Attorney Joseph Soler
I’m going to prison in Florida, what should I expect and how should I prepare?
As a criminal defense attorney, I do everything possible to keep my clients from having to serve time, whether it is in the county jail or with the Florida Department of Corrections prison system, and I’m usually quite successful! However, sometimes cases cannot be beaten, sometimes people have bad criminal histories, and sometimes it is inevitable that a client will have to do some hard time.
I am often asked how a person who has never been to prison before should prepare if they are about to go to prison in Florida. There is a lot of information online about how to prepare for prison in general, but I want to make this post specific as to how to prepare for and what to expect in the Florida Department of Corrections prison system, as I am a criminal defense lawyer in Florida and therefore my clients, if they have to serve time, will serve it in the Florida prison system.
I talked to a former client of mine who is currently incarcerated and has done prison time in Florida a few times. I asked him some questions in order to give a person about to go to prison in Florida an idea of what to expect when you first get to prison, how to survive a Florida prison, and how to make the time go by as quickly as possible once you are there.
Please keep in mind that this is only one man’s experience in the Florida prison system. Another person’s experience may be completely different. I have not corroborated anything he has said and cannot verify its credibility. Also, there is mention of illegal activity taking place, I do not condone illegal activity and do not advise anyone reading this blog post to get involved in any illegal activity while incarcerated.
How old are you?
32 years old.
Are you currently incarcerated?
How many times have you been to prison?
Where are you currently incarcerated? What is that prison like?
I’m in [a prison in North Florida] there are about 1,000 inmates total here. There are two-man cells and open bay dorms. The dorms are basically big garages with vertical windows about 1 foot wide by 3 feet tall. There are about 60 bunks in each dorm.
What are the classification levels there?
It’s a minimum and medium security camp.
How long were you sentenced, how much time were you sentenced to?
Was it for a sexual crime?
How are sex offenders treated in prison in Florida?
It depends, if they can fight and defend themselves, they may be fine. If they can’t defend themselves, they will get “put down on.” Basically, they have to pay rent to live here. The rent’s about $50 and up per month. I know of about 4 guys with sex charges that pay rent. If they don’t pay rent, they’ll get beat up or they’ll make them work, they will also make them hold cell phones, and hold drugs and contraband. If you don’t have money, then this is what you will have to do.
What other people are paying rent besides sex offenders?
People who are completely unable to defend themselves. Most people don’t pay rent.
What about older prisoners, do they have to pay rent?
No, that’s off limits here. You get no respect by putting down on an old person, people look down on that here.
How are gays in prison treated in Florida?
It depends, most of them, as long as they stay in their own lane and they’re not disrespectful, then they are fine. Some people like them. Some people take advantage of them. I’ve heard of them being made to smuggle drugs, for instance. The gays I know that were told to smuggle drugs got paid though. Also, in an open bay a lot of people will not come out of the closet, it’s more common in the two-man cells.
How long does it take for them to pick you up from county jail and bring you to prison?
About 2 to 3 weeks usually.
What is the trip like?
It depends on the jail. They will usually take you in a bus. Some smaller county jails have a short bus. Some of the large counties might have 2 or 3 buses.
Where do they take you? How long are you there? What do you do while you are there?
From county you go to reception. They have the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando and the South Florida Reception Center in Miami. You’re in reception for about a month, it’s called “R and O” “Reception and Orientation.” The first 2 weeks are orientation. The first day you’re gonna go to medical, get a physical done, get your blood drawn, they're gonna take your picture and make you an ID, and take your fingerprints.
Do they search you when you get to reception?
How do they search you when you first get to prison?
It’s horrible. They’re yelling and screaming. The say look at the ground. There’s usually someone in every group that gets their ass kicked. There are usually about 100 people in a group. They tell you to put your hands on your head. You have 10 seconds to get undressed, completely naked. They tell you to rub your fingers through your hair and in and out of your mouth. They tell you to turn and face the fence, bend over, spread your ass, and cough. They say, “I wanna hear everyone cough.” They will keep making everyone cough all at once, if someone coughs out of time, they’ll make everyone cough again.
