Don’t live with misconceptions about the prison system. Some prisons are better places to serve time than others. Learn everything possible to get the most productive experience.
Get to the Best Prison
The custody and classification system determines the type of facility where a person will serve the sentence. Security levels determine how administrators will run the prison. Although no one can change the past, a person’s decisions can influence whether they serve time in a prison of minimum security, or whether they must serve time in prison with more restrictions.
Judges sentence individuals to the custody of the Attorney General. As such, many factors influence where the individual will serve the sentence. The “type” of offense represents one determinant, but other factors will also play into the decision. The more individuals understand, the better they can position themselves to respond if administrators try to pigeon hole them into the wrong security level.
In Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, I wrote about my experience of serving time in every security level. I did not have a history of violence or previous incarceration; the length of my sentence necessitated that I begn inside of a high-security penitentiary.
After several years, I transitioned to lower security levels, including medium-security, low-security, minimum-security, and a residential release center for the final year of my sentence. Earning Freedom shows how a strategic adjustment can lead to placement in prisons with higher levels of liberty and lower levels of stress.
I encourage you to use all of your critical-thinking skills to serve your term in prisons with lower-volatility levels, fewer restrictions, and the highest levels of liberty. Your family members will appreciate the lower levels of intensity when they visit.
Consider a few “Case-in-Point” descriptions that provide a glimpse of some white-collar offenders serving time in higher security facilities.
Different Security Levels:
In the Bureau of Prisons, each institution falls into one of five different security levels. Individuals who anticipate that they may experience time inside should have a basic understanding of each. The different levels include:
- High, and
There are some minor variations within each security level. For example, some of those security levels may include sub-categories, such as a “Satellite low” or a “Special Management Unit” or a “Special Offender” yard, but the levels above provide a basic understanding of the different categories.
According to the Bureau of Prisons website, less than 18% of the total prison population serves time inside of a minimum-security camp. The main criteria for serving time inside of a minimum-security camp includes the following:
- Individuals must be within 10 years of the release date.
- Individuals must not have a documented history of violence or sex offense over a prescribed period of time (at least 10 years).
- Individuals must not have any history of escape attempts.
When considering the entire federal prison population of more than 200,000 offenders, more than 18% of the people would meet such criteria. So why doesn’t a greater percentage of the entire federal prison population serve their sentence inside minimum-security camps?
We could write volumes on the subject matter. Yet rather make this lesson too dense with too many explanations, we want to provide you with a broad perspective. More importantly, we want to provide suggestions to build a record that may lead to the best possible environment; ordinarily, that means the lowest-possible security level.
To begin let’s provide some insight into each security level.
Administrative-level facilities hold prisoners from any security level. In other words, people who’ve been convicted of murder will serve time alongside people who were convicted of defrauding a client through an eBay transaction. As a consequence of the diverse group of people inside Administrative-level institutions, authorities impose strict controls and restrictions. Authorities generally hold people in those facilities for specific reasons that include:
- Administrative facilities confine prisoners who have active judicial proceedings. Such facilities include all Metropolitan Correctional Centers and Federal Detention Centers. They are like large jails where people await transfer to a more permanent facility.
- Administrative facilities confine people who are in need of medical attention or special programming, such as Federal Medical Centers. Many FMCs have affiliations with local hospitals in the neighboring communities.
- Administrative facilities confine people who are in transit from one institution to another. The primary transit center is the Federal Transit Center at the Oklahoma City airport.
- Administrative facilities confine people authorities have classified as being especially dangerous or prone to escape, such as the Administrative maximum unit in Florence or the Special Management Units, like the one at USP Lewisburg.
Most people serve the majority of their sentences in institutions that have one of the following security-level classifications: minimum, low, medium, or high. Frequently, authorities transfer an individual from one security level to another for reasons that we’ll explain later in this lesson. At the same time, individuals can serve many years, or decades in a single security level, or even a single institution. Other than in Administrative-level institutions, authorities will have classified individuals in each respective prison with similar classification levels.
