The United States (U.S.) criminal justice system classifies inmates to determine where they should serve their sentence.
The classification process aims to match a prisoner’s risks and needs to a facility that can provide the appropriate supervision level for the law offender.
At the same time, the prison designation seeks to ensure the safety of prisoners, their fellow inmates, and the community around the correctional facility’s location.
The custody classification also supports the daily management of individual institutions.
Correctional officers protect inmates from possible threats from other prisoners who may victimize them by separating rival gang members and confidential informants.
The Department of Corrections (DOC) and Bureau of Corrections decide on prison assignments using data about the offenders’ past and current behavior.
How does the classification system work? Who determines prisoner placement, and how do they reach this decision? What factors do government officials consider in assigning or transferring inmates?
This article explains the process that correctional officers follow to determine an inmate’s custody level.
You can also discover the factors that officials review in deciding what rehabilitation support to provide inmates and any transfers to a different institution.
Why Custody and Security Levels Matter
An inmate’s initial classification is crucial to managing security risks and providing a setting to improve the offenders’ rehabilitation and reintegration potential.
These risks include self-harm or suicide, escape and danger to the public in case of escape, destruction of infrastructure, and assault on prison staff and fellow prisoners. As mentioned, effective classification also prevents the victimization of vulnerable prisoners.
The process also gives the DOC a basis for selecting activities or programs that inmates should undergo to reduce their risk of repeating their crimes upon release.
How Does the Classification System Begin?
In federal cases, the work of determining an offender’s custody classification happens at the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Designation and Sentence Computation Center (DSCC).
DSCC officers use information in the documents coming from the court that issued the person’s sentence. A clerk of court typically submits these documents to the U.S. Marshal Service.
Besides considering the recommendations of the sentencing court and the BOP’s security concerns, the prison assignment also depends on bed availability, the inmate’s security designation, and various (health-, mental-, and faith-related) needs.
Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification
Prison classification officers assign individuals to a facility that can offer a balance between their security requirements and program needs. Program needs refer to activities or treatment addressing an inmate’s health and other issues.
For inmates transferring from county jails to prisons, correction officials transport offenders to prison receiving centers for assessment. Males, females, and youth have their respective reception centers.
Prisoners undergo a series of medical, mental, and other evaluations to help classification specialists develop individual profiles for each new detainee.
The BOP says its classification system seeks to avoid favoritism on inmates based on their economic or social status.
The DSCC takes three working days to complete the initial designation. Individuals have no access to these officers, so detainees must extend patience for the process to finish.
The center uses a scoring system to determine a person’s security risk and rehabilitation prospects.
However, some sectors assert that assessment instruments can “disfavor disadvantage.” According to a 2021 Florida International University paper, justice officials made “inequitable decisions” against people of color, minority groups, women, and people at lower income levels.
The author also asserts that the assessment criteria seem to “overly simplify” the link between risk factors and criminal pathways.
According to his analysis, the current classification system promotes blaming individual offenders for societal problems instead of reviewing the role of social and crime policies.
Initial Designation Documentation and Process
Classifying offenders for prison placement involves the review of documents from the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Probation Department. The information on these documents becomes the basis for determining a person’s security point score.
These documents include the following:
Presentence Report (PSR)
The presentence report contains the following details about the defendants: their past criminal acts, the circumstances describing their current offense, and how the defendant harmed (physically, financially, psychologically) the victim.
The report also states the restitution needs of the victim and other information that can help the court with sentencing.
Judgment and Commitment Order
This document records the conviction and sentence the court pronounces on a defendant.
Statement of Reasons (SOR)
Like the judgment and commitment order, the SOR is a form that explains the sentencing judge’s reasons for coming up with the defendant’s conviction and sentence.
Initial Classification: Initial Federal Prison Designation
DSCC will make an initial prison designation, afterward, the designation undergoes an annual review throughout an offender’s sentence.
DSCC officers start the classification process by entering data into the BOP’s database of inmates based on the following details from the PSR and judgment order:
Racial Background or Ethnicity
The DSCC will denote your race based on their coding system: Asian (A), Black or African-American (B), American Indian or Alaska Native (I), white (W).
For ethnic origin, H denotes Hispanic or Latino, while O is for all the others outside the Hispanic-Latino ethnicity.
The DSCC will verify that one’s citizenship as a person’s current address is not enough to determine their country of origin.
Country of Birth
Like citizenship, the DSCC uses a code from their country code table to denote one’s birth country.
These three pieces of data above are among the inmate details that the BOP enters into their database, even if prisoners are not yet due for custody classification.
Officers also record the offender’s full name, gender, birthday, address, height, weight, hair, and eyes.
