Types of Prisons

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America’s prison population makes up a fourth of the world’s incarcerated individuals. 

As of 2020, more than 1,600 correctional facilities—1,266 run by the government—held the nation’s 1.2 million inmates. 

The U.S. prison system sends law offenders to a type of jail or prison depending on the person’s crime, where it took place, and the person’s criminal history.

Offenders may go to jail to serve a short-term sentence or prison, where incarceration lasts for less than a year. 

Moreover, based on their crime, criminals can be in the custody of either state or federal correctional institutions.

The court may send people who committed federal crimes to any of the five types of prison under the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) management. These facilities are the minimum, low, medium, high, and administrative security prisons.

What is each type of correctional facility like, and how vastly distributed are they in the U.S?

This article will distinguish these correctional institutions and describe how each operates. 

LookUpInmate.org has a database of more than 7,000 U.S. jails and prisons. Our website is an excellent tool if you need to search for a jail or prison near your area or a particular locality. 

We also have resources explaining the workings of the American justice system from the community to the federal level.

Different Types of Prisons: How Many Kinds of Prisons Are There? 

U.S. prisons are categorized into five different types depending on their level of security:  

Minimum Security

Minimum security prisons or federal prison camps (FPCs) hold work and program-oriented inmates who are serving the last ten years of their sentence or lower. 

Some FPC inmates may include prisoners who had started in higher-security facilities but transferred to this location following years of good behavior. You can also find white-collar criminals in the custody of FPCs.

Inmates at minimum security jails stay in dormitory-style accommodations where the staff-to-prisoner ratio is relatively low compared to low-security prisons. 

Doors at the inmates’ housing units are not locked, and fencing is minimal. 

Some BOP units have a small FPC near a larger main facility, which they call satellite prison camps that offer inmate labor to the primary institution.

Low-Security

Low-security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs) have a higher staff-to-inmate ratio than minimum security facilities due to the mixed population inside. 

Prisoners in this facility include those with a history of violence. Inmates who violated rules while incarcerated at a minimum security site may also be transferred to low-security institutions.

However, individuals staying at low-security FCIs are within 20 years of release.

The gang presence at these facilities is less overt than those found in medium- and high-security prisons.

Just like the housing at FPCs, low-security FCIs have dorm-type housing and double fencing surrounds the perimeter of this correctional facility. 

However, you will not find razor wiring that is typically found in higher security units.

Medium-Security

Medium-security FCIs have an even higher staff-to-prisoner ratio than low-security FCIs and have more strict internal controls. 

Most inmates in these prisons have lengthy criminal histories, with over 30 years remaining in their sentence. 

However, medium-security prisons also admit those with nonviolent convictions. 

Violence can occur often but not daily, as in the case of high-level facilities. Inmates adopt a tribal way of thinking and craft tools for weapons.

Prisoners stay in cell-type housing and facilities, typically double fencing with electronic detection systems and armed vehicles patrol the premises 24/7.

High-Security

High-security prisons, or United States penitentiaries (USPs), have the highest staff-to-inmate ratio. 

USPs have a very volatile environment as their population consists mainly of hardened criminals.

Most prisoners facing capital punishment are in high-security facilities.

Inmates are typically predatory and craft their weapons, just like medium-security prisoners. Group disturbances and violence frequently happen in these prisons, leading to lockdowns, which can last for weeks.

Inmates live in small, single-person cells with a metal bunk bed, metal sink, and a metal toilet. Each housing unit has a steel door with a heavy dead bolt that locks up the offender inside for the most part of the day. 

USPs also have reinforced fences with razor wire fencing and gun towers.

Supermax Facilities

Supermax prisons are facilities with the highest security levels, designed to provide long-term, segregated housing to inmates deemed as the highest security risks in a state’s prison system.

Offenders housed at supermax prisons have committed grievous crimes, shown repetitive violent behavior, and threatened to escape or start disturbances. 

Inmates at supermax prisons are in solitary confinement. These prisoners have little access to work, rehabilitation, or religious activities or programs.

Human interaction is also limited, even between prisoners and officers. Authorities rely on automated technology for operating cell doors and food delivery.

Administrative

Administrative-level facilities are unique in that they hold various inmates, including offenders awaiting transfer to a more permanent facility. 

These institutions also house inmates who need medical attention or special programming. 

At the same time, some units, such as the administrative-maximum (ADX) security prison in Florence, Colorado, keep highly dangerous and escape-prone offenders.

Besides the ADX prison, administrative-security facilities include the following:

  • Medical Center for Federal Prisoners Springfield and federal medical centers
  • Federal detention centers (FDCs) and metropolitan detention centers (MDCs)
  • Federal Transfer Center Oklahoma City
  • Metropolitan correctional centers (MCCs)

The next set of prisons below does not fall under the security-level classification but has certain special functions.

