Inmates incarcerated within the Federal Bureau of Prisons are housed in communal living settings.  These “housing units” consist of either a number of cells or a dormitory.  Generally speaking, dorms are utilized at lower security institutions (e.g., federal prison camps and low-security federal prisons), while cells are utilized at higher security institutions (e.g., medium-security federal prisons, federal penitentiaries, and Special Housing Units).  Some institutions have both types of housing in different areas of the prison.

DormitoriesInmate Housing | Federal Prison

Most inmates in lower-security facilities are housed in a dorm setting.  Therein, the housing unit consists of a large room with a number of bunk beds.  The dorm could have as few as 50 inmates (25 bunk beds) or as many as 200 inmates (100 bunk beds).  Some dorms have rows and rows of bunk beds which are in close proximity to one another.  At others, the dorms are set up with small privacy walls that reach up 3 or 4 feet which act like partitions (like short cubicles) amongst the larger housing unit.

While there are pros and cons to different types of housing layouts, the two major cons of a dorm setting are the noise and lack of privacy.  Prisons are loud places.  This is just a fact of life.  When there are no walls to block the loud inmates from the quiet inmates, the quiet inmates will suffer at the hands of the louder ones.  This can become particularly troublesome when one considers that this noise can carry on into the early hours of the morning.

Privacy is the other primary con with the dorm setting.  Everything the inmate does is seen by others.  This includes showering (the same as with cell settings), using the bathroom, changing their clothes, and even sleeping.  But what is perhaps even more troublesome than being exposed to tens, if not hundreds, of strangers is the fact that other inmates can see what everyone else owns and have greater access to others’ property.  Thus, theft is much more prevalent in a dorm setting than in a cell setting.  Simply put, in the dorm setting a sense of personal security is lost.


Most inmates favor the cell configuration for a number of reasons.  In this setting, the housing unit consists of a large room or a hall with cells leading off of it.  Typically the cells have doors on them.  Thus, there is some sense of security and personal dwelling.  Depending on the local institution, the cell can house a single person (this is very rare) or a number of people (via bunk beds).  At most medium institutions cells house 2, 3 or 4 inmates, though at some there are 10 and 16 man cells.  Thus, it is a mixed bag.  Generally speaking, the fewer occupants, the more desirable the housing and the more challenging it is to obtain.

Unlike dorms, cells tend to have their own toilets and sinks, but this is not a rule.  When they contain a sink and a toilet, the occupants enjoy a certain amount of personal privacy and security.  The concept of being able to shave and use the restroom in privacy can’t be understated.  While a cell can never feel like being at home, it is the closest a federal inmate can come to it.

The primary problem with cell housing is cellmates.  For the most part, inmates have some level of choice in cellmates.  This is because common courtesy and prison culture dictates that before someone moves into a new cell, they seek permission from the existing occupant.  Sadly, this doesn’t always happen.  In some facilities, the correctional counselor is in charge of housing assignments, the existing occupant’s permission is not required.  Even if the existing occupant offers his or her approval, tensions can mount and new problems can present themselves.  Thus, with only one cellmate — or only a few — options for separation and association are severely limited.  This is in direct contrast to dorm settings where even if one doesn’t like their bunkmate, they can socialize with those on the other sides of them.  In a cell, this is much more problematic and in your face.

Cell and Bunk Changes

While the institution’s Receiving & Discharge Department is responsible for initial cell and bunk assignments, the correctional counselor is usually in charge of cell and bunk assignment changes.  This means that in order for an inmate to switch from one cell or bunk (this is irrespective of whether it is a cell or dorm setting), the interested inmate must speak with their counselor and make a formal request.  Formal requests are typically completed on a cop-out (an “Inmate Request to Staff” form).

As noted earlier, it is common courtesy for the inmate who wishes to change bunk assignments to speak with the existing occupant of the cell or bunk where they want to move.  While this is the counselor’s rule at some institutions, at others it is simply a smart idea, but not required by the counselor.  Regardless of whether it is required or not, the inmate who desires to change their bunk or cell assignment should speak with the current occupant.  This will greatly reduce tensions and potential future problems.

Even if both parties are open to the move, the counselor might have another idea in mind.  While this could be for a legitimate correctional reason (e.g., not housing gang members or trouble makers together, believing that the inmates won’t get along, etc.), more often than not, it is because the person desiring to move has not had clear conduct for a long enough time or does not have seniority over other persons requesting to be transferred to a certain bunk or cell assignment.  After all, a two-man cell is the creme de la creme of most housing assignments.  There is bound to be some competition for the good ones and the good cellmates.

In other institutions, such as USP facilities, where racial politics are paramount, the inmates themselves police the cell assignments; a counselor will check with the lead inmate for a racial group to alert them of intent to put a particular inmate in a cell.  If the group objects, the counselor will often defer and try to make other arrangements.  For obvious reasons, this can be problematic for unpopular inmates.

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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