Today’s blog by my guest blogger, Minette, is all about what happens when you first enter prison and when you are transferred from one facility to another. This is an informative and enlightening look at prison experience.
Often a group of people in jail go together to the first prison, so they usually were not alone when they arrived at the processing center. Several interviewees also had relatives at the prisons they were being sent to so they had someone they knew already there to help ease the process.
Still, most reported being frightened at the start of their prison experience when they were dropped off at the processing center. Usually the night before they left for prison, the jails kept them up most of the night with paperwork or some other busywork. Some interviewees believed the goal was to exhaust them so they were more likely to acquiesce to everything when they got to the prison.
They travel by plane or bus to the processing center. Once there, they walk a distance to their first stop. Even though they reported being exhausted, several people I spoke with indicated they had to pull up all their emotional resources. One female interviewee told me, there is no show of emotions allowed, no crying, you have to be tough and take it. Another female interviewee said it made no difference that she had been to prison before and had spent 8 months in jail waiting and talking about going to prison, she was still terrified, but she just had to put on her big girl panties and push through it. You have to be tough.
At this point in the process, they are no longer part of a group, they felt very alone and scared. The officers bark directions to new prisoners and it is intimidating. The prison is setting the tone. New prisoners are told to strip, are looked over carefully to insure they don’t bring any contraband or untreated communicable diseases into the prison. They are given clothing that identifies them as inmates, a pair of shoes, hygiene items and whatever else the prison provides. If necessary their hair is trimmed, and if it is an unnatural color, died back to a natural color. The possessions they bring with them are recorded, either given back to them, sent back to their family or destroyed. They are given academic tests, intelligence tests, medical tests, eye exams, x-rays, their background and paperwork are reviewed, and they are interviewed. They provide the prison with a list of people they want to be able to call on the phone. They are identified with another set of finger prints, iris scans, and dental records. Some people reported this taking days, others indicated it took up to a couple of months. Based on the results of the processing, they are assigned to a prison unit. Criteria includes the appropriate level of security, the facility does not house someone who is a known threat to them, and there are no familial correctional officers. But while they wait to be transferred, they could be locked up adjacent to significantly more violent criminals. They are not told when they will be transferred to the new prison or which prison it will be. A guard just shows up and says grab your things you are leaving in an hour. Yet, it is not unusual for it to take more than a few hours to start the journey. A prisoner’s time is not particularly respected, and at that moment, they have plenty of time to waste. Prisoners may be shackled to the bus seats then driven to their destination. The ride can be a few hours or a few days. There are limited opportunities to use a bathroom or eat. There are insufficient drivers and guards allocated to each transport to make it a pleasant trip. When someone is unshackled, everything has to come to a stop. Usually they don’t move over the weekends, so they stop at local prisons and wait until Monday to move again. They get minimal services during their stopovers.
When my son was first transferred from our local Arizona jail to the Texas processing prison, the bus traveled through Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and New Mexico to pick up other transferees along the way, and then finally down to Texas. The trip was about a week. He had the right attitude, he told us after he was settled into Texas and he could use the phone, that the countryside was just beautiful as he watched it from the window. He hadn’t been to that part of the country before, so it was really nice to see everything. He didn’t mention the shackles to us, and I didn’t realize what was involved. He stayed there about a month, then he was transferred to another prison. I believe he was transferred four times during the year he was in prison. Potentially, he could have been there eight years.
The timing of any transfers are kept secret because the administration does not want anyone interfering with the relocation. Nor do they want inmates at the receiving prison to be expecting someone. Sometimes a new inmate may have an ugly history with a convict in the new prison that might require retribution in the opinion of that convict. The administration doesn’t want to give them time to prepare. They would like to avoid unnecessary difficulties. But word gets around the prison pretty quickly if someone arriving has a reputation that precedes them or if the new guy happens to be an existing resident’s relative or enemy. Given the high recidivism rates and for some, the long waits in jail before pleading or going to trial, as new prisoners come through the yard, they usually find someone they served time with before. Additionally, police focus on some neighborhoods, so several people I interviewed mentioned they knew people when they got to prison from the old neighborhood.
