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 Chain of Command in Prison 

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Michael Santos

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Administrative Structure of Federal Prison

The more you prepare, the more confidence you will have to overcome challenges that accompany every journey through the prison experience.

The System:
The Bureau of Prisons is a massive bureaucracy, organized under the Executive Branch of government. If you’re going into the federal system, you will serve yourself well by getting a basic familiarity of how the system operates.

As the leader of the Department of Justice, the Attorney General appoints a Director to lead the Bureau of Prisons. The Director operates from the Bureau of Prisons headquarters in Washington, DC. It’s known as the “Central Office.” Administrators who work in the Central Office preside over a massive organization with more than 25,000 employees. The employees work in offices or institutions that are assigned to one of six regions. A Regional Director presides over each of the institutions and employees in his or her region. The names follow:

•    Mid-Atlantic Region includes all BOP facilities in the following states:
o    West Virginia
o    Virginia
o    North Carolina
o    Maryland
o    Kentucky, and
o    Tennessee.

•    North Central Region includes all BOP facilities in the following states:
o    Illinois,
o    Minnesota,
o    Colorado,
o    Kansas,
o    Michigan,
o    Wisconsin,
o    Missouri,
o    Indiana, and
o    South Dakota.

•    Northeast Region includes all BOP facilities in the following states:
o    Pennsylvania,
o    Connecticut,
o    New York,
o    Massachusetts,
o    Ohio, and
o    New Jersey.

•    South Central Region includes all BOP facilities in the following states:
o    Texas,
o    Oklahoma,
o    Arkansas, and
o    Louisiana.

•    Southeast Region includes all BOP facilities in the following states:
o    Georgia,
o    Florida,
o    Alabama,
o    South Carolina, Puerto Rico, and
o    Mississippi.

•    Western Region includes all BOP facilities in the following states:
o    California,
o    Hawaii,
o    Nevada,
o    Arizona,
o    Oregon, and
o    Washington

The Regional Director who presides over each region will have a series of subordinates who report to him at the regional office. Together, they oversee all developments within the region’s institutions. Those who would like to review the names and locations of the institutions in the various regions may visit the Bureau of Prisons website at:


By learning about the structure, you can navigate challenges more effectively. Although a person in prison would rarely interact with a Director or Regional Director, in the event that the person has a problem that he wants to resolve, he will definitely interact with staff members at both the regional level and at the Central Office in Washington DC. The Administrative Remedy process, described later in this lesson, is the mechanism that a person would use to express grievances formally.

Leadership Within Each Institution:

Each institution has its own chief executive, and in most cases a Warden serves in that capacity; a few stand-alone minimum-security camps leave a “Camp Administrator” as the CEO. This position is equivalent to an associate warden, which is one level below warden on the hierarchical chart.

Wardens must adhere to the Program Statements that we described in a previous lesson. Still, as CEOs, they have enormous discretion within their institutions; Complex Wardens preside over multiple institutions.

Wardens have individual management or leadership styles. We’ve known some Wardens who made themselves accessible to the inmate population, and others who’ve chosen to remain aloof and isolated from the inmate population.

Ordinarily, Wardens spend the majority of their time and attention on oversight of the main prison setting; they’re not always as accessible to people who serve time inside of adjacent, minimum-security camps.

People who want to interact with the Warden will rarely see him alone. As a bureaucracy, the BOP is filled with layers upon layers of people that are subordinate to the warden.

Wherever the Warden steps into the institution, several subordinates and subordinates of subordinates will stand close by to rub shoulders.

Associate Wardens and Camp Administrators:
Each institution will have several Associate Wardens and some will have a Camp Administrator. Associate Wardens preside over specific departments within an institution. For example, an institution will employ the following positions:

•    Associate Warden of Custody: Presides over all staff members assigned to security.
•    Associate Warden of Operations: Presides over departments like Food Service and Building Maintenance.
•    Associate Warden of Programs: Presides over Unit Management.
•    Associate Wardens of Industries and Education: Presides over the UNICOR factory and education program.
•    Camp Administrator: Chief executive of the minimum-security camp that is usually adjacent to a secure prison.