Seven factors determine an institution’s security level. They include:
- The use of mobile patrols that drive around the institution’s perimeter 24 hours each day.
- Gun towers located around a prison’s outside perimeter. Armed BOP guards monitor the movement and activities from inside those gun towers.
- Perimeter barriers that separate the prison from the community.
- Detection devices like metal-detectors and sound-guns that can intercept prisoner conversations.
- Internal security that includes locks on doors and bars on windows.
- Housing issues, such as whether the institution confines people in locked rooms, cages, or open dormitories.
- The ratio of staff members to inmates.
Obviously, as security levels increase, liberties and restrictions decrease. The most secure federal prison in the United States is the Administrative-maximum security prison (ADX) at the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado. Prisoners confined in that institution have very little contact with others. Similarly, the BOP operates a few Special Management Units (SMUs), which are located within United States Penitentiaries. If an individual is sent to the ADX or an SMU, it’s because authorities have deemed that individual as being predacious, or incapable of functioning in a more open prison environment.
If you’re reading this article on the Internet, it’s unlikely that you’ll serve a sentence in supermax or high-security penitentiary, known as USPs. I served time in every type of facility, so I can respond to specific questions about those facilities.
Our nation’s movement toward severe sentencing laws for financial crimes requires that we devote time to discussing USPs. Consider the case of Robert Allen Stanford, federal inmate number 35017-183.
Case in Point: Robert Allen Stanford, Number 35017-183
Robert Allen Stanford was a prominent financier. Prior to the financial crisis of 2009, Robert frequently appeared as a spokesperson on CNBC, as he used to be the CEO and Chairman of Stanford Financial Group. His background included a small business. Then he ventured into real estate speculations in Houston that led to his earning his first fortune. Robert then moved to the Caribbean where he began to increase his fortune with offshore banking. Popular magazines like Vanity Fair described Stanford as a one-time billionaire; in 2008, Forbes ranked Stanford as the 205th richest American, with a net worth of $2.2 billion. Prior to Stanford’s troubles with the government, he traveled in elite circles.
Yet when the financial crisis hit, people tried to redeem their Certificates of Deposits that Stanford’s offshore bank had issued. When the bank began to default, authorities went after Stanford. Rather than accepting responsibility or expressing remorse, Stanford used his fame to lambast government officials and agencies.
Despite his public proclamations of innocence, a jury convicted Stanford. He described himself as being the victim of government “Gestapo tactics. And as a consequence of the enormous amount of financial loss, Stanford’s judge sentenced him to serve a lengthy prison term. Further, since the judge did not appreciate Stanford’s lack of remorse, the sentencing judge recommended that the Bureau of Prisons confine Stanford in a high-security, United States Penitentiary. Authorities sent him to USP Coleman.
Stanford is not the only individual serving time in a high-security United States Penitentiary who was convicted of mail fraud, wire fraud, and other types of white-collar crimes. At Prison Professor, our consultants work with clients to prepare them in ways that will minimize the possibility of their being sentenced egregiously. Although no one can change the past, our consultants help our clients avoid the type of reckless behavior that exacerbated troubles for Robert Allen Stanford. As a consequence of his ignorance, he serves his sentence in a high-security, United States Penitentiary, making his life much more difficult than necessary.
United States Penitentiaries (USP):
- Population: United States Penitentiaries are the most volatile of all federal prisons. For the most part, individuals who serve time inside of a USP have extensive histories of violence. Tensions rise from gangs, organized crime, and a heavy concentration of psychotic people who live without hope or expectations of ever living a normal life as a law-abiding citizen. As a consequence of sentencing laws that punish people extensively for high-dollar crimes, a relatively small percentage of people on the compound will be serving time for white-collar crimes. Regardless of criminal background, everyone in the penitentiary will share common areas together.
- Culture: Prisoners in the penitentiary live by a different code than exists in the world outside. High levels of violence and tension permeate the atmosphere, with manipulation, extortion, and altercations occurring daily. Many of the men serving time inside of USPs are militant by nature, and stubbornly resistant to authority. Volatility is a constant in a USP.
