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Prison Professors

Apr 19, 2020

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Prepare: What Defendants Should Know about Court, Sentencing, and Prison


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  1. What Should I Know About Prison Transfers?




Based upon the number of minimum-security camps in the federal prison system, we estimate that less than 20% of the federal prison population gets the privilege of voluntarily surrendering. Being able to surrender to prison is a perk.

Ordinarily, when judges sentence people to serve less than 10-year terms, and the person does not have a history of violence or escape attempts, the Bureau of Prisons will classify that person as “minimum-security.” Judges may allow those people to report to prison on their own volition. In the systems, it’s known as “voluntary surrender.”

There is an advantage to surrendering to prison voluntarily. It’s less stressful. Rather than mixing with hundreds of other prisoners, many of whom may be intimidating, it’s easier to have a family member or friend drive to the prison. A person walks out and presents himself to a guard. That’s when the admissions process begins.

The other 80% of people that serve time do not get the privilege of voluntary surrender. They may have been held in detention centers for months because they did not qualify for release on bail. Or they may have been taken into custody right after the sentencing hearing. In most cases, the U.S. Marshals service will transport those people to prison.

Prison offers comparatively more freedom than the local jail or detention center. But time in transit can be among the worst time a prisoner spends in confinement. For security reasons, staff members do not tell the prisoner when he is scheduled for transfer. That “unknown” factor brings considerable amounts of stress.

My partner, Michael, served 26 years in federal prisons of every security level. He transferred numerous times. In several of his books, including Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, he wrote extensively about the transfer process.

Like everything else in confinement, there is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. Once the officer notifies the prisoner to gather his belongings, the officer will rush the prisoner out of his area and lead him to a separate holding area, usually a cage or a room. The officer will lock the prisoner inside the new cage. If it's not full already, the cage where the prisoner is held will quickly fill with scores of other prisoners who also are being prepared for transfer. Think of a sardine can.

Occasionally, a jailer will come to the outside of the cage and scream for the prisoners to quiet down as he makes some announcement. The jailer will be looking for prisoners with special needs, medical and such, and provide instructions on what procedures will follow. After the long wait—and a prisoner should expect to spend several hours as these preparations are made for transport—jailers will begin calling names, usually in groups of four or five. They will begin escorting those prisoners to another holding cell. Authorities will order the prisoners to strip naked as guards search for contraband.

The strip search is part of the journey. Guards will perform their visual inspections of naked prisoners several times during the transfer process. Although strip searches may humiliate a new prisoner, to guards it is routine and impersonal.

The prisoner strips naked. The guard stands about two feet in front of him and begins barking commands: “Lift your arms! Run your fingers through your hair! Open your mouth!  Stick out your tongue! Lower your lips! Lift your genitals! Turn around! Let me see the bottom of your feet! Bend over! Spread ‘em! Wider! Get dressed!”

After the strip search, the guard issues the prisoner a set of transfer clothing. The clothing is usually a one-size-fits-all set of bright orange overalls or elastic-waist paints. Sometimes they include socks, other times not. The prisoner may get a pair of cloth slippers or rubber sandals, depending on what's available.

Guards will transfer the prisoner to another cell after he dresses in prison garb. He’ll wait for every other prisoner being transferred to go through the same process. When the holding cell's noise reaches the same unbearable level, the prisoner will have a good indication that it will be time for the next procedure.

The next step is for guards to come around and begin locking the prisoners in chains. Prisoners will be called out of the cell, about three or four at a time. A row of jailers will place steel cuffs around the prisoners' ankles, steel cuffs around the prisoners' wrists, and the guards will fasten the cuffs to a chain placed around each prisoners' waist. Once the prisoners are chained, they'll be led to yet another holding cage while they wait for all the other prisoners to join them.

After all the prisoners have been fastened in their traveling chains, guards will escort them to school-type buses. With steel bars covering the blacked-out windows, it's rather obvious the buses are used for prisoner transport. The prisoners march toward the buses, stumbling all the way because their ankles are chained together, moving slowly so the ankle chains don't dig too deeply into the skin around their ankles. The back of the bus has a caged area in which an officer rides, rifle in hand, to keep watch over the prisoners. When all prisoners are on board and accounted for, the bus departs.

