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Advice for First-Time Prisoners

Parole Law Blog by The Law Office of Greg Tsioros

Advice for First-Time Prisoners

You were convicted of a crime, and now you are going to prison. It’s a different world, one that has been distorted by popular media and is utterly alien to anyone who has never been incarcerated or worked in the American prison system.

This post is meant to prepare the first-time prisoner for the experience, provide practical advice for things to do before reporting to prison, and how to remain safe while incarcerated.A prison stay may not be comfortable, but there are things you can do to prepare.

The Difference Between Jail and Prison

The terms jail and prison are sometimes used interchangeably by members of the general public and by people who don’t know better. However, they are not the same thing.

Jail is:

  • Typically under the authority of the county or county Sheriff
  • Used to hold those waiting to go to trial or sentencing and those serving a sentence of 364 days or fewer
  • Often lacking good shower or laundry facilities
  • Sometimes lacking air conditioning

Prison is:

  • Usually rub by the Department of Corrections
  • Used to hold those serving sentences of 365 days or more
  • A facility that includes shower and laundry areas
  • A facility that often has air-conditioning and heat

If you are going to jail because your sentence is less than 365 days, take several sets of underwear because you may not be able to shower or wash your clothes as often as you would like. On the other hand, prisons limit what you can bring with you but do offer laundry and showers.

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Preparing for Prison

Before your sentence begins, you have some time to prepare. Your attorney or the prison should let you know what you can bring with you and what you may be able to purchase on the inside.

Research your specific prison online. Most have specific information about life in that facility. You may be able to download a handbook and various forms before you go. Carefully read the procedures for education, recreation, housing, health, and psychology services to learn what is available and how to take advantage of it.

What You Can Take with You

The Department of Corrections does not allow inmates to bring additional sets of underwear or whites. Any you have with you in jail will not transfer with you to the prison. 

You are allowed items like eyeglasses and dentures that are needed for health and safety reasons. Be sure to wear these items on the day of sentencing to show your need. Getting them later can take a long time if you don’t take them in when you go.

You should contact your healthcare providers for copies of all official diagnoses and prescription medication. Make a list of medications you need and bring it with you when you go into custody. Provide a copy to someone else that can help you in case your list is lost, damaged, or destroyed. The Department of Corrections goes over your medical needs when you arrive.

What You Cannot Bring
  • Games 
  • Cards 
  • Books
  • Leisure activity items 
  • Electronics, including cell phones
  • Almost anything that is not your single set of underwear, your glasses, and your medication list

Do not try to sneak anything in. You will be searched for contraband, and having any on you makes a bad first impression. Once there, the prison system may allow you to have books sent directly from a retailer. However, you are limited in how many personal items you can keep.

Take Care of Your Finances

Appoint someone to act as a business or financial manager.  They will need the power of attorney and authorization by you to allow them to deal with the bank on your behalf. Have them make regular withdrawals, either monthly or quarterly, to put into your prison account. 

Your prison account pays for:

  • Commissary items
  • Phone calls
  • MP3 player files
  • Use of the inmate email system
Get Medical and Dental Care Caught Up

Get a complete physical, take care of required surgeries, get your teeth fixed, and get new glasses before you go in. The Federal Bureau of Prisons supplies medical, dental, and eye care, but it is often lower quality than care you have access to outside of prison.

Get in Shape

Being in shape not only mitigates your health risks – it can provide an element of safety. If you are headed to anything more secure than minimum, like a camp or low-security lockup, you need to be able to protect yourself. 

It’s best to avoid conflict, but knowing how to fight can help. Violence in prison happens, and you may not be able to avoid it.

What to Do Once You Are There

To maintain your personal safety, always treat everyone with respect — the other prisoners, the staff, and anyone else you interact with.

Keep your mouth shut and don’t overshare about yourself or your sentence. Don’t give anyone the idea that you are disrespecting them. 

Instead, take charge of yourself and what you do while you are there. 

  • Volunteer in prison
  • Stay fit however you can
  • Read 
  • If inclined, devote yourself to your faith or religion

If you can find a purpose while behind bars, it can help motivate you during your sentence. 

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What You Should Not Do

Don’t stare. Keeping with showing respect and not talking unnecessarily, avoid staring at others or into their cells. There is no privacy except what each inmate can carve out.

Don’t take someone else’s seat in the cafeteria. Make some observations before sitting down, and if another wants your chair, it isn’t gainful to argue about it. Don’t cut in line, and don’t insult or touch anybody else.

It is taboo to ask anyone why they are there, so avoid asking and keep the details of your own situation private.

Stay away from gangs, gambling, and sexual relationships. Overall, keep yourself to yourself as much as you can. 

Final Note

Prison is not meant to be an easy experience, but it’s up to you how you decide to spend it. Take any opportunity that becomes available to you to improve yourself through education, volunteerism, and activity. 

Do your best to stay out of trouble while serving your time and once you are released. If you’re facing incarceration and want to apply for parole, contact our office for a free consultation.

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