The Federal Bureau of Prisons is a massive entity with over 41,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $7 billion. It is responsible for the housing and management of approximately 188,000 federal inmates, each of which must be cataloged, inventoried, and processed into the prison system, and ultimately into each individual federal prison. Needless to say, the processing of new arrivals is a big part of the Bureau’s operations.

Inmate processing, commonly known as the intake process, takes place in a prison’s Receiving & Discharge Department. Processing procedures are usually performed by R&D personnel, prison guards, a counselor or case manager, medical and psychological department staff members, and a Special Investigative Supervisor (SIS) technician. A variety of other prison staff members may also assist in the process.

A number of elements are involved in the intake process, some of which may vary slightly from prison to prison, but the procedures are essentially the same throughout the federal prison system. The following can be expected at federal prisons of most security levels.

Preliminary Phase: Scanning, Searching, and Photographing

New arrivals are placed in holding cells at various times during the intake process. If mealtime occurs during processing, new arrivals may receive pre-packaged meals or a meal tray from the institution’s dining hall. In addition to any meals, the following process is undertaken:

-Full-Body X-Ray Scan: After transport restraints are removed, prisoners undergo a full-body x-ray scan (similar to those performed at airports), to detect any contraband ingested, inserted, or otherwise hidden in or on the inmate’s body.

-Strip Search: A thorough strip search is performed, including a visual inspection of the mouth, hair, ears, and genitals. Inmates are instructed to squat and cough to ensure that contraband hasn’t been inserted into the rectum. After the strip search, inmates are issued a set of “R&D clothes” (i.e., a white t-shirt, socks, underwear, elastic-waist pants, and a pair of slip-on “bus shoes”) to be worn until the inmate is issued their institutional clothing (usually soon after leaving R&D or early the following day).

-Fingerprints and Photographs: Inmates undergo standard fingerprinting and photographing procedures, after which they are issued a plastic identification card with their photo, limited personal information (i.e., date of birth, eye color, height, etc.), inmate identification number, and a bar code printed on it. The bar code may be scanned for various purposes at the institution, such as when receiving meals, purchasing commissary items, or using the copy machine. The inmate’s identification number remains the same throughout their term of federal incarceration. Inmates are expected to have their ID cards with them at all times

Interview Phase: Department Interviews

In most cases, the interviewing staff member will have a copy of the inmate’s file for review. Also, interview elements may occur in any order.

-Interview with Medical Staff Member: A brief interview with a member of the prison’s Health Services Unit is conducted to ascertain each new arrival’s general physical health status. This is typically conducted by either a Mid-Level Practitioner (MLP) or a Physician’s Assistant (PA). Inquiries are made to discover if the inmate has any contagious infections, communicable diseases (such as active tuberculosis), acute illnesses, or other non-evident medical needs. If the interviewer does not ask specifically about any medications currently prescribed, the inmate should advise the interviewer of such. In most cases, the interviewer will be aware of any prescribed medications. Inmates do not receive medical treatment during the intake process unless their condition is deemed an immediate medical emergency.

-Interview with Psychology Staff Member: A brief interview with a member of the prison’s Psychology Services Department is conducted to ascertain each new arrival’s general mental health status. Inquiries are made to determine if the inmate is currently at risk of harming themselves or others, or if any other psychological condition exists which would deem the inmate mentally unfit for placement in the prison’s general population. If the interviewer does not ask specifically about any psychotropic medications that the inmate is currently prescribed, they should be advised of such. In most cases, the interviewer should be aware of such medications. Inmates are not provided with any psychiatric treatment during the intake process.

-Interview with a Counselor or Case Manager: Each prison has multiple counselors and case managers. As such, the initial interviewer may not be a member of the inmate’s unit team. During this interview, each new arrival is given a brief description of what they can and can’t expect from staff and other inmates, what staff expect of them, and what the prison offers in terms of education, programming, work assignments, and recreation, among other aspects of life in federal prison. Inmates may be advised what housing unit they will be assigned to and who their counselor and case manager will be.

The interviewer should be made aware of any concerns the inmate may have for their personal safety. The new arrival should have received an Admission & Orientation (A&O) Handbook during this interview, which contains information on all inmate-relevant aspects of the prison’s operations and services, as well as rules and the possible sanctions for their violation. Inmates should keep this handbook and refer to it as needed.

-Interview with Special Investigative Supervisor (SIS) Technician: The basis of this interview is to determine if there is any reason (other than those relating to medical or psychological conditions) why the new arrival cannot be placed in the prison’s general population. The inmate may be asked about the nature of their crime; if they were ever in protective custody, and if so, for what reason; if they know anyone at the prison who might wish to do them harm or who they might wish to harm; and if they are currently or have every been an active gang member (the SIS interviewer may require the inmate to display any tattoos to determine if any are gang related).

The interviewer should be made aware of any concerns the inmate may have for their personal safety. The inmate should keep in mind that the job of the SIS technician conducting the interview is to investigate activities concerning disciplinary and criminal misconduct within the prison, and that the interviewer already knows the answers to most of the questions that they ask. Inmates should use discretion when answering questions during this interview in order to avoid potential disclosure of information that may later be used against them or others, either by prison staff or inmates with whom such information is (improperly) shared.

General Population or Segregation: Initial Prison Housing

Most new arrivals are placed in general population upon the completion of the intake process. Those who are not are usually placed in the prison’s Special Housing Unit (SHU or the hole).

Some factors that may prevent a new arrival from being placed in general population at a federal prison include:

-A medical condition which requires the inmate to be placed in a medical isolation cell (i.e., a contagious infection or certain communicable diseases such as active tuberculosis, measles, etc.).

-A medical condition which requires special accommodations or treatment that the prison cannot provide.

-An immediate medical emergency which requires hospitalization or medical isolation.

-A psychiatric condition which prevents the inmate from functioning in a manner that does not interfere with the safe, secure, and orderly operation of the federal prison.

-An administrative order requiring the inmate to be housed separately from an inmate already at the prison (called a Separation Order or “separatee”).

-Missing or incomplete documentation, such as the inmate’s Judgment and Commitment Order (J&C) or other sentencing documents, such as the Pre-Sentence Report (PSR) or other pertinent case files.

-Refusal by the inmate to be placed in the prison’s general population (may occur when staff attempt to put an at-risk inmate, such as a sex offender or informant, in general population at a prison where the inmate knows they will harmed).

Entering the Compound

New arrivals released to general population are issued a bed roll consisting of two blankets, two sheets, a towel, washcloth, and a few basic hygiene items. Inmates should carry their Admission & Orientation Handbook, ID card, any paperwork they’ve been given, and any necessary prescription medications they have been allowed to retain. Besides prescription eyeglasses and any necessary medical or dental prosthetics, any other personal property will be inventoried in their presence at a later date. Leaving R&D, new arrivals are usually escorted to their assigned housing units by a prison guard.

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).