White Collar Support Group 350th Meeting Reflection: A Guide for People Reporting to Prison, by Fellow Traveler John DiMenna
John DiMenna is a member of our White Collar Support Group that meets on Zoom on Monday evenings. On March 6, 2023, we will hold our 350th meeting — 7 years of community! In honor of this milestone, we’ve asked our group members, guests and supporters to contribute written reflections for publication on our websites, emails, newsletters and social media. If you would like to submit your contribution, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
I spent eighteen months in a federal prison camp and recall quite indelibly my arrival, having had little or no preparation for it. Below is a guide that I’ve prepared for prospective ‘new arrivals’ based on my own experience. Transitioning to prison is a challenge for anyone. Every person’s experience will be unique to themselves but within that each will endure a period of adjustment for which the government provides no guidance or preparation. The information is drawn from my personal experience and hopefully will facilitate a more informed transition and ensure a less stressful period of adjustment.
1. Don’t assume that where you’re going is a place populated solely by “bad people.” Many good people are in prison who have made bad decisions, but are regretful, and are determined to make amends and return to a better life.
2. For me the days went by slowly, but the weeks passed steadily. I was told this early on and didn’t believe it, but that was my experience. However, how time is experienced once you’re inside is highly individualized and a positive attitude is important. The recommendations below can help you manage the daily tedium.
3. There can be a lot of dead time in prison, and reading was essential for me to productively fill the down time. There should be a ‘library’ available, and friends/family can send you books and magazines if they come directly from the publishers.
4. I kept a low profile, especially in the beginning. Those who called attention to themselves were not received well. Quietly and slowly assimilate below the radar to transition into the community.
5. As for the men I served my time with, many greeted me warmly and offered help to adjust. I was the oldest inmate in the camp which probably provided some deference. But I saw every arrival greeted the same way. There can be a brotherhood/sisterhood among inmates. Embrace that and return the favor to new people when you can.
6. I was careful choosing my friends and took my time choosing them. I avoided those inmates who were essentially doing life on the installment plan: the incorrigible.
7. I establish my routine as soon as possible. You’ll likely be required to have a job. Most camps are working camps. Try and find one you’re comfortable with─ask other inmates about theirs. Sometimes you’re just assigned to one, but often you can request one. Once you are comfortable with your job, reading period, exercise, and community of friends, the time will move along. I worked in the kitchen as a dishwasher. I actually grew to like it and bonded with the guys I worked with. Something about the tactile there. Sometimes I think it saved me.
8. Be a ghost to the staff. Inmates don’t win arguments with CO’s. Challenging staff, whether guards or administrative personnel, can be a mistake if not done within the available administrative remedies. Some administrators and guards are professional, some are nasty, and none are your friends.
9. The surprising and saving grace for me was the discovery that real friendships are possible in prison, inevitable, in fact. Real bonds grow out of shared experiences, especially unpleasant ones.
10. In my experience, prison was an opportunity to improve my health. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. There’s no alcohol, no smoking, and a lot of time and convenient facilities to exercise. Many inmates leave prison having lost weight and are fitter than they arrived.
11. Make prison a building block. One thing you have in prison is time to contemplate and figure out a next-life plan. I aspired to be a writer in my twenties. I used the time in prison to return to it and have continuted to apprentice myself since my release and working to become a full time free lance writer.
12. There will be dark moments, moments when the full impact of your incarceration is overwhelming but they pass, mainly through your routine and friends.
13. One of the most frustrating aspects of prison is the inability to help those left behind. It is said that having a loved one in prison is harder on those left at home. The most you can do for those is to assure them that you are doing ok. Don’t share your ‘bad days’ or other issues unless they require intervention.
14. If you have an issue with another inmate that can prove tricky. It’s probably best to resolve it directly with the other inmate. Do not request prison staff to intervene. Reporting violations of other inmates to staff is anathema to the prison population.
15. Commissary (Prison store): Although inmates may be given some toiletries and clothes, you’ll want to supplement them with commissary provisions. You will have assigned days that the commissary is available for you. So, you’ll have to get by with what the prison gives you upon arrival. However, some inmates may provide you with some basics until you can access the commissary but this can vary depending upon where you are assigned . Your commissary purchases are funded by your Inmate Trust Fund account and your family can get the funds to you via Western Union, Money Gram, or the BOP Lockbox (via US mail) . There are instructions on the BOP website. It’s not complicated.
16. Some inmates may request you purchase provisions for them when their commissary accounts are depleted. It’s best to avoid these arrangements unless you are one hundred percent comfortable with that inmate.
17. Finally, accept that it will be a challenge in the beginning. But try and resolve before entering that you’ll go with the flow and accept whatever happens as a powerful experience that can provide a heightened self-awareness and new perspective that would not have been possible without this experience.
Overall, if you approach this with a good attitude, a realistic perspective and a steely resolve to overcome the challenges, you will come out the other side a stronger and better person. Thousands of others have done so. And many people here at White Collar Support Group are rooting for you.