Designation Basics

Any person facing a sentencing hearing in the Bureau of Prisons should learn about the designation process. That way, a person can start sowing seeds that may influence where he or she will serve the term.

Getting “Designated in the Bureau of Prisons”

The federal Bureau of Prisons confines more than 100,000 people in various prisons across the United States. As with any large government bureaucracy, a series of policies and procedures will guide every decision that staff members make. People that lack experience with the Bureau of Prisons may have a hard time understanding the designation process. For that reason, we’ve written this article as an introduction.

The accompanying video includes personal stories to show how an understanding of the designation process influenced my 9,500 day journey as a federal prisoner. During that term, I served time in:

  • City jails
  • County jails
  • Metropolitian Detention Centers
  • Federal Detention Centers
  • Federal Transit Centers
  • United States Penitentiaries, High Security
  • Administrative Maximum Prison
  • Federal Correctional Institutions, Medium Security
  • Federal Correctional Institution, Low Security
  • Federal Prison Camps, Minimum Security
  • Sattelite Prison Camps, Minimum Security
  • Federal Halfway House
  • Home Confinement
  • Supervised Release

Our man consultants underststand this system well, and we’re in a good position to help others navigate the system to get the best possible outcome.

Designation in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP):

The BOP classification and designation functions begin at the Designation and Sentence Computation Center (DSCC) in Grand Prarie, TX. The DSCC receives and reviews documents from:

  • The sentencing court,
  • Probation office,
  • The US Marshals Service,
  • The Bureau of Prisons,
  • Holding centers.

After sentencing, the BOP determines the facility where the defendant will serve his/her sentence according to Program Statement 5100.08, Inmate Security and Custody Classification Manual.

  • Classification Manual

When authorities check a person into a facility, staff members work through a series of processes, considering:

  • A security level,
  • Medical care level, and
  • A mental health care level.

Staff members base those assignments on information gathered during the pre-sentence investigation and compiled in the pre-sentence report (PSR).  We would be remiss if we didn’t remind our readers of the critical importance of the pre-sentencing process. Learn more about the PSR in the following link:

Thanks to The First Step Act of 2018, the BOP tries to designate people within 500 driving miles of their primary residence, assuming other security and BOP program needs are also available. When making these decisions for initial designation and any re-designations for transfer, the BOP evaluates the following factors:

  • Security level and staff supervision the institution offers, and the person requires;
  • Medical classification care level and the care level the institution offers, and the person requires;
  • Any program needs for the person (RDAP, educational or vocational training, group counseling, and other security measures); and
  • Other administrative factors like bunk space, community confinement release residence, judicial recommendations.

After the defendant receives all three of these assignments, the BOP administrator designates the defendant to the best matching facility, also trying to stay within the 500 driving mile radius.

Classification System

Placing offenders in a facility with the appropriate level of security is the primary goal of the BOP offender classification system. The BOP operates more than 122 prison facilities throughout the US. These facilities have five security levels:

  • minimum,
  • low,
  • medium,
  • high, and
  • administrative levels.

BOP administrators rely upon such classifications to assign staff members, supervision levels, the inmate to staff ratio, security measures like external security, barriers, fences, towers, and external patrols.

If the classification suggests that a person doesn’t pose a risk of violence, and he doesn’t have a history of escape, the system may designate him to serve time in federal prison camps or minimum security institutions. According to BOP statistics, approximately 15% of the people in the federal system serve their time in minimum-security camps.

As a person who served time in prisons of every security level, I would argue that with the right mindset, a person can stay productive regardless of where authorities designate him or her to serve time. Yet camps definitely have lower levels of volatility. Some benefits of time in a camp—as contrasted by security prisons—may include:

  • Lack of perimeter fencing,
  • Fewer people with a history of violence,
  • Lower ratio of staff members that can feel obtrusive,
  • Less volatility,
  • Opportunities to network with people that have higher levels of education or accomplishment.

Minimum security camps, in many ways, are easier. In other ways, higher-security prisons offer some advantages.

Secure Prisons:

Low-security facilities, known as Federal Correctional Institutions (FCI), use mostly dormitory housing and have robust work and educational programs for people serving sentences. Staff to inmate ratios are higher than minimum-security facilities but lower than other security levels.

With double fences and electronic detection systems, medium-security facilities, for the most part, confine people in locked two-man or three-man rooms. Medium security facilities also use work and treatment programs to help facilitate people’s needs while in custody.

High-security prisons known as United States Penitentiaries (USP), have more volatility. USPs have fully secured perimeters with walls and reinforced fences. USPs also have the highest staff to inmate ratios of all institutions and keep close control over the people’s daily activities and movements.

The administrative institutions have special missions within the BOP. These facilities maintain the detention of those defendants awaiting their criminal trials. These facilities also treat people with chronic or otherwise serious medical problems, contain high-risk prisoners with histories of violent or dangerous tendencies, or are escape-prone. Administrative facilities also can house offenders of all security levels.

