Initial Designation at a Federal Bureau of Prisons Facility

Federal prisoners are not given a choice in which prison they are first designated to. This designation is made by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Designation and Sentence Computation Center (DSCC) in Grand Prairie, Texas. Initial designation determinations are based upon a number of factors. These factors are scored using the BOP’s Custody and Classification Form, which takes into account length of sentence, charge, criminal history, and a number of other factors, such as release destination, history of escapes, and self-surrender status.

Differences Between Initial Designation and Transfer

The process of seeking a transfer post-initial designation is different. These determinations are primarily made by the federal inmate’s unit team at their local prison, not at the DSCC. However, the process, and qualifications, to seek a transfer are anything but simple. What follows are tips about the practice of seeking a transfer within the BOP.

Factor: Custody and Classification Points

The first component of seeking a transfer is evaluating the inmate’s Custody and Classification Points (what federal prisoners often refer informally to as their “points”). As previously mentioned, the BOP uses a number of factors to compute what security level a prisoner should be housed in. These points are divided into two categories: Custody Points and Classification Points. Custody Points are the part of the computation which has to do with the prisoner’s institutional conduct (e.g., disciplinary frequency and severity, level of education, living skills, percentage of time already served, etc.). Classification Points have to do with the prisoner’s length of sentence, the severity of the crime, criminal history, drug and alcohol abuse, and other factors that they really can’t influence after the fact.

The Custody and Classification points, mixed with a possible variance score, fulfill a computation that determines the security level the prisoner is to be housed in. The following is the point schedule the Federal Bureau of Prisons uses when determining what security level the federal prisoner should be housed in:

~Camp: 0-11

~Low: 12-15 points

~Medium: 16-23 points

~High: 24+ points

Once the federal prisoner has their Custody and Classification Points in hand, they can determine what security level they should be housed in. Generally speaking, the prisoner will be housed at the correct level of security. The reason for this discussion on points is that, when desiring a transfer, the prisoner first has to understand what security level they are eligible to transfer to. Also, if the prisoner is on the cusp of a security level transition, then this can be a factor to present as motivation for a transfer to be approved.

One final component of the Custody and Classification Points discussion is that of Public Safety Factors (PSF). PSFs are special categorizations that can be applied to federal prisoners. These categorizations include Sex Offender, Greatest Severity (for the instant offense), Threat To Government Officials, Escape History, Sentence Length (>10 years, >20 years, >30 years), etc.. Depending on the PSF, the prisoner might be restricted to a certain security level (i.e., Low, Medium, High) or could be restricted from transitioning to a lower security level. For example, federal prisoners with a PSF of Sex Offender are barred from being placed in a Federal Prison Camp. As such, this is a factor in determining the assigned security level.

Factor: Disciplinary History: Frequency and Severity

The second component to consider is the prisoner’s recent disciplinary history. Depending on the prisoner’s case manager, this could be an issue. Some case managers state that they want prisoners to have clear conduct for a period of time prior to filling out the transfer request paperwork. It is not uncommon for a case manager to request for 6, 12, or 18 months of clear conduct prior to agreeing to fill out the required paperwork. Some case managers base this amount of time on the severity and/or frequency of disciplinary infractions. This is a preference matter and does not have a basis in Federal Bureau of Prisons policy. Irrespective, it is the case manager who must fill out the transfer paperwork. For obvious reasons, these staff members have wide latitude in such matters and their actions should be monitored closely.

Factor: Amount of Time at the Local Prison Facility

The third component to consider is the amount of time the prisoner has been at the local prison facility. Again, this is a preference matter. Some case managers won’t even entertain a transfer unless the prisoner has been at the local facility for a minimum of 6, 12, 18, or even 24 months. Others don’t care about how long the federal prisoner has been at the facility. Whether or not this is a factor in the transfer determination will depend on the prisoner’s case manager. As a general rule of thumb, most case managers will want a prisoner to wait until they have been at the prison facility for a minimum of 12 months prior to requesting a transfer.

Factor: Time Remaining on Sentence

The fourth component to consider is the amount of time the prisoner has remaining on their sentence. The closer to the prisoner’s projected release date, the more likely a transfer will be granted, especially if the reason for the transfer is to participate in a program that is not offered at the local institution or if the prisoner is trying to transfer closer to home. A strong re-entry assistance component could motivate a case manager to agree to complete the transfer paperwork so that the prisoner can receive visits prior to their release.

