I am fascinated with prisons. I actually have a secret desire to go to prison (not long term) just to see what it would be like and how I would adapt to the social structure and unspoken rules I’ve heard so much about. The psychology and sociology nerd in me is fascinated with the complex dynamics of prison life.
Let me be clear, I have no desire to break any laws or actually do something to get sent to prison. I almost came undone when I got a traffic ticket for an expired car registration last year, I am by no means a rebel. All I’m saying is that if there were a vacation package through AAA featuring two months in federal prison, I would choose it over Disney World in a heartbeat.
So imagine my excitement when I met a girl in college who spent nearly four years in federal prison. Locked Up and Dateline had nothing on my new friend, Jessica. A real life felon, ready to tell me the ins and outs of prison life. I listened to her stories, hanging on every word like a reporter getting the most coveted story of the year. I fervently asked questions and interrupted her answers with more questions. Prison, according to Jessica, was everything I expected it to be yet completely different at the same time. I was enamored with her experiences and point of view.
Today, I am excited to share an interview that Jessica agreed to. I figure I can’t be the only one fascinated by all things prison, so she has agreed to share her experiences with us. If you have any additional questions, leave them in the comments! I’ll ask Jessica and post her replies.
First off, thank you for your willingness to talk about your time in prison. Let’s start with the basics. You don’t have to go into great detail, but why were you in prison and what was your original sentence?
Conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, and my original sentence was 11 years, 8 months. I only actually served 4 years and 2 months because my boyfriend, the reason I was in prison, was caught. The police and prosecutors knew that I was not the main person behind the operation, so my sentence was lessened when he was caught.
How did it feel when the judge said you had an 11 year sentence? What went through your head?
It wasn’t real. I just sat down and felt like I was in a daze. I could hear my mom, she started crying and that’s all I could think about. When he said I was now in custody of the marshalls, that only made it worse for her. When I went in the courtroom, I knew I wasn’t going back out that day. I took off all my jewelry before going in and left my purse in the car, deep inside I knew what was going to happen. My mom didn’t know that she still had some hope, so I think it was really hard for her.
Do you ever talk about your time served with family or close friends, or is it a topic you guys just avoid?
My mom doesn’t like to talk about it but with friends I do sometimes.
How often did you have visitors? Were your relationships with anybody strained while in prison?
My mom and dad came to see me every weekend. While I was in, only one friend came to visit the whole time. I lost all of my friends while in there.
Wow. Did you try to reach out to any friends, or did you just ultimately say “screw them”?
At first I did reach out to them but I was the only one reaching out so I eventually stopped. It costs money to make phone calls so that got expensive, and you only get 300 minutes a month so it wasn’t worth it.
Describe your first night in prison.
My first night in prison was easy, so instead my first night in county jail was what I’ll talk about first. I was in the county jail before being sentenced. County jail I was very afraid, did not sleep, was afraid to eat because it was so disgusting. I was in there for 9 days and I lived off of oranges and milk because everything else was so gross, I lost a ton of weight. We were only allowed out of our cell into other parts of the jail 3 hours a day, no fresh air or daylight at all.
My first night in prison, i just kept thinking “I can’t believe I’m here.” I was sentenced on March 31 and they took me straight into custody because of the severity of my crime. It was surreal, not even overwhelming because it just didn’t feel real.
Did you cry at all?
Every night. It was so scary hearing that women are going to rape you and take your belongings. But it wasn’t really like that, there were some really nice people. It was just thinking those things could happen, the stuff you see on TV messes with you.
Did a lot of women cry or was it something that was hidden to not appear weak?
It was hidden, but most people cried. When I became a mentor for the new inmates I saw it a lot more of course.
Walk me through a typical day for you
I would wake up at 7am, get showered and dressed, and go to my job by 8am. I worked in an office with the prison staff and I played maid for them. I would wash their dishes, pick up clutter, and vacuum for them. I was also a mentor to the incoming inmates so I would basically just babysit them. Some women would be really overwhelmed coming in so I would help them make the transition. My door was always open for them.
You were allowed to shower every day? I guess in my mind I figured your shower time would be restricted. And how horrible were the facilities?
I actually showered twice a day, or as many times as I wanted to! Because of where I worked (in the offices) I was basically “on call” if they needed me. So when I wasn’t needed, I could watch TV, read, shower, or just hang out. As long as I stayed in the unit where the offices were, it was okay. Not everybody could have as much “off time” as I did. The facilities weren’t bad at all. We had access to cleaning supplies at all times so if you felt like cleaning your shower before using it, you could do that. We always wore shower shoes for safety but other than that, they really weren’t bad! It reminded me of a college dorm situation.