The Designation Process:

Officials at the DSCC organize staff into teams when designating people to serve time in specific prisons. The process begins with a review of the person’s criminal case documents, including:

  • The judgment and commitment order,
  • The Statement of Reasons,
  • The pre-sentence investigation report (PSR), and
  • The United States Marshall’s request for designation.

Once the US Clerk of Courts receives the defendant’s signed Judgment Order, the staff at the clerk’s office uploads the documents to the BOP “eDesignate” system. The probation office receives the documents through the system and transmits those documents to the US Marshal’s Service (USMS). The USMS then completes USM form 129, so the BOP officials can determine if the defendant should receive credit for any time served. The USMS then transmits these documents to the BOP’s DSCC for designation and classification.

Court rules require the DSCC to comply with the Statement of Reasons (SOR) issued by the sentencing judge as part of the Sentencing and Commitment Order. If the Sentencing and Commitment Order does not contain the SOR, DSCC officials should make efforts to obtain this document from the sentencing court.

  1. Article on Statement of Reasons:

Seventeen classification teams make up the DSCC operation. Each team has individual designators with individual responsibilities like Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) transfers, medical case transfers, mental health transfers, and many who handle the initial designation process.

Once DSCC reviews the case documents, the BOP ensures the person falls within the federal government’s jurisdiction. This means they confirm no states have jurisdiction over the person, and any interested state attorney generals have dropped charges against the offender. DSCC officials designate and classify the person when they have confirmed primary jurisdiction rests with the US government.

Security Scores in the BOP Designation Process:

Once the federal government confirms jurisdiction over the person, DSCC officials use BOP Program Statement 5100.08 to classify them. The classification process includes loading pertinent information from the SOR and PSR about the person into the Sentry system.

As we have mentioned before, BOP officials repeatedly use the PSR when dealing with the person’s case throughout their journey through the system.

BOP officials strive to make a facility designation within seven business days from the date the DSCC receives all of the person’s case information. If a person has a serious medical issue, the BOP’s Office of Medical Designations and Transportation may also need to review the case.

When the sentencing judge permits a person to surrender voluntarily, the Marshal’s Service or Probation Office notifies the person which facility to which they should report.

BOP PS 5100.08 governs the designation of a person to a BOP facility. Officials use the system to develop a score to determine the person’s security level. DSCC staff considers various factors to develop the score, including the following:

  1. Court recommendations
  2. Voluntary surrender
  3. Severity of current offense
  4. Criminal history score
  5. History of violence
  6. History of escape attempts
  7. Detainers
  8. Education level,
  9. Drug/Alcohol abuse

For more insight, get some use out of a calculator we created to help:

The Voluntary Surrender factor can make a difference in a person’s designation since it is the only factor where DSCC subtracts points from the security level analysis. For certain defendants, this could mean the difference between a camp or a low-security facility.

Voluntary surrender helps the defendant avoid the unpleasant situation of being shackled and transferred between facilities by the Marshal’s Service. After evaluating these factors, DSCC considers the person to see if Public Safety Factors (PSF) may apply. The PSF factors evaluate the defendant’s underlying offense, sentence, criminal history, or other previous institutional behavior that may put the safety of other persons at risk.

The PSF takes several factors into consideration. For those who have interest, we recommend reading the entire policy statement:

Policy Statement on Custody and Classification:

  1. Custody and Classification Policy

Lastly, the DSCC considers whether the person has any medical or mental health issues that may affect facility designation. The DSCC assigns offenders to one of four Care Levels:

  • Care Level One:
    • People less than 70 years old, with little, if any, medical needs.
  • Care Level Two:
    • People who require at least quarterly medical evaluations. Examples of care level two are emphysema, epilepsy, and diabetes. Most BOP facilities have Medical Care Level Two operations.
  • Care Level Three:
    • People classified as fragile patients requiring frequent contact with medical professionals. Examples of care level two illnesses are cancer, advanced HIV, congestive heart failure, and end-stage liver disease. The BOP has seven facilities with Medical Care Level Three operations.
  • Care Level Four:
    • People with severely impacted functionality requiring 24-hour skilled nursing care. Examples are high-risk pregnancies, major surgical treatment, stroke, active cancer treatments, and quadriplegia. The BOP has six Medical Care Level Four operations.

Management Variables:

After the DSCC evaluates the person for security level, public safety factors, and medical care levels, one final assessment occurs. DSCC assesses each person’s Management Variable. The Management Variable evaluates when a person’s designation is inconsistent with their scored security level. A management variable may take precedence over security level, but only with DSCC administrator approval. This may happen for any number of reasons, and we encourage people to study the policy for a full understanding of these complexities:

  1. Custody and Classification Policy

For more information on desgination, or security levels, check out the following article: