What Is The Prison Experience Like?

Originally Published February 18th, 2020

We can all agree that incarceration is an experience nobody wants to ever go through. It affects not just the person being imprisoned but also their families and friends.

Yet with the ever-rising rate of mass incarceration in the US, the threat of prison continues to loom. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, around 2.2 million people are currently locked up in jails and prisons around the country. This equates to about 25% of the country’s total population. That’s also 700% more than the prison population 50 years ago. This means that more and more Americans have loved ones or know someone who is, at the moment, suffering in prison.

To help you understand more of what they are going through, we ask former prisoners to answer the ultimate question: what is the prison experience like?


Several news reports are emerging about prisons with better accommodations than hotels. The truth is these prisons are the exception rather than the norm. Many jails and prisons in the country are struggling with overpopulation and dire lack of funds. This leads to unsanitary and sometimes inhumane living conditions for the inmates.

There are basically two kinds of accommodations in prisons: dorm rooms and single cells. The former is usually shared by 7 or 8 people. Single-cell rooms are reserved for solitary confinements. The bathroom is shared with more than 20 other people and is most of the time not up to sanitary standards.

Jim Christmas, who served a four-year sentence, shared his experience with prison mattress pads. He called it the “little vinyl monster”. As you can guess, it’s made of very thin foam with very thick vinyl covering so any dirt (and bodily fluids) can easily be wiped off. Pillows are also considered contrabands so inmates either have to be creative or sleep without it. In some state prisons, they are also given two sheets and a blanket made out of recycled tires.

An inmate in solitary confinement holding on to jail bars.


Menu for federal prisons is the same all over the country. In 2018, the BOP included heart-healthy foods for its inmates. Lunch and dinner foods usually include soup, beans, chicken, salad, fruit, and beverage. Breakfast choices consist of fruit, cereal, whole wheat bread, hash browns, and coffee or skim milk.

Foods served in state and county prisons vary widely across the country. Prison meals for local facilities are influenced by state laws, local policies and court decisions. Some facilities receive enough budget to adequately feed their inmates. Others are struggling to even feed their prisoners three times a day.

The Marshall Project revealed that inmates in Gordon County Jail in Georgia are only fed breakfast and dinner. Inmates have to combat hunger by licking from food packets. In Alabama, sheriffs are legally allowed to keep excess funds allocated for inmate food. This often results in undernourished inmates.

Thanksgiving is also celebrated in federal prisons with inmates getting noticeably better foods. Holiday meal choices include frankfurters, hamburgers, and potatoes served with pie or ice cream. In Texas, the holiday entree usually consists of two types of meat like chicken, beef, and turkey. Some places would even allow inmates to a cookout or set-up a barbecue pit.


A day in prison starts early. Prisoners have to wake up as early as five or six in the morning for the daily countdown. After that, inmates are allowed to do their morning routine like jogging, a quick shower, meditation or prayer.

Breakfast is only five to fifteen minutes. Then inmates go to work (yes, they work in prison too) or go to educational programs they are enrolled in. Another countdown occurs before lunch.

After a quick lunch, inmates go back to their work or schooling. They head back to their bunks for another countdown at around 4 in the afternoon. They stay in their bunks or do leisure activities (or as leisurely as prison gets) till dinner is served. Another countdown is done at around 9:00 pm before the lights are turned off.


Inmates in federal prisons are given 300 minutes of phone calls each month. Each call cannot last more than 15 minutes and they have to wait for an hour before they can make another call. Unused minutes on the revalidation date are automatically canceled and renewed for another 300 minutes.

Phone call regulations in state and county jails vary for each facility. The law gives sheriffs complete autonomy in implementing prison call rules. Most facilities have exclusive contracts with private prison call providers. Since these contracts are barely regulated, prison call rates are often more than double the usual call rates.

Companies like GlobalTel give prisoners and their families an option to make cheap jail calls. Upon signing up you will be given a local number which the inmate can call. Using local phone numbers can significantly reduce your phone call bills even if you are calling from miles away.

Our jail mail postcard service also lets you send personalized letters to inmates right from your phone or PC. For only $0.52, we’ll print it for you and send it to wherever they’re currently incarcerated.


GlobalTel’s inmate calling service lowers jail call rates by 90% for jail calls to US facilities. Sign up for our service to eliminate the long distance jail call fees for $45.99 for 90 days. Make US/domestic and international jail calls at the local rate and stay connected to your incarcerated loved ones for less. Learn more about how to sign up for calls from inmates on our website.

Judy Ponio an author for GlobalTel


Judy Ponio is a firm believer in the power of sharing knowledge. Having extensive experience in the prison industry, she wants to share what she knows with the world. Judy also loves to write about political and legal topics.