Did you have any other jobs other than office maintenance while you were there?
Yes! My first job was CDR which stands for central dining room. Basically I did whatever the kitchen workers needed help with- serving, cleaning, or dishes. There was a lot of sitting around with that job. I didn’t get to do food prep because I wasn’t in the apprenticeship program.
After CDR I worked in the chapel doing maintenance, again a lot of sitting around and listening to music. After the chapel I got accepted into a dental assistant apprenticeship program, I loved that job! It was short lived because before I went too far, the dentist unfortunately passed away from cancer. After that they got rid of all the newer dental assistants, the ones still in training.
I also worked on the photography team and in the childcare center in the visitation area.
Federal prison often houses different types of criminals than state prisons. What were most of the people convicted of where you served?
White collar crimes mostly and drug charges. A lot of embezzlement, tax evasion, illegal stock market trading, boring stuff like that.
What did you wear? Were you in the stereotypical orange scrubs?
No, federal prisons don’t use orange scrubs to my knowledge. We wore khaki colored uniforms and then you could purchase extra clothes with your own money. We could buy gray t-shirts and sweat suits or white t-shirts. A sweat suit was $30.00 and a t-shirt was I think $10.00.
How often did you do laundry?
I could afford to do my own laundry so I could do it anytime I wanted to. I washed my clothes once a week. There were only 4 washing machines for 126 women to share! For the women who couldn’t afford to pay to do their own laundry, they had theirs done by the laundry crew. They could technically get it done every day if they wanted to, but it was disgusting. They had to have it in by 7am and picked up by 3:45pm. It was gross though, all the clothes would go into an industrial sized machine and came out still smelling bad and were all dingy. I would rather pay to do my own.
What was the most surprising part about being in prison?
Being at a camp and being as “free” as we were. The only thing holding us in was a lift up gate that cars would come in and out of. There wasn’t even any barbed wire!!
No barbed wire? I didn’t know prisons like that existed, regardless of the security level. How did people not escape?
You just have a mindset that you know you have to stay. While I was there one girl actually did escape! They brought her in from the mental institution and she wasn’t fit for the camp. She came in on a Thursday night and that following Saturday we woke up in a lockdown because when they counted us during the night and someone was missing. Turns out that lady from the mental institution got out through the gate at some point! Two weeks later they found her in the woods, she came out because she got hungry. She went to a trailer park and someone there called the police. They sent her to a high security prison from there.
I feel like I would get claustrophobic knowing I wasn’t allowed to leave a cell or a building, especially with a 50 month sentence. Did you ever feel like that? Was there a counselor on staff for the women to talk to if they started having emotional/mental stress?
No I didn’t feel claustrophobic but I did start having panic attacks because of the stress of just being there. We had quite a few people on suicide watch too. The guards would take me to the on-site hospital when I’d have a panic attack and I’d just ride it out up there. They were nice to get us away from everyone. There was a counselor we could talk to and the chaplain would also talk to us a lot.
Was there solitary confinement at your prison? Did you ever get sent there, or know anyone who did?
They didn’t have solitary on the camp. When you got in trouble you would get taken to the local county jail. I saw plenty of people get sent there for contraband, fighting, and other small things. Depending on the severity of the shot (that’s what we called infractions) you could get sent for 1 day or you could get sent there and never come back. Some got sent to medium security prisons after that.
Did you ever smuggle anything into prison, or witness someone else doing it?
I did! I snuck in chewing gum, earrings, and that’s it. I wasn’t brave enough to try anything else! I saw others smuggle in drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol. Their family members and friends would get it into them.
In a women’s prison, do people separate by race? I’ve heard that in men’s prisons they absolutely do, but is it the same for women?
Yes, but not as bad. Very, very minimal. There wasn’t much racism at all. When we were there we mostly just tried to stay away from the Wiccans. If there were racist people we just didn’t really know about them. In medium and high security prisons, I’m sure it would have been worse.
You’ve told me before that there was a celebrity (will remain unnamed for privacy) housed in your same prison. How was she treated by both inmates and guards? Did she seem to fit in?
She fit in but the guards definitely treated her as superior to the rest. Inmates either liked her or didn’t like her. The ones who didn’t like her didn’t have a reason, they just disliked her. Nobody acted out towards her, they just stayed away. A lot of people asked for her autograph and she gave it to everyone who asked. She would even take pictures with people when she first got there but the guards destroyed them b/c they figured the people who developed the film would sell the pictures.
She didn’t complain about things she seemed to really accept why she was there. She actually seemed excited to be there because of the new experience!
Because I became good friends with her, I was constantly receiving letters from the press and reporters who wanted to interview me and get some inside info about her. For awhile, I was receiving one every single day and constantly had to refuse them.