A person walks around throwing people boxers to get changed into. They have a brown paper bag that has all your property in it from county in front of you. They tell you that you have 10 seconds to go through your things from county as they are telling you what you can and cannot have in prison.
How do they classify people?
Initially, I believe, based on how much time you got and if you have a violent charge or not.
What is your first night in prison like?
Exhausting, you’re tired. Your minds racing, thinking about family and how much time you got.
How do people make money in prison?
All kinds of ways: some people pay people to bring in what they want to sell in here; some people tattoo; some sew clothes, shoes, hats, sweat pants; people draw and sell their drawings; there are “house men” who will straighten your cell, make your bed, and clean your cell; there are “maintenance men” who can fix your things, solder cables and fix electronics, they also have tools you might need, and they can make you things; some people “run a store” (you buy things and re-sell them at 50 cents on the dollar); some people shine boots; others cut hair; really anything you can do on the outside you can do in here to make money.
How dangerous is it in prison? What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen in prison?
Where I’m at it's typically not too dangerous unless someone steals or something then they’re gonna get a lock across their head. Craziest thing I’ve seen: I’ve seen guards get stabbed, I’ve seen people get cut across their face a few feet away from me, got blood all over me. I’ve seen a crazy amount of drugs, k2, about a half a pound at a time.
What is a typical day in a Florida prison like?
They wake you up between 7:00 and 7:30 am. CO’s come in at 7:30 for a count, it clears at 8:00. At 8:00 you make your bed. You can go outside at 8:00 if your bed is made. Recreation’s at about 8:00 or 9:00. Some people go to school during the days. You have people that go to work, barbers, orderlies, kitchen workers, most people are done working in about 6 hours. You eat lunch at 11:00. Depending where you are, trays come to you in a cart or you walk to chow hall. In the chow hall you have, it seems, about five minutes to eat your food. Another count is at 11:00 and they clear it by 12:00 noon. Then you go back to your school or job or whatever. Dinner is at 4:00 and there is another count at 5:00 to 6:00. Then you're free to do what you want. You have to be in bed by 11:00.
Have you gotten into trouble since you’ve been there? For what? What happened?
I haven’t been in trouble lately. If you get in trouble you go to confinement.
What is confinement like?
It is in a separate cell block, here there are two man cells. You have to eat, shit, do everything next to another dude. You shower on the third day. You can only have a bible or legal work with you in there.
What advice can you give someone who has to do time in confinement in Florida?
Bring a lot of writing paper, stamps, and envelopes.
What advice can you give someone who has to do prison time on how to prepare before they get there?
Prepare a power of attorney in advance giving someone you totally trust the ability to handle finances and things on the outside for you.
Get a medical and dental checkup, because the medical and dental services are not very good in here.
Talk to someone who has been through it many times who can give you advice.
In order for you to be able to talk to someone on the outside, they need to have a “contract phone bill.” That’s a cell phone contract with AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, it has to be a phone that has a contract, not a pre-paid phone. A lot of family don’t have good credit so here’s a little trick, let’s say you got Sprint or Verizon prepaid, you can use the Sprint and Verizon prepaid phones, because for whatever reason, they get a paper bill that DOC, at least in my experience, will approve.
Some things that I do before I get to reception is to have an address book already with all of my family and friends addresses and phone numbers written down and everything I might need.
I get about 20 pre-stamped envelopes ready to go. That way when I get to my housing dorm I can throw them all in the mail right away and let everyone know where I am.
I also bring a deodorant stick. They do not sell them in prison. You can only bring deodorant and soap from county, in my experience. DOC here sells roll-on deodorant only which I don’t like its watery and crap.
Also, with JPay messaging you can write your family, but family has to set up the app on their phone. So have your family set up the JPay app. You can send emails letters and it’s instant.
Have your foundation set before you go. Trust your father, not your wife. Give your money and your power of attorney to your father.
Are there gangs in the prison where you are?
Absolutely, its mainly about protection and making money.
Have you joined a gang while in prison?
What is the racial make-up? How many Whites? Blacks? Hispanics?
There are more Blacks than Whites and Hispanics. It seems there are a lot more white people in prison now than there used to be probably because of all the meth There’s 58 people total in my dorm right now and about 20 white boys in there.
Do the different races keep separated?