Executive Assistant:
The Executive Assistant works closely with the Warden, and is also the only person other than the Warden who has authority to speak with the media. Together, the Associate Wardens, the Camp Administrator, and the Executive Assistant make up the Warden’s Executive Staff.

If people serving time approach members of the Executive Staff, or any staff member, for that matter, they should not be offended if the staff member speaks in a condescending, patronizing tone. That is the nature of imprisonment.

Over time, some people serving time in prison may garner a modicum of respect, and staff members may recognize the common humanity that they share. Some people may feel dehumanized. For example, there will not be any use of first names; staff members refer to people in prison as “inmates;” staff members will not begin conversations with people from a framework of trust. People in prison will encounter some genuinely caring people along the way, but the culture of confinement does not encourage much in the way of tolerance.

Department Heads:
Those on the Executive Staff oversee various departments within the institution. And a Department Head will oversee the day-to-day operations. Individuals who hold the role of a Department Head will have much more in the way of direct interaction with inmates. Some examples of Department Heads follow:

•    Unit Managers: Unit Managers serve in the capacity of mini wardens. They preside over a given housing unit.
•    Supervisor of Education: Oversees the education department that ostensibly prepares inmates for success upon release and all recreation programs.
•    Captain: In charge of Lieutenants and Officers.
•    Facilities Manager: In charge of all building maintenance.

Chain of Command:
Numerous staff members work under the Department Heads. Under the Unit Manager, for example, there will be a Case Manager, a Counselor, and a Unit Secretary. Under the Supervisor of Education, there will be teachers and librarians. Under the Captain, there will be Lieutenants and Correctional Officers.

Under Facilities Managers, there will be many foremen. Those staff members will have daily interactions with inmates. Most of them will supervise inmates who work on their assigned job details. If people serving time in federal prison ever have a grievance, they are supposed to adhere to the chain of command. That means, they must first express their grievance to the appropriate staff member. When they don’t receive the answer they want, protocol requires that they speak to the Department Head.

When they still don’t receive the answer they want, they may seek redress from the appropriate member of the Executive Staff. Those who want to pursue the matter further would initiate a formal grievance through the Administrative Remedy Process.

Unit Management:

In many ways, prisons resemble communities. In the Bureau of Prisons, institutions hold anywhere from 100 to several thousand people. Administrators make use of a system they call “Unit Management” to keep a handle on operations. With the Unit Management system, administrators can more effectively keep track of all the people.

A small, minimum-security camp, like the camp in Atwater, California, only has one housing unit. A large camp, like Maxwell, in Montgomery, Alabama holds more than 1,000 people; those people serve time in more than a half dozen different “Units.” Rules will prohibit a person from visiting a different housing unit from the one where he is assigned.

Whether an institution has one unit or more than one unit, a single person will serve as the Department Head. Ordinarily, that person is the Unit Manager. The Unit Manager oversees the Unit Team. A Unit Team ordinarily includes the following staff members:

•    Case Manager: Each person serving time will be assigned a Case Manager. The Case Manager is responsible for monitoring the progress of an inmate. Case Managers keep track of the inmate’s custody and classification scoring. Case Managers also monitor the person’s release date and whether the person participated in programs that the institution may offer. If a person wants to transfer from one prison to another prison, the person would make his request to the Case Manager during a Team Meeting. Every three years, the Case Manager will prepare a “Progress Report” on each person serving time. If a special event is going to take place, like a transfer, or a release, the Case Manager will prepare the Progress Report sooner.

•    Counselors: Each person serving time will also be assigned a Counselor. Rather than offering counseling services, a Counselor in the Bureau of Prisons presides over issues pertaining to life inside of the institution. For example, the counselor will be responsible for assigning the person a job and a housing assignment. The Counselor also will review applications from individuals who want to visit. If a person has a fine or restitution order as part of his sanction, the Counselor may play a role in monitoring the person’s compliance with the Financial Responsibility Program. Counselors also preside over issuing (or denying) permits to receive or send out packages through the mail.

