Incarceration is not part of life for the average Floridian. Even so, there is a high likelihood that eventually either yourself or someone you know will find themselves in trouble with the law. Depending on the type of crime and the severity, a jail or prison sentence is almost always a possibility, even for first-time offenders. When the time comes to help that friend, family member, or yourself, we at Aaron Delgado & Associates, PLLC, will be here to help 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Unfortunately, you may be coming to this article because you’re either considering taking a plea deal including prison or preparing for a trial that could send you there. If that’s the case, we hope some of these insights will help you better prepare yourself. The information you’ll find below is based on real people and real experiences. These are very real and valuable things to know about going to prison before you are placed in the custody of the Department of Corrections (DOC).
Going to prison is not the same as going to jail.
Jail and prison are terms that are frequently used interchangeably by laypeople to describe any type of incarceration. However, the two words actually describe very different places.
Jail vs. Prison
In Florida, jails are typically under the authority of the county or the Sheriff of said county, and they are used to hold those awaiting trial, sentencing, or serving a sentence of 364 days or fewer. The durational aspect is the easiest to illustrate of the differences between jail and prison, and it provides some insight into why knowing where you’re headed is so important. If a person’s total sentence is 364 days or fewer, they will be housed in the county jail for the duration of that sentence. Accordingly, if a person is sentenced to 12 months and 1 day or more, that sentence will be served at a state prison. Unlike the county jail, prisons are under the authority of the Department of Corrections.
While there is no concrete answer as to which is worse—jail or prison—there are certainly differences that you should be aware of. For instance, if you are heading to the county jail, remember to wear a few extra sets of underclothes. Showers, laundry facilities and air conditioning are not always provided in abundance when you’re incarcerated. Often times people who know they are going into custody at the county jail will wear four sets of “whites”—4 shirts, 4 pairs of socks, and 4 pairs of underwear. While far from providing the comforts of freedom, those extra sets of whites will be a luxury that wouldn’t otherwise be available to an inmate.
The Prison Difference
The same advice will not apply to someone heading to prison. The prison will provide laundry facilities and showers just like the county jail, but you won’t be coming in with four sets of whites. Prison rules, which will be covered in more detail below, differ in that regard.
Another important difference to be aware of is physical distance between yourself and your loved ones on the outside. Overwhelmingly, crimes are committed near where the perpetrator lives. That means that, if you get saddled with a lengthy jail sentence, friends and family who live nearby will have a relatively easy time visiting. In contrast, prison assignments vary based on a huge number of considerations and those decisions rest entirely with the Department of Corrections. Even if you’ve lived your whole life in Volusia County, have family in Volusia, and committed a crime in Volusia, you could end up serving a prison sentence almost anywhere in the state. That can be difficult and burdensome on visitors who may not be able to make a five or six hour drive as easily as a 15 to 30 minute drive.
Unfortunately, those decisions are made only by DOC and neither an attorney nor a judge can guarantee specific placement or force a transfer. The best you can do is be aware of this going in so you can pass that information to your prospective visitors.
This is but a small taste of the differences between jail and prison, but it is important to realize that the two words do not mean the same thing and that you will have different experiences depending on where you serve your sentence.
Know what you can take with you, what you should take with you, and what you'll have to leave behind before you get to DOC.
Remember those four sets of whites that you cleverly wore into the county jail? If you’re heading to prison, it’s time to say goodbye to three of those four. Unlike the county jail, DOC does not allow inmates to bring extra sets of whites and those will not be transferred with you when you leave county. In fact, the clothes on your back will likely be the only tangible items you physically bring with you when you go to prison. Accordingly, be prepared for the fact that you aren’t going to a summer camp and you won’t be bringing a rucksack full of necessities and creature comforts.
What You Can Take with You
That said, it is important to recognize what you can and should take with you. Glasses are a common question and a good illustration of this point. DOC is not going to take you into custody and force you to leave your glasses behind and render you blind (or at least a bit uncomfortable) for the duration of your sentence. If you have prescription glasses, you should be sure to wear them to court on the day of sentencing. While it will be possible to get them to you at a later date, lawfully getting items in or out of state prisons can take an annoyingly long time.
