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 Custody and Classification Systems 

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Michael Santos

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According to data that the Bureau of Prisons publishes, more than 100,000 people serve sentences in federal prison. Not all federal prisons are the same. Learn how to influence your placement in the best possible environment.

Four out of every five people in prison serve their sentence inside gates, fences, and walls. Less than 18% of the people in federal prison serve their terms inside minimum-security camps.

  • How do administrators determine where an individual will serve a sentence? 
  • How do staff members assess the appropriate type of facility where a defendant will serve a sentence?

This article will help readers understand Custody and Classification Systems in the Bureau of Prisons.

Bureau of Prisons Resources:

The federal prison system is part of a large bureaucracy governed by the Executive Branch of government. As such, written policies and procedures drive every decision, at least theoretically. Anyone can review the appropriate policies by visiting the Bureau of Prisons website at:

Under that website, visitors may click the “Resources” tab on the menu bar. They will see the agency’s “Program Statements.” 

Administrators rely upon those Program Statements to make decisions pertaining to “inmates.” 

  • Our team minimizes the use of prison terms, such as “inmate.” 
  • We prefer “people.”

Different facilities will modify the Program Statements and publish “Institution Supplements” if further clarification is necessary. 

Once people go to prison, they will not have access to the internet. They will continue to find all BOP Program Statements and Institutional Supplements in the law library. 

Most facilities have access to an electronic database that maintains the policies. Facilities lacking the electronic database should have hard copies in the library. If those Program Statements are unavailable, a person has a right to request the Program Statement from a staff member.

Security Designation and Custody Classification

Determining where an individual will serve a sentence begins with an initial classification. The program statement above provides all details necessary to understand how administrators classify people in federal custody. 

Those details are part of an objective system that assigns points associated with the crime and any behavior after the crime—while in custody. 

By feeding those points into a matrix, administrators can assess the individual’s institutional needs. Staff members use their scoring matrix to determine where the defendant will serve the sentence.

BOP Custody and Federal Prison Security Levels:

For this article, readers should know that the Bureau of Prisons operates several different security levels that include:

  • Minimum-security Federal Prison Camps and Satellite Prison Camps (FPC and SPC)
  • Satellite low-security institutions (FCI)
  • Low-security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCI)
  • Medium-security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCI)
  • High-Security United States Penitentiaries (USP)
  • Special Management Unit, United States Penitentiaries (SMU)
  • Administrative-Maximum, United States Penitentiaries (ADMAX)
  • Federal Medical Center (FMC)
  • Federal Transit Center (FTC)
  • Federal Detention Center (FDC)

Besides understanding prison security levels, people should understand the term “custody” level. A custody level will determine where the individual serves the sentence. The custody level will also influence program opportunities available at various stages of the sentence. The Bureau of Prisons uses the following custody levels for people:

  • Community custody
  • Out custody
  • In Custody
  • Maximum custody

The entire infrastructure of every institution depends upon the custody and security level of the people it holds. 

A person who begins serving time at one security level may transfer to other institutions at various times and for different reasons. 

For example, I served the first seven years in a high-security setting. Then, I transferred to medium-security prisons. Following my time in medium-security, I moved to a low-security prison. For my final ten years in prison, I went to minimum-security camps.

During transfers, people mix or interact with people classified with different custody levels. Sometimes those transfers take place inappropriately. 

To remedy such problems, a person should understand the custody and classification process. By learning more about custody and security levels, a person becomes better prepared to make decisions that keep him in institutions with the lowest possible security level.

Why Custody and Security Levels Matter

Living in a bureaucracy brings many complications. Although judges sentence people to prison, the institutions where they serve their terms can enormously influence each person’s quality of life.

Those who lack depth and breadth of experience may mistakenly believe that all prisons are the same. That isn’t true. 

Further, people may believe that the nature of their conviction is the sole determining factor of the type of facility where they will serve their sentence. That isn’t true, either. 

Simply because a person serves a sentence for mortgage or securities fraud doesn’t mean the person will spend time in a minimum-security camp. 