Complex

Federal correctional complexes can feature several facilities of varying security levels. 

The geographical proximity of these units enhances emergency preparedness and experience-building among staff due to shared resources.

Juvenile Detention Centers

State governments run juvenile detention centers or youth prisons that incarcerate and rehabilitate offenders aged 17 years old and younger. 

Psychiatric

When authorities deem a law offender mentally unfit for incarceration at a regular jail or prison, they can send that person to a psychiatric prison. 

Inmates at these hospital-like facilities receive mental health support and undergo rehabilitation activities.

Military

Military camps also have prisons, where they detain members of the military who break the law, particularly violations that threaten national security. 

Incarcerated military personnel will receive a bad conduct discharge upon completing their prison term. 

Thus, these officers get training in alternative fields ahead of their release. Options include hospitality services, culinary arts, carpentry, and auto repair.

Private Correctional Institutions

Sometimes the national or local government enters into agreements or partners with private companies to run correctional institutions.

These contracts have helped ease overcrowding and funding problems.

According to data from 2019, the U.S. has 411 privately operated correctional facilities. 

A 2022 report says that 99,754 inmates, or 8% of the total state and federal prison population, were in private prisons in 2020.

Halfway Houses

Some inmates who are nearing release go to halfway houses or temporary residential facilities which are based in a community. 

These facilities provide services that help inmates transition from incarceration to regular civilian life and have permanent living situations.  

Inmates in halfway houses are under round-the-clock supervision and have to report daily to correctional staff. 

Offenders who moved to halfway houses must also strictly follow curfews and meet drug testing requirements. 

Besides getting transitional housing, prisoners also receive support for post-release education and employment options, as well as substance use treatment and counseling.

In some cases, authorities do not send offenders to halfway houses for reintegration preparation but instead, use the facility as an alternative to incarceration.

Government-run halfway houses resemble privately owned sober living homes, where individuals can access individual and group therapy and undergo regular drug tests.

Home Detention (With Ankle Bracelet Use)

Another form of incarceration is home detention (home confinement or house arrest). 

Accused or convicted offenders on home detention are under 24/7 electronic monitoring via ankle bracelets.

Individuals charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies with no history of violent crimes are typically eligible for home confinement.

Those in home detention follow a strict schedule and have to be in their residence at set times. 

Authorities also generally choose home detention for minors who committed nonviolent offenses.

Prisons vs. Jails

The main difference between jails and prisons lies in the government entity that oversees the facilities and the inmates’ length of stay. 

Prisons

The state and federal governments operate prisons. 

The inmates’ incarceration period at these facilities is typically beyond one year. The prison population is generally more significant than that found in jails.

Supervision

Prisons are either under the authority of the Federal Bureau of Prisons or a state’s department of corrections.

Order and Discipline

A set of officers maintain order and discipline among prison inmates. 

Wardens, a prison’s top executive, have associate wardens who oversee specific departments such as the prison staff, upkeep of the physical prison, food service, and education programs. 

Department heads handle the day-to-day management of each division. Their staff includes a case manager, counselor, and unit secretary. 

Prison officials organize inmate activities depending on their facility’s security level. Minimum- to medium-security institutions typically offer work programs. The officers and staff also manage visitations.

Oversight

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) oversees the BOP. The OIG conducts audits to deter misconduct, mismanagement, abuse, fraud, and waste.

Jails 

Jails are under the jurisdiction of local—city, county, or local district—law enforcement.

These facilities are typically short-term institutions that hold inmates serving misdemeanor sentences of one year and below.

Some jails serve as holding stations for offenders awaiting transfer to a state or federal prison. Felons may also be in jail as part of their probation sentence.

Linear and Podular Jails

Some of America’s lower-security jails are podular in structure as cells surround a hub instead of lining up in rows. 

This arrangement eases surveillance and they are called “direct supervision jails.”

Several modern jails use the podular model, so they are also called “new generation” jails compared to the linear “old generation” jails.

Minnesota’s Dakota County Jail, Florida’s Hillsborough County Orient Road Jail, and Massachusetts’ Norfolk County Sheriff’s Correctional Center are examples of podular jails.

Federal Prisons vs. State Prisons

State Prisons

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which holds a census of state and federal correctional facilities every five or seven years, stated in its 2019 report that America has 1,155 state facilities.

Offenders guilty of state crimes are in the custody of state prisoners. State prisoners spend an average of 2.7 years at state prisons, based on 2018 BJS data published in 2021.

Federal Prisons

The BOP manages 122 federal prisons. Federal prisons are facilities classified under five security levels.