What You Should Take with You
Another very common concern is medication. Understandably, many people who are facing incarceration are concerned that they won’t have access to needed medications. This is not the case. However, you’re not going to bring those medications with you when you go into custody. Instead, you should reach out to your healthcare providers to obtain copies of all official diagnoses and prescription medications. Use that to make a list of medications you need and bring a copy with you when you are going into custody. If you have somebody willing to help, you should also provide a copy to that person if for any reason your list is not allowed in or gets lost/damaged/destroyed, etc. You will have an opportunity to go over your medical needs with DOC and they will provide necessary medications and necessary treatments. Knowing what you need and why before you go in will be a valuable asset to both you and them.
What You Have to Leave Behind
Other than your single pair of whites, a pair of glasses, and possibly a list of medical necessities (or some other absolute necessity), you’re likely not bringing anything else in with you. That prohibition extends to leisure items as well. You will not be bringing games, cards, books, an iPod, or anything of the sort with you. Depending on a number of factors, you will likely have access to some of these things, but certainly none of your own.
Don’t plan on bringing anything with you other than clothes, glasses, and possibly a list of medications. Be further warned: don’t try to sneak anything in. You will be thoroughly searched on your way in and very few things make a worse first impression than smuggling contraband.
The first six to twelve hours will likely be some of your worst. Don’t let them break you.
Your time in prison will probably not be an overall enjoyable experience. However, your first day is going to be especially bad and there is nothing you can do to be adequately prepared. The best thing you can be other than prepared is informed. It will allow you to go in with a realistic idea of what to expect and how to survive prison without losing your mind on day one.
The first thing to know is that you won’t go straight from freedom to DOC. In most circumstances, after you are remanded to the custody of the Department of Corrections you will be held at the county jail until you can be transported to classifications and, ultimately, to the facility where you’ll be housed. This process may not start the day you go into custody, so it is important to recognize that when I say “first day,” I am really referring to your first day with the DOC.
When the day arrives for you to be transported, you will probably be woken up extremely early (around 3am) to be gathered and put on a bus. If going to prison is bad, going to prison after getting almost no sleep is considerably worse. You should also expect that your bus will not be particularly comfortable and that you may have to travel a good distance. There is a very real chance that you’ll be in for a long, early morning bus ride with no heat or air conditioning, which depending on the time of year could be either pretty bad or unbearably awful.
When you finally arrive at your destination, your bus time might not be over just yet. If other busses arrived before yours or otherwise take priority, you’ll be waiting your turn on that same uncomfortable bus. That wait may be minutes or hours, depending on the circumstances of your arrival. When you do finally get off the bus it won’t be to a warm welcome. You’ll be stripped completely naked and searched very thoroughly. Again, this is not meant to be a fun experience and it will never be in danger of being treated as one.
In addition to the literal dressing down, you can expect some verbal dressing down as well. The people greeting you for your stay with DOC are not a welcoming committee and they won’t pamper, cater, or lie to you about the realities of DOC. You need to be aware that they may be unpleasant from word one and there is nothing you can or should do other than listen and follow lawful orders. At this point you will be tired, physically and emotionally drained, probably feeling vulnerable, and in no mood to be talked down to. Even so, it is imperative that you keep your emotions in check. You won’t do yourself any favors by picking fights with corrections officers.
When all of this is said and done, things will start to improve quickly. Once you arrive at your final destination, you can start to settle into a rhythm and routine. You’ll likely find your time in prison to be bad, but probably not as bad as you think. The best thing you can do is be aware of the fact that the beginning is the worst. If you know that and hold it as a mantra, you’ll get through those ugly first hours.
You won't be sitting in a cell all day long for the duration of your sentence.
If you’re like me, you probably always pictured jails and prisons in the old-time fashion of a small cell with bars over the windows and maybe a cot or bunkbed, with nothing much more interesting to do with your time than to read or stare at a wall. That is not what your living conditions will typically be like in a state prison. More often than not, you will be housed in something more akin to an army barrack. Depending on your facility, your behavior and a number of other factors, your day-to-day life will probably reach a level of normalcy as you adjust.
One opportunity that you will have is work release. We’ve all seen signs on roads and highways that say something like “Caution: State Prisoners Working” to denote a group of DOC inmates out on work release. While work release is definitely not going to be fun or glamorous work, it is still an opportunity to be outside of the prison walls and engage with the rest of society (if only superficially).
