prison rules, amenities, and privileges vary by state and jurisdiction. Additionally, minimum and medium security prisoners have slightly more freedom than those serving time in maximum security prisons. However, we can provide a general sense of life in correctional facilities.

Usually, prisoners are woken up fairly early in the morning, often around 5 or 6 a.m. They're given an opportunity to use the communal shower/bathroom spaces and get some breakfast before heading to work.

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Almost every able prisoner in the United States is employed in some way. Prison life is dull and predictable, but not sedentary.

The maintenance of correctional facilities often falls to the prisoners themselves. That means assignments like active repairs (think the roof-tarring scene from "The Shawshank Redemption"), as well as laundry services, janitorial work, and kitchen work.


For minimum and medium security prisoners, work assignments may even take inmates outside the prison walls. This might include tasks like clearing brush off the sides of highways or working on prison farms, involving anything from canning, logging, or mining, depending on the state and the facility.

Maximum security prisoners do not leave their facility, under any circumstances. Their work takes place inside the prison and can include industrial manufacturing like making car license plates.


When convicts aren't working, they're often taking classes. Depending on their backgrounds, some prisoners even have the opportunity to teach vocational classes to other prisoners. Moreover, inmates can take college courses from accredited institutions via liaisons and correspondence programs.

Outside of a 30-minute lunch break, prisoners work a full 8-hour shift until about 3 or 4 p.m. Some jobs have radically different hours, though. Kitchen workers must wake up earlier than the rest of the prison population to prepare breakfast. Other convicts might serve as untrained therapists/suicide watch for inmates in isolation, potentially getting woken up as early as 1:30 a.m. to start work.


Furthermore, prisoners must submit to headcounts and individual searches regularly throughout the day. This includes a headcount first thing in the morning, another on the way to work, and another on the way back from work, with the potential for additional headcounts as needed.

Once work is over, inmates often have unstructured time... in a relative sense.


'Free' Time Behind Bars

When they're not on duty, prisoners can participate in many recreational activities. For example, they might spend time in the prison yard playing games like basketball or handball, or they might have access to organized recreational activities like movie nights. They may also enjoy personal activities such as writing letters to loved ones. Some inmates even have limited access to a shared computer so they can send emails.

Night classes, religious services, and support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous or Anger Management are all available as well. After a quick dinner, prisoners can spend time in their dorms or cells playing dominos or chess with other inmates, studying, or watching TV before its lights out, around 10 to 11 p.m.

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Beyond the punctuation of regular headcounts and searches, prisoners follow a very consistent routine: Mail arrives at the same time every day, lunch happens the same time every day, yard time is the same time every day, and so on.


The redundancy of prison life can be overwhelming for many, especially if they're off-duty for longer stretches of time, like on the weekends. Furthermore, all of this assumes prisoners haven't had their privileges taken away for bad behavior, which can undoubtedly exaggerate the already difficult circumstances.

Of course, there's also the general anxiety of, you know, being in prison. As Sartre once wrote "hell is other people," and prison illustrates this to an alarming degree. Frequently, convicts struggle with mental health issues and violent antisocial tendencies. When large crowds of inmates gather, such as in the prison yard, violent altercations between prisoners can take place, at times without guards noticing until it's too late. Some gangs, called paperwork gangs, actually operate entirely within prisons.


One account suggests it's inadvisable to share your release date with other prisoners as they could use that knowledge to torment you without fear of reprisal. You wouldn't want to risk your release by retaliating, would you?

Predictably, prison life is not fun, with glimmers of humanity and joy seldomly peeking through the nerve-racking, dangerous, and often drudgery-filled environment. It's certainly not a lifestyle that's likely to inspire any new social media trends.

References: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A PRISONER | A Day in the Life of a Prisoner | 24 Hours in Prison | FAQ: TYPICAL PRISON DAY | The Daily Schedule That Helps Me Survive Prison | The Patterns, Routines, and Pervasive Fear of Daily Life in Prison | Neither mad nor bad? The classification of antisocial personality disorder among formerly incarcerated adults

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