Prison Security Points
The DSCC’s scoring job starts when they assign points to an inmate based on their data, which fall under two types. These data include case factors (which make up the person’s base points) and in-prison factors (which go to prisoner’s custody points).
After classification, officials input all the scores in a matrix (the DSCC’s security designation form), and the SENTRY (primary mission support database) system sums up the points and other additional factors.
The total score will determine the inmate’s custody or security level.
Base Point Scoring (Case Factors)
The following items are considered constant factors compared to the custody point-scoring elements. Low scores in this section are ideal for inmates seeking a low-level prison placement.
The younger offenders are, the more points they get for this part of the security level scoring.
Months Until Release From Custody
The months until an inmate’s release from custody refer to the length of incarceration (sentence length).
The Severity of the Current Offense
The score for this item does not depend on the offense that the individual is going to prison for, but on the most severe violation of the person’s criminal record.
Law offenders add points to their security level score for previous prison sentences.
An inmate gets three points for every sentence lasting more than one year and two points for each sentence lasting at least 60 days. Other sentences get one point each. An offender also gets two points for committing a crime while under probation.
History of Violence
Classification officers will review an individual’s history of violent behavior—not just their current offense—in assigning a score for this item.
History of Escape or Attempts
Offenders get higher scores for recent escape incidents or attempted escapes (three points for those that happened in the past five years) than those committed 10 years ago or more.
Detainer pertains to pending charges the offender has. The score for this item depends on the severity of the detainer.
The score also relies on the most severe case if the inmate faces several sentences.
The DSCC gives a higher score for offenders without verified GED or high school completion records (two points) than those who have started their GED programs (one point).
Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Inmates with DUIs (driving under the influence), positive drug test results, detoxification, and a conviction for an alcohol- or drug-related violation within the past five years get one point.
Custody Points Scoring (In-Prison Factors)
Custody points score can fluctuate as they depend on inmates’ behavior while serving their sentences.
Prisoners need a high score in this sector to increase their chances of getting into a lower-security facility.
Percentage of Time Served
Inmates get a higher score depending on how far they have gone into their prison term.
Prisoners get two points (good) for showing initiative in attending the education or substance abuse treatment programs that correctional officials chose for them to join.
Prisoners can get a good (two points) or average (one point) score, depending on their attitude, demeanor, interaction with staff and inmates, and personal accountability.
Disciplinary infractions refer to the number and severity of incident reports inmates get for breaking prison policies. Prisoners without any infractions in the past year get five points.
Meanwhile, low up to moderate violation within the year gets four points.
Family or Community Ties
Initiatives to improve their marital or family ties by adding relatives to their visitation or phone lists and other efforts can earn a good or average score (four points). Zero to minimal efforts get only three points.
Final Prison Security Level Determination
The BOP’s SENTRY system calculates the sum of all the base and custody points that the DCC supplied. Afterward, the classification officers must apply a custody variance score to get the inmate’s final security level.
The DCC has separate variance score tables for men and women. This total is the numeral on the box where the prisoner’s base score on the y-axis intersects with their custody score on the x-axis.
Once officials identify a person’s variance score, they add or subtract that number (there are positive and negative values) from the base score to get the inmate’s security total.
Federal Prison Security Levels Points Tables
The DCC determines the kind of security institution that is most appropriate for the inmate by checking their security total against the table below.
These security levels also define the security classification of each inmate:
Prison Security Level Table for Male Inmates
- Minimum security: 0 to 11 points
- Low-security: 12 to 15 points
- Medium-security: 16 to 23 points
- High-security: 24 points and higher
- Administrative security: All point totals
Prison Security Level Table for Female Inmates
- Minimum security: 0 to 15 points
- Low-security: 16 to 30 points
- High-security: 31 points and higher
- Administrative security: All point totals
Overriding Prison Security Level Calculations
Two factors can overrule the classification decisions that the DSCC originally calculated using the base and custody scoring system.
These factors are the public safety factors and management variables.
Applying either factor can result in an inmate’s transfer to a lower or higher security level prison.
Public Safety Factors (PSFs)
PSFs cover aspects of an inmate’s current sentence, criminal history, or prison behavior that require more strict security measures.
Officials consider these characteristics for the safety of correctional staff and other detainees.
These factors include:
- Being a member of a disruptive group
- Having committed extremely severe offenses
- Committing sexual assault
- Being a security threat to government officials (central inmate monitoring designation)
- Being a deportable alien
- Having more than 10 more years in one’s prison term
- Attempting to escape prison
- Engaging in severe prison violence or encouraging others to stage a riot
- Having violent behavior as a juvenile
- Committing phone fraud or threatening others by phone
Management Variables (MGTVs)
MGTVs can result in more outcomes than just a transfer to a lower or higher-security institution. Using these factors can lead to a PSF waiver, transfer to a prison closer to one’s family, or placement in special programs.