Work release will also open up the opportunity for unsavory activity. There may be certain guards who are comfortable giving inmates a bit longer of a leash than the others. Similarly, there may be jobs or job sites that lend themselves to being out of sight of the guards. Always remember: breaking DOC’s rules will make your time in prison far less pleasant and, depending on the severity of the violation, can land you with new criminal charges. Don’t be tempted to engage in shady activities just because your work release gives you a modicum of freedom. You can quickly lose that benefit and find yourself having a much worse time.
Exercise in Prison
Another common Hollywood prison motif is a cell block or open yard with inmates lifting dumbbells or spotting each other on the bench. Unfortunately, you’re not going to have access to Hollywood prisons and you’ll have to go without legitimate exercise equipment. That said, there are still plenty of creative ways to workout while you’re in prison. One of the common favorites is filling a large trash bag full of water and using that as resistance for a type of front lateral raise (or whatever way you would like to lift it). Another simple prison workout that is very commonly employed is pushups with another inmate sitting or pressing on your back to add resistance.
In short, if you want to use your time in prison to pack on muscle or if you’re looking to keep your basic fitness in check, there are plenty of creative ways to do so. Just know ahead of time that you aren’t going to have access to exercise equipment.
Exercise is undoubtably a vital part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle while in prison, but it’s not the only thing you have to watch. Your nutrition during your stay with DOC is vital and you want to be aware of the food options that will be available to you. Believe it or not, DOC has a fairly well-rounded menu for all inmates, as well as a “canteen” which operates as an inmate grocery store of sorts. The typical DOC meal will include vegetables, legumes, meats, breads, and sometimes dessert. They will provide a fairly well-rounded meal to every inmate for an average of 2691 calories per day, which is “specifically designed to meet the caloric requirements for moderately active adults.”
Some food offerings will also have an alternative entree available for vegetarians and those with religious restrictions. Additionally, DOC is able to provide certain kosher food options if needed for religion-mandated dietary restrictions. If you have other necessary dietary restrictions, make sure you have documentation of those things with someone you trust on the outside and make sure you share your concerns with DOC. Depending on the nature of and rationale for a special diet, DOC may be able to accommodate you. No matter what, DOC is obligated by law to take protective care of inmates in its custody.
If you are like many inmates, you’ve probably got a bit of money in your account and you’d like some other food options. Fortunately, this is where the canteen comes into play. If you check out this page from the DOC website, not only will you find more information about standard prison meals, but you’ll also find a link to the canteen menu which includes a wide variety of food and sundries, as well as prices for all of those items. If you want Twinkies, ramen, donuts for dinner, that’s your prerogative as long as you have the staggering $3.49 it will cost you to buy those three items. And while that may not sound like much money, your spending is going to be limited in prison. You’ll have plenty to live on, but you’ll want to pay attention to how much you’re spending and when. (See item six below for more on finances in prison.)
Recreation & Creature Comforts
As a parting note on your daily life in prison, know that you will have opportunities for recreation and even some amount of creature comforts. On weekends or days where you aren’t otherwise required to be working or out in the yard, you might have opportunities to go back to your bed and take a nap or rent an MP3 player and listen to music. Nowadays inmates are even able to access tablet computers and have the ability to rent movies, educational materials, and the like. You won’t be handed an iPad Pro with a full music and film library, but it’s certainly better than nothing.
You will want to think ahead about communicating with people on the outside.
If you’ve ever been to the county jail, you may be familiar with face-to-face visits or video conferencing, phone calls, etc. As with many things we’ve discussed, it’ll be a different story when you get to DOC.
Making Phone Calls
One thing you want to make sure you do is memorize important phone numbers. You will be able to make phone calls to people on the outside, but you need to know the numbers ahead of time and you will only be able to speak with people that DOC has approved. In other words, don’t expect to scroll through your contacts and call up your old drug dealer for a chat about business. None of that is how communication works in prison, and you shouldn’t expect much latitude from DOC on that.
