US Prison Security Levels: From Minimum to Maximum

Updated on May 24, 2016

In the United States, almost 2,300,000 people are in jails or prisons today. 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 are 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.

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. Some are deemed more dangerous, 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 as well 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 inmates to keep them 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.

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.  US 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 of them all.

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 of one another.  Each building, however, is there for different reasons and warrant 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.

Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago, IL
Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago, IL

Administrative Buildings

In the Bureau of Prisons, there are also administrative facilities that are charged with specials missions. Specialty areas could include housing pretrial offenders or contain 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 the 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.


Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, Springfield, MO
Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, Springfield, MO

Administrative facilities include:

  • 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

Satellite Camps

These facilities are generally small and are usually adjacent to or near a larger prison.  The camps provide prisoners 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.

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Jennifer Siebold 

        11 months ago

        My brother has been charged with 2 misdemeanors that have to be served back to back totaling a year. I visited him this weekend at a MEDIUM security prison--Seattle Federal Detention Center. They can't go outside and see the sun or feel the ground--all concrete and barred windows 30 feet in the air. And they call it "natural light??" They are awaken every hour at night for security checks. He was told that he would go to a minimum security prison, specifically Sheridan in Oregon where they have programs or something like it! There have NO PROGRAMING at SFDC. Visiting there I thought of the "upside down" world that "Stranger Things" refers to--the dark side--a parallel universe that we know nothing about until you have reason to. It flies in the face of anything humane or anything that would grow hope or create a change. It isn't about what PEOPLE need, it is about what BOP needs in terms of housing in certain facilities and numbers. What can one do to advocate for a change? For the setting, for him? Anyone have any experience in this?? @ddalberg what did you do??

      • profile image

        G Long 

        2 years ago

        Call NLPA

        They are the best

        Worth the money to get real help

      • profile image

        lwilliams 

        2 years ago

        to ddalberg. How did you get your son transferred. The same thing has happened to my son, who is non-violent, first time offender, not a escape risk, etc. I would really like to know what to do to help him. He was just placed in a high security prison when he was told from the beginning, it would most likely be low security.

      • profile image

        ddalberg 

        2 years ago

        This oversimplifies things. My son was in a high security for 5 years as a first time white collar offender because he received a long sentence. We fought hard to get him moved or he'd still be there today.

      • profile image

        michelle 

        2 years ago

        any idea what the re offender rate in a max vs lower security level federal prisons

      • profile image

        SortingHat 

        2 years ago

        Good job and unlike some sites you don't have to sign up to *view the rest of the article* as they put it.

        Unless I'm going to pay for no ads I refuse to give away my email to a site I've never heard of just to read an article as I don't want to be spammed.

      • profile image

        Single Shot 

        5 years ago

        Interesting... I live near a Prison too, not sure if it's medium to maximum security, but if I really wanted to.. I could walk to the prison..from where I live.

      • shahid sher profile image

        Shahid Sher 

        5 years ago from Pakistan

        Yeah This is Nice Sharing I really Appreciate This Great Hub Keep it Up :)

      • Paul Kuehn profile image

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        gypsum girl,

        This is a great interesting article explaining the different levels of prison security. I have learned a lot and I appreciate you sharing this well-researched hub. Voted up and sharing with followers. Also Pinning.

      • jose7polanco profile image

        Jose Misael Polanco 

        6 years ago from Los Angeles

        is there any type of punishment there in prison? Some people seem to work well with the education programs there but some other will just never recover bac into community. I read a research in 2002 that people who served longer prison terms were less likely to be rearrested and re-convicted (recidivism) than people who served less time sentences. Maybe some time behind bars with no rehabilitation programs is just wasted time.

      • jpcmc profile image

        JP Carlos 

        6 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

        This is the first time I read about the different levels of prison security. It's quite interesting. ALthough it makes me think if the actual security measures are enough. More than just escaping prisoners, there is risk of violence, injuries and death within the prison.

        The US prisons look like hotels compared to what we have here in the Philippines. Moreover, security is so lax that there are reports of drug smuggling and even prostitution in the prisons.

      • Denise Handlon profile image

        Denise Handlon 

        7 years ago from North Carolina

        Great hub. I loved your opening line: For those who choose to commit crimes. Accountability, or lack of, is a serious problem in our country. Not sure why, but there is a whole generation growing up right now feeling mighty entitled and easy to blame someone else for their problems.

      • gypsumgirl profile imageAUTHOR

        gypsumgirl 

        7 years ago from Vail Valley, Colorado

        Reynold Jay: I'm glad you enjoyed this hub. Thanks for reading!

      • Reynold Jay profile image

        Reynold Jay 

        7 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

        I did some research along these lines when I wrote Watchdogg last year. Very nice. I enjoyed this very much. You have this laid out beautifully and it is easy to understand. Keep up the great HUBS. Up one and Useful. Hey! I'm now your fan! RJ

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