I am writing this from inside a Federal Prison. I am now property of the Federal Government, Inmate 69007-054 in Victorville, California, to be exact.
I do not expect anyone to feel sorry for me. I am an adult and I made my own choices. I committed a crime and I am serving my time.
Going to prison is scary. When I learned I was going to spend the next 24 months behind bars, I was afraid. The fear of the unknown was overwhelming.
Would there be violence? Sexual assault? Abuse? What would the other women be like? I tried googling to find answers. I didn't find very much info, which was upsetting.
I am hoping that by sharing my experience other women will learn what to expect.
Last week I was allowed to self-surrender to Federal Prison. I use the word allow because it is considered a privilege to be able to self-surrender.
I didn't realize when I was sentenced just how much of a privilege being able to self-surrender really is. I was sentenced in October and was given roughly 90 days to turn myself in. To someone outside the system, you would think that the main benefit of self-surrendering is to be able to get your life and affairs in order. And this is true to some extent. In my 90 days, I had to get rid of my apartment and put my things in storage (although I lost about 80 percent of my possessions because I could only afford a small storage space). I also was able to file my taxes, put my student loans in deferment, save money for my commissary, and generally resolve my life to the best of my ability.
While this was helpful, I'm learning from the inside that the main benefit of being able to self-surrender is it affords you a better level of comfort as a prisoner.
When you are sentenced, the judge decides if you are instantly remanded or if you are granted the privilege of being able to self-surrender (although some charges require an instant remand into custody upon sentencing). The Bureau of Prisons then takes over to determine where you will be placed, and you are notified by mail to the date, time, and location you are to report to. This took six weeks in my case. After I learned I would be placed in California, I had to book my travel from New York City. I, of course, bear the burden of expense for this travel.
Many prisoners who are remanded, or are in custody at sentencing, must travel under the U.S. Marshall Service to their final destination. It is an entirely awful and grueling process. First, you are shackled in chains that wrap around the waist with handcuffs attached. You are also shackled at the ankles. Then these shackles are attached to another inmate and you are handcuffed together. Because there are not enough women prisoners to fill a bus, you are put in a coed bus with the men.
What this means is they put you in a steel cage built inside the actual bus. I had the luxury of this fun experience when I was at Rikers and it was awful.
Then . . . you ride for up to 14 hours in that bus. The bus stops every four hours so you can use the restroom, which is located on the bus, and so you can eat a sack lunch. There are many women here who have spent months traveling within California state. They were only going 300 or so miles, yet they made countless stops through surrounding states and it took 30 to 60 days of travel.
One woman here started in San Diego. She was transported to San Luis, Arizona, and stayed there for 22 days. Then she went to Pahrump, Nevada, for seven days. Then Dublin, California, for 10 days. Then back to Pahrump for five days. Then finally here to Victorville.
It gets worse when you have to travel on Con Air. For coast-to-coast moves, inmates travel via air in the same waist and ankle shackles on a U.S. Marshall plane. The planes take off and land at military bases and the rest of the travel is completed by bus, with many, many stops. From what I have heard, these planes are very run-down with duct tape holding parts of it together. You ride the plane in shackles with closed windows.
Being able to self-surrender means you avoid this awful type of travel. It also means you are processed quickly at the prison you are going to. Because you are not officially "property" of the Bureau of Prisons until you go through the Receiving and Discharge Unit (R&D), you are processed first when you self-surrender.
When I arrived at Victorville, there were three other women who were waiting in R&D who were transferred from other Bureau of Prisons facilities. I was processed before them in under two hours, so that I would officially be property of the Bureau of Prisons.
So what is it like to self-surrender? After your sentencing, you receive a letter from the Bureau of Prisons with the date, time, and location you are to report to. When you get to your designated prison, there is a parking lot in front where you and your family can park your car.
You then walk into the building, and an officer tells you where to go and what to bring with you. Most of the time, it is just the clothes you have on, prescription eyeglasses (if you wear them), a religious necklace and wedding band (under $100 in value), and any medication you are taking in a plastic bag.
Although, you might not be able to take the medication in, that will be evaluated in R&D. You also need to bring your ID card and social security card (these are kept in your file until discharge). The only paperwork they allow you to bring is a contact list of family and friends. Anything else you can return to your car or give to your family.
I have heard of a few facilities that have a phone on the outside that you use to notify them of your arrival. An officer will tell you what you can bring inside and then a van will pick you up and transport you inside the facility. That type of check-in really depends on the facility classification (Federal Prison Camp — FPC, Federal Correctional Institution — FCI, United States Penitentiary — USP and so forth).
After that, you are able to hug and kiss your family goodbye. And you walk (not handcuffed) into the building (or van as mentioned above). From there, you go to R&D to be officially "received" into the prison.
Here you sit, unchained, and go through the intake process, which includes a medical and psychological screening. They take your clothes, inventory them, and you put them in a bag to be mailed to whatever address you chose.
You are then given temporary clothes. For me this was a green jumper dress, a green T-shirt, a couple pairs of granny panties, and some Ked-like sneakers (these fell apart on day 4). They also give you some sheets and a pillowcase for your bed.
During this process you are not handcuffed — and it's really not that bad. Once you go through R&D, you are taken to your housing unit and put into the Admissions and Orientation Section with the other newbies. Where I am at in the Admissions and Orientation Section is in a multipurpose room, which holds 16 bunk beds. Each inmate has a small locker, a trash can, and their bunk.
A mentor then comes to see you. These mentors are other inmates who are there to help you acclimate to your new environment. The mentors also give you a few toiletries to help you along until you can go to the commissary and buy things. These items are donations from other inmates. Most don't expect anything in return — they are just helping you as someone helped them. While you don't have to pay it back, remember to pay it forward to the next newbie.
From there you meet your temporary bunkie, make your bed, and try to get setup in the phone system. You must have various ID numbers in order to use the phone or email. You also have to set up all contacts into the system and have them approved before communicating with anyone. And you also need to get setup to purchase items from the commissary. It took me four days to get this done. The process is lengthy and requires help from three or four different Bureau of Prisons staff members which is time-consuming. However, it was helpful that I had sent myself money via Western Union before arriving.
The Bureau of Prisons website says do not send money until the inmate arrives however I sent mine three days before I got here, and it was available two hours after I arrived at this facility. If you take in cash (some prisons accept cash) it has to be sent to the main Bureau of Prisons processing facility and then credited to your account. This takes two to three weeks (so don't bring cash).
After four days here, I was finally able to go to commissary and buy toothpaste and deodorant. I was lucky some nice inmates helped me with things until I could purchase my own. And no one expected anything in return. They were just kind for the sake of being kind.
It merits mentions that I am in what is deemed as a Federal Prison Camp. Many people think that this means this is an easy place. It's not. This is still prison. Camp Cupcake, Club Fed . . . these places do not exist anymore. The Bureau of Prisons got such bad publicity for being too easy on prisoners in the camps. They had tennis courts and weight rooms. The Bureau of Prisons did away with most of these perks years ago.
This is prison. And I am here serving time.
For anyone facing prison time, hopefully finding this information on the Internet helps you feel a little better. At least you know what to expect.
Federal Prison Camp is not great or ideal by any means. There are many things wrong with this place. But it's probably not as bad as you think. I will be blogging more about this, so please check back to hear about my journey.