Prison Security Levels

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Based on the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) data, as of September 10, 2022, 12.5% of federal inmates in the United States are in high-security facilities, while 14.7% are in minimum security prisons.

Correctional facilities implement certain factors and variables to determine an offender’s security level. These factors help decide what prison type these individuals end up in.

What are the different prison security levels? How are inmates classified based on security? How are the prison security points scored? Is there a difference between prisons and jails?

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This article discusses the different security levels of prisons in the United States and how a prison’s security level is determined. 

We also address how prisons override security level calculations and how authorities categorize inmates according to their security level.

Grasping the Concept of Security Levels in Prison

Most people have not experienced being imprisoned or do not know anyone who is incarcerated

Therefore, they need to have a realistic understanding of what goes on in the prison system.

The custody and classification systems in the U.S. determine the facility where the offender serves their sentence. 

Individuals who are likely to be given a prison sentence should learn how certain actions can influence the type of prison where they will be confined.

An Introduction to Prison Security Levels

Inmate classification levels can impact the prisoners’ lives and experiences. One significant factor that can influence an inmate’s quality of life is their prison security level.

Medical and Mental Health Care Levels

Aside from the security level, the BOP also classifies federal prisons based on their medical and mental health care levels. 

Overall, the higher a facility’s medical and mental health care level, the greater the likelihood that inmates will receive better care.

These levels are essential, especially for federal inmates with medical or mental health conditions. 

A correctional facility’s available quality of care can significantly impact a detainee’s quality of life and prison experience.

Different Prison Security Levels

Federal prisons in the U.S. are classified based on levels of security, such as minimum, low, medium, high, and administrative facilities. 

These levels dictate the prison’s physical security parameters, staff-to-inmate ratio, and privileges that inmates can enjoy.

Quality of Life in Different Federal Prisons

An inmate’s experience in federal prison can differ from one correctional facility to another. One significant factor influencing this difference is the prison’s security level, which can directly impact the detainee’s quality of life.

Generally, the lower the inmate’s security classification level, the higher their quality of life. In contrast, the higher the inmate’s custody level, the lower the quality of life.

Furthermore, a lower likelihood of an inmate being a risk to the community also lowers their security level.

High-security federal prisons are possible hazardous environments where most violent criminals reside. On the other hand, minimum security prisons are relatively safer, where inmates are less likely to commit violence.

Minimum Security Prisons

The BOP classifies minimum security prisons as the lowest security level among federal prisons. These prisons are also called federal prison camps (FPCs) or satellite prison camps (SPCs).

Minimum security federal prisons typically house criminals convicted of nonviolent offenses and have less than 10 years left on their sentence. 

These inmates live in dormitory-style housing within a facility with minimal staff, minimal violence, and few fences.

Most federal prisoners believe that the minimum security inmate classification level is the best and safest security level. Offenders with the lowest level of security get placed in FPCs.

Low-Security Prisons

Low-security prisons, also called low-security federal correctional institutions (FCIs), house inmates with less than 20 years on their sentences. 

These prisoners live in dorm-style housing, although there are FCIs with rooms adjacent to the dorms.

As of September 10, 2022, 35.6% of the federal prison population is detained in low-security federal prisons.

One primary difference between minimum and low-security prisons is that FCIs have fences surrounding the prison premises. 

Some FCIs have two rows of such barriers, typically with no razor wire spools, which are prevalent at higher security institutions.

Violence can still occur in low-security federal correctional institutions. However, such acts are minimal at these facilities. FCIs also confine sex offenders.

Low-security FCIs have higher staff levels than FPCs but fewer than those in medium- and high-security institutions.

Medium-Security Prisons

Medium-security prisons confine inmates in cells rather than in dormitories. 

Multiple fences with razor wire spools surround all medium-security federal correctional institutions. There are also armed perimeter vehicles patrolling the prison day and night.

About 33.4% of the federal inmate population is situated in these prisons as of September 10, 2022.

Federal prisoners with a history of violence are imprisoned in medium-security prisons. Violence can still be prevalent and severe in some facilities.

Medium-security FCIs detain prisoners who have less than 30 years on their sentences. Staffing levels in these prisons are higher than in low-security prisons and lower than in high-security facilities.

High-Security Prisons

High-security prisons, also known as United States Penitentiaries (USPs), are the federal prisons with the highest security.

As of September 10, 2022, approximately 12.5% of federal inmates are confined in high-security level prisons.

