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What do people do in jail all day?

Jail is not usually a pleasant experience for those who find themselves incarcerated. The loss of freedom and lack of stimulation can make jail an extremely boring place to be. So what exactly do inmates do with their time while serving sentences in jail? Here is an overview of a typical daily routine in jail.

Morning Routine

Mornings in jail usually start very early, with wake-up calls happening around 5-6am. Inmates are expected to get up, make their beds, and get dressed at this time. Breakfast is then served, often around 6-7am. Breakfast in jail tends to be simple, with cereal, milk, and bread being common options. Some jails may provide hot breakfasts on certain days of the week.

After breakfast, inmates may have time to shower if they choose. Access to showers is usually regulated, with inmates signing up for time slots. Showering supplies like soap and shampoo are limited. Inmates are expected to clean their cells during the morning as well.

Following breakfast and showering, inmates undergo a morning head count around 7-8am. Correctional officers will unlock cell doors and visually check each inmate. Head counts happen several times throughout the day to ensure all inmates are accounted for.

Daily Work Assignments

One of the main activities that occupies inmates’ time is work assignments within the jail. Nearly all jails have programs where inmates can sign up for jobs. Typical work assignments include:

  • Laundry – Washing jail-issued clothing and linens
  • Kitchen – Preparing meals and washing dishes
  • Cleaning – Sweeping, mopping, disinfecting living areas
  • Maintenance – Repairs and upkeep of jail facilities
  • Landscaping – Groundskeeping and gardening outside the jail

Inmates generally work several hours each day on their assigned duties. Work assignments provide productivity and structure to the day. In some cases, inmates may even earn money for their work while incarcerated.

Meals and Mealtimes

Food is served three times a day in jail. Here are typical meal times:

  • Breakfast – 6-7am
  • Lunch – 11am-12pm
  • Dinner – 4-5pm

Inmates eat meals together in a mess hall or common area under supervision. Meals usually include simple fare like sandwiches, casseroles, and fruit. Special meals may be provided for dietary restrictions. Most jails allot 15-30 minutes for each meal before inmates are returned to their cells.

Recreation Time

Most jails provide inmates with 1-2 hours of recreation time per day. Recreational activities help relieve stress and prevent behavioral issues that can arise from constant confinement. Recreation time typically takes place in an indoor gym or outdoor yard designated for inmate use.

Common recreation activities include:

  • Basketball
  • Volleyball
  • Card games
  • Board games
  • Exercise (calisthenics, running)
  • Socializing

Access to exercise equipment is limited. Inmates may read books or write letters during rec time as well. Correctional officers supervise inmates during recreation periods to maintain order and safety.

Education and Vocational Programs

Some jails offer educational classes and vocational training programs inmates can participate in. These programs give inmates productive ways to use their time and learn new skills. Common education and vocation programs include:

  • GED preparation and testing
  • High school diploma courses
  • English as a Second Language (ESL)
  • Computer literacy classes
  • Parenting and child development classes
  • Job training programs (construction, food services, clerical work)
  • Life skills classes (money management, health education)

Inmates typically attend classes for several hours in the morning or afternoon. Teachers and volunteers usually lead the classes. Some programs allow inmates to earn certifications or credits towards high school diplomas.

Library Time

Most jails have small libraries where inmates can check out books, magazines, and other reading materials. Inmates may have designated library days when they can browse available selections and check out items to take back to their cells. Having reading materials helps inmates productively occupy their time.

Religious Services

Many jails allow inmates to attend religious services or meet with spiritual leaders. Services for faiths like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and others may be held weekly. Attending religious activities provides inmates with spiritual support and fulfills religious obligations.


Family and friends can come visit inmates at designated visitation times. Visits typically take place in a common room with tables and are closely supervised. Inmates and visitors are prohibited from physical contact. Visitation rules vary, but sessions usually last 30-60 minutes. Having visits helps inmates maintain ties to loved ones.

Down Time

Between scheduled activities, inmates spend downtime locked in their cells. There are many solitary hours to fill each day inside a small cell. Common down time activities include:

  • Reading books
  • Writing letters
  • Sleeping/napping
  • Listening to music (if radios are allowed)
  • Watching TV (if televisions are provided)
  • Exercising (push-ups, sit-ups)

Inmates may socialize with others in adjacent cells by talking through vents or yelling back and forth. Solitary pursuits like writing, reading, exercising, and sleeping help inmates endure the isolation and boredom of confinement.

Evening Routine

The schedule winds down in the evening with dinner served around 4-5pm. Following dinner, inmates have some leisure time and recreation opportunities before being locked down for the night. Lights out usually happens around 9-10pm.

Weekends and Holidays

Weekends and holidays typically follow a similar schedule to weekdays with meals, recreation time, and downtime. Some educational programs may have days off. Holidays often include special meals. Religious services are usually available on Sundays and holidays.

Privileges Based on Good Behavior

Inmates who follow jail rules and exhibit good behavior may earn extra privileges. These incentives provide motivation for cooperation. Common privileges include:

  • Extra television/movie time
  • Longer visits
  • Extra commissary food items
  • Game nights (cards, bingo)
  • Craft activities
  • Movie nights

Privileges give inmates something positive to work towards. Taking privileges away is also used as discipline for rule violations.

Daily Jail Schedule Overview

Here is an overview of a typical daily schedule in a jail:

Time Activity
5:00 – 6:00 am Wake up and breakfast
6:00 – 7:00 am Showering and cell cleaning
7:00 – 8:00 am Morning head count
8:00 am – 12:00 pm Work assignments, educational programs
12:00 – 1:00 pm Lunch
1:00 – 3:00 pm Recreation time, library time, classes
3:00 – 4:00 pm Afternoon head count
4:00 – 5:00 pm Dinner
5:00 – 9:00 pm Free time, religious services, NA/AA meetings
9:00 – 10:00 pm Evening head count and lockdown


The daily life of a jail inmate involves strict scheduling and limited activity options. Inmates spend their time on essential tasks like meals, hygiene, and head counts mixed with work, education, recreation, and downtime. Privileges can be earned for good behavior. While jail life can be repetitive and mundane, routines provide structure and help keep inmates productively occupied.

Despite the challenges, inmates can take positive steps like working, learning new skills, exercising, attending religious services, and visiting with loved ones. Serving jail time is rarely easy, but making the most out of each day and utilizing available programs allows inmates to work towards rehabilitation and personal growth.