Prison Security Levels

The Federal Bureau of Prisons houses its prison population at institutions with five different security levels: Minimum, Low, Medium, High, and Administrative These prisons differ based on the populations they house, the format of inmate housing, security components of the prison and perimeter (e.g., external patrols, towers, security barriers, detection devices, etc.), and staff-inmate ratios. Essentially, the lower the risk of the population, the lower the security level; the higher the risk, the higher the security level.
Inmates are assigned to a specific level of security based on their custody and classification score, which is initially calculated by the Bureau of Prisons’ Designation and Sentence Computation Center (DSCC). However, an inmate’s security level can be recalculated by their case manager at the prison facility where they are eventually housed.
Prison Security Levels

An Introduction to Prison Security Levels

The Bureau of Prisons classifies every federal prison by security level, medical care level, and mental health care level. The Bureau also assigns each federal inmate security, medical care, and mental health care levels. As a general rule, an inmate will be housed in an institution with classifications that correspond with his or her designation.
The federal prison experience can differ significantly from institution to institution. The biggest difference-maker is the security level assigned to a given prison. High-security federal prisons tend to be extremely dangerous environments where abject violence at the hands of inmates and staff alike is relatively common. Minimum-security facilities, on the other hand, are usually quite safe and sane.
Medical and mental health care level classifications also impact life in federal prison, though to a lesser degree than security level classifications. In general, the higher the level, the better the care provided to inmates. For a federal inmate with a medical or mental health condition, the quality of care available at an institution can make a tremendous difference in the prison experience and quality of life. Sometimes the difference quite literally amounts to life or death.

Different Prison Security Levels

Every federal prison is designated one of five security levels, which are described in detail below. The level assigned to a particular institution dictates the physical security parameters of the prison, the staff-to-inmate ratio, and the freedoms afforded to inmates. As a general rule, the higher the security level, the more restrictions are placed on inmates.
Every federal prisoner is assigned one of four security levels: minimum, low, medium, or high. Absent unusual circumstances, an inmate will be housed in an institution with a security level that matches his or her assigned level.
Below are the definitions of the five security levels from lowest to highest security level:

Also known as Federal Prison Camps (FPCs), minimum security prisons house inmates convicted of non-violent offenses in dormitory-style housing. There are few (if any) fences, lower staffing levels and minimal violence. Sex offenders are precluded from placement at federal prison camps, so too are those with a history of escape or group demonstrations. Only those with less than 10 years remaining on their sentences and a very minimal history of violence are placed at camps.

Also known as Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs), low-security prisons also house inmates in dormitory-style housing, although they can have some history of violence. While all FCIs are surrounded by fences (and sometimes double rows of them), they usually lack the traditional spools of razor wire prevalent at higher security levels. Violence is also minimal at these prisons, and prisoners must have less than 20 years remaining on their sentences to be eligible. Sex offenders are permitted to be housed at low-security FCIs. Staffing levels are higher than at camps but lower than at medium-security FCIs.

Also known as Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs), medium-security prisons tend to house inmates in cells, and a number of these inmates do have a history of violence. All medium-security FCIs are surrounded by spools of razor wire and multiple fences, along with an armed perimeter vehicle that circles the prison night and day. Depending on the prison, violence can be prevalent and severe. Prisoners must have less than 30 years remaining on their sentences to be housed at medium-security FCIs. Most prisoners are permitted to be housed at medium-security FCIs. Staffing levels are higher than at low-security FCIs but lower than at high-security federal prisons.

Also known as United States Penitentiaries (USPs), these are the highest regular security federal prisons. Inmates are housed in cells and most have a significant history of violence. These are some of the most violent prisons in the United States, where prisoners die each and every year due to gang and other group forms of violence. All high-security federal prisons have either multiple reinforced fences or an actual wall surrounding the prison. Most also have gun towers. All types of prisoners are permitted to be housed in USPs, though some, such as sex offenders and informants, have a hard time staying due to violent acts perpetrated against them. As far as regular security federal prisons go, USPs have the highest staffing levels.

These prisons (also known as unclassified prisons), can be of any security level, and their specific missions can be varied, including:

  • Federal Medical Centers (FMCs) where prisoners requiring serious medical attention are housed
  • Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (MCFP) where seriously mentally ill prisoners are housed
  • Federal Detention Centers (FDCs) where pre-trial detainees are housed
  • Federal Transit Centers (FTCs) where prisoners are housed while awaiting a bus or plane to take them to another prison
  • Metropolitan Correctional Centers (MTCs) house both pre-trial detainees and sentenced inmates in a large building in a metropolitan area.

This security level/type of prison also includes the Administrative Detention Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colorado, which is the Bureau’s highest security institution.

Security Points

The Federal Bureau of Prisons determines who is assigned to each security level using a points system, which takes into account the prisoner’s criminal history, history of violence, the severity of the current conviction, time remaining on sentence, disciplinary history, history of escape, educational level, age, and many in-prison concerns (e.g., program participation, family communications, percentage of time served, etc.).
The point ranges for each security level differs for males and females. The ranges for both are as follows:

Your security level will be based on a detailed review of your Pre-Sentence Report (PSI/PSR). Generally, prisoners with more than 10 years remaining on their sentence will be housed at least in low-security federal correctional institutions, those with 20 years or more will be housed at least in a medium-security federal prison, and those with 30 years or more will be housed in a high-security federal prison.
Sex offenders are generally precluded from minimum-security placement. Outside of that, younger prisoners and those with a more significant history of violence are often housed at higher security prisons. Note that this does not mean a high-security prison, but a placement higher than a camp or a low.
Some prisoners are precluded from camp placement. These include deportable aliens, sex offenders, prisoners with greatest severity offenses, prisoners with a history of violence, escape, prison disturbances, serious telephone abuse, those who are members of disruptive groups, and those with more than 10 years remaining on their sentence are generally precluded from camp placement.
However, this restriction can be waived – each of these categories constitutes a Public Safety Factor (PSF), and prisoners can be assigned multiple PSFs. For example, a person convicted of production of child pornography who was sentenced to 30 years would have Sex Offender, Greatest Severity, and Sentence Length PSFs. While this is an extreme example, the DSCC Administrator has the authority to waive a public safety factor assignment so that a prisoner could be housed at lower security than generally permitted, but this occurs very rarely.
Federal prisoners are rescored on an annual basis, although a recent prison disciplinary conviction can result in a rescoring. This is done by your case manager. While point totals are based on the individual, most prisoners will spend years at their current prison prior to coming up for a transfer to a different prison or a different security level.
Want more information on your security levels, or those of a loved one? Contact us for more information.