Similar to medium-security FCIs, USPs detain inmates in cells. 

Many of these offenders have significant histories of violence, and some federal prisoners in these facilities die due to interpersonal or gang violence.

All USPs have several reinforced fences or a wall surrounding the structure. Most high-security federal prisons also have gun towers around their perimeter.

High-security federal prisons accept all types of inmates. However, certain groups, such as informants and sex offenders, may experience harassment and significant violence, making their stay in these facilities challenging.

Lockdowns due to group disturbances and violence are common in high-security facilities. These correctional facilities also have the highest staff levels among federal prisons.

Restrictive Housing

Prison staff can temporarily remove an inmate from the prison’s general population and place the individual in an intensive management unit (IMU) or administrative segregation. 

An inmate is put in an intensive management unit if they are:

  • A potential threat to the safety of staff, visitors, or their fellow inmates
  • A risk to their own safety
  • A possible prison escapee
  • A significant danger to the prison’s orderly operation

Seven Factors Determining an Institution’s Security Level

The following factors determine a prison’s security level:

  • Housing conditions, such as whether the facility confines inmates in dormitories, locked rooms, or cages
  • The staff-to-inmate ratio
  • Perimeter barriers, like fences or concrete walls
  • Use of mobile patrols around the facility’s perimeter
  • Internal security, including door locks and window bars
  • Gun towers along the prison’s perimeter and armed guards monitoring the movement and activities from those towers
  • Use of detection equipment such as metal detectors and sound-guns that can intercept prisoners’ voices

Final Prison Security Level Determination

After calculating the base and custody points, the BOP applies these points to a variance grid, which considers the base and custody score to determine the prisoners’ classification.

The Bureau uses two different variance score grids according to the inmate’s gender. Male detainees receive a score of +8 to -5, while female federal prisoners have a variance ranging from +15 to -16.

Afterward, the Bureau applies the variance to the inmate’s base score.

To illustrate, if a male inmate has a base score of 11 and a custody score of 12, he will receive a +1 variance (12 – 11 = 1), resulting in a total security score of 12 (11 base score + 1 variance = 12).

Federal Prison Security Levels Points Tables

The Federal Bureau of Prisons implements the following scoring tables based on gender to decide the inmate’s prison security level:

Male Inmate Prison Security Level Table

  • 0 to 11 points: Minimum security
  • 12 to 15 points: Low-security
  • 16 to 23 points: Medium-security
  • 24 points or higher: High-security
  • All point totals: Administrative security

Female Inmate Prison Security Level Table

  • 0 to 15 points: Minimum security
  • 16 to 30 points: Low-security
  • 31 points or higher: High-security
  • All point totals: Administrative security

Overriding Prison Security Level Calculations

The security point total is the primary way to determine the inmate’s prison designation and management variables. 

However, public safety factors can override this traditional prison security level placement. These factors can also impact a federal prisoner’s designation significantly.

Such variables can cause an inmate’s placement at a federal prison to be higher or lower than what the security score assessment indicates. 

Alternatively, the BOP can use management variables to place inmates in a specific institution or program.

Public Safety Factors (PSFs)

PSFs include non-security point factors requiring added safety measures to ensure the public’s safety and protection.

These factors rely on relevant factual information regarding the following categories:

  • Current offense
  • Sentence
  • Institutional behavior
  • Criminal history

Each PSF has a different outcome, mainly placing the inmate at a higher security prison than the security point total indicates.

When classifying prisoners, the Bureau applies 11 PSFs, which are as follows:

Deportable Alien

This PSF applies to inmates who are not U.S. citizens or naturalized U.S. residents and covers male and female inmates.

Should the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) consider deportation proceedings unwarranted or decline to deport the inmate, the BOP will remove this PSF.

Inmates with this PSF require at least a low-security prison placement.

Disruptive Group

The disruptive group PSF applies to male prisoners who are members of disruptive groups. This factor requires identification in the central inmate monitoring (CIM) system.

Detainees who receive the disruptive group PSF get assigned to the high-security level.

Greatest Severity Offense

The greatest severity offense PSF determines how the BOP assigns security points according to the inmate’s crime of conviction. 

From its name, this PSF involves the most severe offenses.

The Bureau applies this PSF to male detainees only and houses them in at least a low-security federal prison.

Juvenile Violence

This PSF requires a documented instance of violent behavior resulting in a guilty verdict and applies to male and female juvenile offenders.

