US Prison Security Levels: From Minimum to Maximum
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.