Federal Prison – Preparing For And Surviving The Hole

The hole-officially referred to as the Special Housing Unit (SHU) is a high security building on a federal prison compound consisting of one and two man cells. It is used to house new inmates who have not yet been processed or who have not yet been admitted to a unit. It is also used for disciplinary purposes and to protect inmates.

The cells in the hole are approximately 6 feet wide and 10-12 feet deep. They are concrete and consist of

a metal bunk bed, mattress, metal desk, mirror, metal combination sink toilet contraption and a shower with the water pressure of a broken down drinking fountain. There is no TV and if you are just arriving, you will have no radio either.

For a first time inmate, the mental strain of being locked in a cell can be significant. This can be lessened by taking care of yourself physically and by keeping your mind active.

Do your best to remain calm. Practice 10-15 minutes of deep breathing whenever you start to feel anxious and try to exercise. Push ups, squats, sit ups and lunges all pass the time and help to work off the stress. If you have been granted the luxury of self surrendering, make absolutely sure that you have subscribed to magazines and newspapers and have ordered a few soft cover books (hard cover are not permitted in the hole). Your mail will be delivered to you daily. A newspaper can last for hours when you have absolutely nothing else to do. A good book can take you out of your cell and help to take your mind elsewhere.

Food in the hole is bad. You will be fed three times a day by a guard or inmate orderly who will put a tray through the slot in the door. The food is all at least a day old and has been reheated. Force yourself to eat and save anything you don’t eat. You will be served three meals and three meals only.

Residents of the hole are permitted an hour of recreation (rec), five times a week. At some point in the day a guard will come by and ask if you want rec. For your own sanity, say yes. Note, if you are still awaiting your TB results, you will not be allowed to leave the cell at all until the CO’s in the hole have been notified that you are clear. This should take 2-3 days.

When you are led to rec, you will again be handcuffed and you may be patted down too. Be polite. The CO’s in the hole can very easily make your situation far worse than it already is. After three days I was finally permitted to have rec. I remember expecting to be led to a green field where I could maybe do a little jogging. Instead, I found myself being led into what appeared to be a very large dog kennel. The rec yard consisted of half a dozen completely enclosed cages. Each cage was approximately 20′ x 30′ and maybe 35′ in height. Once inside the cage, the CO will remove your handcuffs and you will be free to roam. Most inmates walk in circles or pace up and down the length of the fence. It is wise to take advantage of this opportunity to stretch your legs.

If you self surrendered, this will be the first time that you are in direct contact with other inmates. Do not be too anxious to make friends and do not ask too many questions. A simple “what’s up?” will suffice. If they are interested in speaking with you further, they will speak. Even then, it is best to say little in response. You have not even been on the compound yet and you do not know who these

people are and why they are in the hole. Be polite, be calm and be neutral in your speak and mannerisms.

After having been told that I would be in the hole for two or three days, it was nine days before I was finally let out. Although I was cleared of TB after just two days, the unit officer in my dorm did not get around to signing the paperwork to release me for another week. This was difficult for me to understand at the time, but over time you will come to terms with the fact that your comfort and convenience means very little to the BOP staff. When first arriving, you may avoid the hole altogether, but you need to be prepared to be sent there for many weeks, even if you are told it will just be a few days. Indeed, by the time I was released to my unit, there were a number of inmates who had been in the hole for over six weeks, awaiting placement at camp.