Violence is using physical force to cause or intend to cause physical or psychological harm. 

This unlawful act also includes conduct leading to aggressive or intimidating behavior likely to cause death or serious bodily harm.

Prison Disturbance

The BOP uses the prison disturbance PSF for serious violent incidents within the correctional facility that requires a finding of guilt and applies to male and female inmates.

One example that qualifies for this PSF is engaging or encouraging a riot in conjunction with simultaneous prison disruptions.

Male inmates with this safety factor are held in a high-security level prison, while females get placed at the FMC Carswell administrative unit.

Serious Escape

This PSF applies to female inmates with a history of escaping prison during the last 10 years. 

The inmate must be residing in the administrative unit of the Federal Medical Center (FMC) Carswell when the BOP applies this PSF.

This PSF also applies to male offenders with a history of escaping from a secure facility. The serious escape PSF requires confining these inmates in at least a medium-security facility.

Serious Telephone Abuse

This PSF applies to offenders using the prison telephone system to continue their criminal activities or promote illicit organizations. 

The Bureau does not need a guilty finding to apply this PSF to the inmate in question.

This PSF applies to inmates who perform one or more of the following:

  • Meets the definition of a primary motivator, leader, or organizer
  • Utilizes the telephone to communicate threats of assault, bodily injury, homicide, or death
  • Facilitates significant fraudulent activity through the inmate telephone system
  • Arranges the introduction of alcohol or narcotics into the correctional facility

Federal law enforcement can also request this PSF for inmates guilty of a level 100 or 200 offense for telephone conduct. 

Meanwhile, intelligence officials from the BOP can also call for the application of this PSF on prisoners upon reasonable suspicion or documented intelligence supporting telephone abuse.

The BOP houses inmates who qualify for the serious telephone abuse PSF in at least a low-security federal facility.

Sex Offender

This safety factor covers male and female inmates and can include a past or current sexual offense. 

The sex offender PSF can apply when the pre-sentence report or other official documentation indicates any of the following conducts:

  • Non-consensual sexual contact, such as sexual assault, sexual battery, or rape
  • Possession, distribution, or mailing of child pornography
  • Sexual contacts such as statutory rape, indecent liberties, rape by administering a drug or substance, or sexual abuse of a minor or physically incapacitated individual
  • Aggressive or abusive sexual acts, such as rape by instrument, minor prostitution offenses, or incest

The Bureau places inmates with the sex offender PSF in at least a low-security federal prison.

Throughout the past several years, the BOP’s Designation and Sentence Computation Center (DSCC) staff have refused to waive this PSF, causing the challenging of this prisoner classification typically unsuccessful.

Sentence Length

The sentence length PSF involves the time left on an inmate’s sentence and applies only to male inmates.

The BOP divides this PSF into three categories:

  • 10 or more years left: Low-security level
  • 20 or more years left: Medium-security level
  • 30 or more years left: High-security level

Bureau staff can waive the sentence length PSF for some instances. 

This waiver can significantly affect the quality of life of inmates residing in medium- and high-security level prisons.

Threat to Government Official

This factor applies to male or female inmates who threaten a government official with harm. 

The CIM system must classify the inmate as such within their system, and the prisoner must reside in at least a low-security federal prison.

Violent Behavior

The violent behavior PSF applies to female inmates and requires two convictions for serious violent incidents within the last five years. 

This PSF requires the prisoner to reside in at least a low-security federal facility.

Management Variables (MGTVs)

Management variables can result in similar outcomes as PSFs. 

However, MGTVs are more flexible, meaning they can have other outcomes rather than only restricting an inmate’s prison security level.

For instance, while the greater security MGTV increases an inmate’s security level, the lesser security variable reduces the security level score.

Other management variables can also help move prisoners to a facility closer to their home, ensure their placement in particular programs, and even waive certain PSFs.

The BOP implements the following MGTVs:

Central Inmate Monitoring Assignment

The BOP employs this MGTV in cases where certain offenders need additional supervision.

One instance is when the Bureau deems specific inmates as a threat to government officials. The BOP can apply this MGTV to hold such prisoners at a facility with higher security.

Greater Security

The greater security MGTV is used when an inmate presents a larger security risk than their assigned security level. 

This variable is typically the result of pending charges, detainers, escape risk, or related factors.

Applying this variable increases the inmate’s security level by at least one. 

Low-security inmates with this MGTV may be housed at medium- or high-security federal prisons.