The BOP’s management variables include:
Judicial recommendations come from the sentencing court regarding where a prisoner should serve their sentence.
The DSCC may agree with this advice. Otherwise, the center will inform the court about its reasons for choosing a different prison designation.
Classification officers may apply the population management variable if the target prison destination is overcrowded or too high risk due to gang violence.
Officials rarely use this MGTV, while inmates frequently challenge its application.
Sometimes only specific institutions offer programs that prisoners need according to their custody classification.
Officers may use this reason to override the prison placement.
The work cadre variable is applicable for assigning inmates to facilities where they can fulfill their work assignments if the current prison has no satellite prison camp.
Greater or Lesser Security
The DSCC may use either variable if a prisoner poses a higher or lower security risk than their assigned security level.
Using the “greater security” variable may increase an inmate’s security level.
Meanwhile, applying the “lesser security” variable can lower a prisoner’s security level due to good behavior.
Medical and Mental Health Care Level
Prisoners showing specific health or psychiatric issues or those with a history of physical ailment and mental illness can receive needed services at a more suitable facility with the application of this variable.
Authorities may consider transferring inmates nearer their family’s residence when they only have 36 months remaining on their sentence.
The PSF waiver, which needs the DSCC Administrator’s review and approval, can lead to the prisoner transferring to a facility with a security level lower than their current placement.
Prisons housing long-term detainees should communicate with BOP-Central Office’s detention services branch so that they can transfer these inmates to a more suitable facility.
Reclassification: Changes in Custody and Security Levels
Redesignation or reclassification is changing an inmate’s security level.
The Prison Act of 1952 reserves the right of inmate transfer in the hands of the governor or prison headquarters. However, individual correctional facilities must ensure the prison population’s safety.
Thus, correctional officers are responsible for allowing transfers of bullied inmates.
Moreover, under the First Step Act’s Time Credits Program launched in January 2022, eligible inmates can earn 10 to 15 days of time credits for every 30 days of participation in recidivism (re-offending) reduction activities.
Reasons for Redesignations and Transfers
The most common reasons for prison transfers include:
- Change in the inmate’s custody classification based on the new custody level score
- Placement to a facility nearer home
- Medical or psychological treatment
- Need for training or program participation (drug treatment, sex offender, and life connections or release preparation programs)
Temporary transfers can also happen when an inmate’s current prison lacks a Special Housing Unit, but the person needs to stay in such a unit.
Annual Program Review
The BOP and DOC conduct regular reviews for inmates—typically every six months for state prisoners and at least twice every year for federal prisoners.
The federal prisoners’ first review after their initial classification happens in seven months. Subsequent reviews occur at least every 12 months.
Officers fill out a new custody classification form every time they hold this annual review. Any improvement to the inmates’ security scores can increase the possibility of a transfer to a lower-security facility outside the scheduled review date.
Prisoners seeking transfer must fill out the inmate placement request and appeal form, which are available at the facility, and submit the forms to their case manager. The request must cite the reason for the transfer request.
Case managers are correctional officers who examine the progress of inmates, analyze their program needs, and develop release plans.
Reasons for transfer can include the inmate’s intent to join a program only offered at a specific facility or be at an institution that is geographically closer to their family.
Inmates must also mention the length of service at the current prison and their good conduct record.
Case managers who find merit in the inmate’s request will complete a transfer application packet, which they will submit to the prison’s unit manager and administrator for approval.
After the two officials sign off the document, the case manager forwards the request to the DSCC for final approval. Meanwhile, transfers within a prison complex only need the warden’s approval.
However, case managers typically act on transfer requests only after an inmate has already served at least 18 months of prison time in their current correctional facility.
Moreover, inmates must not have disciplinary incidents on their records during that period.
Appealing a Classification
Prison officials do not automatically grant transfers. While the DSCC may allow the transfer, the department may assign an alternative placement if the requested destination is full or has other problems.
If officials deny one’s prison transfer request, inmates can appeal. They can also seek advice from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in case of substandard living conditions at their facility.
The ACLU encourages inmates to know their rights while in prison.
If an officer or fellow prisoner physically attacks you, you must file a grievance within time limits and make necessary appeals.
If you have a disability and your correctional facility excludes you from programs and services that are accessible to other inmates, you can contact your Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator or file a complaint through your facility’s grievance process.
Moreover, you have to know the deadline for filing an appeal about your initial designation, which can differ from one state to another.
In Massachusetts, inmates should file their appeal within five business days after receiving the written classification recommendation.
In Arizona, prisoners should submit their appeal within 15 days after receiving their classification notice.
Assigning Inmates to Prisons: Different Prison Security Levels
Once the DSCC finalizes an offender’s initial designation, the agency will assign prisoners to a facility that matches their security score.