- Quarters: Prisoners in high-security penitentiaries usually share a closet-size room with at least one other prisoner. The rooms are small. If a man outstretches his arms in a penitentiary cell, he will touch both walls. The room will contain a metal bunk bed, a metal toilet, and a metal sink. A heavy dead bolt will lock the steel door for majority of every day. If the room has a window, bars will cover it and opaque class will prevent the prisoner from being able to look outside. The windows will not open. Prisoners must keep all possessions inside a small metal locker.
- Structure of the Day: On a normal day, guards will unlock penitentiary doors at 6:00 am. They may move to the chow hall for breakfast, or they may have limited access to the recreation yard. At 7:30, the men will either report to work, to a program, or they will return to their cell for a lockdown period. As a consequence of high levels of violence in the penitentiary, prisoners confined to USPs spend a lot of time locked in their cells. Sometimes they’re on “Lockdown” for weeks at a time.
- Leisure Time: Strict rules and schedules restrict all movement in a USP. If an individual is not assigned to a work detail, the individual may request to access the recreation yard, the education area, participate in table games in the housing unit, or watch television in a designated area. The environment is extremely political, or tribal, with different factions of prisoners influencing activities inside.
- Violence and Volatility: Prisoners in USP will see and hear about violence routinely. Much of that violence will include the use of weapons that prisoners manufacture, like knives and blunt instruments like pipes or clubs. With a high concentration of predatory, unstable individuals living together, and so few opportunities to build upon hope, consultants at Prison Professor consider the USP as the worst possible place to serve time. Despite the volatility, individuals who exercise high levels of discipline can overcome, as our Prison Professors teach.
Medium-Security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCI):
- Population: Medium-security prisons are known as Federal Correctional Institutions. They confine prisoners from all backgrounds and with all types of sentence lengths. Most of the people who serve time inside of a medium-security FCI will have extensive criminal histories, and many will serve sentences in excess of 30 years. Yet all FCIs will include a population of offenders who serve sentences for sophisticated criminal activity that does not include street crimes.
Case in Point: Thomas Joseph Petters, Number 14170-041
Tom Petters was Chairman and CEO of Petters Group Worldwide until he was convicted of several white-collar fraud convictions. Despite repeated pleas of his innocence, a judge sentenced him to serve a lengthy prison term. Appellate courts affirmed his conviction and sentence. Despite his white-collar conviction, his lack of violence, lack of previous incarceration or escape attempts, Bureau of Prisons officials designated Petters to serve his sentence inside of a medium-security prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
- Culture: A medium-security FCI will be less volatile than a USP. They will confine between 800 and 2,000 people. For the most part, average sentence lengths will span between 10 and 30 years, although some people in medium-security FCIs will be serving life sentences. The institutions will have lower levels of violence, gang activities, and volatility, though those levels will still be too high for comfort. As in the penitentiary, the atmosphere squashes hope for many.
- Quarters: Prisoners in medium-security FCIs will live in housing units that are similar to those in the USP. Small rooms or cells will include metal bunk beds, a metal toilet, and a metal sink. A heavy dead bolt will lock the steel door for the majority of every day, but prisoners in an FCI will have more free time outside of their room than prisoners in a USP. If the room has a window, bars will cover it and opaque class will prevent the prisoner from being able to look outside. The windows will not open. Prisoners must keep all possessions inside a small metal locker.
- Structure of the Day: On a normal day, guards will unlock doors inside a medium-security FCI at 6:00 am. The prisoners may move to the chow hall for breakfast, or they may have limited access to the recreation yard. At 7:30, the men will either report to work, to a program, or they will return to their cell for a lockdown period. Prisoners confined to FCIs have access to more activities than in the penitentiary. Those activities will include team sports, table games, and educational opportunities.