One book I found years after my son returned home from prison, is Mr. Smith Goes To Prison, by Jeff Smith. He describes his year in a minimum security federal prison in Kentucky after pleading guilty to fraud associated with his political race for state senator in St. Louis, Missouri. He commented that as he arrived at his prison “one of the saddest things about prison hit me within minutes of arriving. It’s the way in which new prisoners – most of them newly transferred from other prisons- treat their introduction onto the compound not unlike people on the outside might treat a high school reunion, greeting old friends from other prisons or from their hometown, updating one another on the time they had remaining. It strikes a neophyte as incongruous but placed with in a context in which two-thirds of inmates reoffend, it begins to make sense. Very few of these men had ever attended a high school graduation, and many have spent the majority of their lives locked up.”
If there is anything in their commissary account, it is transferred, but may not be there when they arrive. They are given a booklet with the prison’s rules and another introductory talk. The paperwork regarding their charges and specific needs are handed in separately and reviewed within a few weeks. They are positively identified, checked again for any contagious diseases, given various sets of clothes, usually up to 3 sets, minimal hygiene products, and are shown to a bed.
Some prisons have cells, two to a room. Some prisons have, as one interviewee explained, warehouse space where there are a hundred or more beds in a room, others have cubicles where there is a bunk bed arrangement. The beds have thin mattresses and are either made of bolt into the concrete wall or floor steel beds or pipe frame beds with a steel bed pan. Prisoners may also have access to a small foot locker for their possessions. Like the beds, most of the furniture in the facility is bolted down. In Arizona, and probably in other states, to avoid building additional prisons, they also use large tents to house groups of low level prisoners. The tents have heaters but maybe not air conditioners. In Arizona, sometimes heaters are not the solution to weather problems.
It seems that for men under 40 or so, there frequently is an informal test that other prisoners apply. Most male interviewees indicate that regardless of how they plan to act in prison or how they behave upon arriving, unless a very tough guy reputation precedes them, they are tested shortly after entering. Somebody starts a fight with them. It’s not a fight to the death sort of thing. You don’t have to win the fight to avoid being picked on in the future, but you do have to show you are willing to stand your ground. You need to show you aren’t going to make it easy for someone to push you around. You also have to show you are not going to tell, or snitch, on the person you fought. Women interviewees indicated that it was different for women, they generally did not experience the need to physically fight. And older men said the word on the yard was to leave them alone.
Another person I spoke with said he felt you were either predator or prey in prison. He gave this example. There were several television sets in the common room in the Texas prison he was in four years ago. Each was allocated to a different race. He was alone watching television. There was a large group at another race’s television and apparently there was a disagreement there about what to watch. Some of them came over to him and they told him to let them watch what they wanted to watch. He stood his ground. One of them called him a punk, or words to that effect, and he called the guy out on it. He said he did a quick gut check and decided he could take the guy so he challenged him to a fight. They went to an area without cameras, so it was clearly intentional, and fought. Luckily for him the other guys didn’t jump in and he won the fight. After the fight, he dragged the guy back to the common room. He had no marks on him so when the officers lined everyone up to see who was in the fight, he wasn’t caught. No one squealed on him either. He rarely had a problem after that.
My son was tested, but only beat up a little. He told no one, including us, until he was released.
Interviewees said the prisons are like small cities. Besides biding the correctional officer’s directions, there was also politics among the inmates that shaped what people could and couldn’t do. The best way to stay out of trouble was to just stay out of the way. Don’t get involved in the politics or the drama. Keep to yourself until you can tell who you can trust, and even then, be careful. Several of the interviewees used the expression “stay in your lane”, and you’ll stay out of trouble. Everyone agreed there is a lot of gossip going on all the time. If you want to stay out of trouble, best to walk away from the gossipers. People don’t like hearing someone say bad things about them, so when the opportunity comes around, there was often retaliation. They told me they just kept their mouth shut and watched what was going on until they got their bearings.
I originally suggested to my son to try to make friends. I didn’t want him to be lonely and I thought friends would help him get acclimated. Apparently, my advice to my son, based on my experience in the outside world, was wrong. Being friendly to everyone when you get there was not the right thing to do.