Judicial Recommendation

This MGTV applies when sentencing judges recommend an inmate to undergo or participate in a specific program or institutional placement, like a residential drug abuse treatment program. 

Another instance of this MGTV is when the court suggests a prisoner be placed in a facility with a sex offender management program.

The law requires the BOP to consider judicial recommendations. However, the agency has no legal requirement to comply with such proposals.

Lesser Security

The Bureau applies this MGTV for inmates who should be confined in a lower-security level facility than the offender’s classification scoring indicates. 

This MGTV functions as an override to help lower the inmate’s security level.

The BOP typically applies the lesser security MGTV when an inmate exhibits positive institutional adjustment. 

Another common application of this MGTV is when inmates have a higher security level score due to their age. However, prison staff believes a lower security level is more appropriate.

Long-Term Detainee

Long-term detainees undergo a security scoring process that is different from regular federal inmates. 

While the BOP assigns long-term detainees with an initial custody and security level, institutional staff do not rescore these inmates.

Medical or Psychiatric

The Bureau applies the medical or psychiatric MGTV to inmates requiring placement at a medical or mental health institution.

The inmate must exhibit severe psychiatric issues or require medical or surgical treatment before the agency considers them for this MGTV. 

However, medical or psychiatric MGTVs are temporary, lasting no more than six months.

Once approved, the BOP can designate the inmate for placement at an FMC.

Population Management

This MGTV applies in specific circumstances wherein the net result is the inmate’s placement at a facility not consistent with governing BOP policy.

For example, if all facilities where the inmate qualifies for placement are overcrowded, the Bureau can use the population management MGTV to relocate the prisoner to an institution with higher security.

Another instance is when security concerns, such as gangs, restrict an inmate’s confinement. In this case, this MGTV can permit the inmate to be placed in another location.

Program Participation

The BOP uses the program participation MGTV to allow inmates to engage in programs unique to a single institution.

The agency applies this variable to help override an inmate’s security level and permit their placement at a lower-security facility for program participation. This MGTV expires after 18 months.

PSF Waived

This MGTV allows the DSCC administrator to waive properly imposed PSFs. 

Enforcing this PSF allows inmates to be housed at one level lower than their scored security level.

Only the DSCC administrator can approve the PSF waived MGTV.

Release Residence

The DSCC applies this variable when transferring prisoners to a facility closer to their homes. 

The BOP considers facilities within 500 driving miles (805 kilometers) of the inmate’s release residence reasonably close for designation purposes.

Security level considerations tend to create concerns about release residence proximity until the detainee is near the end of their prison sentence. 

Thus, case managers often request this MGTV when the inmate is within 36 months of release.

Work Cadre

The work cadre MGTV applies to secure institutions that have no SPC. This variable enables specific inmates to work outside the facility’s perimeter where they are otherwise prohibited from doing so.

Prison Security Points

The BOP implements a comprehensive security point matrix to determine a prison’s security level. 

This matrix has several factors classified into base points, which are fixed factors regarding the inmate and their case, and custody points, such as in-prison conduct.

Custody classification involves determining an inmate’s supervision level and considers various aspects such as the prisoner’s criminal history and in-prison behavior.

The following sections explore the scoring of each point category:

Base Point Scoring: Base Point Case Factors

Base points are static factors that increase an inmate’s security point total. 

These points can determine a detainee’s prison security level. Therefore, inmates generally want their base points to have a low score.

The following are the base point types and how they get scored:


Inmate age is essential in the BOP’s security level classification matrix. Younger inmates tend to have higher security points.

The following age brackets determine the prisoner’s assessed security points:

  • 18 to 24 years: Eight points
  • 25 to 35 years: Four points
  • 36 to 54 years: Two points
  • 55 years or older: Zero points

Criminal History Score

This category links directly to the inmate’s criminal history score and comes from the detainee’s pre-sentence report. 

This score is also based on the U.S. sentencing guidelines’ criminal history point total, as the judge determines during sentencing.

Current Offense Severity

The current offense severity category assigns points according to the inmate’s current offense severity. 

Points can range from zero to seven, with zero as the lowest and seven as the highest.

When determining the offense severity, the BOP does not limit itself to the crime. The Bureau assesses severity points based on the inmate’s most severe documented behavior.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse

The drug and alcohol abuse factor assigns security points for offenders with a history of substance abuse.

The Bureau scores inmates with one security point for any finding of guilt or conviction for a drug or alcohol use-related offense during the last five years. 

