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How Much Free Time Do Prisoners Get?

Prisoners in the United States criminal justice system generally have a significant amount of unstructured free time each day outside of scheduled activities like meals, work assignments, educational programs, or recreation.

However, the amount of free time can vary considerably depending on the security level and policies of the specific facility. Understanding how prisoners spend their free time and finding ways to make positive use of it is an important consideration in debates over prison reform and rehabilitation.

Typical Daily Schedule for Prisoners

To understand how much free or unscheduled time prisoners have, it’s helpful to look at a typical daily schedule in a state or federal prison. While schedules differ, core activities tend to be similar across facilities.

A typical weekday schedule may look like:

  • 6:00-7:00 AM – Wake up, breakfast, cell cleaning
  • 7:00-7:30 AM – Count, transfer to work assignments
  • 7:30 AM-11:30 AM – Work assignments (e.g. kitchen duty, groundskeeping, manufacturing)
  • 11:30 AM-12:30 PM – Lunch
  • 12:30-3:30 PM – Continued work assignments
  • 3:30-4:30 PM – Educational programs or vocational training
  • 4:30-5:00 PM – Return to cells, count
  • 5:00-6:00 PM – Dinner
  • 6:00-9:00 PM – Free time in day rooms, recreation yard
  • 9:00 PM – Return to cells, lockdown, lights out

As this schedule shows, prisoners may have 2-4 hours of free time at the end of each day, depending on the facility. Weekends and holidays also tend to include larger blocks of unscheduled time when prisoners are not assigned to work details and classes are not in session.

How Do Prisoners Spend Their Free Time?

Prisoners engage in a variety of activities during their free time, subject to facility rules and restrictions. Common ways prisoners spend their free time include:


For many prisoners, free time provides an opportunity to socialize with other inmates in common areas like the day room or recreation yard. Socializing can provide mental stimulation and prevent isolation. However, prison gangs also use this time for recruitment and illegal activity, requiring monitoring from guards.

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Television and Radio

Most prisons allow inmates to watch basic cable television or listen to radio during free time. Viewing choices are limited compared to the outside world, but TV and radio provide information and entertainment. Access may be lost as punishment for rule violations.

Reading and Writing

Reading books from the prison library and writing letters to family and friends are common free time activities. Reading provides education, distraction, and relaxation. Maintaining contact with outside supports through writing aids rehabilitation.

Recreation and Exercise

Prisons typically offer basic exercise equipment and opportunities for sports like basketball, volleyball, or calisthenics during yard time. Staying active improves physical and mental health. However, competition can also instigate violence between rival prison gangs.

Hobbies and Games

Some prisons offer hobby crafts like drawing, painting, beading, or origami. Board games like chess or checkers are also popular. Hobbies provide positive skills and distraction from negative influences. However, supplies and equipment are limited.

Sleeping and Showering

Beyond scheduled sleeping hours, some prisoners choose to sleep more during the day given significant amounts of locked down time. Taking extra time to maintain hygiene by showering, shaving, and washing clothes also frequently occurs during free blocks.

Illegal Activity

Unfortunately, some prisoners use unstructured time to engage in prohibited activities like gambling, brewing alcohol, dealing drugs, or fighting. Boredom and lack of supervision can lead to rule breaking. Contraband materials get creatively hidden during cells searches.

Factors Impacting Free Time in Prison

Several key factors influence the amount of free time prisoners ultimately have and how they can spend it, including:

Security Level

Higher security facilities have more lockdown time and tighter movement restrictions. Minimum security prisons allow more freedom of movement and choices in housing and activities. Dangerous inmates in maximum security may spend 23 hours a day locked in solitary confinement.


As prison populations exceed capacity, facilities limit time out of cells to avoid violence. Recreation yards and day rooms become unavailable when understaffing cannot ensure safety with groups of inmates sharing space. Opportunities to participate in rehabilitation programs also get reduced.

Budget Constraints

Many prisons face budget cuts, limiting the educational and vocational offerings available to occupy inmates’ time in a constructive manner. Libraries have fewer books, recreation equipment is not replaced, and hobby craft supplies aren’t replenished. Free time gets filled with television instead of treatment programs.

Behavioral Infractions

Facilities remove privileges like yard time or day room access to punish violations of prison rules. Being sent to solitary confinement or having a parole hearing delayed provides strong motivation against misbehavior. However, boredom and lack of outlets can foster misconduct.

Health Issues

Prisoners suffering from physical disabilities, mental illness, or aging complications may be unable to leave their cells or participate in facility programming. Deprived social contact exacerbates psychological problems. Special housing units for vulnerable individuals aim to provide additional supervised free time opportunities.

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Positive Uses of Free Time in Prisons

While free time allows the opportunity for negative behaviors, it can also be constructed to support rehabilitation when managed appropriately. Positive ways to make use of abundant free time in prisons include:

Counseling and Mentorship Programs

Voluntary participation in group counseling sessions gives prisoners peer support in pursuing law-abiding goals and overcoming addictions. Veteran prisoners mentoring new arrivals guide them through the prison experience. Building communication and coping skills prevents future recidivism.

