Federal Prison Security Levels
In the Bureau of Prisons, each federal prison institution falls into one of five different security levels.
Federal inmates should have a basic understanding of each federal prison security level.
The levels are:
Seven factors determine federal prison security level…
1. The use of mobile patrols that drive around the institution’s perimeter 24 hours each
2. Gun towers located around a prison’s outside perimeter. Armed BOP guards monitor
the movement and activities from inside those gun towers.
3. Perimeter barriers that separate the prison from the community.
4. Detection devices like metal-detectors and sound-guns that can intercept prisoner
5. Internal security that includes locks on doors and bars on windows.
6. Housing issues, such as whether the institution confines people in locked rooms, cages,
or open dormitories.
7. The ratio of staff members to inmates.
As federal prison security levels increase, liberties and restrictions decrease. The most secure federal
prison in the United States is the Administrative-maximum security prison (ADX) at the
Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado. Prisoners confined in said
institution have very little contact with others. The BOP also operates select, Special
Management Units (SMUs), which are located within United States Penitentiaries. If an
individual is sent to the ADX or an SMU, it’s because authorities have deemed that
individual as being predacious, or incapable of functioning in a more open prison
Criteria for serving time in a minimum-security federal prison camp:
Federal inmate must be within 10 years of the release date.
Federal inmate must not have a documented history of violence or sex offense over a
prescribed period of time (at least 10 years).
Federal inmate must not have any history of escape attempts.
Administrative-level facilities hold prisoners from any and all security levels. This means
that convicted murderers will be serving time alongside tax evaders.
Federal inmate criteria for being held at the Administrative Level:
1. Administrative facilities confine federal inmates who have active judicial proceedings.
They are like large jails where people await transfer to a more permanent facility.
2. Administrative facilities confine federal inmates who need medical attention or special
programming, such as Federal Medical Centers. Many FMCs have affiliations with local
hospitals in the neighboring communities.
3. Administrative facilities confine federal inmates who are in transit from one institution to
another. The primary transit center is the Federal Transit Center at the Oklahoma City
4. Administrative facilities confine federal inmates who authorities have classified as being
especially dangerous or prone to escape, such as the Administrative maximum unit in
Florence or the Special Management Units, like the one at USP Lewisburg.
Seven factors determine an institution’s security level
The use of mobile patrols that drive around the institution’s perimeter 24 hours
Gun towers located around a prison’s outside perimeter. Armed BOP guards
monitor the movement and activities from inside those gun towers.
Perimeter barriers that separate the prison from the community.
Detection devices like metal-detectors and sound-guns that can intercept
Internal security that includes locks on doors and bars on windows.
Housing issues, such as whether the institution confines people in locked rooms,
cages, or open dormitories.
The ratio of staff members to inmates.
United States Penitentiaries (USP)
United States Penitentiaries are the most volatile of all federal prisons. Federal
prisoners who serve inside of a USP, typically have an extensive history of violence.
Inside a USP you will find gangs, organized crime, and a heavy concentration of
psychotic people who live without any expectation of living a normal life as a law-abiding
citizen. As a consequence of sentencing laws that punish people extensively for high-
dollar crimes, a relatively small percentage of people on the compound will be serving
time for white-collar crimes. All federal prisoners in the penitentiary will share common
Culture: Federal prisoners live by a different code than exists in the world outside.
The daily environment is filled with high levels of violence, manipulation, extortion, and
altercations. Federal inmates serving time inside of USPs are militant and stubbornly
resistant to authority. Volatility is a constant in a USP.
Quarters: Federal prisoners in high-security penitentiaries usually share a closet-size
room with at least one other prisoner. The rooms are extremely small. If a man
outstretches his arms in a penitentiary cell, he will touch both walls. The room will
contain a metal bunk bed, a metal toilet, and a metal sink. A heavy dead bolt will lock
the steel door for majority of every day.