Such crimes include a positive drug test or driving under the influence (DUI).

Cases of drug or alcohol abuse that occurred more than five years before the inmate’s classification do not get scored.

Educational Level

The education level category distributes security points based on the inmate’s educational attainment.

The BOP gives one security point to inmates who are presently pursuing a general equivalency diploma (GED) or high school diploma. 

Detainees with no GED or high school diploma and who are not pursuing one can receive two security points.

Offenders who already possess a GED or high school diploma do not get assessed for this factor.

History of Escapes and Escape Attempts

The category of escape history or attempts considers all of the inmate’s actual or attempted escapes. 

The BOP gives zero to three points according to the recency and seriousness of the escape or attempted escape.

A minor escape is fleeing from an open institution or program but does not involve an actual threat of violence. 

One example is when the inmate escapes from a minimum security prison or does not return from a furlough or temporary release.

Meanwhile, serious escape involves escaping from secure custody with or without the threat of violence.

History of Violence

This factor scores an offender based on their history of violence, scoring them from zero to seven points. 

Inmates with zero to one case do not receive a point, while those with more than 13 cases score 10 points.

The Bureau distinguishes between minor and serious violence. Minor violence involves aggressive or intimidating behavior unlikely to lead to serious bodily harm or death. 

Meanwhile, serious violence can likely cause harm or death.

Type of Detainer

Detainers are pending charges that the BOP scores from zero to seven security points based on outstanding detainers, warrants, and charges. 

Low severity detainers are given one point, while detainers of the greatest severity are assigned seven points.

Voluntary Surrender Status

Voluntary surrender status is when the court orders a defendant to be on pretrial release, meaning they remain at home rather than staying in the county jail while the case is ongoing. 

Once sentenced, the court directs the offender to self-surrender to a specific institution.

This category is the only base point case factor with a negative value of security points.

An inmate who voluntarily surrenders will get three points deducted from their security level. 

Should the U.S. Marshals Service transfer the offender into custody and place them in county jail, they receive a zero point value.

Custody Points Scoring: Custody Point In-Prison Factors

Unlike the static base points, custody points depend on in-prison conduct and can change regularly. 

Inmates generally prefer higher custody points as these points translate to a lower total security score.

The BOP scores custody points based on the following factors:

Family and Community Ties

This category involves the inmate’s community and family ties. 

The BOP scores the prisoner based on their efforts to build, strengthen, and maintain a connection with their family or community.

Inmates with good or average family and community ties receive four points. Meanwhile, detainees without initiative to improve community and family relationships receive three points.

Frequency of Disciplinary Infraction

The frequency of disciplinary infraction refers to the inmate’s number of incident reports within the past year. 

The BOP typically assigns the following point values:

  • No incident: Three points
  • One incident report: Two points
  • Two to five incident reports: One point
  • Six or more incident reports: Zero points

Living Skills

The living skills category measures the inmate’s attitude, demeanor, personal accountability, and nature of interactions with their fellow prisoners and staff. 

This category also addresses personal hygiene and sanitation issues.

Percentage of Time Served

The BOP staff measures the inmate’s percentage of time served by dividing the number of months completed by the number of months the prisoner must serve.

Inmates with up to 25% of the time served get three points, while those with 91% or more get awarded six points.

Program Participation

This factor measures the inmate’s active educational, psychiatric, and vocational program participation. The Bureau can assign good (two points), average (one point), and poor (zero points) scores in this field.

Good program participation involves participating in multiple recommended programs, while average participation is when the detainee chooses to engage in one program at a time.

Meanwhile, poor participation occurs when the inmate refuses to participate in such programs.

Type of Disciplinary Infraction

This factor scores inmates on the number and type of their most serious incident reports. The BOP awards between zero to five points, depending on the severity of the report.

Classification of Prisoners Based on the Degree of Security

The BOP utilizes a classification system to determine the prisoners’ classification. 

This assessment scores the inmate’s security point total, determining the incarceration security level. Many state departments of corrections use similar systems.

Initial Prison Designation

Federal inmates are assigned a specific level of security based on their custody and classification score. 

The BOP’s DSCC does the initial calculation of this score and completes the inmate classification within three days after receiving the required documentation.

Initial Designation Documentation and Process

The U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Probation Department provide the necessary documentation to the DSCC for initial designation determinations. 

