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Prison Facts, the Big House, it's not jail anymore.

Updated on April 5, 2011
overcrowding in dorms is common
overcrowding in dorms is common

Prison Facts cont.

Prison is different in many ways from jail, but I once used them interchangeably. Isn't locked up prison or jail? You're still behind bars. Well, actually that's incorrect. People go to jail for various reasons. If you don't pay your speeding ticket, an arrest warrant is issued and you could end up in jail for 2 days or more depending on the crowding in the holding cells that night. Get in a fight, assault someone, go to jail. Drunken driving, bouncing a check, using drugs or underage drinking, serving alcohol to a minor as a restaurant waiter, excessive speeding etc. can all land you in jail for however long it takes to get you back out. Friends and family members can post bail, but it's still almost 8-10 hours before you work through the system and are released. In jail, you know you will eventually get out, usually a time specific date, whereas prison depends on parole boards, behavior in prison and your sentence length. The population in jail is constantly changing whereas prison remains more stable.

When you are sent to prison in Texas, it actually a series of events. You could go first to Huntsville to be processed, catch chain as it's called and there receive a health check up, dental fillings, glasses, and possibly medication for like, asthma. Then you are bused off to your first prison. I say your first because the state does not keep you in any one prison for too long. My son stayed in Beaumont, TX his first 2 years, then back to Huntsville, then on to his new place, further than the last, in the piney woods of Texas.

Visitation is an interesting thing as well. It's always best to call ahead to make sure they are allowing visits for the day. It's a long 2 hour drive from Houston to Beaumont, to be turned away at the gate because of their concerns over swine flu. There are two types of visits, contact and non-contact. You are searched at the door, felt down, and can only bring in eye glasses and a baggie with coins in it to purchase drinks or food for yourself or the inmate. Visiting babies have special circumstances and allowances-2 diapers and wipes. On special days, $3.00(in quarters) will buy you a picture through a glass window of you and your inmate. Inmates are allowed only one visit per weekend, so if you are divorced and your ex-spouse has visited on Sat. and you show up on Sun. you will be denied a visit. If his unit is on lockdown, you will be denied a visit. If he takes you off the visitation list, you will be denied a visit, and cannot visit again until 3-6 months later if he re-adds you. If you are not immediate family, you will have a non-contact visit meaning talking through a glass window and a phone like you see on tv. A contact visit is sitting down at a picnic type table and they are on one side and you are on the other. You may hug/kiss briefly in the beginning and at the end of the visit, but unless you hold hands while you talk, there is not much contact allowed. There is some leeway allowed with children and and they can hold and cuddle them. All this happens while you are being watched by guards, surrounded by 15 other tables with inmates and families. It makes for stilted conversation. Sometimes the very things you want to talk about, what made you do this crime? how are they treating you? are you really doing okay? cannot be asked. Letters are all opened and read that go in and out, so that venue is out as well.

In his first prison, my son attended a few college classes. He went to church and re-connected with God which finally gave him peace and serenity. His small group of "friends" started a Bible study and prayer group. They say these prison groups are some of the most intimate spiritual groups because of the sincerity inside the walls. It's hard to pretend in there if you claim to be a Christian. Ironically, my son being white, suffers from some of the worst racial prejudical treatment from others who screamed the loudest about it happening to them. He tries to be friendly to all, but some guards even treat him differently because of his color, calling him names we don't dare use against different races outside these walls. Gangs are everywhere, recruiting, harassing, forcing sides and relationships. Preferential treatment is given to Muslims for special foods, meal times, and prayer breaks among other demands. There is no air conditioning in any Texas prisons. The heat is intolerable most summers, and relief at night comes only from darkness and a large,ceiling fan circulating. If these were kennels with dogs and cats, people would be outraged. The food is mostly starch and he goes to bed most nights still hungry.

My son moved to a new prison about 3 months ago. It's like being put in all over again. They have new routines, new clothes, a smaller cell-it's a "real" prison now as he says. He has a cell, with one other roommate instead of the large barrack type dorm whereas many as 30-50 men may all sleep in various bunks, in rows in the room. His cell bunk is on the bottom and there is a small window by each bed; that offers circulation at night. He prays for and dreams of inventing fans he can move with his feet. He's given a job; he becomes a baker. His shift is from 4:30am until they finish around 3pm or so. No pay or extra benefits are given except access to the kitchen. The ovens and their constant heat make for hot work with no air conditioning. But he says this is a good job, only two available in the entire prison. His uniforms are the 3 sizes- fit most bodies type and at 6'1" he struggles with one that fits. There is a once a week delivery of 2 uniforms. At commisary, they purchase extra needed things such as socks to wear and use as arm warmers in the winter. Better food such as tuna, peanuts, shaving needs, more soap or toilet paper (one roll a week)stamped envelopes and writing paper, cards. These can be purchased once a week if someone on the outside supplies money for his account.

