In the first episode of Orange is the New Black, the protagonist, Piper Chapman, is taken into custody at a minimum-security prison camp after being sentenced to 15 months.
She is asked by a fellow inmate, “what are you in for?”, to which she replies, “are you supposed to ask that? I read that you’re not supposed to ask that.” Her questioner replies, “you studied for prison?”.
Whilst we would not use a TV show as an adequate example of custodial life, many people do ask us what life will be like in prison. This most usually occurs when they are on bail or summons, proposing to plead guilty to serious offences and know that they will certainly have to serve a term of imprisonment, having never been in custody before. Having worked in the criminal law in Melbourne and around Australia for decades, the lawyers at Galbally Rolfe Criminal Lawyers have over time attended countless prisons, heard the testimonials from clients who have served periods of imprisonment in various centers, and advised clients about prison life. Outlined in this article are the insights that have been shared by clients past and present, which form the basis of the advice we give to clients preparing for prison:
1. Do not live in denial – get your affairs in order
Denial can be one of the most powerful psychological forces at work in the human brain. We have seen it in action. Clients who for months, if not years, have been very aware that they will absolutely and categorically serve a period of imprisonment, still appear in our office in the days leading up to their Plea Hearing (and incarceration) asking about sentencing alternatives (even though these are not available) and letting slip that they still have not told important people in their lives that they are going to prison. Each time, we comfort them whilst reinforcing the reality and imploring them to get their affairs in order!
The following are some steps you should consider taking if you are in this position:
- Tell your people. Giving people the chance to process the news that you are about to give them, go through the various stages of grief over the news and then be there to support you is absolutely essential. It also means that they are in a better place to handle your incarceration and the ramifications of it.
- Arrange a power of attorney. If you have ever moved house, you will have realized how complex relocating is. Well, this is a relocation of your whole life and it is unlikely that you will adequately be able to do this in advance of going into prison. If you need someone to handle your financial interests whilst you are in custody, a power of attorney is a way of allowing someone you trust to handle the practical aspects your affairs for you. Many people actually appoint two powers of attorney, who must both agree on a course of action before they can make a decision on their behalf. This way their is a safeguard in place.
- Make arrangements for your property. If you own your house and your absence will mean that your family will be unable to cover the costs of living there, or you live alone, make arrangements well in advance for the relocation of your family and rental or sale of the property. This obviously involves finding a place for your family to live, packing and moving. It is better to do this in advance and settle into a routine than to arrange for it to be done after your are incarcerated. If you own pets, arrange for someone to care for them whilst you are away.
- Update your prescriptions. If you are on medication, the Department of Corrections wants to know. Arrange to get new prescriptions and a letter from your Doctor explaining what you are taking and why. This means that the nurse in the Correctional Centre can ensure that you receive your medication.
2. Arrange your support network
It is essential, both for your own emotional and practical support, to have a support network. On an emotional level, you want to be able to speak with your loved ones frequently and see them whenever you have visitation. This keeps your connections strong and provides you with the support that you need to complete your prison term. On a practical level, you need at least one person who can deposit funds into your prison account so that you can make phone calls and purchase items from the prison shop. Having a reliable person who will regularly deposit these funds is essential.
3. Prepare a list of telephone numbers to add to your prison telephone account
Having a mobile phone often means that you in fact do not know the numbers of those close to you by memory. If that is you, make a list of telephone numbers to take with you, which you will add to your account. These numbers should include your loved ones, lawyer and accountant, if you need to be in contact with them. Once these numbers are added to your account, the Prison will usually contact the person to enquire as to whether they are happy for their number to be added to your account. Accordingly, let them know in advance to expect the call.
4. Prepare your property
You can take the essentials with you in to custody. These include underwear, socks, tracksuits (without piping), t-shirts and shoes. Visit our FAQ’s section on our website to see what items you can and cannot take with you. Ultimately, it depends on which facility you go to.
5. Mentally prepare yourself for the loss of liberty and remember to stay calm
The whole point of prison as a punishment is that you lose your liberty. Liberty isn’t just the ability to live in the community, see who you want, go where you want and do what you want. In prison, you have limited choice as to:
• Where you go;
• How long you spend in your cell;
• How long you spend outdoors;
• What you eat;
• When you eat;
• Where and how you use the conveniences;
• How you refer to people, in particular people in authority;
• Whether to follow directions or not;
• When you use the phones;
• When you have visitors; and
• What items you are allowed to have in your cell.
