How Does Housing Differ by Security Levels in Federal Prison?

As revealed in earlier modules, my experience of living in prison is limited to the time that I served at the Taft Federal Prison Camp. My friend, partner, and co-author, Michael Santos, however, taught me a great deal about the prison system. He served time in prisons of every security level. Through working with him and with our clients, I’ve developed a level of understanding about living in other prisons. Through our work, we offer an abundance of information to prepare people for every type of prison experience.

All prison systems use scoring mechanisms to determine the security levels that are appropriate. Those with documented histories of violence, escape attempts, and long sentence lengths may be more likely to serve terms in higher security prisons. Those without histories of violence, escape attempts, and relatively shorter sentences may serve their sentences in lower-security prisons.

Again, our team members have experience in prisons of every security level. We’ve learned that regardless of where authorities place an individual, opportunities exist to grow and prosper. Success in prison, and anywhere else, starts with having a strong mindset. It’s also helpful to understand more about the journey ahead.

For most people confined to larger prisons, the journey begins inside of a housing unit reserved for people going through the Admissions and Orientation program. After prisoners complete all requirements of A&O, administrators reclassify them and transfer them to one of the general housing units.

Smaller prisons may not have space for a separate A&O section. In smaller prisons, staff members assign people to general population as soon as they arrive. As a general rule, prisoners are assigned to regular quarters in the first weeks of their confinement. Exceptions might occur in certain crowded penitentiaries, where inmates wait in segregation or the A&O unit for weeks or months at a time before quarters become available.

Eventually, prisoners can expect to mix with others in the general population—unless staff members consider the person a threat to security. When that happens, they may isolate the person indefinitely.

We consider two aspects of prison life-critical:

1. Quarters assignment, and
2. Job assignment

Authorities have discretion on where they assign a person to sleep and work. Those decisions can influence a person’s adjustment. If a person is forced to share a housing assignment with someone that doesn’t interact well with others, problems can occur. Risk escalates quickly and dramatically. This is equally true when a person has to work alongside someone who is full of hatred. There isn’t any shortage of hatred in the prison system.

U.S. Penitentiaries and Medium-security FCIs:

Living quarters in federal prison depends upon the security level of the institution. United States Penitentiaries and medium-security Federal Correctional Institutions both hold high-security prisoners. Many of the people in those prisons serve sentences of multiple decades or life terms. They may have long histories of violence, gang affiliation, and disruption. In response, staff members enforce rules and procedures that limit movement. They want to keep order.

The housing units in most USPs and FCIs include two-man rooms. The rooms are spartan. As a rule, they measure about eight-feet -by- ten-feet, the size of a small bathroom. The walls are concrete cinder blocks. Floors will be unfinished concrete, with a freestanding toilet and sink made of brushed aluminum. The toilet will not have a seat or lid.

The room will not have a view and may not have a window at all. If the room has a window, the frosted glass will be non-transparent and will not open. Windows will be so narrow that a grown man’s head could not pass through them.

The rooms will have a bunk-bed frame made of steel tubing and steel sheets that are attached to the wall. Each prisoner will be assigned a thin mat to place on the rack for sleeping. Everything about the room is hard. There will be no wood in the cell, no soft colors. It’s all steel and concrete. Cold. Austere, like the entire prison.

Prisoners can expect two small lockers that hold all the personal belongings of the men assigned to the room. The lockers are just under four-feet high and about two-feet wide. No personal belongings are allowed to be left outside of the lockers between 7:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Disregarding this rule may result in a trip to segregation.

Most people want to avoid unnecessary trips to SHU. While they are in the hole, they do not have access to their property, to the relative freedom of movement, or to other privileges, like the telephone and clothing exchanges. Further, some penitentiaries are so crowded that when one is sent to the hole even for a trivial shot, he may have to wait three months before another space becomes available in the prison’s general population.

Security Levels: Federal prison rules forbid the men from hanging photographs or anything else on the wall.

One fluorescent light is attached to the ceiling, and a smaller light may be above the sink. The room may have a steel plate bolted to the wall, with an attached swivel stool. Penitentiary rooms are monastic, not conducive to writing or creativity.

The rooms have thick steel doors with a narrow window. Staff members peer into the room routinely, so the windows cannot be blocked, even when an occupant is using the toilet. There is no expectation of privacy in prison. At any time, a staff member may come into the room and rifle through one’s property. They have a right to search for contraband, or weapons that prisoners may manufacture.

