High-security federal prisons, also known as United States Penitentiaries (USPs), house a smaller percentage of the Bureau’s population. Federal penitentiaries tend to be very dangerous, and extreme violence is commonplace in these environments. Typically, a USP is surrounded by a 40-foot concrete wall, as well as gun towers staffed with rifle-wielding sharpshooters. Other than the federal ADX supermax (discussed below), high-security federal prisons have the highest staff-to-inmate ratio and closest control of inmates.
Despite only holding about 12 percent of the federal prison population, more than half of the 2017 “less serious” and “more serious” assaults on inmates, as well as most assaults on staff, took place in high-security institutions. Gangs tend to run USPs, and as a result, fights and stabbings are commonplace.
Inmates designated to high-security prisons will almost certainly have a history of violence. Federal prisoners with more than 30 years left to serve generally must be placed in a USP. Inmates housed in USPs tend to be younger and have very high-security point totals.
United States Penitentiaries | High-Security Prisons
High-security federal prisons are called United States Penitentiaries, or USPs, and “[h]ave highly secured perimeters featuring walls or reinforced fences, multiple- and single-occupant cell housing, the highest staff-inmate ratio, and close control of inmate movement.”
United States Penitentiaries house the least number of federal prisoners, around 12 percent. USPs are some of the most violent and inhumane prisons in the world. Violence, drug use, and abuse – both at the hands of prison guards and fellow prisoners – are virtually systematic. Prisoners don’t have fist fights; they stab one another with shanks, and gangs effectively run the compounds. Only the most hardened and brazen survive in high security prisons. Inmates with a history of cooperation with the government or sex offenses are usually unable to remain in general population. If they attempt to do so, they are often maimed or killed
USPs are infused with tension, especially racial animus and geographically oriented turf disputes. While the Bureau does its best to play down the violence in United States Penitentiaries, several correctional officers have been murdered by inmates in recent years. Dozens of prisoners have been killed in the last decade.
Over a dozen USPs exist, but placement is less dependent on an inmate’s state or region of origin and more on each institution’s needs (i.e., racial break- down, gang issues, etc.). As such, inmates beginning their sentences at high-security prisons are likely to be housed far from home.
Michael Santos, who spent time in more than a dozen federal facilities during his twenty-five-year sentence, was determined to better himself during his incarceration. But, he notes, “High-security penitentiaries are not quite the same as universities. On more than one occasion, I had to walk through puddles of blood. I had to stay focused through lockdowns, mass violence, and the deafening noise of hatred.” But he worked toward his goals and found success.
List of High-Security Prisons | United States Penitentiaries
- USP Allenwood (PA)
- USP Atwater (CA)
- USP Beaumont (TX)
- USP Big Sandy (KY)
- USP Canaan (PA)
- USP Coleman 1 (FL)
- USP Coleman 2 (FL)
- USP Florence (AR)
- USP Hazelton (WV)
- USP Lee (VA)
- USP Lewisburg (PA)
- USP McCreary (KY)
- USP Pollock (LA)
- USP Terre Haute (IN)
- USP Tucson (AZ)
- USP Victorville (CA)
- USP Yazoo City (MS)
*Prisons housing only female inmates.
**Facilities housing both male and female inmates.