- Leisure Time: Strict rules and schedules restrict movement in medium-security FCIs. If an individual is not assigned to a work detail, the individual may request to access the recreation yard, the education area, participate in table games in the housing unit, or watch television in a designated area. The environment is political and tribal, with different factions of prisoners influencing activities inside.
- Violence and Volatility: Prisoners in a medium-security FCI will see and hear about violence routinely, though not on a daily basis as in the USP. Some of the violence will include the use of weapons that prisoners manufacture, like knives and blunt instruments like pipes or clubs. With a few opportunities to build upon hope, consultants at Prison Professor consider FCIs the second-worst possible place to serve time. Despite the volatility, individuals who exercise high levels of discipline can overcome, as our Prison Professors teach.
Low-Security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCI):
- Population: Low-security prisons are also known as Federal Correctional Institutions. They confine prisoners from all backgrounds. Prisoners in low-security FCIs do not have extensive, documented criminal histories; if they have a history of violent behavior, several years have passed since the lasted documented act of violence. For the most part, individuals who serve time in low-security prisons are less volatile than those in higher-security. That said, prison administrators frequently make classification errors. Some of those errors lead to confining violent individuals in low-security. Low-security institutions confine many well-educated, white-collar offenders. They may be serving time inside of a low-security prison rather than a minimum security prison for a number of reasons that include:
- The inmate may have more than 10 years to serve before the scheduled release date.
- The inmate may have received a disciplinary infraction while inside a camp.
- The inmate may have special program needs that require him to serve time inside of a low-security prison rather than a minimum-security camp.
- Although low-security prisons confine mostly non-violent individuals, many people who abide by the criminal lifestyle and mentality will also serve time in low-security FCIs. There will even be some gang presence, although it will be less overt than in a medium- or a high-security prison.
Case in Point: Marc Dreier, Number 70595-054
Marc Dreier was a lawyer with a prominent practice in Manhattan. He earned his undergraduate degree from Yale and his professional degree from Harvard Law School. Despite an impressive string of positions with some of the nation’s top law firms, Dreier began to engage in fraud, stealing money from his clients. He was arrested. After findings of guilty, a judge sentenced Dreier to a 20-year term. Authorities sent Dreier to serve his sentence in a low-security prison.
- Culture: A low-security FCI will be significantly less volatile than either a medium-security FCI or a high-security USP. Population levels will hold between 1,000 and 2,500 people. All prisoners in a low-security FCI will be within 20 years of their scheduled release date, though the vast majority will expect release within 10 years. There will be few organized disturbances. For the most part, gang activity will not intrude on the lives of non-gang members. Most of the people who serve time inside a low-security FCI will focus on their release date and on staying out of further trouble. But if an individual has been convicted of a sex offense, or if the individual has a history of cooperating with authorities, the individual will face challenges from staff and inmates that he must prepare himself to overcome.
- Quarters: Prisoners in low-security FCIs will live in open dormitories. Some units will be partitioned off with cubicles. Bathrooms will be in a common area, under the “open” plan. Inmates will live in close proximity to others and there will be minimal levels of privacy.
- Structure of the Day: In a low-security FCI, there will not be any locked doors within the housing unit. At 6:00 am, the housing unit will open for breakfast and recreation. The prisoners may move to the chow hall for breakfast, or they may access the recreation yard. At 7:30, the men will either report to work, to a program, or they will return to the housing unit. Prisoners confined to low-security FCIs have higher levels of freedom within the boundaries of the institution. Those activities will include team sports, table games, and educational opportunities.
- Leisure Time: In a low-security FCI, the individuals will be able to govern their lives in ways that open opportunities for personal growth. They will not have to contend with pressure from others inside the institution. If they are not assigned to a work detail, the individual may request to access the recreation yard, the education area, participate in table games in the housing unit, or watch television in a designated area. The environment is much more stable than higher security prisons.