Factor: Release Destination

The final component to consider when seeking a transfer is the prisoner’s release destination. The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ stated policy is to house prisoners within 500 miles of their release destination. If the prisoner isn’t housed within 500 miles of their release destination, they have a strong case for seeking a transfer to a prison closer to home. The closer the prisoner is to their projected release date, the more weight such an argument carries. Regardless of time to the door, this is a valid reason for seeking a transfer.

Tip: Program Participation

One of the more successful ways to influence a transfer is to locate a program that is only offered at the prison where the prisoner is seeking to transfer. This could be an educational, vocational, or psychological program. These programs can be found in the BOP’s “Occupational Training Directory,” which is located at www.bop.gov, or can be found in the prison’s listing within the Prison Law Blog’s ongoing “Prison Profiles” series of blog posts. For example, if the prisoner is seeking to be transferred to a federal prison where a welding or specialized building maintenance program is held, they could transfer under this premise. The same could be true for a specific educational program (e.g., an in-prison college program). Or even for a treatment program (e.g., the BOP’s Non-Residential Sex Offender Treatment Program). One of the bonuses of seeking placement at a prison where there is a Non-Residential Sex Offender Treatment Program (NR-SOTP) is that the prison will be classified as a Sex Offender Management Program (SOMP) facility. Such facilities typically have lower levels of violence than other facilities in their respective security bracket.

The Process of Seeking a Transfer to a Different Federal Prison

The process of seeking a transfer is fairly straightforward. The prisoner must approach their case manager and make a formal request. This can occur during their Unit Team’s open house hours, the case manager’s late-night hours, or during the bi-annual program review. When speaking to the case manager, the prisoner may have to sell the idea of the transfer. As such, preparing a request that considers the above transfer factors prior to this meeting is a smart idea.

During the conversation, the prisoner requesting the transfer will need to present the reason they desire to transfer in the most convincing way possible. Usually, this means presenting the desire to participate in a program that is offered at a specific prison, the desire to be closer to their home so that their spouse or children can visit, and so on. It’s also a good idea for the prisoner to mention that they’ve been at the prison for a period of time and have maintained both clear conduct and have been a model prisoner.

If the case manager agrees with the prisoner’s logic, they will complete the transfer packet, which will then be sent to the prisoner’s unit manager to sign off on, then to the local prison’s administration to sign off on. After the ranking prison official at the local facility signs off on the transfer packet, it is sent to the DSCC for final approval. It should be noted that there are many factors that can alter the prison designation process at the DSCC. For example, the requested prison could be full, locked down, or have other problems. As such, even if the transfer to a specific prison is approved at the local level, the DSCC could revise the transfer destination. When this occurs, the federal prisoner does not have a choice. They are told to pack their property and are transferred when the time comes. So, there is some risk involved in the process.

A Cautionary Note: Scams Thrive on Desperation

The only way to seek a transfer is for a federal prisoner to speak with their case manager. Prisoners and their family members should never pay an attorney or a prison consultant to do what has been recommended in this article. Prison consultants and attorneys do not have a special relationship with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and cannot bypass the process outlined here. Do not be scammed! Do not fork over thousands of dollars to affect a transfer. It simply does not work that way. The only reason to retain an attorney or a prison consultant for a prison transfer would be because of their expertise in guidance or in writing a carefully targeted letter if the prison transfer request is denied, not for the initial transfer request, which the prisoner must engage in themselves anyway.

Conclusion: No Certainties, but Hope

Seeking a transfer is never an easy task. There is inherent risk involved with the final prison designation, being turned down at the local level, and dealing with sometimes frustrating prison officials. The key is to prepare, keep a level head while pitching the transfer, and ask. Without seeking the transfer, and possibly seeing what conditions the case manager is going to impose, there is no chance of success. But by being open, available and a team player the case manager very well could complete the transfer paperwork and commence the approval process.

EDITORIAL NOTE: If further questions arise, Prison Law Blog and Jack Donson are always happy to help out without obligation.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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