From the moment you don the uniform of the U.S. military, the biggest threat looming over your nascent career is being forced to “turn big rocks into little rocks” at Leavenworth. There are actually a number of military prisons, which house inmates for crimes of varying degrees of severity, including capital murder. As a matter of fact, the U.S. military hasn’t executed one of its own since 1961, when the Army hanged Pvt. John Bennett for sexual assault and murder. Most criminal troops, like most criminal civilians, do not commit crimes on that level and are expected to spend a shorter time in the slammer.
Civilian prisons have a less-than-stellar reputation that precedes them. Film and television portray American civilian prisons as a violent jungle of gangs, drugs, rape, and boredom where death stalks inmates at every turn. To make matters worse, the food is so terrible, ramen noodles replaced cigarettes as the unofficial currency. But military life has always been different from civilian life and the two systems of justice are just as different.
Here are the 8 biggest differences between military and civilian prison
1. Prison Guards
Military prison guards are usually from a local military police/security forces unit. These are uniformed personnel who took on the same obligation as the inmates under their control. Their military specialty is their job and they want their lives and the lives of the prisoners to go as smoothly as possible – and in military prisons, life usually happens that way.
Federal prison guards come in two types, according to a former inmate who saw both systems while doing time for drug trafficking. The first is the kind that come in and do their jobs, preferring to hang out in offices and guard shacks, drinking coffee and taking home a check. The other kind is aggressive, trying to provoke the prisoners so he can assert authority (and sometimes a beating of sorts) on prisoners. This is not to imply that correctional officers are entirely terrible – every job has its best and worst. Prisoners will “put on a show” while the worst guards are around.
2. Prison Facilities
Just like in basic training, every one in a military prison is responsible for cleaning their areas of the facility, as well as its maintenance and upkeep. If a prisoner’s area gets even slightly unkempt or unsanitary, that prisoner will hear about it immediately and the strict code of military discipline will come down in a hurry. More than that, however, military prisons are incredibly clean and well-kept anyway, so keeping it looking that way is almost effortless. There might be something to the broken windows theory because it’s very different in a federal penitentiary.
Federal prisons are run down, broken, unsanitary messes. Prisoners here are also responsible for cleaning the facilities but many leave much to be desired in this respect. Civilian prisoners tend not to care as much about cleanliness, doing the bare minimum amount of work or giving up after seeing how far gone certain areas are.
The military offers a plethora of different ways a prisoner can rehabilitate him or herself before leaving the military prison system. Since most of the prisoners who leave the military with a sentence will be left with a dishonorable discharge, the ability to work in fields that are critically undermanned or a skilled trade will be important in their new lives. As such, the military prison system offers training in carpentry, certified auto repair, culinary arts and hospitality services, and more.
Preventing recidivism isn’t as apparent in the civilian prison system. The Federal Bureau of Prisons offers offenders with sufficient time on their sentences the opportunity to get out nine months early in the Residential Drug Abuse Program. Federal prisons offer education for those without a high school education or for prisoners who don’t speak English and some job training exists, but depends mostly on the labor needs of the prison system. College coursework is available, but prisoners must fund these themselves.
In general, military prisoners are focused on the long-term of life after prison while civilian prisoners are only focused on what’s going to happen later that same day.
Civilian prisoners would never think to do this but for a military audience, this is important. Prisoners in military correctional facilities, while technically still in the military, are not allowed to salute military officers and the offense is punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The reason is respect, but not the way you’re likely thinking.
A military officer returns salutes thrown at them as a matter of respect to the person saluting them. If a prisoner saluted a military officer, the officer would be obliged to return the salute – and who wants to salute a convict? Military convicts are still expected to refer to their guards by rank and name, however.
While inmates are still a part of the military and answer to the military hierarchy, one corrections officer from California noted that inmates in a general population at a federal prison will create their own chain of command (outside of the prison personnel), leading right up to the top inmates.
5. Prison Fights
Fights are uncommon in the military prison system and when they do happen, they are broken up quickly. Inmates in military prisons were – at some point – military personnel trained and held to a high standard. Breaking a few laws will not usually change this very much. Besides, everyone is trying to get out of the military system on good behavior, and many will re-enter the military after their sentence. Most importantly, they don’t want to lose access to their nice rehab programs and lose the work they’ve put in because of a stupid fight – and prison gangs don’t exist. Military personnel don’t lose the sense of camaraderie they garner during service, and that same “in it together” mindset binds military prisoners.
In the civilian system, the world is not how it’s portrayed on television. There are more fistfights that happen than in military facilities, but there are also higher population densities in federal prisons. For the most part, problem inmates are separated. When fights in civilian prisons get really bad, the entire facility can be placed on lockdown. For gangs, some facilities have more gangs and gang members than others, with a “you stay with yours and I stay with mine” mentality
Whether in Federal prison or a military prison, refusing to obey the guards will land you in segregation, aka solitary confinement, aka “The Hole.” The only activity left to a prisoner in solitary confinement is sleeping or perhaps carrying on a conversation with him or herself. In a military prison, noncompliance can land you in solitary for up to six months at a time, where your home is an eight by seven-foot room with a single bunk, a single light, along with a toilet and sink. The only interaction with the outside world is a small slot in the door for food.
No matter if a prisoner is in solitary or general population, the life of a prisoner is boring and monotonous. Work details and recreation help pass the time, a chief concern of the extended-stay prisoner.
7. Daily Life
Both military and civilian prisoners lead regimented lives, but naturally the military prisoner’s is much more so. In the military, prisoners will have the option of working in one of the prison’s workshops or details, like a wood shop, kitchen detail, dorm cleaning, chapel cleaning, grounds maintenance and masonry. Every day, prisoners have a very rigid structured schedule, which including shaving in the morning, work details, multiple head counts, recreation, and showers. The weekends have no work details and more recreation.
On the plus side, the food is much better in a military prison – like that of a chow hall – but inmates are searched to ensure they don’t take food back with them to their dorm/barracks room. Some civilian prisons have very little oversight over the prisoners food and reports of undercooked meat are common. In general, prison food is bland, one more reason ramen is the currency of choice.
Military prisoners also receive much better medical care as a result of being in a military correctional facility.
8. Crimes Matter
Whether in civilian prisons or military prisons, the reason for your detention is important – to the other prisoners. Besides the security level of your sentence being based on the crime you committed, convicts convicted of child molestation and underage pornography are shunned and harassed by other prisoners.
Snitches usually get ostracized as well and are usually said to be forced to group with convicts who committed crimes against children.