When they first arrive at prison, inmates are typically taken to a central processing area, also known as the "fish tank" because it's sometimes in full view of other inmates. There, they'll be stripped, disinfected and thoroughly searched for any contraband they might be trying to smuggle inside. Inmates aren't allowed to bring many personal items into prison with them, usually just eye glasses, a few books and their legal papers. It can take up to 30 days for a prison to process new inmates, find cells for them, arrange their prison work assignments and move them from the special holding cells into the general prison population.
It may be helpful to look at a concrete example for a general overview, absent such gritty details. South Dakota's department of corrections refers to its new-inmate process as "Admission and Orientation." The whole process takes nearly three weeks and includes a number of key steps. The prison system's goal during the period is to try to ease the new inmate into the prison setting. Inmates are given thorough assessments of their physical and mental health; their education level will be examined, as will any drug dependencies the new inmate may have. Officials will also examine any issues related to their status as sex offenders, if that classification is on their record. Naturally, given that the "guests" of the prison are convicted felons, prison officials during this process will also classify each new inmate's threat level and make placement suggestions for their housing based on that information.
Finally, paperwork seems to find its way into every facet of life, and prison systems aren't much different, even for the inmates. Each new inmate in the South Dakota prison system receives guides related to living in the prison in general and a guide related to their individual time in the facility. The latter document explains to the inmate what's expected of them and outlines the basic benchmarks and standards that will be used if the inmate has the possibility for parole [source: South Dakota Department of Corrections].
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