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
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.
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.
Federal Prison Inmates
Federal inmates are provided three meals a day in the prison
dining room (called the “Chow Hall”).
Breakfasts often consist of breakfast cake and a side of grits, oatmeal,
or cereal. At some federal prisons,
inmates are also provided with an apple or other piece of fruit. Cartons of milk are a mainstay for breakfast
in prison cafeterias. Coffee is
sometimes provided, but many federal prisons are cutting this out to help
reduce foodservice costs. Some federal
prisons still offer “hot breakfasts.”
These can consist of pancakes, biscuits and gravy, French toast, and
eggs and a sausage patty.
Lunch is more diverse.
Pursuant to a national prison menu, chicken — on the bone — is a
prison lunch mainstay. At many federal
prisons, hamburgers are served on Wednesdays and fish on Fridays. Other noon meals regularly consist of chili
dogs, tuna, and possibly chicken patties.
Artificially flavored juice and water are available for drinking.
Dinner is also diverse.
Federal prisons often serve items like chili con carne, spaghetti,
lasagna, tacos (regular or fish), tuna casserole, pork chops, and other
items. Artificially flavored juice and
water are available as beverages.
The long and short of federal prison chow halls is that
while the food isn’t gourmet, it probably won’t kill anyone or make them
sick. The food is often moderately
nutritious, yet bland, but certainly life-sustaining. Those with additional funding can purchase a
plethora of food items from the prison commissary.
Items for Federal Prison Inmates
Indigent federal prisoners are provided with basic hygienic
items. At most federal prisons, this
includes two bars of soap each month (often of the hotel-sized variety),
generic toothpaste, a toothbrush (either a flimsy one with a handle or one of
the two-inch varieties, which must be held with finger and thumb), a few
single-blade razors, and deodorant.
Often these supplies are distributed on a set day each month. For example, at FCI Petersburg, hygiene bags,
which contain all of these items (plus paper and envelopes), are passed out on
a specific Wednesday morning each month.
If a prisoner misses this pick-up, they miss out on their hygienic
supplies for the month.
Federal prison inmates who have funds on their commissary
account can purchase name brand soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes,
mouthwash, facial wash, deodorant, lotion, and an assortment of other items
from the prison commissary.
for Federal Prison Inmates
While medical care in the Federal Bureau of Prisons is by
most accounts not up to community standards, it’s at least evenhanded. Both wealthy and indigent federal prison
inmates receive the same sub-par level of health care services. If a federal prisoner is truly indigent — as
defined in Federal Bureau of Prisons’ policy — then they are not responsible
for the $2 co-pay required for all medical and dental visits. If they have funds on their commissary accounts,
then the $2 co-pay will be automatically deducted from their commissary
account. Medical care is not denied to
federal prison inmates because of an inability to pay.
With today’s budget cuts indigent federal prisoners have
very limited access to over-the-counter medications. Unfortunately, they must rely on the Federal
Bureau of Prisons to provide them with what is required. Because the Bureau of Prisons prefers that
inmates purchase such items, indigent inmates must visit medical personnel to
obtain such items. At all federal
prisons, inmates can approach the pharmacy window on a specific day each month
and pick up indigent bags of over-the-counter medications. These bags usually include fiber laxatives, Ibuprofen,
and other items, but nothing as expansive as what may be purchased from the
Opportunities for Federal Prison Inmates
Depending on the federal prison in question, recreational
programming could be significant or wanting.
On the minimal side, all federal prisons have televisions, and many have
TV rooms so that those without a radio can hear the TVs (the TVs in the day
rooms require a radio to listen to the audio).
Most federal prisons also have a recreation department, which usually
includes both indoor and outdoor recreation areas. Indoor areas generally include arts and
crafts, painting, workout, and possibly even pool table areas. Outdoor recreation is more of a mixed bag. Some prisons have a large recreation yard,
where soccer, football, and softball fields, horseshoe pits, tennis, handball,
basketball, bocce, and volleyball courts, and a large track can be found. Others merely have a weight pile or not even
that. Federal prison recreation
departments often provide any equipment required, as such, there is no disadvantage
to being indigent in this area of the prison culture and lifestyle.
Services for Federal Prison Inmates
All federal prisons have a religious services department or
chapel area. This is a multi-faith area
where inmates of various faiths have their services and study sessions. All services and study sessions are free of
charge. As such, any prisoner, regardless
of financial status, can engage in the formation or reformation of their
spiritual self. Most major faith groups
are accounted for in available programming.
Counseling for Federal Prison Inmates
All federal prisons also have a psychology department. Here prisoners can find Alcoholics Anonymous,
Narcotics Anonymous, Smart Recovery, Anger Management, Parenting, Sex Offender
Treatment, and other psychological services.
Much like religious services, all service offerings are free to any
interested federal prison inmate. The
difference, though, is that while in the chapel or religious services
department, every prisoner has a chance each week to practice their faith, when
it comes to the psychology department, there are often waiting lists for
therapy groups or counseling sessions.
Opportunities for Federal Prison Inmates
And last, all federal prisons have an education
department. Here prison inmates can take
GED courses, English-as-a-Second Language courses, Adult Continuing Education
courses, and more, all for free. At
these basic levels, federal prisoners will not be charged for their educational
programming or efforts. Funding does
come into play when seeking a college or career education through
correspondence. These correspondence
programs are offered through a third party educational provider who charges for
their coursework and student services.
So, while the federal prison inmate won’t have to pay the prison for
these courses, they will have to compensate the institution of higher education
that offers the courses.
Federal Prison Inmates Truly Require?
For the most part, federal prison inmates are given what
they need to survive a term of federal incarceration. They will be fed, clothed, provided medical
attention, allowed to earn a basic education, provided basic counseling services,
and allowed to engage in physical fitness and religious growth activities. Federal prison inmates are given what they
need to survive. But this isn’t the
The real question at hand concerns how much outside support
is required for a federal prison inmate to have a somewhat decent quality of
life. This is a very subjective
question. The short answer is whatever
those outside of prison can offer their incarcerated loved one or friend. Twenty dollars a month goes a long way in a
federal prison’s commissary. Fifty a
month allows for commissary, telephone calls, and other luxuries. More than that allows for a very good life in
The point is that those in prison with nothing will make it
through. They won’t have a great time of
it, but they will survive the experience.
This is due in large part to the services provided to indigent federal
prison inmates by the prison administration.
But if a little assistance can be provided by those outside of prison,
federal prison inmates can live a life without much want or need. After all, it’s the little things in life
that count. A cup of instant coffee in
the mornings can mean the world to a federal prison inmate.