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You’ve experienced a career setback. But there’s good news: You’ve been deemed not to pose a violent threat! This means you can take showers in relative peace. With the right preparation, you’ll be in a halfway house before you know it. If you run away, the Bureau of Prisons may not even chase after you. However, you’ll be considered a fugitive—you might find life in hiding to be less pleasant than in here.
01. Cell Life
First, settle into your cell. The more accessible bottom bunks are coveted over top bunks at minimum-security prisons. (At high-security prisons, the higher bunks are prized, since they offer better protection from assault.) Generally, seniority rules, but to obtain one, you can claim medical reasons.
Your day begins around 6 a.m., with lights out around 11 p.m. That’s 17 conscious hours to fill, only some of which will be consumed with meals, work, and prisoner counts. Instead of staring at the wall, you should make an effort to conduct a busy, goal-oriented life in prison to cope with the tedium and isolation.
Prison is a wonderful place to catch up on your reading. If the law library is not to your liking, you can have friends send you books. (Books ordered from retailers can be hardcover, but those sent by individuals must be paperback, to avoid contraband buried in the pages.)
A radio is a jail-cell essential, providing your main link to the outside world. Televisions are not allowed in cells, but TV and DVD watching takes place in the entertainment room.
If you enjoy exercise, running tracks are available, as are exercise classes and limited sports facilities. Contrary to popular myth, there are no prison golf courses, but there could be tennis courts.
The common image of convicts pumping iron is slowly being done away with, as prisons are technically not supposed to repair broken gym equipment. But you can always do push-ups, sit-ups, or pull-ups, or bench-press a fellow inmate. (Be sure to ask permission.)
• Be polite. Say “thank you” and “excuse me.” Don’t cut in line, don’t reach over someone’s tray. Don’t sit on other peoples’ beds or pick up their property without permission.
• Avoid being indebted to anyone. If you gamble or pay for a favor with commissary items, fulfill your obligation immediately. Tip anyone you would tip on the outside.
• Stay in visible and public areas as much as possible. Don’t use the showers at night. It’ll probably be fine, but you never know.
• If you fear for your safety, you can pay off more powerful inmates for protection with commissary items.
• A hard shove in a basketball game might inflame someone’s ire. Apologize for any excessive contact, and recognize it’s only a game—here, winning really isn’t everything.
• “Shot callers” are the leaders of ethnic groups; go to yours if you have a problem with a member of a different group.
03. The Commissary
The commissary is where prisoners can buy not only tastier food but also toiletries, stamps, radios, and even sweatpants and sneakers. Inmates cannot hold cash but are allotted $290 per month on their commissary accounts. Among other things, you’ll find ice cream, peanut butter and jelly, tuna fish, ramen noodles, rice, cheese, and spices. Prisoners can use a microwave; Mexican dishes are common. Requesting a religious diet can lead to fresher, better food, as can working in the kitchen, where theft is frequent.
• Since smoking was banned in 2004, new currencies have replaced cigarettes.
• Washers and dryers are in short supply; doing someone’s laundry is a convenient payback.
• E-mail access is rare and supervised, so postal stamps have become legal tender.
• Snacks and prepared meals are a frequent method of exchange.
05. Outside Contact
White-collar prisoners are generally afforded “contact” visits, without a glass partition. Visiting hours vary but usually last about six hours on weekends and federal holidays. Visitors may spend $25 in cash on their visit for gifts to the inmate. After the visit ends, you will be subjected to a “squat and cough” strip-search for contraband. Conjugal visits are not permitted. But at minimum-security camps, prisoners sometimes rendezvous with intimates in motels.
Vices have been known to abound in minimum-security prisons. Larry Levine says fellow inmates drank, snorted cocaine, shot heroin, and consorted with Las Vegas prostitutes at the now-closed Nellis Prison Camp in Nevada.
When contraband is in the camp, it’s most often the guards who have smuggled it in. Get to know which officers you can trust, and which will set you back in your rehab program. Alcohol, of course, is verboten, but there are alternatives. (See “Prison hooch,” below.)
06. Get a job
Clerical work: If you have a high school diploma and prove to be responsible, a desk job is one of the easier and higher-paying prospects. (best prison job)
Kitchen: Shifts are staggered, so kitchen workers have shorter hours. They also have access to better food, and they eat first. Food can be stolen to pay for things.
Bathroom orderly: Although it might seem like an unpleasant job, orderlies clean bathrooms only twice a day and have the rest of the time free.
Education: Teaching other inmates can be gratifying, but it requires more work, and your students may not all be teacher’s pets.
Warehouse/landscaping: It’s exercise, but grueling physical labor can be brutal, especially if outdoors in the summer and winter months. (worst prison job)
Bonus Recipe – Prison hooch
2 10-gallon trash bags (obtained from inmate on janitorial work crew)
2½ cups sugar (purchased from commissary)
4 containers orange or grape juice concentrate (stolen from dining hall)
3 dinner rolls (for yeast)
Day 1: Mix all ingredients (reserve ½ cup of sugar) in one trash bag placed inside another. Tie off the bag and leave extra room for the gases to expand as the contents ferment.
Day 2: “Burp” the gas to prevent explosion. Do this at least once a day for the next three days.
Day 4: The bag should bloat and smell strongly of rising bread when open.
Day 5: Add the remaining ½ cup of sugar.
Day 6: Strain the mixture through an old T-shirt into a commissary-bought plastic water jug. Repeat if needed. Alcohol content can range from 4 (weak beer) to 28 proof (strong wine).
This guide was put together with the help of three notable experts:
• Wendy Feldman, of Custodial Coaching, served 16 months in federal prison for misappropriation of $4.145 million from brokerage customers and investment adviser clients.
• Larry Jay Levine, of Wall Street Prison Consultants, served 10 years in federal prison on conspiracy charges relating to narcotics trafficking, securities fraud, and possession of automatic weapons.
• Richard Zaranek, of Executive Prison Consultants, served 13 months in federal prison for embezzlement of $400,000 from a child-care program.