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What do prisoners do all day?

A Day in the Life of a Prison Inmate

Prison life is highly structured and regimented, with prisoners required to follow strict schedules and rules. While prisons vary, most prisoners are required to wake up early in the morning, eat scheduled meals, participate in activities such as work assignments or education classes during the day, and lock down in their cells at night. There is little free time or choice in how prisoners spend their days. Prison staff control prisoner movement and activities. Understanding what constitutes a typical day for a prison inmate can provide insight into the monotony and restrictions of prison life.

Morning Routine

Prisoners are typically awakened around 5 or 6am, although some are required to get up earlier. Once awakened, prisoners have a short time to dress, make their beds, and get ready for morning count. During morning count, prisoners must stand by their cell doors as officers count and check each inmate.

After count clears, prisoners head to the mess hall for breakfast. Breakfast usually consists of cereal, eggs, and toast. Some prisons allow prisoners a short time to go back to their cells after breakfast before beginning the day’s scheduled activities. Others require prisoners to report directly to their work assignments or class.

Daily Work and Activities

Much of a prisoner’s day is occupied by work, treatment programs, educational classes, or vocational training. Prison work assignments encompass a variety of manual labor jobs needed to maintain the prison, such as:

  • Laundry
  • Kitchen duty
  • Cleaning
  • Maintenance and repairs
  • Groundskeeping/landscaping
  • Warehouse or factory work

In addition to work assignments, many prisons offer treatment programs for inmates with substance abuse issues or anger management classes. Educational opportunities range from GED preparation to college courses. Vocational programs teaching trades such as metal work, woodworking, plumbing, and welding are also common.

Prisoners typically work or attend programming for 5-6 hours per day. Lunch breaks range from 30 minutes to an hour. Some prisons allow prisoners to return to their housing units during these breaks while others mandate they remain at their job or in the classroom. After the workday ends, prisoners have a short time between the afternoon count and evening meal.

Meals and Mealtimes

Meals are provided at regular times in the prison dining hall. In addition to breakfast, lunch is usually served between 11am and 1pm, while dinner typically falls between 4pm and 6pm. Meals are prepared in bulk by prison kitchen staff and served cafeteria-style.

Menu options are repetitive and meals mostly consist of starches such as rice, potatoes, or pasta, along with vegetables and occasionally meat. Portion sizes are controlled. Most prisoners are allotted 15-20 minutes to eat their meals before being dismissed by guards to return to their housing units or work assignments.

Evenings in Prison

After dinner, prisoners have several hours of relative downtime to shower, use the phone, watch television, read, play cards, or socialize with other inmates in their housing unit. Televisions are usually mounted in common areas and prisoners are allowed to congregate around them during this time.

As evening count approaches, prisoners are expected to return to their cells and remain there with the doors locked. Once the officer finishes counting, some prisons allow the cell doors to reopen so prisoners can continue to interact until lights out at around 9 or 10pm. Other facilities keep cell doors locked continuously from evening count until morning.

Limited Free Time

While scheduled meals, work, counts, and lockdowns dictate most of a prisoner’s day, some facilities provide small amounts of free time. This may be as little as 1 hour per day or may include evenings after dinner and weekends. Prisoners can use this time to exercise in the yard, visit the library, socialize, or engage in leisure activities. However, their movements and choices remain heavily restricted during free time. Officers still monitor prisoner activities closely.

Weekends and Non-Work Days

Prison life operates differently on weekends and non-work holidays. The morning and evening routines stay consistent with counts conducted and meals provided at the usual times. However, there are no work assignments or classes on weekends or holidays.

Prisoners primarily spend these days confined in their cells or housing units, only allowed out during meal times, counts, and limited movement. Some facilities offer recreational opportunities on these days including outdoor time for sports, visitations, religious services, or movie showings. But overall, weekends and holidays involve extensive amounts of empty time for prisoners, confined in their cells or units with little to occupy their time.

