What Do TV and Movies Get Right and Wrong About Prisons?

By Matt Stroud

A few months back, when I first started with In These Times, I had a talk with Logan Sachon at The Billfold about what I intended to do with The Prison Complex and why I find prisons so infuriating and fascinating. It was an enjoyable discussion. But when she asked me, “What do TV and movies get right … and what do they get wrong” about prisons, I admitted I didn’t really know; I’ve never served time in a prison, and anything I possess approaching a journalistic expertise about incarceration comes from what I’ve read, conversations I’ve had, and policy discussions I’ve followed.

So I decided to get in touch with some prisoners to see how they’d answer Logan’s question.

In a partnership with Between the Bars — a fascinating site that allows prisoners to blog about whatever they want — this is the first in a hopefully recurring series of posts by prisoners about their daily lives behind bars. Since we’re just getting started here, the prompt is simple: “What do TV and movies get right and what do they get wrong about prisons?” Our first response comes from Jennifer Gann, a prisoner at Kern Valley State Prison in the desert of Southern California about 45 minutes by car northwest of Bakersfield. Kern Valley is a maximum security facility for men with just about 4,100 prisoners.

Jennifer’s letter has been scanned and posted here. The text of her letter follows:

I’m a 44 year old transgender woman activist and prisoner in California. I have been incarcerated for the past 24 years, and I’ve witnessed every imaginable aspect of the prison system from the inside.

Initially, I was sentenced to “seven years” in state prison after being convicted of a robbery charge. I’ll admit that I’m no angel, but I served the time which fit the crime. I’m a drug addict and ex-gang member who has made a lot of mistakes which I now regret.

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Work Assignments in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

By Christopher Zoukis

Recently a Prison Law Blog reader, whose father is preparing to serve time in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, inquired about what type of work assignments his father would have to engage in.  In an effort to better disseminate this type of information, we’ve decided to answer his question in article format.  This way the knowledge will become publicly available to those outside of prison.

Are All Federal Prisoners Required to Have an Institutional Work Assignment?

While most certainly the ire of many federal prison inmates, those who are medically able are required to work.  Medically able means they can physically and mentally engage in relatively menial tasks.  The bar is set low: if the federal prisoner can stand and serve food or bend over and pick up trash or push a broom, then he works.  If the prisoner is unable to engage in these simple tasks, they could be assigned to a job where they just sit all day and work (e.g., rolling plastic spoons and napkins together) or, if they are unable to even engage in these basic work-related tasks, they might be excused from a prison job altogether, but this is the exception to the rule and must be authorized through the prison’s health services department.

Types of Work Assignments

There are many types of work available in a federal prison.  Federal prison inmates can be assigned to the kitchen to cook, wash, or serve.  They can be assigned to a housing unit to sweep, mop, pick-up trash, wax floors, scrub showers, or issue cleaning supplies.  They could even be assigned to a prison maintenance work detail to replace broken water fountains or toilets, replace burned out light bulbs, paint rooms or hallways, or any other number of tasks required to keep the federal prison in working order.  Still, a federal prison inmate could be required to pick up trash around the prison for an hour a day, or even to merely sign their name on a pay roster once a month for such alleged work, without ever having to show up to actually work.  The long and short of it is that prisons are like small cities.  There are garbage men, cooks, grass cutters, dish washers, electricians, plumbers, and everything else that the city — or, in this case, the prison — requires to operate.

Pay for Prison Jobs

Pay for prison work is generally horrendous.  At the bottom end of the spectrum, federal prisoners could be paid as low as 12 cents per hour.  This is not significantly common, but more than 30 cents per hour is uncommon.  Generally speaking, most federal prisoners make between $15 and $30 per month.  Exceptions are present, but these are often for full-time work details which require significant effort and time.  While some prisoners can eventually earn upwards of $100 or more a month, this often takes years of full-time work to gain a job with such status and benefit, and few hold such positions.

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What Are Indigent Federal Prison Inmates Provided?

By Christopher Zoukis

The other day a Prison Law Blog reader presented a question.  “My father is preparing to serve a sentence in a federal prison camp.  He doesn’t have a lot of money or other resources.  What will the Federal Bureau of Prisons provide him for his basic needs?”  Obviously, a good question.  In fact, it’s sad that the Federal Bureau of Prisons doesn’t make this sort of information available to soon-to-be inmates and their families.  Regardless, the Prison Law Blog is here to help.

What Does the Federal Bureau of Prisons Provide to Indigent Prison Inmates?

Generally speaking, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, much like most state prisons, provides indigent inmates with the basic requirements for living in prison.  Prison administrators are responsible for clothing, feeding, and providing medical care to all prisoners, and usually provide recreational opportunities, religious services, psychological counseling, and limited educational opportunities to the prison inmate population under their care as well.  A federal prison inmate with absolutely no resources whatsoever will not starve or freeze to death, though their existence won’t be delightful either since there won’t be many luxuries.

Clothing for Federal Prison Inmates

The Federal Bureau of Prisons provides federal prisoners with several days’ worth of clothing including underwear, t-shirts, khaki pants, khaki shirts (both short-sleeved and long-sleeved), socks, and a winter coat.  Federal inmates are also provided two blankets and two sheets.  Depending on the local climate, long underwear, a knit hat, gloves, and other clothing or linen items might also be furnished.

Federal inmates with funds to spend can often purchase higher quality, or merely an additional quantity, of the existing clothing items.  For example, while the Federal Bureau of Prisons will furnish prisoners with socks, prisoners with funds can purchase higher quality socks from the prison commissary.

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The Cornell Prison Education Program: An Overview

By Christopher Zoukis

Serving the Central New York and Finger Lakes region, the Cornell University Education Program provides college-level instruction to prison inmates who meet the program’s requirements.  Both Cornell faculty and graduate students teach prisoners located at the Auburn Correctional Facility and the Cayuga Correctional Facility.  Cayuga Community College accredits the earned degrees and confers Associate’s Degrees on inmates who complete the required coursework. 

Mission and Vision  Image courtesy

With a goal to prepare inmates “to join the workforce as informed citizens” and provide them with new skills to “negotiate some of the tensions that shape their everyday existence,” the Cornell program is small, but utterly focused, according to its website.  Instructors and other volunteers work with inmates in both maximum and medium security prisons and instruct students with an eye to prepare them for their future lives outside of prison once they reenter society.  Students pay no tuition or fees to obtain this valuable instruction from renowned Cornell faculty. 

Program History

While it’s not commonplace for Ivy League institutions to take their coursework to prisons, Cornell began to do just that in 1999 after public funding for prison education was cut.  While the program began on a volunteer basis with Cornell faculty giving their time to area prisons, it has been able to expand its offerings based on grants from foundations like the Sunshine Lady Foundation.  Instructors have designed their curriculum with a largely liberal arts focus.  While Cornell faculty and graduate students provide instruction, the program is also supported by about forty undergraduate students who work as teaching assistants and tutors.

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