Structure of the Day: Penitentiary doors will unlock at 6:00 am. Federal inmates
may then move to the chow hall for breakfast, or they may have limited access to the
recreation yard. At 7:30, the federal prisoners will either report to work, to a program, or
they will return to their cell for a lockdown period. As a consequence of high levels of
violence in the penitentiary, prisoners confined to USPs spend a lot of time locked in
their cells. Sometimes on “Lockdown” for weeks at a time.
Leisure Time: Strict rules and schedules restrict all movement in a USP. If an
individual is not assigned to a work detail, the individual may request to access the
recreation yard, the education area, participate in table games in the housing unit, or
watch television in a designated area. The environment is borderline tribal, with varying
factions of federal inmates influencing activities inside.
Violence and Volatility: Federal inmates serving in USP will witness routine
violence. This will include the use of federal inmate created weapons, such as knives,
blunt instruments, pipes and/or clubs. There is a high concentration of predatory,
unstable individuals living in a USP, it is the worst possible place to serve time.
Medium-Security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCI):
Medium-security prisons are known as Federal Correctional Institutions. They confine
prisoners from all backgrounds and with all types of sentence lengths. Most of the
people who serve time inside of a medium-security FCI will have extensive criminal
histories, and many will serve sentences in excess of 30 years. Yet all FCIs will include
a population of offenders who serve sentences for sophisticated criminal activity that
does not include street crimes.
Culture: A medium-security FCI will be less volatile than a USP. They will confine
between 800 and 2,000 people. For the most part, average sentence lengths will span
between 10 and 30 years, although some people in medium-security FCIs will be
serving life sentences. The institutions will have lower levels of violence, gang activities,
and volatility, though those levels will still be too high for comfort. As in the penitentiary,
the atmosphere squashes hope for many.
Quarters: Prisoners in medium-security FCIs will live in housing units that are similar
to those in the USP. Small rooms or cells will include metal bunk beds, a metal toilet,
and a metal sink. A heavy dead bolt will lock the steel door for the majority of every day,
but prisoners in an FCI will have more free time outside of their room than prisoners in a
USP. If the room has a window, bars will cover it and opaque class will prevent the
prisoner from being able to look outside. The windows will not open. Prisoners must
keep all possessions inside a small metal locker.
Structure of the Day: On a normal day, guards will unlock doors inside a medium-
security FCI at 6:00 am. The prisoners may move to the chow hall for breakfast, or they
may have limited access to the recreation yard. At 7:30, the men will either report to
work, to a program, or they will return to their cell for a lockdown period. Prisoners
confined to FCIs have access to more activities than in the penitentiary. Those activities
will include team sports, table games, and educational opportunities.
Leisure Time: Strict rules and schedules restrict movement in medium-security FCIs.
If an individual is not assigned to a work detail, the individual may request to
access the recreation yard, the education area, participate in table games in the
housing unit, or watch television in a designated area. The environment is political and
tribal, with different factions of prisoners influencing activities inside.
Violence and Volatility: Prisoners in a medium-security FCI will see and hear
about violence routinely, though not on a daily basis as in the USP. Some of the
violence will include the use of weapons that prisoners manufacture, like knives and
blunt instruments like pipes or clubs. With a few opportunities to build upon hope,
consultants at Prison Professor consider FCIs the second-worst possible place to serve
time. Despite the volatility, individuals who exercise high levels of discipline can
overcome, as our Prison Professors teach.
Low-Security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCI):
Low-security prisons are also known as Federal Correctional Institutions. They confine
federal prisoners from all backgrounds. Federal inmates in low-security FCIs do not
have extensive, documented criminal histories; if they have a history of violent behavior,
several years have passed since the lasted documented act of violence. Prison
administrators are known to (often) make classification errors, leading to confining
violent individuals in low-security institutions. Institutions which confine well-educated,
Federal inmates can be serving time inside of a low-security prison for a number of
reasons, which may include:
The federal inmate may have more than 10 years to serve before the scheduled release
The federal inmate may have received a disciplinary infraction while inside a minimum-
The federal inmate may have special program needs that require them to serve time
inside of a low-security prison.