A few feet above floor level, the steel doors have a cut-in slot with a small trap door. When the cellblock is on lockdown status, meaning the occupants are confined to their rooms, officers pass the prisoners’ meals through those door slots. Also, when the prison is on lockdown, rules may require prisoners to be placed in handcuffs whenever they leave their cell. In lockdown situations, officers will order the prisoner to squat and maneuver his wrists through the slot in the door. The officer will fasten the man’s hand in the steel cuffs, then direct the person to stand back while the guard unlocks the door. While on lockdown, people are handcuffed even as they walk to the shower. And in the penitentiary, it is not uncommon to be on lockdown for at least a few days each month, sometimes for weeks at a time.

Prisoners may purchase small Walkman-type radios or MP-3 players from the commissary, and they can listen through headphones. Radios with loudspeakers are not available or allowed. As a rule, federal prisoners do not have access to personal televisions, typewriters, or musical instruments. Rules limit the number of books a prisoner may keep in the cell.

Generally, the rule is that a prisoner can keep five books in his possession at one time.

Like USPs, medium-security FCIs generally have two-man rooms. Well-behaved high-security prisoners may transfer from volatile USPs to less volatile FCIs. Quarters in virtually all of the medium-security FCIs resemble USP housing units.

Administrators in both the USPs and FCIs may have designated one of the housing units as an “honor dorm,” which is considered preferred housing. If the prison has an honor dorm, individuals usually are assigned to that unit by application. The criteria for admission will include the prisoner’s disciplinary record and seniority in the particular institution. Some of the perks associated with living in the honor dorm may include more access to the television rooms, or it simply may be a quieter environment. Silence and tranquility may be rare and cherished by some.

Low-security FCIs and Camps (FPCs):

Prisoners confined in low-security FCIs and camps, as a rule, have records that BOP administrators consider to be less threatening than the prisoners confined in medium- and high-security prisons. Generally, people in lower-security prison have fewer months remaining until release, and lower histories of documented violence.

Some people transfer to lower-security as a result of good behavior after many years in higher security. Disciplinary records influence custody ratings. People can drop to lower security levels by participating in programs and avoiding disciplinary problems. Penitentiaries have no shortage of convicted murderers. If they serve 10 years without any infractions, their classification scoring will drop, thereby making them eligible for housing in a lower-security institution.

Low-security prisons, as a rule, require prisoners to have fewer than 20 years remaining to serve.

Federal prison camps, as a rule, require prisoners to have fewer than 10 years remaining to serve. Besides the time remaining, prisoners in low and minimum-security prisons also must have the appropriate security levels scoring.

As a result of lower-security scores, operations in camps and low-security prisons are not as rigid the mediums and the highs. It costs taxpayers considerably more to operate medium- and high-security prisons. Administrators must assign more staff and man-hours to operate them. Lower-security institutions are less expensive to operate. Generally, prisoners in those facilities are not confined or locked in two-man rooms. Rather, they serve time in large dormitories or rooms holding many men. Although people in lower-security have a higher degree of freedom than the high- and medium-security prisoner, those in low and minimum-security sacrifice the relative privacy that comes with the two-man room.

This is not to imply that privacy (as the word is normally understood) is available in any prison. Readers should know that at any time, 24-hours a day, staff members have the right to open a door and order a prisoner to strip naked for a visual inspection.

At least a few times each year, officers will awaken people in the dead of night and order them to remove clothing. If a fight or violence breaks out, they may inspect all prisoners for marks or cuts. They investigate thoroughly, looking for leads that will help them determine which prisoners were involved. No person, in any prison setting, should have an expectation of privacy.

Some people prefer to serve sentences in higher security because of the two-man rooms. They know a staff member can open the door at any time, and that anyone can peer through the door’s window. But for the most part, when the door in the room is closed, they are in their own shell and sharing it with only one other person. Some people also like the fact that higher-security prisons have a single toilet and sink in the room, and only two people use it. In low- and minimum-security prisons, on the other hand, prisoners use community bathrooms. When hundreds of men are sharing a bathroom facility, they sacrifice a degree of cleanliness.

As my partner, Michael Santos showed people serving decades in any prison can be productive. Being productive requires a strong mindset, regardless of prison conditions.

In USPs and medium-security FCIs, prisoners are more likely to launch food strikes, work strikes, or riots. The herd mentality of the prison expects everyone to support the disturbance. In those facilities, men are exposed to more interference from others. That interference can hurt a person’s plan to reach specific goals.

This is not to say that low-security facilities are without their share of problems. After all, perhaps hundreds of prisoners are confined inside these fences. Some of the people have 20 years remaining to serve and do not have hope for relief. An element of anger, hopelessness, depression, delusion, and despair exists in all prisons. Those combinations can be lethal anywhere, and it requires good critical-thinking skills to thrive.

Men sometimes learn that their families have deserted them. They may snap, act out aggressively over the most trivial matter. Still, as compared to higher-security institutions, the level of volatility is relatively lower in lows.

