What Should I Know About Prison Transfers?

Based upon the number of minimum-security camps in the federal prison system, we estimate that less than 20% of the federal prison population gets the privilege of voluntarily surrendering. Being able to surrender to federal prison is a perk. For those who cannot self surrender this chapter on prison transfers will help you.

Ordinarily, when judges sentence people to serve less than 10-year terms, and the person does not have a history of violence or escape attempts, the Bureau of Prisons will classify that person as “minimum-security.” Judges may allow those people to report to prison on their own volition. In the systems, it’s known as “voluntary surrender.”

There is an advantage to surrendering to prison voluntarily. It’s less stressful. Rather than mixing with hundreds of other prisoners, many of whom may be intimidating, it’s easier to have a family member or friend drive to the prison. A person walks out and presents himself to a guard. That’s when the admissions process begins.

The other 80% of people that serve time do not get the privilege of voluntary surrender. They may have been held in detention centers for months because they did not qualify for release on bail. Or they may have been taken into custody right after the sentencing hearing. In most cases, the U.S. Marshals service will transport those people to federal prison.

Prison offers comparatively more freedom than the local jail or detention center. But time in transit can be among the worst time a prisoner spends in confinement. For security reasons, staff members do not tell the prisoner when he is scheduled for transfer. That “unknown” factor brings considerable amounts of stress.

Our partner, Michael, served 26 years in federal prisons of every security level. He transferred numerous times. In several of his books, including Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, he wrote extensively about the prison transfer process.

Like everything else in confinement, including the prison transfer process, there is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. Once the officer notifies the prisoner to gather his belongings, the officer will rush the prisoner out of his area and lead him to a separate holding area, usually a cage or a room. The officer will lock the prisoner inside the new cage. If it’s not full already, the cage where the prisoner is held will quickly fill with scores of other prisoners who also are being prepared for transfer. Think of a sardine can. The noise, a stinging cacophony generated by hundreds of frustrated prisoners, will penetrate the skin of each offender as the can continues to fill.

Occasionally, a jailer will come to the outside of the cage and scream for the prisoners to quiet down as he makes some announcement. The jailer will be looking for prisoners with special needs, medical and such, and provide instructions on what procedures will follow. After the long wait—and a prisoner should expect to spend several hours as these preparations are made for the prisoner transport—jailers will begin calling names, usually in groups of four or five. They will begin escorting those prisoners to another holding cell. Authorities will order the prisoners to strip naked as guards search for contraband.

The strip search is part of the journey. Guards will perform their visual inspections of naked prisoners several times during the transfer process, and in many instances, during the term of confinement. Although it can be humiliating for a new prisoner, to guards it is routine.

The prisoner strips naked. The guard stands about two feet in front of him and begins barking commands: “Lift your arms! Run your fingers through your hair! Open your mouth! Stick out your tongue! Lower your lips! Lift your genitals! Turn around! Let me see the bottom of your feet! Bend over! Spread your ass! Wider! Get dressed!”

After the strip search, the guard issues the prisoner a set of transfer clothing. The clothing is usually a one-size-fits-all set of bright orange overalls or elastic-waist paints. Sometimes they include socks, other times not. The prisoner get a pair of cloth slippers or rubber sandals, depending on what’s available.

Guards will transfer the prisoner to another cell after he dresses in prison garb. He’ll wait for every other prisoner being transferred to go through the same process. When the holding cell’s noise reaches the same unbearable level, the prisoner will have a good indication that it will be time for the next procedure.

The next step is for guards to come around and begin locking the prisoners in chains. Prisoners will be called out of the cell, about three or four at a time. A row of jailers will place steel cuffs around the prisoners’ ankles, steel cuffs around the prisoners’ wrists, and the guards will fasten the cuffs to a chain placed around each prisoners’ waist. Once the prisoners are chained, they’ll be led to yet another holding cage while they wait for all the other prisoners to join them.

After all the prisoners have been fastened in their traveling chains, guards will escort them to school-type buses. With steel bars covering the blacked-out windows, it’s rather obvious the buses are used for prisoner transport. The prisoners march toward the buses, stumbling all the way because their ankles are chained together, moving slowly so the ankle chains don’t dig too deeply into the skin around their ankles. The back of the bus has a caged area in which an officer rides, rifle in hand, to keep watch over the prisoners. When all prisoners are on board and accounted for, the bus departs.

Some prisoners are fortunate in that they are designated to prisons requiring only a single bus ride. Many, however, are designated to prisons far away and will take a combination of bus rides and plane rides as they make their long and arduous way to their respective institutions.