No, all the races hang out and talk.
Are there problems between different racial groups?
There are some issues that may cause people to click up but it’s generally not segregated at all. You can talk to or hang out with whoever you want.
If you do not like a cell mate, can you change cells? How? What are some ways you can change cells?
If you have a problem, do not go and tell guards you have a problem and exactly what is going on. You can say, “I need to be moved before there is an issue.” But you gotta know how to word it without snitching. Be careful though, the cops might put you in confinement and say you checked in. You do not want to say a whole lot. That’s when violence could come into play.
Can you change bunks in a dorm? How?
It’s kind of hard, but possible. You can ask a CO, they might move you.
Is it possible to get a cell phone in prison in Florida? How much is a phone? How many people have cell phones?
There are a lot of cell phones in here. They are about $250-$1000 depending on what prison you are in and what phone you are buying.
If you do not have a cell phone, how do you make calls? How often can you use the phone?
Phones turn on at 5:00 in the evening. They are on until 11:00 on weekdays and on weekends, until midnight. You can use the phones as many times as you want but there is usually a line of people trying to use them.
What about drugs? How prevalent are drugs in prison in Florida? What drugs are in prison? How much are they?
Everything you could possibly imagine is in here. The drugs are usually about 2-5 times more expensive than they would go for on the streets.
Are there people that tattoo in your prison? How many people tattoo? How do they charge to tattoo?
Pretty much everyone in here gets tattoos and they are cheap. There are usually a few artists per dorm. Some are really good. You can pay or trade.
What happens if you are caught with a cell phone or drugs?
If you get caught with a cell phone, they will take all your gain time and they may up your custody and give you 60 days in the box. If you get caught with drugs it depends on the amount, they may hit you with new in-house charges, they may take your gain time, you may go to the box. If they were to charge everyone for possession on the county level, then they would fill the county jail, so most things are handled in-house.
How often do you see fights?
They happen, it depends on where you are. I’ve been in one fight since I’ve been here in about 4 months. In other prisons, I’d see about 2 or 3 a month.
Do you have access to a weapon?
Do you think you need a weapon?
Yes, to a degree. It depends on what you have got going on.
What kind of weapons have you seen in prison?
Knives, plexiglass ice picks, lawn mower blades filed down, A/C vents filed down.
What work out or gym equipment do you have access to?
Dip bar, machine cable weights, pull-up bar, a track to run on.
Is your prison air conditioned?
No. There are prisons with A/C in Florida, though.
Can you smoke in prison in Florida? Can you buy cigarettes? How much are they?
You are not allowed to smoke in here. People do sell cigarettes in here, though. They are currently going for $50 cash for 6 cigarettes! They’re expensive in my opinion because they’re so bulky and hard to bring in.
Do you have access to entertainment, books, movies, etc.?
They have a TV room, they have chess, poker, card games, we have officers who will sometimes bring in DVD’s for us to watch.
Do you have access to legal materials to help with appeals?
Yes, they have a law library.
Are there jail house attorneys who help inmates? Do they charge? How much? Will they trade services?
They got sharks that will try to get money out of you in the prison library. They will promise to get you in front of a judge and ask for hundreds of dollars. They also got jail house attorneys. There are actually some really good jail house attorneys in here. Some are former real attorneys too.
What do you wear in prison in Florida?
You wear “blues," a blue uniform. They also issue crocs or boots if you need them for work. No clothes are allowed from the outside. Although, your family can order you clothes like shirts or sweatpants from FL Private Packages.
How often can you shower? What are the showers like? Are the shower areas dangerous, do you have to watch your back while showering?
The shower sucks. Some people shower together. You usually keep a distance from other people. I try to wait until no one is in there. The shower area is not dangerous here.
How do you change prisons in Florida?
You have to do a year with no DRs (Disciplinary Reports) and put in for a good adjustment transfer.
How are the guards? Have you witnessed any abuse from the guards?
I saw an officer who fought an inmate. The officer came back with other officers and beat the guy till he wasn’t moving.
What advice can you give someone as to how to make the time go by as quick as possible?
Stay busy, get a job, go to school if possible, take classes, do something positive. Do not get involved in anything illegal that can result in you losing your gain time.