Culture: A low-security FCI will be less volatile than either a medium-security FCI or a
high-security USP. Population levels will hold between 1,000 and 2,500 federal inmates.
All prisoners in a low-security FCI will be within 20 years of their scheduled release
date. There will be few organized disturbances and gang activity will not likely intrude on
the lives of non-gang members. Most of the federal inmates serving time inside a low-
security FCI are focused on their release date and on staying out of further trouble. If a
federal inmate has been convicted of a sex offense, or if the individual has a history of
cooperating with authorities, the individual will face challenges from staff and inmates.
Quarters: Federal prisoners in low-security FCIs live in open dormitories. Bathrooms
are in a common area, under the “open” plan. Federal inmates live in close proximity to
each other and there are minimal levels of privacy.
Structure of the Day: In a low-security FCI, there will not be any locked doors
within the housing unit. At 6:00 am, the housing unit will open for breakfast and
recreation. Federal prisoners may move to the chow hall for breakfast, or access the
recreation yard. At 7:30, the federal inmates will either report to work, to a program, or
they will return to the housing unit. Prisoners confined to low-security FCIs have higher
levels of freedom within the boundaries of the institution. Those activities will include
team sports, table games, and educational opportunities.
Leisure Time: In a low-security FCI, federal inmates are able to govern their lives in
ways geared towards personal growth. If they are not assigned to a work detail, the
individual may request to access the recreation yard, the education area, participate in
table games in the housing unit, or watch television in a designated area.
Violence and Volatility: Federal prisoners in a low-security FCI face less instances
of volatility, then inmates in a higher security prison. It is highly unusual for federal
prisoners in a low-security FCI, to gather and riot or form an orchestrated disturbance.
There are exceptions, but typically, violence in low-security is sporadic and hardly
Minimum-Security Federal Prison Camps or Satellite Camps (FPC and SCP)
Minimum-security camps hold federal inmates who are within 10 years of their release
date, do not have documented histories of violence, and do not have any record of
escape attempts. FPCs may hold federal prisoners who started at a higher-security
prison. Most white-collar offenders serve their time inside of minimum-security camps.
That being said, the population inside minimum-security camps has a higher
educational level. Still, every offender should do everything possible to position himself
to serve his sentence in the best possible prison.
Culture: The focus in the camp will be on returning home, someone is released
almost every day. Many of the federal inmates surrendered to camp voluntarily, which
suggests that authorities perceived them as people who can be trusted. The low level of
security causes administrators to experience a significant issue with the introduction of
contraband. The high levels of contraband can be extremely tempting for federal
inmates in minimum-security camps.
Quarters: Federal prisoners in minimum-security camps live in open dormitories.
Some units partition the dormitories off with cubicles while others keep all the men
together in large auditorium-like room. Bathrooms will be in a common area, under the
“open” plan. Inmates will live in close proximity to others and privacy will be non-
Structure of the Day: In a minimum-security camp, there will not be any locked
doors within the housing unit. Sometimes the unit itself will remain unlocked throughout
the night, allowing the inmates to get fresh air. Federal inmates have minimal
restrictions with their ability to move around camp.
Leisure Time: In a minimum-security camp, the federal inmates are permitted to
govern their lives in ways that open opportunities for personal growth. If the federal
prisoners are not assigned to a work detail, prisoners in the camp may access the
recreation yard, the education area, participate in table games in the housing unit, or
watch television in a designated area. The environment is as stable as a prison can be.
Challenges come from internal stress of being separated from loved ones rather than
from others inmates within the camp.
Violence and Volatility: Federal prisoners in a minimum-security camp should not
worry about organized violence. Violent outbreaks are sporadic and few and far
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