State and Federal Prisoners: How They Get Assigned to Their Correctional Facilities

Depending on their crime, law offenders serve their sentences in either state or federal prisons. 

Every state has its own laws and corresponding punishment for violations that determine how long offenders should stay in prison. 

Violent crimes (homicide, rape, robbery), arson, and white collar crimes are some state crimes that can land you in state prison.

Meanwhile, federal crimes cover offenses where the national interest is at stake, such as counterfeiting U.S. currency and other types of financial fraud.

A person can also get a federal conviction for committing the following crimes:

  • Crimes in which the offender crosses state lines, such as drug trafficking or online fraud with perpetrators and victims in several states
  • Crimes on government-owned property, such as theft on a military base, or involving federal officers, such as an assault on a Drug Enforcement Agency agent
  • Crimes like human trafficking and importing child pornography
  • Violations in immigration and customs 

Names of America’s Most Popular Prisons 

Besides ADX Florence, which is considered a supermax prison, other popular U.S. prisons include:

United States Penitentiary Marion

This prison was designed to house inmates from the Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco, which closed in 1963. 

The Illinois-based facility declared itself a “control unit,” after putting itself under supermaximum security in 1983. 

The designation followed the death of two guards at the hands of prisoners. The penitentiary went on lockdown and 60 guards from other institutions flew to Marion to strengthen security. The lockdown lasted for 23 years.

USP Marion’s famous inmates include mafia chief John Gotti, white supremacist, and murder convict Thomas Silverstein, and Cincinnati Reds’ Number 14 and top MLB hits leader Pete Rose.

Attica Correctional Facility

The maximum security prison, Attica Correctional Facility in New York, has become famous due to the celebrities that served their sentences at the site. 

American rapper Tupac Shakur, serial killer David Richard Berkowitz, and John Lennon’s murderer, Mark David Chapman, were among these individuals. 

A riot broke out among its prisoners in 1971, killing 39 inmates and ten officers. Racial bias and poor conditions reportedly fuelled the unrest that lasted for five days, making headline news. Authorities used tear gas to dispel the rioters.

References 

  1. The keys to our mass incarceration crisis — and who holds them
    https://www.aclu-wa.org/story/keys-our-mass-incarceration-crisis-and-who-holds-them%C2%A0
  2. Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities, 2019 – Statistical Tables
    https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/csfacf19st.pdf
  3. Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables
    https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/p20st_sum.pdf
  4. Correctional Facilities
    https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/corrections/correctional-facilities
  5. Breaking Down the Different Types of Prisons in America
    https://www.rasmussen.edu/degrees/justice-studies/blog/different-types-of-prisons/
  6. About Our Facilities
    https://www.bop.gov/about/facilities/federal_prisons.jsp
  7. Conditions on Death Row
    https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/death-row/conditions-on-death-row
  8. Supermax Prisons and the Constitution, page 5
    https://s3.amazonaws.com/static.nicic.gov/Library/019835.pdf
  9. Supermax Prisons: Overview and General Considerations
    https://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/NIC_014937.pdf
  10. The History and Controversy Surround Private Prisons in the U.S.
    https://study.com/learn/lesson/how-many-private-prisons-are-in-the-us.html
  11. Private Prisons in the United States
    https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/private-prisons-united-states/
  12. Practice Profile: Halfway Houses
    https://crimesolutions.ojp.gov/ratedpractices/90#pd
  13. House Arrest and Ankle Monitors: How Home Detention Works and When It’s Used
    https://www.lawyers.com/legal-info/criminal/criminal-law-basics/home-confinement-as-an-alternative-to-prison.html
  14. Correctional Institutions
    https://bjs.ojp.gov/topics/corrections/correctional-institutions#v0csqe
  15. What is the Difference Between Jail and Prison?
    https://www.hg.org/legal-articles/what-is-the-difference-between-jail-and-prison-31513
  16. Statement of Michael E. Horowitz, Inspector General, … concerning “Oversight of the Bureau of Prisons: First-Hand Accounts of Challenges Facing the Federal Prison System”
    https://oig.justice.gov/node/777
  17. About the Office
    https://oig.justice.gov/about
  18. Types of Jails
    https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/ccj230/chapter/8-8-types-of-jails/
  19. Audits of Podular Direct-Supervision Jails
    https://s3.amazonaws.com/static.nicic.gov/Library/013633.pdf
  20. Time Served in State Prison, 2018
    https://bjs.ojp.gov/library/publications/time-served-state-prison-2018
  21. From Alcatraz to Marion to Florence – Control Unit Prisons in the United States
    https://people.umass.edu/~kastor/ceml_articles/cu_in_us.html

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