Some prisoners are fortunate in that they are designated to prisons requiring only a single bus ride. Many, however, are designated to prisons far away and will take a combination of bus rides and plane rides as they make their long and arduous way to their respective institutions.

The U.S. Marshals operate a prisoner-transport service to move prisoners from coast to coast. The planes move in circular routes, and prisoners are scheduled to board these flights at the discretion of the U.S. Marshals and BOP administrators. Consequently, moving from point A to point B may take 30 days or longer, with overnight stays in several facilities along the way—even if one is only transferring 100 miles. The circular route took one prisoner who was transferring from Fort Dix, New Jersey to Fairton, New Jersey (which is an hour away by car) on plane rides and bus rides through several states before delivering him.

What Makes Transfers Difficult:

Being transferred by the prisoner-transport service is difficult. The prisoner is in the dark and he never has an opportunity to settle in. Purchasing goods from the commissary may not be an option. The prisoner may be able to guess, but he’ll never know how long he will remain in a particular facility. He may not have soap, toothbrush, or sandals to wear for the shower.

The more person knows about the process, and understands how to cope, the better prepared he will be. Our courses offer many interviews that show strategies that others have used to make it through challenging times.

A holdover prisoner in transit is the prison equivalent of a homeless person, living as a transient without any personal belongings. He is around strangers the entire time he's in transport, doesn't eat well, and is loaded with stress because he's out of touch with his family. The prisoner doesn’t receive regular mail. He may have limited access to a quasi email system, which can somewhat ease the stress.

Besides a lack of access to personal property, and constant frustrations, the prisoner in transport is exhausted from all the middle-of-the-night wake-up calls, the waiting, the noise, the chains. In his book Earning Freedom, Michael wrote that time transit was the worst part of his prison experience. He described strategies to keep a positive mindset.

Secondary Transfers:

After arriving at the designated facility, and progressing through the sentence, circumstances change. Sometimes it’s possible to transfer to another facility. Usually, prison transfers occur because of changes in the prisoner's security-level scoring. Other times prisoners may request transfers to similarly-rated facilities for their own reasons. Generally, case managers will not process a prisoner's request for transfer unless the individual has served at least 18 consecutive months of confinement in the institution with disciplinary-free conduct.

Even if an inmate meets the necessary criteria for transfer, his request to serve his sentence in a particular facility may or may not be granted. When a prisoner requests a transfer to a specific facility, he subjects himself to the discretion of administrators. Ultimately, designators have the responsibility of controlling population levels in all of the federal prisons within his respective region.  Consequently, a request to transfer to the FCI in Miami, Florida may result in a transfer to the FCI in Beaumont, Texas.

Prisoners may wonder whether there is anything they can do to enhance their chances of moving to a particular facility. Based on our extensive experience with the BOP, the formal answer is no. The informal answer is possibly. Everything is possible with self-advocacy.

In Earning Freedom, for example, Michael wrote about several instances where he was able to coordinate a “re-designation.” On several occasions.

  • Once, he was confined at the high-security prison in Atlanta. Authorities re-designated him to a medium-security prison in Oregon. He succeeded in blocking that transfer.
  • Later, effective self-advocacy led to his coordinating a transfer to McKean, in Northwest Pennsylvania.
  • While confined in a low-security prison in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Authorities moved to transfer Michael to a prison in Florida. He succeeded in getting that transfer reversed.
  • Much later in his sentence, he was serving time at the federal prison camp in Florence, Colorado. Authorities moved to transfer him to a camp in Texas. Effective self-advocacy helped him reroute his transfer to Lompoc, California.
  • Finally, he succeeded in coordinating a transfer from the camp in Taft to a camp in Atwater, to ease his preparations for release.

To succeed at coordinating transfers in a large bureaucracy, a prisoner must lay considerable amounts of ground work. Most people will not serve multiple decades in prison, and they will not encounter multiple transfers. On the other hand, for those that want to learn lessons in self-advocacy that will help them through the journey, we highly recommend our digital courses at