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U.S. Prison Security Levels: From Minimum to Maximum

I've been an online writer for more than nine years. I'm a thinker, and I spent a lot of time pondering random things.

Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago, IL

Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago, IL

In the United States, more than 2,150,000 people are in jails or prisons today, according to 2017–2018 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Incarceration is one of the most common forms of punishment in the country for those who choose to commit crimes. This number includes those who are jailed for a short period of time and will be released on probation, as well as those who are doing time for the rest of their lives. There are confinement facilities at every level of governance, including federal, state, county, and the local city or town.

Jail vs. Prison

The word 'jail' is often used to refer to the 'holding area' where criminals who are awaiting trial are held until their court hearing. The word 'prison' is often used to refer to the place where criminals serve their sentences after the court hearing. These two terms, however, are often used interchangeably without such distinction.

Regardless of whether the facilities are jails or prisons, there are different security levels attached to each depending on how severe the infractions were committed by the prisoners were. Some are deemed more dangerous—both to themselves and others—than the rest of the criminals. Some are less threatening and non-violent.

Minimum Security

Minimum security facilities, also known as Federal Prison Camps or FPCs, typically house criminals who need the least amount of supervision and management. They have dormitory-like housing where inmates are able to coexist in the same space and interact regularly. There is usually a low staff-to-inmate ratio and limited or no perimeter fencing.

Prison camps will often provide inmates with work or program-related activities. They are able to participate in community service and help fulfill service needs in the area.

This is the type of facility that housed Martha Stewart in 2004 when she was incarcerated for her involvement with ImClone Systems.

Low Security

When a prisoner is incarcerated in a low security building, or Federal Correctional Institution, they are also housed in dormitory-like facilities. In addition, there is also "cubicle housing" available at this level. There is typically a double fence around the perimeter. Compared to minimum security facilities, low security prisons have a higher staff-to-inmate ratio.

Low security prisons also offer strong work and program components to keep inmates occupied and productive. Many of the inmates in low-security facilities are either first-time, low-risk criminals or those who have shown good behavior in the system and have earned the right to be in an environment that provides more freedom. Inmates can, in fact, earn their way to a low-security facility from a maximum-security building for good behavior.

Medium Security

Inmates who end up at medium-security prisons are typically housed in cell-type housing. Their facilities are within double fences with electronic detection systems in place. A variety of work and treatment programs are available to these inmates as well if they comply and make efforts to improve their behavior. Prison guards have more internal controls in medium-security facilities.

Prisoners at this level are viewed as escape risks and are potentially dangerous to other inmates and staff. There is usually constant and direct supervision of all inmates.

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High Security

High-security facilities are often referred to as United States Penitentiaries. These prisons are usually behind heavy-duty perimeters, including walls and reinforced fences. U.S. Penitentiaries house their inmates in single- or multiple-cell housing with the highest staff-to-inmate ratios. There are cameras situated throughout the buildings for close monitoring of inmate actions.

Inmates secured in high-security facilities cannot often be trusted to work out in the field in any community programs. They have very little opportunity to socialize with other inmates. They are considered to be the most dangerous.

Correctional Complexes

Some prisons in the United States are part of correctional complexes. This means that they are part of a "family" of buildings that are in close proximity with one another. Each building, however, is there for different reasons and warrants different security levels.

These complexes allow the system to be more efficient, and prisoners who graduate through security levels for good behavior (or those who are "demoted" to higher security buildings for poor behavior) are easily transported. Emergencies are also easier to handle due to additional resources that are nearby.

Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, Springfield, MO

Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, Springfield, MO

Administrative Buildings

In the Bureau of Prisons, there are also administrative facilities that are charged with special missions. Specialty areas could include housing pretrial offenders or containing those who are extremely dangerous, violent, or at high risk of escaping. Administrative buildings can also be used to treat inmates with chronic or serious medical issues.

Some of the administrative buildings in the system are in the middle of large cities. Others exist in suburban areas. Regardless of their location, they are prepared to house criminals of all levels. Within one building, the level of security could change as people go from floor to floor or section to section.

Examples of Administrative Facilities

  • The Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (MCFP)
  • Metropolitan Correctional Centers (MCC)
  • Federal Detention Centers (FDC)
  • Metropolitan Detention Centers (MDC)
  • The Federal Transfer Center (FTC)
  • The Administrative Maximum U.S. Penitentiary

Satellite Camps and Low Security

There are also satellite buildings attached to some of the larger facilities.

Satellite Camps

These facilities are generally small and are usually adjacent to or near a larger prison. The camps provide prisoners with a place to go when they are ready and able to perform work. The labor provided usually ends up serving the facility where the inmate is housed.

Satellite Low Security

These facilities are also usually attached to or on the same campus as a larger facility. Low-security satellites are used to house criminals who are earning their way out of the system by exhibiting good behavior. They may be working on an earlier release or nearing the end of their sentences.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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