Many factors determine where an individual will serve his sentence and the type of facility where the agency will designate him.

How Does the Classification System Begin?

After the judge sentences an individual, a court clerk will forward the person’s Presentence Investigation Report (PSR) along with the Judgment Order and the Statement of Reasons to officials with the US Marshal Service. 

The US Marshals are responsible for coordinating the transfer of all people in federal prison. They work with specialists at the Bureau of Prisons’ office in Grand Prairie, Texas, where a person’s “designation” takes place.

The person in prison will never have access to the Bureau of Prisons staff members in Grand Prairie. Yet the person in Grand Prairie will make the initial determination of the appropriate custody level. 

This process of classification and initial “designation” can provoke considerable anxiety for people who don’t have experience with the system. 

Individuals and family members want as much insight as possible concerning where the person will serve the sentence. Unfortunately, people in federal prisons must learn to develop a high level of tolerance for frustration. 

Waiting for a designation order will be only one of many frustrations throughout the journey.

Since judges sentence individuals to “the custody of the attorney general,” BOP designators have ultimate decision-making power. That said, a person may ask prison administrators to reconsider earlier decisions concerning the security level, custody scoring, and designation for the initial institution; during my journey, I found that it’s possible with a deliberate plan.

Initial Federal Prison Designation:

Officials in Grand Prairie will review the judgment order and the PSR. From those documents, the staff will collect information on the person. That information will include the following details:

Racial background / Ethnicity

  • Prison officials try to keep a racial balance in the institutions, which can lead some people to serve sentences far away from home.


  • A person’s age can influence scoring on the custody matrix.
    • Criminal offense
    • The crime for which an individual is serving time may influence security level.


  • An individual’s citizenship will influence the custody scoring.

Judicial recommendations

  • Some judges agree to make recommendations on where an individual serves the sentence. BOP officials may consider those recommendations. Ultimately, the BOP decides where the individual will serve the sentence.
  • Whether the judge authorized the individual to surrender voluntarily
  • If the judge authorizes a defendant to surrender to prison voluntarily, administrators consider that factor worthy of consideration when determining custody level.

Months until release from custody

  • The length of time until release plays an influential role in determining custody and security levels.

The severity of the current offense

  • The Bureau of Prisons maintains a matrix that categorizes federal crimes to classify individuals.

Country of Birth

  • This factor may also influence where an individual serves the sentence.

Criminal History

  • Besides the instant offense, an individual’s criminal history also influences the custody and security level. Any type of criminal history affects the score, but administrators pay close attention to a history of violence, including charges of domestic abuse or charges of a sexual nature.

History of Violence

  • Any allegations of violence in a defendant’s history will influence the custody and classification score.

History of Escape attempts

  • Escape attempts and even allegations of “failure to appear” for the court will influence the custody and classification scoring.


  • If authorities learn that charges in other jurisdictions await the individual, that factor will influence the custody and classification.

Education Level

  • Individuals who cannot prove their high school diploma or equivalency will be penalized on the custody and classification matrix.

Drug / Alcohol Abuse

  • A history of substance abuse will influence the custody and classification scoring.

Public Safety Factors

  • The Bureau of Prisons notes several personal factors influencing where an individual serves the sentence. Those factors follow:
    • Member of a disruptive group
    • Convicted of the greatest severity offense
    • Sex offender
    • A threat to government officials
    • Deportable alien
    • Sentence length
    • History of violent behavior
    • History of escape
    • History of participating in prison disturbances
    • History of juvenile violence
    • History of telephone abuse

Management Variables

  • Besides Public Safety Factors, designators within the Bureau of Prisons will also consider influences known as “Management Variables.” Those variables include:

Judicial recommendations

  • A judge’s recommendation carries some influence. Nevertheless, BOP officials will determine where to send each prisoner. 

Release Residence

  • Theoretically, prison officials make a policy of keeping offenders within 500 miles of the release area.

