Self-surrendering to Federal Prison is scary and overwhelming. It's surreal to know you are on limited time and to know the date and time to which you will no longer be in control of yourself and your surroundings.
But that's done and I'm here — and I got through it.
I have now been in Federal Prison for two weeks.
Although I spent four months in solitary confinement in Riker's Island for a different crime, I am a newbie to real prison. And a newbie to serving real hard time.
I am currently in what is called Admissions and Orientation status (A&O).
The purpose of A&O is to help the new inmates learn the rules of the institution and acclimate to their new environment. We are encouraged to sign up for classes and look for a job during this time.
All newbies (transfers and self-surrenders) automatically go to A&O. We are housed in one big room with roughly 20 bunk beds (40 women). The A&O room is inside the larger dorm area which houses 140–160 women (my institution has two of these so maximum capacity is a smaller size of 320).We are given a small locker, one plastic storage container for under the bed, a trash can and a chair.
A&O inmates follow the same schedule and rules as the other inmates. Monday through Friday lights are on at 5:25 a.m. and off at 9:30 p.m. Weekends lights are on later at 7 a.m. and we stay up later although lights are off at the same 9:30 p.m. time. Meal times are 6 a.m. for breakfast, 10:30 a.m. for lunch, and dinner at 4:30 p.m. We have two standing counts at 4 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. where we must stand by our bunk beds so the officers can count us.
All new inmates are required to work. However, because I am in A&O right now, I am only allowed to volunteer for jobs until I am done with orientation and medically cleared to work.
I was advised by other inmates that I should find a job before being assigned one I don't want.
So, on my third day I went to each prison department to find out what opportunities were available and to find out if they were hiring.
Most people see prison as a complete loss of a year, or two, or more, of their lives. They think because they made a mistake they have just thrown their life down the drain.
I personally choose to view this experience as a way to better myself. I'm going to take advantage of every opportunity for improvement that the Bureau of Prisons has to offer rather than just trying to pass the time until I'm released. I got myself here and I'm not a victim — so I don't choose to see myself that way and I'm going to make the best of where I am right now and make sure I never come back here.
There are many opportunities offered to inmates (if you choose to see them as opportunities). There are jobs as cooks in the kitchen, jobs in electrical, plumbing, HVAC, welding, etc. There is even a dental assistant program. Many of these jobs lead to some sort of licensure or certification.
Ultimately, I decided to get a job as an auto mechanic in the garage. I will also be able to get a commercial driver's license here.
I don't know much about cars, however, I love learning new skills. And where else would I get the chance to work on cars with no experience? Especially as a woman.
So, now I'm just waiting to be medically cleared so I can work. My days in A&O consist of attending open houses to try and get paperwork together. Since each department has an open house once or twice a week nothing happens quickly.
I am able to work out and we have a recreation center. There is a track which I have been running on, with shoes purchased from the commissary. I'm grateful for these things regardless of the quality.
I'm sure I will go into detail about this later on — working out, prison food, inmates, etc. I would like to stress this is not some country club prison. We have rocks and dirt, plain and simple — and we make the most out of what we have.
I am required to check-in twice daily at 8 a.m. and again at noon. This is so I can be available to volunteer for whatever tasks are needed.
The definition of the word "volunteer" is quite different in prison.
What this actually means is that you don't have a job yet so you're not on the Bureau of Prisons payroll and you are considered a volunteer because you don't get paid (starting wage here is .23 cents per hour).
You actually have no choice in the matter of volunteering. You go where the officers want and do what they want.
If you don't comply, you are deemed uncooperative and it's held against you when they have a team meeting to evaluate your progress (and when you get out).
Let me preface this by saying I am not afraid of hard work. I am, however, currently injured and not trying to make my injury worse in a place where there is basically no health care or doctors. (There is one girl sitting here with a broken foot who has been waiting to see an orthopedic doctor to set it for one month.)
One day this week I was told to go move office furniture.
Four of us were taken to the men's correctional institute to move an officer's office. When we got there, the officers (two men) left the room and said "Go ahead, ladies" — leaving us to move everything. So here were are, four of us small women, ages 39–55, and one dolly, trying to move five HUGE pieces of 150–200 pound office furniture (desks, credenzas, etc).
At first I was shocked they expected us to carry such heavy pieces of furniture. I have a documented injury where I'm not supposed to lift over 15–20 pounds.
At one point during this move, all of us women were trying to move a 200 pound credenza. The credenza was about to fall (it was on the dolly which was far too small to handle the height and weight of it) and I was left holding it on my shoulder (the one with an injury) for five minutes until we could stabilize it.
My shoulder of course gave out and I could not move anything because I was in immense pain.
This did not matter. I was directed to finish the move — regardless of my injury (or the lifting limitations placed by the doctor).
The next day I was told at sick call that I'm not medically cleared and not supposed to be going off this institution or working and to remind the officers of that.
I did remind them but was yelled at for talking and then sent to the men's facility this time to work in recycling.
I did not grasp the enormity of recycling at a prison. Prison recycling is big business and the recycling warehouse is roughly 12,000 feet. At this warehouse they go through the trash to organize the plastic, paper, aluminum, and Styrofoam to be sorted into containers for processing. Everything here has value — other than old food.
I spent eight hours that day digging through the trash to find recyclables.
The trash I was sifting through had been sitting for four or so days because this was at the men's facility and they were on lockdown because they had rioted. Most of the bags had bugs and flies which were close to becoming maggots.
I was told I could leave if I couldn't take it however it would be noted in my file that I was non-compliant. Which is code for saying I'm not working within the system and they will keep me here longer until I comply.
So I sorted through bug-filled trash and lifted 80 pound bags of garbage and recyclables.
Upon returning to my institution I told a different officer that I was not medically cleared. This officer looked it up and lo and behold — I'm not medically cleared.
It is unfortunate that this was disregarded and my already hurt shoulder is now re-injured.
But I guess I am now Bureau of Prisons property and they can do whatever they want to me. Apparently I have no rights at all.
Most of the women here are too scared to stand up for themselves. They are afraid the officers will make their lives miserable and deny them halfway house or home confinement time because they have spoken up.
It's honestly very sad and scary to live in a state of fear and have someone else be able to manipulate your life and freedom because they have power over you.
I'm now wondering if there will be any backlash from writing this. I wonder how long will it be until some excuse is used to take away my privileges and deny me my first amendment rights because I am writing things that are less than favorable.
I guess only time will tell.
POSTSCRIPT: Shortly after I wrote this — and complained about my injury and lack of attention paid to my medical restrictions and injury, they stopped sending uncleared medical people off-site. This lasted two days.
On the third day, an Officer Lopez from recycling made a point of belittling me in front of two other inmates and two officers calling me "plastic surgery Barbie." It's always nice when people in power speak in derogatory ways about your appearance as a means to intimidate you and scare you. I was not aware that is was okay for officers to speak about inmates' appearances.
I hope the Warden or the Bureau of Prisons Western Regional Office reads this.