•    Psychologist: Each institution will employ a staff Psychologist and other functionaries that work in the Psychology Department. They may serve as part of the Unit Team. In the Bureau of Prisons, a Psychologist will assess whether a person qualifies to participate in the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). The RDAP is the only program that Congress has legislated to allow people an opportunity to work objectively toward advancing the release date. A subsequent lesson will discuss the RDAP in detail.

•    Unit Secretary: The Unit Secretary works for the Unit Team. People rarely have any interaction with the Unit Secretary.

For those who’d like to read more details, consider:

•    Program Statement on Unit Team
o    Program 5321.07

Unit Team:
Under the Unit Management System, the Unit Team, ostensibly, monitors each person’s progress throughout the course of the sentence. Sadly, although numerous opportunities exist to extend release dates, people in federal prisons have few opportunities to influence release dates in a positive manner. Some factors that influence release dates include:

  • The turning of calendar pages,
  • The avoidance of disciplinary infractions,
  • Participation in positive programs.

Again, an infinite number of possibilities exist to complicate or extend an individual’s time inside. For that reason, it’s crucial that a person understands more about the system and the other people inside. The system doesn’t provide much in the ways of mechanisms to incentivize or even encourage the pursuit of excellence. That’s the reason it’s so essential for individuals to be creative. They must learn how to motivate themselves while living inside of an environment that feels exquisitely designed to extinguish hope.

The applicable Program Statement on Unit Management indicates that the Unit Team members are supposed to conduct an “Initial Team Meeting” within the first 30 days that an inmate arrives in an institution. During that Team Meeting, ordinarily, a Case Manager and Counselor will meet with the inmate inside of an office. A Unit Manager may also be present, but if the Unit Manager is present, the Unit Manager will likely sit silently, observing.

The Case Manager chairs the Team Meeting. The Case Manager will read pertinent parts of the PSI and the Judgment Order from the court.  If the inmate has a financial obligation, the Unit Team members will enroll him in the “Financial Responsibility Program.”

The Counselor will ensure that the inmate has a job assignment. The Team will determine whether the person needs to participate in any specific “Programs.” The Team may mandate participation in some programs. For example, if a person cannot prove that he has a high school diploma or GED, the Unit Team will mandate that he participate in basic education programs.

Although people are required to attend the team meetings, they should not expect to interact much. Nor should not expect much in the way of meaningful guidance from members of the Unit Team. A person must learn to be self-directed in prison.

As an example of a lack of guidance, a Case Manager may advise the person serving time to save money to prepare for his release; but the Case Manager will not provide an opportunity for the person to earn money that he can save. Further, if the person owes a monetary fine, the Unit Team will require the person to pay toward that obligation, leaving little money to save.

After the Initial Team Meeting, people who have more than 12 months to serve will meet for interim Team Meetings every six months, or possibly every year. People who have 12 months or less to serve will participate in interim Team Meetings every three months until the release date.

Team Meetings typically take about 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the Unit Team will only process certain requests (like a request to transfer to another institution) during an official Team Meeting; in other words, a person cannot make the request until the scheduled team meeting—which could be a year away. People will also need to meet with the Team if they are cited with a disciplinary infraction.

Administrative Remedy Program:

Read the appropriate Program Statement that governs the Administrative Remedy Program. Time in prison brings complexities, and when those complexities surface, an administrative remedy may lead to a reversal of the problem.

•    Program Statement 1330, Administrative Remedy Program

When people have a grievance with any staff member or BOP policy, they are free to use the Administrative Remedy Program in their search for relief. This procedure offers the BOP an opportunity to review a person’s formal grievance at various administrative levels.

To advance this process, people should follow the chain of command. That means they should document their efforts to resolve the issue informally. If a person fails to document those efforts, and if the person fails to submit that documentation in the process, the staff members who review the grievance may reject the grievance and instruct the person to follow the chain of command.