- Violence and Volatility: Prisoners in a low-security FCI will face few instances of organized or orchestrated volatility, as in higher security. It would be highly unusual for the prisoners to gather and riot or form an orchestrated disturbance. Although exceptions will occur, for the most part, violence in low-security will be sporadic rather than orchestrated, as in higher security institutions.
Minimum-Security Federal Prison Camps or Satellite Camps (FPC and SCP):
- Population: Minimum-security camps confine individuals who are within 10 years of their release date, who do not have documented histories of violence, and who do not have any records of escape attempts. FPCs will confine some individuals who began in higher-security prisons. Lack of disciplinary infractions and proximity to release dates resulted in their security level dropping to minimum. It’s probably safe to say that most white-collar offenders will serve their time inside of minimum-security camps. As such, the population inside of minimum-security camp will have a higher educational level. Still, every offender should do everything possible to position himself to serve his sentence in the best possible prison.
- Culture: The culture inside a minimum-security camp will be closest to the culture of the broader society. For the most part, the focus in the camp will be on returning home. Every week, if not every day, someone will be released. Many of the people will have surrendered to camp voluntarily, which suggests that authorities perceived them as people who could be trusted. Unlike all higher-security prisons, fences do not enclose camps—except in some isolated cases. As such, administrators experience significant problems with the introduction of contraband. The high levels of contraband can prove too tempting for many of the people who serve time in minimum-security camps.
Case in Point: Anonymous inmate
Jeff was a medical doctor. He surrendered to serve a 30-month sentence in a federal prison camp for a conviction related to healthcare fraud. During his first month in prison, Jeff made friends with another inmate and they began to exercise together. Each person in the prison is authorized up to 300 minutes of telephone access.
When Jeff told his new friend that he had used up all of his phone time, Jeff’s new friend offered to let Jeff use a cellphone. Rules do not allow cellphones in prison, but prisoners frequently smuggle them into minimum-security camps.
A routine shakedown resulted in guard’s finding the contraband cellphone. Although the cellphone was held in a common area, the guards were able to track the last numbers called by the cellphone. That tracing of phone numbers led the guards to Jeff and his friend; the guards could match the last numbers called with the phone numbers on Jeff and his friend’s approved phone list. As a consequence, authorities charged both Jeff and his friend with a greatest-severity disciplinary infraction. The sanction included a transfer to a higher-security prison and loss of telephone access for one year.
- Quarters: Prisoners in minimum-security camps live in open dormitories. Some units partition the dormitories off with cubicles while others keep all the men together in large auditorium-like room. Bathrooms will be in a common area, under the “open” plan. Inmates will live in close proximity to others and privacy will be non-existent.
- Structure of the Day: In a minimum-security camp, there will not be any locked doors within the housing unit. Sometimes the unit itself will remain unlocked throughout the night, allowing the men to get fresh air. Inmates will be required in maintenance type job details. They will have minimal restrictions with regard to their ability to move around the camp. Restrictions will not be placed upon them with regard to lockdowns except on extremely rare occasions.
- Leisure Time: In a minimum-security camp, the individuals will be able to govern their lives in ways that open opportunities for personal growth. They will not have to contend with pressure from others inside the institution. If they are not assigned to a work detail, individuals in the camp may access the recreation yard, the education area, participate in table games in the housing unit, or watch television in a designated area. The environment is as stable as a prison can be. Challenges will come from the internal stress of being separated from loved ones rather than from others within the camp. Although camps are not entirely without conflict or stress, the possibility of peace is much higher in a camp than in any other type of federal prison.
- Violence and Volatility: Prisoners in a minimum-security camp will not have to worry about organized volatility; levels of violence will be sporadic, about as common as violence in a fitness club.
- What thoughts do you have about the type of institution where you will serve your sentence?
- What possibilities could result in administrators sending you to a higher-security institution than you would like?
- What steps are you taking to maximize the possibility of your serving your sentence in the least-restrictive environment possible?
- How would your family react if they saw you in a higher-security institution than you anticipated?
- How would you assess your level of confidence to master the environment where Bureau of Prisons officials sent you, notwithstanding the security level?