It is the freedom to make these small choices that people miss the most in custody. Clearly, this does not mean that you should be mistreated in any way and you will be advised of the welfare services available should you need assistance. However, you have to accept that there will be a certain amount of pride swallowing involved and that your life will be at the direction of the prison authorities for the period of your sentence.
6. Don’t ask others what they are ‘in for’ or how long they are doing
Believe it or not, these are rather personal questions. Most won’t ask until they have known you for a while, if at all. Sometimes it is quite clear what you are in custody for. For example, if you are in custody at the Ararat Centre, you will have been convicted of sex offences. However, if you are in another more general center, the offences for which you may have been sentenced range considerably. As a general rule, don’t ask. It doesn’t matter. You are all in prison, that is the end of it. If you are asked and you are not comfortable disclosing the true reason why you are in custody, just tell them that you were ‘done for drugs’. It is general, it is the most common reason why people are in prison and, it is usually so uninteresting that it won’t invite further enquiries. Asking how long a person has left to serve can also be a poor idea. Most people serving long sentences do not want to be reminded of how long they have to go. If they are serving a relatively short sentence, it will come out in conversation as they plan their life post-prison. As a rule, let people disclose what they want to disclose. Sometimes talking about their sentences or their lives on the outside is a sad reminder of what is lost, so ask as few questions as possible.
7. Stay out of prison politics
We have heard frequently clients say, “prison is like high school”, except you don’t go home at the end of the day. You are stuck with the people in the prison (guards and inmates) and in your unit regardless of what you have in common and how you feel about each other. If there is one piece of advice that we stress it is to stay out of prison politics. Individuals and groups can have issues with each other. Inmates can have issues with guards and vice versa. Where possible, keep your head down, stay out of the politics and just do your time. The same goes for engaging in prison gossip or speaking badly of anyone. Be polite to the guards, even if you would not give them the time of day on the outside. But, do not become chummy with the guards, as this can arouse suspicion among the other prisoners.
8. Keep your nose clean
Keep your nose clean. As easy as it may be to succumb to the temptation of obtaining contraband goods, pushing the limits of prison policy and getting involved in conflict, it is far better to stay well out. In particular, stay clear of drugs and alcohol on the inside. They are available but getting involved in the trade, either as a user or trafficker, is a bad idea. Firstly, you will not be doing yourself any favours to your health or sanity. Secondly, you will open yourself up to charges for further offending, as well as prison sanctions such as being placed in isolation. This may increase the length of time you spend in custody, increase your classification and make your time more unpleasant. Thirdly, if you end up in debt to someone for drugs or alcohol, they will come and collect. They may also use the debt against you. If you keep your nose clean, notwithstanding the temptations, you will ultimately be thankful that you did, you will probably maintain a clean reputation among everyone and your time inside will be far more peaceful.
9. Keep busy
Prison industries are both profitable to the Department of Corrections, or the private company that runs the prison, and the very best way of passing the time. You can apply for prison jobs of different sorts, which are usually matched to your security status and your abilities. If you have a job to go to everyday, it gives your day structure, keeps you busy and the time passes quicker. Of course, if you had a professional job on the outside, you might have to adjust to the idea of sweeping the yard, cooking mass meals or cleaning. However, every client we have had who has a prison job, has held on to that job for dear life.
You may also be offered the opportunity to study in prison. Keeping your mind active is a good way of avoiding the depression that inevitably affects every incarcerated person to some extent. You may be able to complete a degree in the time that you are in custody, which gives you a qualification when you are released. If you have not received much education in your life, it may be a good time to learn essential skills.
Prison is the harshest punishment available under our law. Prisons differ considerably depending on whether they are minimum, medium or maximum security, run by private companies and where they are located. However, most people complete their sentences and go on to live life after prison happily and successfully. There is life after prison. However, by preparing yourself for prison, you can avoid unnecessary angst.
You can also hear Ruth Parker of our office speak with Liz Trevaskis on ABC Afternoons in Darwin about Preparing for Prison.