The U.S. Marshals’ a prisoner-transport service move prisoners from coast to coast. The planes move in circular routes, and prisoners are scheduled to board these flights at the discretion of the U.S. Marshals and BOP administrators. Consequently, moving from point A to point B may take 30 days or longer, with overnight stays in several facilities along the way—even if one is only transferring 100 miles. The circular route took one prisoner who was transferring from Fort Dix, New Jersey to Fairton, New Jersey (which is an hour away by car) on plane rides and bus rides through several states before delivering him.

What Makes Prison Transfers Difficult?

Being transferred by the prisoner-transport service is difficult. The prisoner is in the dark and he never has an opportunity to settle in. Purchasing goods from the commissary may not be an option. The prisoner may be able to guess, but he’ll never know how long he will remain in a particular facility. He may not have soap, toothbrush, or sandals to wear for the shower.

A holdover prisoner in transit is the prison equivalent of a homeless person, living as a transient without any personal belongings. He is around strangers the entire time he’s in transport, doesn’t eat well, and is loaded with stress because he’s out of touch with his family. The prisoner doesn’t receive regular mail. He may have limited access to a quasi email system, which can somewhat ease the stress.

Besides a lack of access to personal property, and constant frustrations, the prisoner in transport is exhausted from all the middle-of-the-night wake-ups, the waiting, the noise, the chains. In his book Earning Freedom, Michael wrote that being in transport was the worst part of his prison experience.

Secondary Prison Transfers:

After arriving at the designated facility, and progressing through the sentence, circumstances change. Sometimes it’s possible to transfer to another facility. Usually, prison transfers occur because of changes in the prisoner’s security-level scoring. Other times prisoners may request transfers to similarly-rated facilities for their own reasons. Generally, case managers will not process a prisoner’s request for transfer unless the individual has served at least 18 consecutive months of confinement in the institution with disciplinary-free conduct.

Even if an inmate meets the necessary criteria for transfer, his request to serve his sentence in a particular facility may or may not be granted. When a prisoner requests a transfer to a specific facility, he subjects himself to the discretion of administrators. Ultimately, designators have the responsibility of controlling population levels in all of the federal prisons within his respective region. Consequently, a request to transfer to the FCI in Miami, Florida may result in a transfer to the FCI in Beaumont, Texas.

Prisoners may wonder whether there is anything they can do to enhance their chances of moving to a particular facility. Based on our extensive experience with the BOP, the formal answer is no. The informal answer is possibly. Everything is possible with self-advocacy.

In Earning Freedom, for example, Michael wrote about two instances where he was able to coordinate a “re-designation.” On several occasions.

• Once, he was confined at the high-security prison in Atlanta. Authorities re-designated him to a medium-security prison in Oregon. He succeeded in blocking that transfer.
• Later, effective self-advocacy led to his coordinating a transfer to McKean, in Northwest Pennsylvania.
• While confined in a low-security prison in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Authorities moved to transfer Michael to a prison in Florida. He succeeded in getting that transfer reversed.
• Much later in his sentence, he was serving time at the federal prison camp in Florence, Colorado. Authorities moved to transfer him to a camp in Texas. Effective self-advocacy helped him reroute his transfer to Lompoc, California.
• Finally, he succeeded in coordinating a transfer from the camp in Taft to a camp in Atwater.

To succeed at coordinating transfers in a large bureaucracy, a prisoner must lay considerable amounts of ground work. Most people will not serve multiple decades in prison, and they will not encounter multiple transfers. On the other hand, for those that want to learn lessons in self-advocacy that will help them through the journey, we highly recommend our digital courses at Prison Professors.

Formal influence on Prisoner Classification:

As anyone would expect, life in prison is different from anywhere else in America. There isn’t as much liberty to influence outcomes. Everything is formulaic, with many policies and program statements that authorities follow. It’s important to learn those policies if you want to influence a smooth journey.

In 2018, President Trump signed the First Step Act. It’s the first legislation that offers much in the way of incentives. According to that law, people in prison will have opportunities to participate in self-help programs. They will receive credit of sorts for that participation. Indeed, by participating, they will receive “Earned Time Credits” that will influence their classification status.

At the time we’re writing this chapter, in the summer of 2019, the law is signed but the Bureau of Prisons has not fully implemented the Act. We anticipate the BOP will begin writing policies on the Act and begin implementing it completely in 2020. We will update our course as more information becomes available.