Sending & Receiving Mail
Similarly, you’ll be able to send and receive mail while you’re incarcerated, but those things will again be subject to approval and everything will be searched on its way in or out of the facility. Remember, everything you do in prison is subject to warrantless search and seizure. If you or people with whom you communicate are discussing anything illegal or extremely personal, that conversation will not be private and can be used against you if the conduct rises to the level of criminal prosecution.
Additionally, as briefly discussed above, you may be allowed to have books in prison, but those books will have to be shipped to you and they have to be shipped directly from a retailer. You won’t be able to have a family member slowly mail you your entire book collection while you serve your sentence. Rather, if you decide to have a book sent to you, you’ll have to have it shipped directly to the facility from the retailer. If you start to accumulate too many personal items (i.e. too many books), you may be prevented from getting new ones until you get rid of older ones. If you run into this issue, you can always give away books to other inmates or donate them to the facility’s library.
Taking it a step further, DOC has very strict guidelines on in-person visitation. For example, the first step towards visiting a DOC inmate is to find and fill out this application for visiting privileges. If a visitor is approved to visit an inmate, be aware that there are very strict rules about what a visitor can and cannot wear, dates and times they are allowed to visit, and plenty of additional rules. If you or a loved one are intending to visit an inmate, start with the application above and carefully review the following rules and frequently asked questions from DOC.
Unlawful Cell Phone Use
As a final point on communication, inmates will learn very quickly that lawful means of communication are not the only means of communication whilst inside a DOC institution. Despite the fact that inmates are not allowed to have cell phones (and can get in a heap of trouble for being caught with one), they are still fairly common and readily available. It isn’t at all unusual for inmates to sell cell phone use to other inmates using whatever currency is readily available (like soup or stamps). While this may seem like a great alternative to DOC’s stringent rules and procedures regarding outside contact, always remember that breaking the rules will have substantial consequences and can make your life in custody considerably less tolerable than it might otherwise be.
Make sure you follow DOC’s rules and you should be able to maintain successful contact with your loved ones while you serve your sentence.
Your weekly spending in prison has a hard cap of $100.
If you use less than $100 during the week, you will not be able to roll it over to the following week. Conversely, if you spend $100 in the first 5 days, you will do so with the knowledge that you won’t be spending anymore until the following week. Due to this hard cap, it is important that you pay attention to your spending and know how much money you need for what and when. It’s imperative to keep your budget in mind when deciding to spend money on Twinkies and honeybuns at the canteen. You don’t want to go so nuts with spending that you run out of money to buy things you really need.
Some of the first items you’ll want to pick up from the canteen will be deodorant (which will not be provided by DOC otherwise), some baby powder, and a combination lock. The first two will help keep you and your clothing smelling significantly better than the alternative, and the combination lock will help keep your personal items safe when you aren’t in your dorm (but be warned of the old adage penned beautifully by Robin Hobb: “A lock does no more than keep an honest man honest.”) While not necessities in the strictest sense of the word, these items are extremely valuable and you will be happy to have them.
The canteen also has plenty of alternative food options, toiletries, and other sundries. $100 seems like it can go a long way (and it can with canteen prices being so low), but make sure you keep an eye on spending and don’t let yourself get in a position where you really need something but can’t do anything about it until the following week. It may not be the end of the world if you run out of money during the week, but there is also comfort in the knowledge that you have access to a small reserve if you need it.
Drug use is prevalent in prison. Be extremely careful if you use anything offered to you in prison.
This really shouldn’t be a shock to anyone, but drug use happens every day in state correctional institutions throughout Florida. Just like cell phones, recreational drugs are contraband and possessing them can subject you to discipline by DOC as well as criminal charges brought against you by the government. That said, you won’t be in long before you come across some form of recreational drug or prescription medication being misused.
Obviously, possession of illegal drugs outside of prison is illegal, so there is no reason anyone should expect possession inside would be any different. In fact, the only real difference tends to be the reliability of the source to believe that what you’re getting is really what you think. For example, K2 is very popular and prevalent in Florida prisons these days. However, K2 can be dangerous even at the best of times due to the manufacturing process, and that risk is increased dramatically in prison due to the “beggars can’t be choosers” nature of the situation.