Were there many violent crimes? Did you ever feel scared for your life?
Only one violent crime while I was there but other than that nothing. Again, at a higher security prison I’m sure it happens a lot. No, I never felt scared for my life. I actually slept pretty peacefully.
Did you feel respected by the correctional officers? What was interaction like with them?
Yes, definitely. Most of them had a lot of respect for me, it just depended on how you carried yourself If you were well behaved, they respected you a lot. We would sit and talk to them all the time, they were great. A few actually had relationships with inmates! One girl even got pregnant, both got shipped off to different places.
Were you allowed to have razors?
Yes, only one time a girl used it as a weapon and she got sent away. Other than that, no issues with razors.
What did inmates complain about the most?
Food, mostly food. But we also cooked a lot of things ourselves when we couldn’t handle the cafeteria food anymore. We had full access to a microwave and could buy our own packaged food from the commissary.
There were people who just couldn’t handle being there and complained about everything. When we weren’t allowed to smoke anymore, of course people complained about that.
Did anyone spend all of her free time working out? In the movies it seems like a common activity for people. Was it really like that?
Yes!! Some spent a ton of time working out. We had a weight room until a couple started fighting and one girl got hit with a dumbbell. A lot of people did walking, running, and got creative with things to lift with like water jugs. Some women got really in shape, but nobody got huge muscles or anything.
A lot of people spent their free time reading and watching TV too. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday we would have movie nights and they would show new releases for us.
Of course I have to ask about food allergies. Did you know anyone with food allergies in prison? What did they do about meals? Could women keep their daily medication in their cells, or did they have to see the doctor on staff to receive it?
I didn’t know anyone with food allergies in prison, but we did have people with different types of diets and they ate just fine. They had vegan, vegetarian, and dairy-free options. You wouldn’t have been allowed to carry an epi-pen with you, but you would be allowed to keep allergy medication and inhalers with you and things like that.
Were conjugal visits allowed?
No. However one girl got caught having sex with her husband during the middle of the day. He was there as a visitor and they snuck off to the yard and went to a bench behind some bushes. She lost visitation privileges after that.
So the women who actually did serve 11 year sentences, they didn’t have sex for 11 years?
Right, I had a friend who didn’t have sex for 17 years in there. Unless she decided to get with a woman or something!
Transitioning into the “real world” after almost four years behind bars had to have been tough. What was that like?
After four and a half years I had to do five months in a halfway house, I was in a room with 5 other women. It was a co-ed halfway house so there were 32 men who lived there too! I got harassed constantly, it was a lot harder than being in prison. Even some of the counselors would hit on me.
When my grandma died, they wouldn’t even let me go to the funeral. It was so hard and really upsetting. That one experience made it worse than being in prison.
The so called programs helping us get readjusted to society were a joke. People from churches would come visit, but they were a waste of time. I got a job two weeks after getting out of prison so I was set. I worked for a cell phone company and just tried to work as much as possible.
What was your first holiday in prison like?
My first holiday was Thanksgiving and I was actually in Oklahoma at the federal holding prison. We ate good. We had hen, dressing, potatoes, green beans, and rolls. It all tasted really delicious. It was really lonely, especially because I didn’t know anybody there.
I got sent to my long term prison on Christmas Eve and my parents came to visit that day. It wasn’t AS bad being there because I could see my family. Every holiday, they put on some type of program that families were welcome to come to. We had a field day, a choir presentation, and several other activities.
Where do you think the US prison system is lacking? What could be improved to make it a more successful program?
Mmmm, that’s some thought. One thing is that there are so many drug offenders with ten years plus, but people with white collar crimes are getting WAY less time. More fair and sensible sentences would be a good thing to see. The white collar criminals destroyed peoples lives completely, and I know drugs do too but the difference is people are CHOOSING to buy drugs. The victims of white collar crimes are often caught by surprise yet the people who committed the crimes get off easy, three years max sometimes.
What do you think was the most valuable thing you learned in prison?
Oooh man, what was it? What wasn’t it? Enough to know that I don’t want to go back there again, I know that much. As nice and as “free” as it was there, I still didn’t have MY free time. That was difficult.
Do you feel like prison did what it was supposed to? Meaning, do you feel like you “learned a lesson” and emerged a better/different person?
When I was sentenced the judge said he wanted to make an example of me. Because I wasn’t directly involved in the crime, I just didn’t tell on my boyfriend and what he was doing, I was punished. Overall, no I don’t really think it changed me. I guess I would just try to make better relationship choices, that is what changed.
Have a question for Jessica? Don’t be shy, she will answer anything! Ask in the comments below.