Population Management

  • Administrators may consider “The needs of an institution” when determining where to designate a prisoner to serve his sentence.
  • Central Inmate Monitoring (CIM) Assignment
  • Individuals who have “special circumstances” may be treated differently. Examples of factors that can lead to a CIM status include:
    • Nature of offense
    • Profile of offender
    • Codefendants
    • Medical or Psychiatric needs

Program Participation

  • Sometimes, staff will determine that the person may need an institution with specific programs.

Work Cadre

  • Some prisons require labor at specific times. During such instances, designators may send prisoners to those facilities, irrespective of distance.

Greater or Lesser Security

  • In some instances, staff may determine that the circumstances of a given case could require that the individual serve the sentence in an institution of lower or higher security.

Percentage of time served

  • The more time an individual does toward the sentence, the better the reflection on the security scoring mechanism.

Program Participation

  • The scoring matrix will reflect favorably on individuals who participate in BOP programs.

Living Skills

  • BOP staff members will use their discretion to determine whether an individual has good living skills.

Disciplinary infractions

  • If an officer cites a person with misconduct through the disciplinary system, the type and severity of the infraction will influence the custody scoring.

Family / Community Ties

  • Individuals with strong family and community ties will receive favorable consideration on the scoring matrix.

Scoring of Custody and Security Levels:

  • As Program Statement 5100 shows, classifying offenders is, for the most part, objective. The characteristics above result in a series of points. Those points get fed into a matrix. The sum of all the numbers and factors in the matrix will yield a score that determines the custody and security level. Those scores, in their totality, will provide a “security designation.” Once administrators determine the appropriate security classification, they will determine which institution is most suitable for the person serving the sentence.


The custody and classification matrix includes a series of both static and dynamic factors. Static factors will remain the same always. 

For example, nothing will change an individual’s offense, which remains “static” throughout the individual’s commitment. 

On the other hand, a person’s behavior over time can influence the custody and classification factor, as shown by such factors as program participation on the positive side and disciplinary infractions on the opposing side.

Understand the ramifications of every decision. Although people frequently step into the prison experience with the best of intentions to avoid any behavior that could exacerbate problems, life happens. 

The infrastructure of imprisonment can bring unanticipated complexities. People must respond to those complexities. Ramifications follow every decision.

Just because a person was convicted of white-collar crime and doesn’t have a history of violence or previous incarceration does not necessarily mean that the individual will not encounter individuals who think differently or behave differently. 

A person can govern his thoughts and decisions; that individual may have little control over how others think and act. 

Prepare well for the journey ahead.

Expect administrators to put the needs of “the institution” ahead of the needs of the individual. Despite an individual meeting all the requirements to serve a sentence in a minimum-security facility, factors that can complicate the initial designation are endless, including:

  • Administrative need to balance the volatile population in a newly-activated institution.
  • Administrative need to bring educated individuals into an institution to perform clerical functions.
  • Staff perceptions that an individual may need to participate in specialized programs.
  • Staff perceptions that an individual’s personal characteristics may require placement in a higher security level for observational reasons.
  • Staff perceptions that an individual may be more suitable for placement in a higher-security level for medical or psychiatric reasons.

At the end of the day, when a judge sentences a person to the custody of the Attorney General, functionaries within the system will decide on where that individual should begin serving time. 

In most cases, the person will serve time in the institution consistent with the individual’s scoring on the custody and classification matrix. 

When administrators make mistakes, individuals must use Program Statement 5100 as a resource to create a compelling argument to reverse the decision.

Changes in Custody and Security Levels:

Two factors will influence changes to custody and security levels while in federal custody:

  • The passing of time
  • Disciplinary infractions

Individuals cannot influence the passing of time. Decisions they make, however, can have an enormous influence on the avoidance of disciplinary infractions. 


  • Based on the appropriate Program Statement, what custody and security score do you anticipate administrators will assign you?
  • Based on the appropriate Program Statement, describe reasons you may have for wanting to serve your sentence in a specific institution.
  • How will your life change if administrators miscalculate your custody and classification score? 
  • Describe your steps to minimize the prospects of a miscalculated custody and classification score.
  • What steps are you taking to maximize the possibility that authorities will assign you to the best prison to serve your sentence?

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