As mentioned earlier, classification officials use the prison security level table for determining the appropriate security institution for male and female inmates.
Classification of Prisoners According to Degree of Security
BOP correctional facilities have five security levels: minimum security, low-security, medium-security, high-security, and administrative security.
The security level of the facility where prisoners will serve their sentence depends on these three general factors listed by the BOP:
- The amount of security and supervision an inmate requires
- The amount of security and supervision the correctional institution can provide
- The prisoner’s program needs
Quality of Life in Different Federal Prisons
Prisoners in the lower security classification have more freedom than their counterparts in medium to maximum custody.
Minimum Security Prisons
Facilities for minimum custody inmates have the least violence-prone environment.
Prisoners have the most extensive privileges, including participation in community-based work programs.
Inmates admitted to minimum security institutions (federal prison camps or FPCs) are nonviolent offenders with less than 10 years on their sentence. The staff-to-prisoner ratio is the lowest at these sites.
FPCs feature dorm-type housing, and their facilities have no or limited perimeter fencing.
The staff-to-inmate ratio at low-security facilities is higher than in FPCs. These correctional institutions can have a mix of dormitories and cubicle units surrounded by double fencing.
Prisoners are also work-oriented, although they have more years to complete their sentences—generally 19 years and below.
Medium custody inmates stay in cell units inside correctional facilities. There are perimeter fencing and electronic detection systems in these prisons.
Moreover, the staff-to-prisoner ratio at these institutions is higher than at low-security institutions.
No medium-security crimes exist, so one can find white-collar offenders with sex and drug criminals in these prisons.
Medium-security inmates have over 20 years left on their sentence. About three-quarters of the prisoner population at these facilities have violent criminal backgrounds.
High-security inmates are under close monitoring and control of correctional staff. These prisoners stay in single- or multiple-occupant cell housing.
These correctional facilities also have reinforced fences and guard towers with armed guards.
Inmates can expect violence to be a regular occurrence in these prisons, which the BOP also refers to as United States penitentiaries (USPs).
More than 90% of USP prisoners have violent criminal histories and still have over 30 years remaining on their sentence.
Administrative Security Prisons
Administrative security prisons are also called special-mission facilities. Their roles range from holding violent inmates with a high-escape risk to housing prisoners with chronic or severe medical issues.
Inmates in administrative segregation stay in solitary confinement. Officers separate these individuals from the general population to ensure their safety within the facility or local correctional system.
Meanwhile, other administrative security institutions—like federal medical centers—focus on medical care and are virtually violence-free.
Besides learning job search and application techniques, detainees also acquire practical skills by engaging in the following tasks for residents: auto mechanic work, tree thinning, janitorial duties, and roadside beautification.
Some states like Virginia have field units, where local officials detain prisoners with less severe convictions.
These units do not accommodate offenders with murder, sex offenses, abduction or kidnapping, and attempted escape on their criminal records.
Bureau of Prisons Resources
You can learn more about how the BOP operates by visiting its official website, https://www.bop.gov/.
In particular, the General Visiting Information page guides the public on planning prison visits. The section also offers general tips for inmates from different security classification levels.
The BOP also links site visitors to its various policies governing their functions, from prison operations, budgeting, inmate health, and staff management.
Moreover, their Policy & Forms page features frequently used forms such as visitation and certification of identity forms.
- What are level 5 prisoners?
Level 5 prisoners refer to inmates who require maximum security and are placed in facilities like Restricted Housing Units (RHU), Special Management Units (SMU), and Long-Term Segregation Units (LTSU).
- What are the four types of prisons?
The U.S. prison system features five types of federal prisons—minimum, low-, medium-, high-, and administrative security prisons. Several states also have the same number of custody levels.
However, some states, like South Dakota, have a different variation of this system and feature only four types of prisons: minimum, low-medium, high-medium, and maximum levels.
- Handbook on the Classification of Prisoners
- Inmate Classification
- Inmate Security Designation and Custody
- The Trouble with Using Risk Assessment Instruments to Quantify the Chance of Future Offending
- The Presentence Investigation Report
- Glossary of Federal Sentencing-Related Terms
- Judgment and Probation/Commitment Order
- Justice Department Announces New Rule Implementing Federal Time Credits Program Established by the First Step Act
- Completing the transition
- Department of Correction Inmate Classification
- Treatment of Prisoners
- Know Your Prisoner’s Rights
- Inmate Security Classification
- Case Managers
- Inmate Security Classification
- Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry
- Prison Security Levels & Characteristics
- About Our Facilities
- Breaking Down the Different Types of Prisons in America
- What Is Administrative Segregation?
- Adult Corrections
- Ready to Work
- Community Work Centers
- Incoming Inmates
- General Visiting Information
- Policy & Forms