Sure, prisons and jails are dangerous places. But everyday life inside isn’t as explosive as TV and movies make it look.
Life Behind the Wall
What do you really know about the lives of the roughly 1.2 million Americans in state and federal prisons? Pop culture tends to overemphasize the violence and chaos while downplaying the monotony of being locked up. In real life, incarcerated people work, take classes if they’re available, work out, make art, watch the news, forge relationships and worship. And the majority of people in prison will return home one day.
Obviously, incarceration has the most profound effect on the person who is serving time, but the consequences reach far beyond facility walls. More than 100 million American adults have immediate family members who have spent time in jail or prison. Incarceration puts significant financial pressure and emotional strain on those families, especially as they struggle to stay connected.
Jeff Östberg for The Marshall Project
A Day in the Life of a Prisoner
By Jerry Metcalf for The Marshall Project
People are constantly asking me: What’s a day in prison like? Is it boring? Or are you busy? So I toted a pocket-sized notebook with me everywhere I went, scribbling down every single thing I did. I thought I’d share my findings with you to show you that we prisoners aren’t deadbeats—our days are, in fact, incredibly full.
Many people have jobs while incarcerated. Some keep the prison itself running by maintaining the grounds, doing laundry, preparing meals or washing dishes. Others work for private companies that contract with the prison to make their products.
Work-release programs allow some prisoners to leave the facility for the day to labor in poultry processing plants, for example, or to pick up trash along the highway. In California, prisoners can train to work as firefighters who are often called to help during wildfire season.
Incarcerated people are very poorly paid for the work they do. In states like Texas, they aren’t paid at all, and in many states, they make as little as 30 to 50 cents an hour.
Research shows that on-screen depictions of prison life, particularly in the context of documentary and reality programming, play a significant role in shaping Americans’ impressions of incarceration. But TV shows tend to skip the daily routines of prison life—work, classes, watching television—in favor of conflict and extreme behavior.
MSNBC’s “Lockup,” which debuted in 2005, was the first real breakout prison reality series. Over 25 seasons and counting, the “Lockup” franchise has over-represented maximum-security facilities as well as who’s confined there—the show features people who are disproportionately White, convicted of violent crimes, and serving life sentences.
Netflix and other content producers have since funded an entire industry that could be described as the prison reality complex, including shows titled “Jailbirds,” “I Am A Killer” and “Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons.” Reality shows can only film what they can get access to through prison officials and what their incarcerated subjects are willing to do on camera. Scripted dramas have far more leeway, and are often more violent as a result. While Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” has been critically acclaimed for presenting complex characters and dramatizing systemic injustice, shows like NBC’s “Law and Order: SVU” and HBO’s now defunct “Oz” make prison rape an inevitability—and often a punchline.
“SVU,” a show structured around the particular horror of sexual violence, is one of the best representations of the often lurid and contradictory fascination that prison holds over viewers with little direct criminal justic system experience. The NYPD detectives on “Law and Order” rarely pass up an opportunity to weaponize prison gang violence or the threat of prison rape during the questioning of suspects. At the same time, entire episodes have been dedicated to exploring crucial prison issues like solitary confinement, transwomen in male-populated prisons, and pervasive sexual assault and coercion in women’s facilities.
Prison as Health Hazard
People in prison are sicker than their peers on the outside, research shows. Prison accelerates the aging process, shortens life expectancy and makes prisoners and staff particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. And the effects of prison aren’t just physical. The stress, boredom and violence of prison can affect prisoners’ mental health.
“To be sure, then, not everyone who is incarcerated is disabled or psychologically harmed by it,” wrote Craig Haney, a social psychologist, in a report on the psychological impact of incarceration for the Urban Institute. “At the very least, prison is painful, and incarcerated persons often suffer long-term consequences from having been subjected to pain, deprivation, and extremely atypical patterns and norms of living and interacting with others.”
Locking up more than a million Americans is expensive. Experts estimate that taxpayers spend roughly $80 billion a year on incarceration, and this number is only a fraction of the cost. Following the Great Recession, prison officials had to find ways to operate with substantially reduced budgets and many opted to privatize services like telephones, commissary and medical care. In some cases, prisons receive commissions from these services. Because the contracts differ from state to state, it is hard to quantify just how much the incarcerated and their families subsidize the prison system. Here is a look at the hidden costs of incarceration.
Families of the incarcerated spend roughly $2.9 billion on services in prison, like phone calls and commissary items.
The power struggle between corrections officers and incarcerated people isn’t always waged with fists or weapons. In “The Zo,” prison jargon for The Twilight Zone, staff set disorienting rules. Prisoners try to keep their grip on reality by clinging to details—days until parole, prices of items in the commissary, the minutiae of routine. And guards often escalate, inflicting arbitrary transfers or random stints in isolation. For specifics, watch our three-part video series narrated by Michael K. Williams, illustrated by Molly Crabapple, and drawn from a huge collection of letters compiled by the American Prison Writing Archive.
Studies have shown that in-person visits can help families on the outside and their incarcerated loved ones. More frequent visits can also reduce the risk of recidivism.
But the majority of prisons across the country are located far from the city centers many prisoners—and their families—call home. More than 63 percent of people in state prisons are locked up over 100 miles from their families, a 2015 report from the Prison Policy Initiative found. Black and Latino people make up a disproportionate share of the prison population, but many prison towns are majority White.
Most prisons are not accessible by public transportation, making visits especially difficult for those who cannot drive. It’s common for families to share rides with each other or to organize carpools in Facebook groups and online forums.
Several states, including New Jersey and Florida, have laws requiring corrections departments to "make every effort" to consider the distance from families "whenever possible." And under a provision of the First Step Act, federal prisoners must now be moved within 500 miles of their families.But in most states, long travel times remain common.
Co-hosted by artist Nigel Poor and Marshall Project contributing writer Rahsaan Thomas, this Pulitzer Prize-nominated podcast tells the stories of people incarcerated at and released from California’s San Quentin prison.
What is it actually like to serve time? Our weekly series of personal essays, written by imprisoned people and a range of others with direct experience with incarceration, reveals the realities of prison life.
The overwhelming majority of incarcerated people don’t have internet access. Distributed in hundreds of prisons and jails across the United States, News Inside gives people who are imprisoned access to some of our work.