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Notes from the inside: What to expect upon entering Iowa’s prison system


Notes from the Inside
Illustration by Jacob Yeates

Notes from the Inside features original writing by inmates serving time in Iowa Prisons. This article was originally published in the IMCC’s inmate-edited newsletter, The Kite. Little Village editors have not altered the content in this article in any way.


By Rick K.

When you first arrive at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (IMCC) it can be overwhelming for some people and just downright scary for other people. You’ll be interviewed and processed into the Iowa prison system, first by security staff and then by medical staff. Prison is a whole different world from the way we used to live on the outside. You have rules and regulations you have to follow. You also have sanctions and lockup for those who can’t follow the rules.

Iowa prisons are not what you see on TV or in the movies. (The scary gang groups or people forcing you to do things that is not morally right.) Here, prison is what you make it. If you follow the rules, mind your own business and keep your business to yourself, your stay here will be better for you. It’s nobody’s business why you’re here, and it’s none of your business why somebody else is here. Do your own time, that’s what they say. Things do have a way of getting out here in prison so do not hide the facts, but don’t discuss them either. Especially if you’re still fighting the court system.

Anyway, when you first get here at IMCC and go through the intake processing, you will be asked a lot of medical questions. These are for your benefit, so answer all questions honestly.

After that you’ll be taken to F-Unit which is a holding cell block for all new incoming inmates. These are two prison cells. Your prison experience begins with sharing a room, toilet and shower room with other inmates. Be respectful of others, and they will be respectful of you.

After you have been given a blanket, sheets and a towel you will be told to take a shower (two-in-one shampoo/soap is provided). After you have showered, you will have a chance to pick out books or magazines to take to your cell with you. I suggest you pick out something that interests you because that will be the only entertainment you’ll have for a few days.

F-Unit is a total lock down unit (no movement). You’ll also be asked to fill out some paperwork and an information packet. This will go to your case manager who will be assigned to your case. All the information is important, such as a family information, emergency contact information and criminal history. This is all used by the Iowa Department of Corrections with the assessment of your case management, treatment, and eventually will determine which facility you will be placed. You will not be able to order commissary or make phone calls until you are relocated to a reception unit. You can fill out and turn in a phone number bubble sheet while you’re on F-Unit. All phone numbers have to be approved before you can call anyone. You will be able to write and be provided two postage free envelopes per week.

In a day or two, sometimes longer, you will be assigned a case manager. This person will already have the informational packet you filled out earlier and the court sentencing information. They will not have your time comp or other court information. Your case manager will come to F-Unit to talk with you. The information they learn will help the Department of Corrections with the assessment of your case management, treatment and will determine which facility is best suited for you; by family destination, treatment and holding level score. It is very important that the information you give in this interview is honest and correct. This information will also decide which reception unit you will be assigned to while everything else is being processed.

You will receive a complete mental evaluation, physical health screening and even a dental checkup at no cost to you. If you have had any issues with any of these subjects, now would be a good time to speak up. Your stay on F-Unit could be a few days to a week. Hygiene is very important since you share your surroundings with other people.

Prison is not meant to be a vacation, it is a punishment and a rehabilitation facility for criminals. It’s not easy, and if you’re here, you have no choice. So make the best of a bad situation. Write letters to loved ones or friends, read books you enjoy, play games with other inmates. Soon you will be moving through the system faster than you think.

Next, you’ll go to a reception unit until your case has been assessed. From there you will go to a facility that best suits you for the general population process. This is where you will serve the biggest part of the sentence imposed by the court. Then most inmates are ordered to treatment a year before their discharge date. They are then transferred to another prison facility that offers the best treatment plan depending on case information and charges. After completion of a successful treatment program or expiration of your sentence, you will be released back into the world. Take what you have learned and make better choices. Move on with your life.


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