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For many, the prospect of going to jail for the first time evokes a mix of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. That's exactly how I felt before I was sentenced too. Hopefully this article can help you be more prepared so you won't feel so anxious when it's your turn to go in.

The biggest thing that people are fearful of is their safety, but if you read my articles on how to survive prison in Australia, and "Are prisons dangerous in Australia?", you will be better equipped. Aside from staying safe, having an understanding of how the system works and what to expect on your first day and first few weeks will help reduce your anxiety. This article will shed light on what you should expect when facing jail for the first time in Australia, based on my own experience in NSW prisons. Hopefully with my guidance and insights, you can navigate this challenging period of your life more easily.

The First Day

If you are reading this article about going to jail for the first time, I assume that you are on bail. You have been arrested and charged with a crime or number of crimes, and then released on bail. Now your sentencing date is approaching and your lawyers are telling you that you will likely be sentenced to jail. This was my situation as well, but note that my experience is in NSW so whether this procedure is exactly the same in other states, I cannot confirm.

On your sentencing day, you will appear in court and your sentence will begin from the moment the judge hands down his decision stating that you will be sentenced to serve x number of months or years in prison. The correctional officers may ask if you want to hand over anything to your family or friends who are in court to support you. The officers will take the items from you and pass them to your family, you will not be able to touch your family or give them a hug, so make sure you do this before you enter the courtroom. After you hand over any valuables, the correctional officers will handcuff you and take you out from the courtroom through the backdoor. You will then be held in the holding cell of the court for a few hours.

Before the end of the day, you will be moved to a holding cell at a police station. In my case it was Surry Hills police station. The cells are underground, and the living conditions are bad, but don't worry, they will improve once you get to jail. These holding cells are bare, there is no sense of time as there is no clock and you don't have your belongings such as phone or watch on you. There are no windows so you can't tell by the sun either. The only thing you can gauge is when they turn the lights off at night. I wasn't given any prison clothes (greens) during my stay there, so I had to wear my suit pants and button-up shirt that I had worn to court. The screws won't tell you when you are leaving those holding cells - they will keep saying they don't know when you ask them. I was there for 2 nights which is considered short, there are people who are held there for a week, or even longer over the Christmas period.

Being Transported to Jail

When you finally leave the holding cells you will be moved by truck (they call it 'going on escort') to a reception jail. This is where all new inmates go to get processed into the system and get their classification (classo). In Sydney this is MRRC in Silverwater. You will have to strip down completely naked, and give all your possessions including clothes to the screws, who will keep it in your property until you are released. It is daunting being strip searched as you feel extremely vulnerable. You will be asked to lift up your dick and balls to show that you aren't smuggling anything there. You will be issued prison greens, shoes, toothbrush and toothpaste, a MIN card (your identification card in prison), and basic bedding sheets. You will be given some basic information about the rules, daily routines and musters (roll call), but in reality they tell you very little, and you learn about the jail system and how it works from the other inmates. You may be allowed one phone call from the office when you first arrive at the prison. You should take this opportunity to let your family know you are OK, as you may not be able to contact them for a while after this.

Then you will be taken to your cell. If it is after lock in, you will be locked there until the morning. If it is earlier in the day, you will be able to roam around the pod or wing that you are located in, and meet the inmates. You will not be able to make any phone calls when you first arrive at the pod as you won't have any phone numbers listed on your account yet. To make a phone call, you need to add your family/friends' numbers onto your account. The screws will do background checks on them, and then add them to your account. This can take days or weeks to do as they are slow and they don't care about your needs.

First Few Weeks in Jail

Over the next few days and weeks you will undertake health screenings, mental health screenings, and be assessed and given a classo based on the nature of your offence, length of sentence, risk of reoffending, and other criteria. This classo will determine whether you are held in a minimum or maximum security prison. You can learn more about the different jail classifications here.

After you are classo'd, you will be taken on escort again to the jail where you are to serve the next part of your sentence. For shorter sentences this could be the prison where you spend the remainder of the sentence. For longer sentences, inmates will usually try to progress through the classo to get to a minimum security prison, or they may want to move to a jail that is closer to family so they can have regular visits.

Daily Life

Life inside prison is very different from the outside world. Daily routines are structured, with set times for waking up, musters, meals, recreational activities, and lock-ins. There is limited access to libraries, gyms, rec yards, depending on the facility. Interaction with other inmates can be a source of support but navigating the social dynamics in jail requires caution and respect for others' boundaries. Read my articles on daily life in jail and how to survive in jail to make sure you don't step on anyone's toes.

Maintaining Connections

Maintaining contact with family and friends is crucial for mental health. Most Australian prisons allow visits on the weekends, phone calls (every day as long as you have money in your account), and letter correspondence. These connections can provide emotional support and serve as a reminder of life after your sentence. This may also be a time where you realise who your true friends are. People you thought were your closest friends will disappear and never contact you again. This is sad, but it's the reality. On the other hand, you may find that friends that you weren't that close to will write you letters and provide emotional support which is really great.

Preparing for Release

While this may seem like forever away since your sentence hasn't even started yet, it's always good to ensure you are planning for your release from the very first day. This means not getting into trouble and adding additional time on your sentence. You may think, "what's the worst that can happen, I'm already in jail", but there is a lot that can happen. You could be sentenced for additional crimes, particularly if you seriously injure another inmate. Even if you don't have any additional charges laid, you could be denied parole based on your behaviour or lack of rehabilitation. For example, if you are sentenced to 6 years on the top with 3 years on the bottom, this means your total sentence is 6 years, but you are released on parole after 3 years. However, if you are denied parole at the earliest possible release date, you will be spending longer than 3 years in jail, which is not what you want.

You may also be required to do certain courses in order to be eligible for parole, so ensure that you get onto these tasks early and have them all ticked off. Also, if the opportunity arises, learn new courses or job skills so that when you are released you have a good chance of finding a job

Coping Mechanisms

Adapting to prison life requires resilience and coping mechanisms. Practicing mindfulness, staying physically active, and finding purpose through work or study can help manage the stress of incarceration. My top suggestion is to have a daily routine that includes gym and reading so that you can keep your body and mind healthy during prison. Don't waste your time inside, you might as well make the most of it by improving yourself. You can also seek the help of a counsellor, psychologist or chaplain if you need someone to help you mentally deal with prison.

Conclusion

Going to jail for the first time in Australia is undoubtedly a challenging experience that will impact you as well as your loved ones. However, entering prison with a good idea of how the system works and knowing what to expect, will help to ease the anxiety. Embracing available resources, maintaining healthy connections, and focusing on personal growth can turn your sentence into a productive period of positive change. If you have more questions or need some guidance before you go to jail, you can reach out to me using the contact form below. I offer paid telephone consultations that many other readers have found helpful in preparing them for jail.

Ask an ex-inmate any questions about jail

If you have any quick questions that you are curious about, or if you are facing imprisonment and need some more info, please leave me a message below with your details. 

I am also available for telephone consultations if you need to chat for longer.

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About the Author

I served a full-time custodial sentence in several prisons in NSW, and I hope that my experience can help others who are about to be sentenced. All the information provided on this site is based on my real personal experience, or experiences and anecdotes from inmates I have met during my incarceration.

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