Expanded Education

Prioritizing educational offerings focused on job training, earning high school diplomas, parenting, financial literacy, and anger management during the day empowers rehabilitation. Small group tutoring teaches basic literacy needed for re-entry into society. Limiting course slots due to security concerns squanders chances to make free time productive.

Creative Arts

Art, music, and theater programs offer prisoners positive emotional outlets and chances at self-expression. Performances build self-confidence and accomplishments. Murals beautifying drab facilities provide a sense of pride and improved environment. Seeing inmates engaged in creative pursuits improves morale for both prisoners and guards.

Sports Teams

Participating in intramural sports teams channels competitive instincts into healthy athletics. Being part of a team teaches core values like hard work, trust, and good sportsmanship. Offsetting gang membership with positive peer groups reduces racial divides between inmates. Maintaining fitness improves both physical and mental well-being.

Jobs and Vocational Training

Prison work experiences prepare inmates for employment after release. Training in fields like auto repair, computer coding, agriculture, and hospitality provides marketable skills. Earning small wages also allows prisoners to pay victim restitution and support families financially. Keeping busy instills a hardworking routine.

Ongoing Debate Over Prison Free Time

Approaches to managing prisoners’ abundant unstructured time continue to prompt debate among policymakers and prison reform advocates. Key questions fueling the discussion include:

  • Should free time be minimized through extended lockdowns and solitary confinement for safety reasons? Or do restrictions worsen recidivism by depriving rehabilitation opportunities?
  • Is it more cost-effective to limit free time rather than provide enough staff to monitor increased programming and activities? Or do budget cuts now result in worse outcomes and repeat incarceration later?
  • Are unions representing prison guards too resistant to operational changes that would give inmates more structured activities but require more flexibility in staffing?
  • Could introducing more choices in how prisoners spend free time, such as letting inmates pick educational offerings, improve motivation and engagement?
  • What kinds of incentivizes or rewards work best to encourage prisoners to make full use of their free time for self-improvement?
  • How can cultural attitudes among prisoners be shifted to make working, learning, creating, and exercising more valued activities compared to sleeping, socializing, or scheming?
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With over two million incarcerated, America’s prisons carry an enormous responsibility to leverage unstructured free time in ways that support rehabilitation and the transition to being productive, law abiding citizens after release. Rethinking how prisoners’ days are scheduled and managed remains an important opportunity in improving the criminal justice system overall.

Notable Crimes Committed and Convictions

1978Ted Bundy murders 30 women across 7 statesDeath by electric chair in Florida 1989“I’m not an animal and I’m not crazy. I don’t have a split personality. I’m just Ted.”
1981Wayne Williams murders 29 children in AtlantaLife in prison“I’m confident I’ll be vindicated. I’m just sorry it took so long.”
1982Richard Ramirez “Night Stalker” kills 13 in California burglariesDeath row, died of cancer in 2013“Big deal. Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland.”
1994OJ Simpson charged with murdering ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald GoldmanAcquitted of murder, later jailed for robbery“I don’t think I’m OJ the Juice anymore. I’m just a guy trying to make a living.”
1995Theodore Kaczynski, the “Unabomber”, kills 3 and injures 23 with mail bombsLife in prison“There are many people who embrace the value system and ideology that led to my crimes, but who don’t commit the crimes.”
2004Dennis Rader “BTK Killer” murders 10 in Kansas10 life sentences“I actually thought I could get away with it. I actually thought I was more clever than police.”

Frequently Asked Questions

How much time per day do most prisoners spend in their cells?

On average prisoners spend 10-14 hours per day locked in their cells, depending on the security level of the facility and whether it is a weekday or weekend. Cells are usually shared with at least one other inmate. Some prisons allow more time in common areas based on good behavior.

What facilities do prisons provide for exercise and recreation?

Most prisons have outdoor recreation yards for sports like basketball, volleyball, and calisthenics. Some offer weight lifting equipment as well. Indoor gym facilities are rarer due to cost but allow for year-round physical activity.

Do prisoners have access to computers, internet, or cell phones?

Computers, internet access, and cell phones are generally prohibited due to security concerns over contacting outsiders or running criminal enterprises from behind bars. Some facilities provide closely monitored computer labs or tablets for limited purposes like taking educational courses or reading e-books.

Can prisoners watch whatever they want on TV?

Television choices are quite limited compared to outside viewers. Content deemed violent, pornographic, or inappropriate is not available. News and information shows are commonly restricted as well. Movies selected for screening require approval.

How many hours a week are prisoners required to work?

Federal prisons require inmates to work a minimum of 12 hours per week in an assigned job, if they are medically able. Jobs like food service, laundry, or maintenance pay around 12 to 40 cents per hour. Most inmates continue working 40 hours weekly in order to occupy time and earn pennies.


In summary, prisoners in the United States typically enjoy 2 to 4 hours of unscheduled free time per day outside of mandatory activities like meals, jobs, counts, and classes. However, security restrictions and budget limitations can significantly reduce time available for socializing, education, recreation, creative outlets, and rehabilitation programming.

Effectively managing abundant free time presents an ongoing challenge to improve inmate morale, maintain facility order, and reduce recidivism after release. Providing structured programming focused on treatment, life skills, and job training continues to represent one of the most impactful changes needed in America’s prisons and criminal justice system overall.

Prison Inside Team

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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