Impact of Daily Prison Routines

The highly regimented routines and restrictions inherent in the daily prison schedule impacts prisoners both physically and mentally:

  • Loss of autonomy and choice in how time is spent
  • Few opportunities for privacy or solitary time
  • Extensive boredom from empty hours in cells
  • Lack of physical activity leading to poor health
  • Social isolation and loss of relationships
  • Psychological distress

Prisoners must adhere to strict timetables and rules in nearly every aspect of daily life, stripping them of independence, dignity, and control. The monotonous routines fail to stimulate prisoners mentally while confinement in cells leads to lethargy, disconnection, and deterioration for many. Understanding the grueling and mundane reality of prison life provides insight into its significant psychological impact.

Daily Life in Maximum Security Prisons

Prison facilities have different security classifications, with maximum security units housing inmates considered the highest risk. Daily life in these maximum security prisons contains even stricter control and supervision of prisoners including:

  • More frequent formal counts of prisoners throughout the day
  • Higher security around movement between locations
  • Segregation of inmates at meals and other activities
  • Isolation of certain prisoners in solitary confinement
  • Severe restrictions on visitation and phone privileges
  • Individual cages or concrete beds instead of cells
  • Virtually no free movement or unstructured time

Prisoners in maximum security live under intense surveillance and restraint. Their lives revolve around regimented routines and isolation from other inmates. Maximum security prisons provide little rehabilitation or training, focusing solely on punishment through severely limited freedom and austerity. The days drag by slowly with virtually no changes in activity to distinguish one from the next.

Gender Differences in Prison Life

Men and women in prison generally experience similar daily routines in terms of meals, work, recreation time, and lockdowns. However, some differences due to gender do exist:

  • Women prisoners often have greater childcare responsibilities – more visitation allowed for inmates with children
  • Different work opportunities – trades for men, office work for women
  • Extra medical services for female prisoners – OBGYN, prenatal, etc.
  • More rehabilitation programs tailored to women
  • Better access to feminine hygiene products (although still inadequate in many cases)
  • Higher incidents of sexual victimization of female prisoners by staff

While daily life inside reflects similar monotonous routines, women prisoners face additional hardships related to their healthcare needs and vulnerability to sexual harassment and assault. Prisons continue reforming to better accommodate and protect female inmates.

Comparison of Private vs. Public Prisons

Private, for-profit prisons differ somewhat from government-run public prisons. Here is a comparison of some of their daily distinctions:

Private Prisons

  • Lower staff to inmate ratios – less correctional officers
  • Fewer programs and education/vocational opportunities
  • Increased disciplinary segregation of inmates
  • Emphasis on cost-cutting measures
  • Reduced medical expenses and poorer health outcomes
  • Lower correctional officer training requirements

Public Prisons

  • More correctional officers per inmate
  • More likely to offer rehabilitation and training programs
  • Better access to healthcare
  • Higher public expenditure per prisoner
  • More oversight on prisoner treatment
  • Higher facilities maintenance

The drive for profit margins in private prisons often results in reduced services and poorer conditions for inmates compared to government-funded public facilities. However, problems around overcrowding, aging infrastructure, lack of programming, and understaffing plague both public and private systems.

Typical Schedule Summary

To summarize, while daily routines in prison may vary slightly between different facilities, a typical schedule would include:

  • 5-6 AM – Wake up and prepare for morning count
  • 6-7 AM – Breakfast
  • 7 AM-12 PM – Structured activities like work, classes, programs
  • 12-1 PM – Lunch
  • 1-5 PM – Afternoon block of work/classes
  • 5-6 PM – Dinner
  • 6-9 PM – Limited recreation time and showers
  • 9-10 PM – Evening count and lockdown in cells

This daily regimen leaves little freedom or personal time for prisoners. Their lives revolve around a schedule imposed on them and designed to control movements and restrict autonomy. Learning about the tedious routines and confinement provides a window into the challenging nature of existing behind bars.


In summary, life inside prison involves long stretches of boredom and isolation mixed with strict regimens controlling prisoner movements. Typical days consist of scheduled meals, work assignments, counts, classes, lockdowns, and limited chances for recreation. Prison life is mundane and lacking in choices or privacy. The daily drudgery and deprivation of liberties takes a heavy toll on inmates, leading to poor physical and psychological health. Understanding what prisoners endure day after day provides perspective on America’s prison system and its need for reform. A system reliant on punishment and monotony must evolve into one focused more on rehabilitation, training, and human dignity.