Something else to consider when someone offers you drugs that have been smuggled in from outside is exactly how that feat was accomplished. As mentioned above, you will be searched very thoroughly when you arrive in Orlando for the first time. The same is true for coming back after a day of work release, but it will be marginally less invasive those times. Without putting too fine a point on it, just know that whatever drugs are coming into the facility were likely transported in a confined space, wrapped in plastic, and covered in hand soap. Speaking personally, I wouldn’t feel inclined to put something like that in my mouth knowing exactly where it was before it got to me. Even if there were no other consequences to drug possession and use, that should be enough of a deterrent.
Another of the dangerous patterns of drug use you’ll likely encounter is inmates attempting to use non-narcotic medications to achieve a mind-altering effect. The perfect illustration of this is the common abuse of blood pressure medications by DOC inmates. Blood pressure medication is one of a few prescriptions drugs that inmates can typically get ahold of in prison. Since the medications themselves are non-narcotic, taking blood pressure medications won’t produce any narcotic effects. That said, because these drugs act as blood thinners, inmates take large doses and then try to stay awake for long periods of time in an attempt to hallucinate. The reality is that the desired effect is likely never achieved with those medicines and you’ll just wake up the next day with a horrible headache and feeling like you ate a ton of blood thinners.
Drug use in prison violates the law, DOC rules, and it can be more dangerous than chasing a high on the streets. Be smart and avoid these things.
Don't put yourself in a dangerous position.
This one is obvious, but maybe not in the way you would think. Violence occurs in prisons due to any number of things, including race issues, gang issues, run-of-the-mill bullying, and more. Even so, these acts of violence are usually isolated and result from a specific triggering event. You don’t need to be in constant fear of getting beaten up “just because.”
One very common pitfall that is frequently at the root of violence (both in and out of prison) is gambling. Gambling is very common in DOC as it can make for a fun and distracting way to pass the time. However, racking up a massive debt—or really any debt that you can’t pay—is going to put you in danger. You absolutely do not want to find yourself owing anyone money in prison. If you are going to gamble, make sure you can cover your debts (which goes part and parcel with item number six above.) That said, the safest bet is to simply not gamble while in prison. Play cards with other inmates and have fun, but if the game turns to real money it may be time to step away.
Even if you keep your nose clean and stay far away from any physical violence yourself, you still may encounter violence. Always be aware that prisons are not as secure as we want to believe, and other inmates can and will fashion weapons. While some of these inmate inventions can be extremely complex—and frankly a little impressive (like a handgun made out of plumbing parts)—others are simple and extremely effective. A combination lock in a sock can do plenty of damage and a single razor blade can easily be lethal. Never assume a prison fight is going to be a fistfight, never involve yourself in violence if you can avoid it, and never build up gambling debts you can’t pay. Violence in prison is a very real issue, but if you’re smart and polite you can avoid putting yourself in the line of fire.
Yes, you’ll still be able to watch the Super Bowl while you’re in prison.
While this might feel out of place an extremely inconsequential, the ability to watch the Super Bowl is an exceptionally “normal” and fun thing to be able to do while in prison. More than that, it is a useful example of the little things you can do in prison to make the experience more bearable and help pass the time with a bit more to look forward to than another ordinary day of the week.
Take advantage of these small luxuries when you can. Prison may not be an enjoyable experience, but there can be plenty of good days if you keep your head up and find things to look forward to down the road.
Prison etiquette is pretty straightforward: follow the rules, don’t be a problem for the guards or other inmates, and exercise common sense.
You don’t need a lawyer to tell you that slinging racial slurs at other inmates is uncalled-for and likely to put you in a dangerous position. That said, there are at least two fairly common prison “don’ts” that are worth mentioning here.
Prison Don’t #1: Staring
The first may seem obvious, but it is also a bad habit some people develop in the real world that can come back to bite you while in prison: do not stare people down or lock eyes with other inmates.
While this is probably considered impolite or bad etiquette out in the real world, it’s unlikely that making prolonged eye contact with a stranger at Starbucks will yield much more trouble than a dirty look or possibly an unpleasant comment. In prison, that same eye contact could mean the difference between finishing your lunch in peace and getting into a physical conflict that won’t end well for you. If you find yourself staring blankly ahead and accidentally lock eyes with someone who isn’t a friend, just look away and try to carry on living your life.