In camps, volatility rarely exists. In those institutions, people are much closer to their release dates. They’re not looking to aggravate their problems by participating in the trivialities of prison living. That doesn’t mean violence cannot erupt in a camp. But it’s more episodic, not as frequent, and rarely as lethal.

As an example from a federal prison camp, one of my clients wrote a story that I’m cutting and pasting below:

My friend, Jay, used to be a lawyer. Thinking he was doing a good deed, he got himself into some trouble. In an effort to protect food from being stolen from the kitchen, he reported the theft to guards.

Jay paid a price.

First, people went into his cube and poured fish all over his clothes.

Then, they entered his cubicle a second time. They turned his locker upside down and emptied all contents of his locker, including food. They stole his radio and batteries.

I’m Jay’s friend and everybody knows it. Jay comes to my cube to walk after each meal. I never hesitate to be seen with him, even though I have been told he is considered a “rat”.

These guys are making conscious decisions. They’re being ostracized by the population. But they’re not exposed to the type of retaliation that might exist in higher security prisons. People in prison should recognize that the culture is very different from the culture in society. Although every person must make his or her own decision on how to adjust, it’s important to remember that ramifications surrender every decision a person makes.

The dormitories of lower security prisons or camps may hold 100 people in a large room, the size of an aircraft hangar. Sometimes it’s just long rows of bunk beds and lockers. In other facilities, the design breaks dormitories into two-man or four-man cubes, with the neck-high partitions that are familiar in office buildings. In addition to the bunk beds, the cubicles will have lockers, and perhaps a rod to hang clothes. They may have a small writing platform, too.

The environment of lower-security will be softer than in the penitentiary, and relatively more comfortable. Generally, each prisoner will be assigned his own chair. Instead of sleeping on thin mats, people may have an actual twin-size mattress. Again, people will be required to use community bathrooms, with long rows of toilets and sinks. In most cases, the toilets are partitioned off with thin walls, like those in an airport bathroom. Showers, generally, will be in individual stalls; concerns over personal modesty should remain at home.

Initial Quarters Assignment:

The initial quarter’s assignment may be made at random, according to whichever bunk is available. Two completely incompatible prisoners may be assigned to share the same housing quarters. This presents more problems in the higher-security prisons than in the lower-security prisons. Some institutions authorize a unit officer to make bed changes. In most institutions, counselors must authorize the change.

With the First Step Act, people should be able to influence their quarters placement through participation in positive programs. As of this writing, in June of 2019, we have not seen how the BOP will interpret this provision of the First Step Act.

If counselors assign a person to live with an incompatible cellmate, every day feels like a year.

In such situations, the prisoner has few options. He may try to resolve the matter by figuring out a truce with the cellmate. Otherwise, he may ask the unit manager to reassign him or file a formal complaint through the administrative remedy procedure. Neither is a very attractive option, however, because the action will anger the counselor further. In almost all situations, staff members support and respect each other’s decisions. Some people choose to grovel, or whine, but that strategy rarely serves anyone’s interest.

Security Levels – Options for Dealing with Incompatible Cellmates:

Within days after a counselor assigns a person to the general population, he will hear through the prisoner grapevine who is in charge of quarters assignments. Other prisoners also will be able to describe the staff member’s policy on making bed moves. If the word is out that the counselor is receptive to making changes, then all a person has to do is find someone with whom he is compatible, and then submit the copout (“Copout” informal name that describes a request to staff). On the other hand, if the word is out that the Counselor has a policy of not making bed moves, then the prisoner is better off not requesting the change for a while. Instead, he may consider standing back to observe which people have influence with the difficult staff member.

Joseph’s Story:

On Joseph’s first day at a medium-security FCI, a guard led him to a two-man room. Joseph had begun his travels that morning before dawn. After several hours on government buses and planes, the staff processed him in. He felt tired. The lights were off in the room and the prisoner assigned to the lower bunk was lying on his bed.

“What do you want,” the prisoner demanded when Joseph opened the door.

“I’ve been assigned here, top bunk.”

The prisoner was silent. Joseph turned the light on.

“Turn off the light,” came a bellow from the lower bunk. Joseph complied with the demand and he began feeling his way around the obscure room. It became obvious to Joseph that his new roommate was not interested in amicable relations. There was no welcome, no greeting, no offer to provide him with toiletries or anything to help him settle in. There was not even an exchange of names. Instead, it was animosity from minute one. Not an easy way to begin serving time.