These documents include the following:

  • Pre-sentence report (PSR)
  • Statement of reasons
  • Judgment and commitment order

The DSCC follows the following process for selecting the inmate’s initial designation:

  • The court sentences the inmate, and the court clerk provides the judgment and commitment order to the DSCC
  • The U.S. Marshals Service informs the DSCC that the offender is ready to be designated to federal prison
  • The DSCC contacts the appropriate agencies for any missing required documents
  • The DSCC makes an initial designation by performing a classification and custody analysis to determine the prisoner’s security level

Factors Considered When Making Initial Designation Determinations

The DSCC staff calculates the inmate’s security point total using the above documents and considers the applicable management variables and public safety factors. 

A dedicated DSCC team is responsible for determining the inmate’s initial designation.

Once the DSCC completes this process, the staff notifies the U.S. Marshals Service of the inmate’s placement designation. 

The U.S. Marshals Service then facilitates the transportation of the prisoners in custody to their designated facility.

Redesignation or Recalculating of Security Point Scores

The inmate’s case manager can recalculate the prisoner’s security level at the facility the inmate will eventually be housed. 

Following initial designation, it becomes the case manager’s duty to rescore the offender periodically.

The inmates’ security points and custody levels change over time. For example, the prisoner’s age can reduce their prison security level after serving for several years.

Alternatively, inmates convicted of a prison disciplinary infraction will likely have their security points increased, which can also increase their security level.

Reasons for Redesignations and Transfers

Inmates may require redesignation or transfer to another prison for many reasons based on the case manager’s determination or the offender’s request.

Prisoners may prefer transferring to a facility closer to their home to encourage visits, or the inmate’s good or bad behavior may have changed their classification level.

Other reasons for transfer or redesignation include medical purposes or educational training program participation.

Annual Program Review

Case managers typically perform periodic custody and classification rescoring during the annual program reviews. 

The inmate meets with the staff members in these reviews, which are short and inconsequential affairs.

Bureau policy dictates that the first program review should occur approximately seven months after the inmate’s initial designation.

 Afterward, succeeding program reviews should happen every 12 months. Changes to a prisoner’s classification typically occur at this point.

Approving Transfers

The warden can approve inmate transfers within the same federal correctional complex, such as a lower security prison next to the main institution.

If the prisoner must transfer to a different facility, their case manager must request a redesignation to the DSCC. 

This department then considers the purpose of the relocation and makes a final transfer determination.

Therefore, while the inmate can request a transfer to a specific facility, the DSCC has the authority to permit or deny the inmate’s transfer to the institution they choose.

What Is a Level 4 Prisoner?

The definition of a level 4 prisoner depends on the state. 

However, this level means these inmates are placed in a maximum security prison.

For example, in Oregon, the state considers a level 4 inmate as high-risk custody. 

Therefore, the prisoners’ housing unit should be in a medium to maximum custody facility, such as the Snake River Correctional Institution or the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Level 4 inmates typically serve long sentences, such as life without parole, or have past behavioral issues.

What Security Levels Are Most Jails?

By midyear of 2019, there were 376 maximum, 451 medium, and 287 minimum security confinement facilities in the United States. 

These figures show that most correctional facilities in the country are at the medium-security level.

Administrative Security Prisons

Administrative security facilities are different from other prison security levels. 

Rather than being a specific security level, these facilities house inmates based on the mission of that particular institution. Only prisoners with special classifications reside in these facilities.

The different administrative security federal prisons are as follows:

Federal Medical Centers (FMCs)

Inmates residing in federal medical centers (FMCs) require critical and ongoing medical attention. FMCs house a few prisoners only.

Medical Center for Federal Prisoners

A medical center for federal prisoners (MCFP), such as MCFP Springfield, is the BOP’s main lockdown mental health hospital. 

This facility houses federal inmates with severe mental illnesses.

Federal Detention Centers and Metropolitan Detention Centers

Federal detention centers (FDCs) and metropolitan detention centers (MDCs) house detainees on pretrial status. 

These inmates have not yet been convicted or sentenced to prison.

Federal Transfer Center

A federal transfer center (FTC), specifically FTC Oklahoma City, is the BOP’s transit hub for male and female prisoners. 

Inmates traveling long distances pass through FTC Oklahoma City.

This administrative federal facility is near the Will Rogers World Airport, allowing prisoners who are traveling long distances to fly from this institution to airports closer to the inmate’s designated facility.

Metropolitan Correctional Centers

Metropolitan correctional centers (MCCs) are federal prisons located in large metropolitan areas. 