Prior to passage of the First Step Act, the federal system did not provide a means for prisoners to earn official recognition for constructive behavior. In other words, a prisoner who was committed to developing skills and staying out of trouble could enhance his chances to succeed upon release, but the classification system did not distinguish him in any way from the prisoner that watched television and played cards all day. Informally, some prisoners could establish chummy relationships with staff members, but on the record, only the BOP Custody Classification Form (BP-338) formally distinguished prisoners.

As the Custody and Classification Form showed, the BOP offered no vehicle for an individual to demonstrate that he was worthy of lower security through merit. BOP policy stated that a prisoner did not have a right to serve his term in a particular facility. The only way for a prisoner’s security level to drop would be through the passing of time and the avoidance of disciplinary infractions. As a prisoner moved closer to his release date, his custody scoring may change for the better. Yet a prisoner did not have any control over the passing of time, and regardless of what personal accomplishments the individual achieved during his term in confinement, he did not have power to influence his security scoring positively.

Accordingly, whenever a prisoner transferred or lost contact with the “informal” source of support he may have established with individual staff members, he would begin from square one, with only his scoring on the Custody and Classification Form to distinguish him from other prisoners when he went to a different institution.

On the other hand, federal prisoners had ample opportunities to demonstrate their need for higher security. Indeed, an individual’s score would increase immediately if the offender was found guilty of committing disciplinary infractions during his term of confinement. And in order to avoid receiving disciplinary infractions, a prisoner must make a conscious effort. As some prisoners observed, trying to live in prison without receiving a disciplinary infraction was like trying to walk across a high wire—it’s possible, but the feat requires concentration, balance, a strong will, and, above all, extraordinary discipline.

In prison, a person could control his own behavior. He could not control the behavior of the thousands of other people with whom he lived, or the whimsical moods and temperaments of the staff members. They could charge a prisoner arbitrarily with violating any number of disciplinary infractions. The social interactions between other prisoners, as individuals and groups, require immediate and frequent decisions that could lead to disciplinary infractions.

A prisoner could minimize contact with volatile situations, but over multi-year periods, the odds of receiving a disciplinary infraction for violating some esoteric prison rule increased. Also, a prisoner should be beware of petty bureaucrats that savored power they had over inmates and seemed to aggressively look for opportunities to issue disciplinary infractions, as if they could influence their careers in a positive way by making life more difficult for people in prison. That’s not the case with all staff members, of course. But a prisoner would be wise to develop strong critical thinking skills, learning how and when to minimize exposure to volatility.

Although prisoners may misbehave in prison and cause their security levels to increase, in the past, “formal” channels did not exist for an inmate to enhance his chances of transferring to a more desirable facility. “Informal” methods, on the other hand, with varying degrees of acceptability, could be of assistance in requesting transfers to specific institutions.

We have hope that the First Step Act will bring positive changes. But until we read the BOP policy and program statements, we will reserve commentary on what people in prison should expect.

Initiating Prison Transfer Requests:

The traditional path to initiate a transfer from one prison to another requires inmates to request their respective case manager to process the transfer paperwork. Usually, the case manager only will accept these requests for transfer during the regularly scheduled unit-team meeting (discussed in later modules). If the inmate has 18 months of disciplinary-free conduct, and his security rating is consistent with the institution to which he wants to transfer, the case manager may agree to process the paperwork requesting a transfer. That paperwork gets routed to the unit manager, the case-manager coordinator, and then the warden for approval. If all parties agree to the transfer, the case Manager will forward the paperwork to the regional designator, who will make the final decision as to where the inmate will be transferred.

Informal Influence on Prisoner Classification:

Because the case manager, the unit manager the case-manager coordinator, and the warden all must agree on the transfer before the request will proceed to the regional designator, some inmates try to develop close ties with these staff members. A few inmates who get along well with those staff members may find their requests to transfer successful. Others will not be so fortunate. Indeed, although staff members may tell the prisoner that a transfer request to a specific institution may or may not be granted, in reality, some staff members have influence. Those with influence can make a call to the regional designator and help an inmate’s chances of being designated to a specific institution.

Outside Help:

Besides lobbying staff members from the local institution, a more aggressive approach may be to use outside resources. Those resources can lobby the regional designator, members of the U.S. Congress, and others that can influence the Bureau of Prisons. Self-advocacy techniques, like phone calls and writing letters may be time-intensive and laborious, but as Michael wrote in Earning Freedom, they can prove effective in getting a positive outcome. Another option is to hire professional advocates or legal representation. But we urge caution when spending resources. Many organizations prey upon the vulnerable, making misrepresentations and promising outcomes that they do not have the power to deliver.

Justin Paperny