Over the next few days, hostilities in the room continued to escalate. Joseph walked on eggshells as he tiptoed around the small confines of the cell. He put himself at a disadvantage the moment he showed deference to his unknown cellmate. Surviving in prison may require immediate assertiveness. Ordering Joseph to turn off the light was a power move, and when Joseph complied, he gave off the impression that he could be controlled. Once he made that concession, the roommate—whose name was never offered—made it clear that Joseph was not welcome. Although authorities assigned Joseph to sleep there, the roommate was not going to make the living arrangements easy.

Since Joseph had a Counselor who would not make room changes, and because Joseph lacked the assertiveness to confront the hostility of his roommate, he responded by checking himself into protective custody (PC). Several weeks later he returned to the compound, but to a different room. By then he had been labeled as a weak inmate and he became the target of much more abuse within the prison.

Using the Influence of Others:

Counselors usually have many responsibilities. They are in charge of administering the visiting and phone lists of the prisoners who are on their caseload. They may be in charge of assigning jobs and monitoring the safety and sanitation requirements of the housing unit. Counselors also have to take care of other trivial, clerical functions for the unit team. As a consequence, they frequently have one or two inmates to whom they feel comfortable delegating a portion of their work. Some new people make it a point of observing and learning which prisoners have accrued such informal influence. When they do, they ask those prisoners to use their influence in persuading the counselor to make the requested change.

Prison rules strictly prohibit one inmate from giving anything of value to another inmate. That said, it’s done daily. In later modules, and in our course lessons, we describe various prison hustles and the thriving underground economy that exists in every prison.

A prisoner that curries favor with a particular staff member frequently works as a lobbyist does outside. If a prisoner’s objective is to be assigned to a particular bed, then he has to use critical-thinking skills He may have information that the staff member in charge of making bed changes is uncooperative. If that’s the case, the prisoner may try using someone else’s influence to help him accomplish his goal. Another prisoner may have influence and be able to help.

George’s Story:

After leaving A&O, George, a new prisoner in his early 40s, was assigned to a 12-man room. The other 11 occupants were all in their 20s. They played cards and dominoes on the room’s table constantly. Since radios with speakers were not allowed, several of the room’s occupants tuned their Walkman radios to the same hip-hop station. They blasted the music through headphones that they hung from their lockers. There was never a moment’s peace in the room. George knew he couldn’t change the living patterns of the other 11 prisoners. He also knew that the counselor was uncooperative in making bed changes, especially for new inmates.

“I looked around. I saw this guy they called Mexico was real tight with the counselor,” George explained. “Although he was a grouch with everyone else, the counselor seemed to rely on Mexico for all kinds of things. I went to Mexico with 10 cans of tuna and I asked him to help me move into a room that was quiet. Since Mexico had been in the prison for a while, I figured he’d know the best room for me. I wanted to be around quiet guys. I didn’t care where the room was, I just wanted some place I could sleep and read without people hollering all night. If I got moved, I told Mexico that I’d give him 20 more cans of tuna. I don’t know what he did and didn’t ask how he did it. All I know is that the next day I was told to pack my belongings and move to my current bed. All’s been well since the change.”

Going Hard:

Other prisoners are indifferent to their bunk assignment. When they are assigned to a particular bed, they bring their belongings and “set up their house.” They may not be looking for problems, but they certainly are not going to “punk out” as a hard prisoner would say that Joseph did. Nor would they consider going to a counselor or any other staff member for assistance. And there is no way in the world the hardened convict would ask another prisoner to assist him out of an uncomfortable situation. Rather, these prisoners act decisively, consequences be damned.

Texas Red’s Story:

“I remember when I first rolled up into Lewisburg,” Red described his stay. “We didn’t have none of that A&O garbage then. We was just dumped on the ‘pound from the start. Know what I’m sayin’,” he said. “Ain’t no one up in the house when I come in, so I start unpackin’ my shit,” he explains. “I’m standing on the chair as I’m makin’ my rack, and this cocksucker moves up on in and starts with all this woo, woo, woo shit, tellin’ me not to stand on his chair, not to move things around. ‘Man, fuck all that bitch talk,’ I told him. “I been put up in this just like you. We’re either gonna live together like men or you can get the fuck out.’ I was lookin’ at that motherfucker dead in his eyes, and he knew I was ready to take it to the wall if he came out the side of his neck wrong. He might of been strapped—I didn’t give a fuck. I wasn’t ’bout to listen to no bullshit in my house, know what I’m sayin’ holm?”

Final Word on Security Levels:

A housing assignment can influence on an adjustment in prison. There is no place to be completely alone. Most all prisoners experience pockets of sadness, or even depression at certain times, when they realize that life outside is going on without them. There is also the constant humiliation of dealing with the rules and other prisoners. Life in prison can move along easier if a person can arrange an acceptable quarter’s assignment.

As Mick Jagger sang, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Justin Paperny

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