These facilities detain pretrial inmates awaiting court proceedings and sometimes house offenders serving short sentences.

Administrative Maximum Security Penitentiary

An administrative maximum facility, such as ADX Florence, is a federal prison with the highest security in the United States. 

The facility is also called a supermax prison and holds inmates who require the highest level of supervision and control.

Prisoners in a supermax facility include those who engage in severe violence or are convicted of terrorism.

Breaking Down the Different Prison Types in America

There are several types of correctional institutions in the U.S., each with its own rules and operating procedures.

Prisons vs. Jails

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), jails are meant to detain inmates for a relatively short period, usually while waiting for trial or sentencing.

Law offenders who committed a misdemeanor and were given a sentence of about one year or less can also serve time in jail.

On the other hand, prisons are long-term facilities for holding inmates who are serving sentences longer than a year. Prisons also house inmates convicted of serious crimes, such as felonies.

Another key difference is that local governments, such as counties or cities, operate jails, while the federal and state governments run prisons.

State Prisons

State prisons house inmates who commit crimes at the state level, such as robbery, assault, arson, or homicide. 

Each state has a unique prison system legislation, which can vastly differ from one another.

States often vary in their positions regarding capital punishment, probation, and the racial composition of their prison populations.

Federal Prisons

Offenders in federal prisons are those charged with federal crimes, such as tax fraud, identity theft, drug trafficking, or child pornography. 

There are 122 federal prisons across the United States. In September 2022, the BOP confined 158,758 inmates in these prisons.

Private Correctional Institutions

The demand for higher prison capacity is often more than what the government can provide. 

In such cases, federal, state, or local governments contract private firms to operate prisons on the government’s behalf.

BOP data shows that, as of September 2022, about 1% of inmates reside in private facilities, and about 10% are in other facilities not operated by the Bureau.

Juvenile Detention Centers

The primary goal of juvenile detention centers is to educate and rehabilitate young offenders so they can rejoin society.

States operate these youth prisons to confine and rehabilitate offenders aged below 18. 

Courts can sentence these inmates to juvenile detention for offenses such as property crimes, truancy (absenteeism or staying away from school), drug-related offenses, and violence.

There have been fewer juvenile detention centers in recent years due to increased preference for alternatives such as probation, counseling, or confinement in the smaller county- or city-level facilities.

United States Penitentiaries (USP)

United States Penitentiaries (USPs) confine federal prisoners who typically have an extensive history of violence.

A USP detains gangs and organized crime groups who are living without any expectation of a normal life as law-abiding citizens.

USPs also hold offenders convicted of high-dollar crimes as a consequence of sentencing laws punishing people for such crimes.

Screening and Testing

Screening and testing procedures can vary among states. For example, in Washington, initial inmate classification at the reception center includes the following:

  • A department orientation
  • A comprehensive interview
  • Medical, dental, and mental health screenings
  • Screening services and educational assessments

After completing the initial screening, the staff transfers the inmate to the appropriate facility for custody level purposes.

Inside the Criminal Justice System

Correctional officers are responsible for facilitating order and safety in jails and prisons. 

These officers abide by specific procedures to maintain peace in the facility and protect inmates, prison staff, and visitors.

Escorting prisoners safely in and out of their housing units to outside destinations, such as courtrooms and medical centers, is one of the primary responsibilities of these officers.

Many correctional officers in state or local prison facilities work for the government, although private prisons also employ such staff.

Officers working in jails are likely to meet a wide variety of inmates confined for short-term stays and less severe infractions. On the other hand, officials working in prisons typically encounter convicted felons.

One thing in common among correctional facilities is that they require 24/7 security. 

Therefore, correctional officers usually work on the weekends, overnights, and holidays. They must be alert and ready to take action regardless of the time they are on duty.

Do you need more information about the U.S. prison system? provides helpful articles to familiarize yourself with how the U.S. correctional system works. Search an incarcerated loved one by jail name, jail type, or state with’s online inmate search tool.


  1. Prison Security Levels (retrieved September 16, 2022)
  2. Classification
  3. Custody Classification and Levels
  4. Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities, 2019 – Statistical Tables
  5. Breaking Down the Different Types of Prisons in America
  6. About Our Facilities
  7. Statistics
  8. About Our Facilities (retrieved September 18, 2022)
  9. What Is a Correctional Officer? A Look at Life as a Jailer

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