Prison Don’t #2: Asking Why Other Inmates Are There
Don’t ask other inmates “what they’re in for.” If you have recently been convicted of a crime sufficiently serious to send you to DOC, there is a good chance you’re not feeling particularly happy about that conviction. You will not be the only inmate feeling that way. At the end of the day, every inmate in your facility is there for a reason. If an inmate hasn’t volunteered details about their conviction(s), just leave well enough alone. It really isn’t anyone else’s business and there is no need for you to be the one who brings it up. When in doubt, simply don’t ask.
While far from being an exhaustive primer on prison etiquette, these two tips will at least help you avoid common and innocent prison faux pas.
Try to stay on the tattoo guy's good side, but don't get tempted by the appeal of cheap tattooing.
The tattoo guy is always popular in prison. That probably raises any of the following three questions for most people:
The tattoo guy is exactly what the name suggests; he is the guy every inmate in your facility goes to for all of their prison tattooing needs. It stands to reason that the tattoo guy would be a precious figure because tattooing isn’t something everyone can do. For example, getting in good with those who can help you out with food or other little luxuries is a smart idea, but not quite as essential. The guy who has access to extra honey buns is great, but anyone can be that guy if they’re given that job by DOC. Tattooing, on the other hand, involves a degree of talent or skill that is not universal. If the tattoo guy decides to stop tattooing, the whole facility is out of luck. You don’t want to find yourself in a position where the tattoo guy has an issue with you because you can bet he has plenty of friends willing to back him up.
The second question is the same one I had at first blush—how do inmates have access to the materials they need for tattoos? The answer is a combination of ingenuity and a flagrant disregard for safety or cleanliness. Tattoo guns in prisons are made from a number of unlikely objects which can include pencils, electric razors, guitar strings, and plenty of other creative instruments. On one hand, it’s quite remarkable to see what inmates are capable of doing with very limited resources. On the other hand, getting a tattoo from a stranger in prison who either built his own tattoo gun or inherited it from someone who had done the same is not a smart idea, which naturally leads us to the final question: why shouldn’t I get tattoos in prison?
I will reiterate here that the answer to this question is hopefully very obvious. In fact, the real question should be “why would anyone want to get a tattoo in prison?” The answer is money. Professional tattooing is not cheap. If you’re interested in doing something more than a single small image, like a sleeve or more, you’ll start to see the appeal. You might have to pay thousands to tens of thousands of dollars to get the tattoos you want from a professional at a parlor. However, you can get the same amount of work done (if not the same quality) in prison for a tiny fraction of that price. It is literally a question of saving thousands of dollars.
For some inmates, those savings are hard to ignore. That said, it is extremely dangerous to spring for these bargain prison tattoos. The equipment is not able to be regularly cleaned and sterilized. Needles or materials being used as needles are often hard to come by in prison, and the same needle may be used to tattoo scores of inmates. You do not want to get in the habit of sharing needles with your compatriots (for any reason). It is a quick and surefire way to contract sexually transmitted diseases, and you will be needlessly risking your health and wellbeing.
You want to be nice and friendly with the tattoo guy. You do not want to make use of his services.
The tattoo guy illustrates a larger point about interacting with others while in DOC custody. In addition to the etiquette tips above, you simply want to do your best not to get on someone’s bad side if you can help it. Whether that someone is a corrections officer, another inmate, the tattoo guy, or even the honeybun guy, you don’t want to be the one to cause them problems.
While this list is far from exhaustive, it provides indispensable insight about common occurrences in prison and hopefully has helped paint of picture of what you can expect from your time in custody. That said, your mileage may vary on much of this. The Florida Department of Corrections has 144 facilities statewide (including work release camps, re-entry centers, etc.). Like anything else, no two facilities will be exactly alike and no two experiences will be identical.
At the end of the day, your best friend in prison is a level head and common sense. There will be scary times in prison that nobody can predict. Conversely, there will be times where it doesn’t feel nearly as bad as you expected. You have to be prepared to accept where you are and remind yourself that, for the overwhelming majority of inmates, this is not going to last forever, and you will have a life when you get out. Even following a lengthy sentence.
Now that you’re prepared for what to expect in prison, check out our Prison Survival Guide to learn the answers to the most common questions people have about going to prison for the first time.