The Federal Bureau of Prisons operates 125 stand-alone prisons, 68 satellite prison camps, and has contracts with 13 private prisons. In total, the federal prison system houses 188,722 inmates within five different security levels: minimum, low, medium, high and administrative. BOP institutions are further divided into five regions, which span the United States: Mid-Atlantic Region, North Central Region, Northeast Region, South Central Region, Southeast Region and Western Region. All of these regions are supervised by the Bureau’s Central Office in Washington, DC.

In most cases, the security level of the institution in which an inmate is housed corresponds with the inmate’s custody level. This designation is determined by the inmate’s custody and classification points, with factors including such elements as crime of conviction, criminal history, time remaining on their sentence, age, conduct while incarcerated, applicable detainers and other factors. Essentially, the lower an inmate’s custody and classification score, the lower the security level of the institution at which they will be housed, and vice versa. While management variables can be applied to house an inmate at a different security level than their custody points dictate, institutional staff must have a justifiable reason for doing so (e.g., a particular educational or psychological program, a particular need for greater or lesser security, etc.).

Minimum Security Federal Prisons

Minimum security federal prisons, or Federal Prison Camps (FPCs), house approximately 17 percent of the federal prison population. They have multi-person rooms and dormitory-style living quarters, grounds with unsecured perimeters, generally unrestricted or open movement within those perimeters, and low inmate-to-staff ratios. Inmates housed at minimum security federal prisons can expect relatively lax monitoring of mail, email, telephone calls and visits, as well as fairly unsupervised and unmonitored recreational and leisure activities.

Some minimum security federal prisons are based on a work camp model in which a percentage of the inmate population provides services and labor to adjacent military bases or other federal prisons, along with neighboring communities. As FPCs house only inmates meeting strict criteria who are relatively close to being released from custody, these minimum security prisons experience few incidents of violence or other disciplinary misconduct. As a rule, sex offenders, inmates with a history of escape and those who otherwise pose a serious risk to the public are not permitted at minimum security federal prisons. While exceptions to these rules are permitted, they are relatively unheard of as they concern those with a sex offense.

Low Security Federal Prisons

Low security federal prisons, or Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs), house approximately 38 percent of the federal prison population. They generally have dormitory-style housing and double-fenced perimeters with electronic detection systems. Movement within the compound is controlled, but may be open after the 4 p.m. count. Low security federal prisons have higher inmate-to-staff ratios compared to minimum security prison camps, and monitoring of mail, email, telephone calls and visits is more substantial. Recreational and leisure activities are supervised and monitored to a larger degree.

Incidents of violence are not significant at most low security federal prisons and there is usually not a strong active gang presence, although disciplinary misconduct is not uncommon. Inmates must have less than 20 years remaining on their sentence to be eligible for placement at a low security federal prison.

Medium Security Federal Prisons

Medium security federal prisons, which are also known as Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs), house approximately 29 percent of the federal prison population. They have securable multi-person cells, double-fenced perimeters with electronic detection systems, controlled movement within the prison, and a higher inmate-to-staff ratio than low security federal prisons. All aspects of monitoring are enhanced and include indoor and outdoor video surveillance.

The prevalence of violence varies among medium security federal prisons. This significantly depends on the culture of the individual facility, though gangs are present throughout. Incidents of all levels of disciplinary misconduct are common at these facilities. Inmates must have less than 30 years remaining on their sentence to be eligible for placement at a medium security federal prison, although inmates serving longer sentences can be housed at this security level if they are granted a management variable.

High Security Federal Prisons

High security federal prisons, which are also known as United States Penitentiaries (USPs), house approximately 12 percent of the federal prison population. These high security federal prisons have securable single- and multi-person cells, perimeters with multiple reinforced fences or walls, guard towers and/or other shooting platforms for armed guards, strictly controlled movement within the compound, and the highest inmate-to-staff ratio. The level of monitoring and video surveillance is significant at all high security federal prisons.

Gangs are a dominant presence and racial and gang violence is rampant at the high security level. Killings are not common, but are not unheard of, as physical encounters often involve some type of prison-made weapon (such as a shank). Other incidents of disciplinary misconduct are frequent and often of a high severity level. Inmates ineligible for placement at lower security prisons are housed at high security federal prisons. With the exception of USP Tucson, Arizona, sex offenders and those with “bad paperwork” (i.e., informants) have a very hard time remaining at any high security federal prison due to the real threat of violence against them.

Administrative Security Federal Prisons

Federal prisons categorized as administrative house inmates of all custody levels. They include Metropolitan Correctional Centers (MCCs), Metropolitan Detention Centers (MDCs), Federal Detention Centers (FDCs), Federal Medical Centers (FMCs), the Federal Transfer Center (FTC) in Oklahoma, the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (MCFP) in Missouri, and the Administrative Maximum United States Penitentiary (ADX) in Colorado.

MCCs, MDCs, and FDCs provide secure detention for pre-trial and other inmates. The FMCs and MCFP Springfield provide advanced medical care for inmates with severe, chronic or special medical needs. Inmates at these facilities tend to be housed in single-person cells, multi-person cells or dormitories, and generally have access to the same programs as are available at other federal prisons (e.g., recreation, commissary, education, etc.). Facilities located in metropolitan areas do not generally allow inmates to go outside of the facility except for court appearances, though inmates housed at FMCs are usually afforded access to outdoor recreation facilities.

FTC Oklahoma is the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ inmate transfer hub located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. FTC Oklahoma is building-based, with airplanes used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for transporting inmates docking alongside the building and inmates boarding and disembarking via a retractable jetway. This facility is similar to purgatory, as inmates are awaiting transfer to their final destination, which can take days or weeks. Vulnerable inmates are sometimes housed in a special cell block for protective custody. General population inmates are housed in regular cell blocks where they have access to telephones, TRULINCS computers, televisions and a secured recreation deck.

ADX is the supermax designated for the secure containment and confinement of inmates deemed to pose a severe risk to public safety and/or the safety of other inmates or prison guards. ADX has single-person isolation cells and segregated recreation pens. Inmates at the ADX are locked down 22 to 24 hours a day. The facility holds around 500 federal inmates, which has included Eric Rudolph, Ted Kaczynski and a host of other terrorists.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.

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).