People do not have a right to counsel through the administrative-remedy process. When they’re ready to file a formal grievance, they may seek assistance from another person who is familiar with the process, or they may prepare the documentation on their own.

After the person has tried to resolve the grievance informally, the person must request an Administrative Remedy form from the Counselor. It’s crucial that the person launch this action in a timely manner, because Administrative Remedy rules will only allow a grievance to take place within a short amount of time before it becomes time-barred. The deadline for completion of an informal resolution and submission of a formal written Administrative Remedy Request is 20 calendar days following the date on which the basis for the Request occurred.

When a person requests an Administrative Remedy form, the Counselor will ask the person whether he made an attempt to resolve the matter informally. Then the Counselor may attempt to intervene. If the person chooses to move forward with the formal filing of the grievance, the Counselor must issue a Form BP-229, more commonly known as the “BP-9 Form.” A person may only cite one grievance on each BP-9 that he submits. The person may write in plain English on the BP-9, and he may attach one continuation page. Once the person submits the BP-9, institutional staff must respond within 20 calendar days. If a staff member does not respond within 20 calendar days, the staff member may tell the person that he is taking a 20-day extension. All BP-9 grievances are resolved at the institutional level.

If the person doesn’t receive the response that he wants from the BP-9, he may advance the formal grievance. The next step is to request a “BP-10” from the Counselor, and the Counselor must provide the inmate with Form BP-230. The person will write out his complaint on the BP-10 and send the form, together with his BP-9, to the Regional Director’s office. Again, time is of the essence. The person must submit the BP-10 within 20 days of the time that he received the BP-9 response, or he will be time-barred from proceeding with the Administrative Remedy procedure. The Regional Director’s office must respond to the BP-10 within 30 calendar days, but the Regional Director may extend that date by an additional 30 days.

If the person is still not satisfied, he may appeal to the Central Office. To appeal to the Central Office, the person must request a BP-11 form from the Counselor. When the person asks, the Counselor will provide Form BP-231, and the person will write his complaint. He must attach both the BP-9 and the BP-10 to the documents that he sends to the Central Office. The Central Office will answer the BP-11 within 40 calendar days, or extend the date by an additional 20 calendar days.

Sensitive Complaints:
If the person is filing a grievance about a sensitive issue, and feels that he cannot express his grievance to the counselor or to any staff member in the institution, he may file a Sensitive Complaint directly to the Regional Director. When a person wants to file a “Sensitive Complaint,” he must request the appropriate form from his Counselor, and send the form directly to the Regional Director, clearly marking “Sensitive” on the envelope. The Regional Director will make the determination of whether the issue truly is sensitive.

Once the issue has exhausted his efforts at Administrative Remedy, he can work with an attorney or file a motion in federal court. He must maintain full documentation of all his efforts at Administrative Remedy before proceeding.

A final word on Administrative Remedy:
When seeking assistance through the Administrative Remedy system, individuals should follow appropriate procedures and protocols. That means they must obtain the forms through appropriate channels. We caution people from trying to circumvent any stage of the process. Only ask for forms from the assigned counselor.

The Bureau of Prisons staff members will look for any opportunity to dismiss an administrative remedy appeal. If a person files his request for administrative remedy on a form that he did not receive through proper channels, a staff member may dismiss the form. People who have legitimate complaints sometimes find their requests for relief dismissed because they did not adhere to the strict procedure of obtaining forms from an assigned counselor, or because they failed to adhere to established timelines.


•    In what ways do you feel prepared to interact with the Bureau of Prisons hierarchy?

•    Describe steps you intend to take to ensure that you do not exacerbate your situation in prison.

•    In what ways can your interactions with a staff member complicate your journey through prison?

•    How will your interactions with staff influence your prospects for success upon release from prison?

•    What influence will your time in prison have on your relationship with your probation officer who oversees you while on Supervised Release?

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