So you say I'm feeling a little too sorry for these inmates, let me say no. They did do something to deserve to get in there. But my son is incarcerated with rapists, killers, pedophiles, thieves and manic depressant crazies too. But, the majority of inmates ironically, 60% my guess, are incarcerated because of alcohol or drug related charges. A majority of these are youthful offenders, under the age of 25. Inside for 30 days, they are back to their "normal" self which is usually not violent, criminally bent, or dangerous. The shock of where they are must hit hard, when sobriety finally reaches their clear heads. What a place to grow up in. Now they must learn to deal with other young men still figuring out who they are, and criminally minded men. Then, either rise above them by avoidance or descending to their level and becoming more corrupt. I wish there were separate prisons for alcohol/drug related crimes with rehab classes mandatory. The hard-core prisons would be much smaller. My son, an addict, has been incarcerated since he was 18, for 4 years with 4 to 5 to go.

Crime is just as bad in prison, stealing from the kitchen for example. Everything can be used for making, creating something else. Fruit, tomato based products or juice is stolen and several inmates are caught drunk as they get sick from the weird concoction of home-brewed alcohol. My son, new to the unit, is questioned thoroughly regarding his knowledge of this, ie where did they get the sugar? or supplies? He fortunately was off that day and knew nothing about it. (Any such "write ups" or incidents can affect and delay your parole) Tattoo guns are moved around, anything can be bought or purchased apparently if the price is right. My son learns how to pull threads from his uniform to sew things, straws from brooms to clean things, other inmates teach orgami, make and sell cards for special holidays. It's like a capsulized town with controls, yet still without real order.

I have met some really nice parents and spouses of inmates. Before this happened to me, I would have cringed and probably shunned someone who told me they had a family member in prison. What kind of family could they have at home? Now I'm realizing that "they" didn't do anything, the crime is the choice of the offender. The family merely suffers from the stigma of the crime and the offender's relationship to the family. Even having to visit a prison is degrading and requires losing a day to travel there (2 hours over and then back for me) with a 2 hour maximum visit-6 hour chunk of your day. It is psychologically draining and my new husband is generous to usually drive me. My son's new prison has a phone to call me but calls are limited to 15 mins. and are $3 a call. I had to get a land line (home phone), as cell phone calls are not allowed.(Jail phone calls run a average of $7-12 dollars a call and can destroy your phone budget in a month.) I try to write him once a week, and my family helps with this too. His letters are shorter, reduced to the bare basics of a relationship. I miss you, I love you, I pray for you, how is everyone? I'm doing okay. Anything else reported has to be thought over since it will be read before it is mailed. My friends try and ask how he is? This is comforting and I have good days and bad days thinking about him. Inconsiderate friends ask "Has he been raped yet?" as if it's inevitable, or he would tell me or I would tell them should such a horrible thing occur. Mother's days and holidays are tough at church and elsewhere when families all seem to be gathering and celebrating together. Graduation times and weddings as well when distant relatives casually ask where is my son? It's almost easier sadly, to talk only of my one son in his first year of college. Easier, less painful, but definitely guilt-producing in your thoughts for a while afterwards.

Finally, many people end up in prison never expecting it. They haven't committed a planned crime, for example robbing a bank, or breaking and entering. A twenty something college kid, thinking he can sell a few drugs to pay for a lost job and his own blossoming habit. A young man leaving a party who hits and kills someone in a car wreck with drugs or alcohol involved. How do these people fare when mixed in with a general prison population? My wish for a separate prison system for under 25, or drug/alcohol related crimes could change a lot of things for a lot of young men. Gang members could get hardcore classes on re-thinking their choices. But without the separating of these men, many of them are doomed to repeat.


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      Francis River 

      8 years ago

      My son is also in prison. He was convicted to 4 years in Texas prison for personal possession of heroin. He is now in recovery and looks forward to a new beginning once he is free again. He sends snail mail to a family member who posts it to a blog for him. You can take a look at his story and his prison experience at

      I agree with much of what you say, so many are in prison for crimes of addiction. And, the system itself is not working. I have also met many nice parents and family of other inmates.

      Best of luck to you and your son.


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