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 Designations in the Bureau of Prisons 

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Michael Santos

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How does the Bureau of Prisons designate a person in federal prison? Learn the policies and how to influence designation decisions.

According to data that the Bureau of Prisons publishes, more than 100,000 people serve sentences in federal prison. Four out of every five of those prisoners serve sentences inside of a secure prison. That means they’re locked inside gates, fences, walls, or a combination. 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 the sentence? How do staff members assess the appropriate type of facility where a person will serve the sentence?

Our team at Prison Professors believes that every justice-impacted person that is going to federal prison should understand how the BOP will classify the person, and the factors the agency will consider when designating a person.

The sooner a person learns about the system, the better off that person will be to get the best possible prison experience.

Resources related BOP Designations:

The federal prison system is part of a large bureaucracy, governed under 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 at on the menu bar. They will see that the Bureau of Prisons publishes all of its policies as “Program Statements.” Administrators will rely upon those Program Statements as they make decisions pertaining to “inmates.” Different facilities will modify the Program Statements and publish “Institution Supplements” if they deem further clarification necessary.

Once a person goes into the prison system, the person won’t have access to the internet. Nevertheless, the BOP will make Program Statements and Institutional Supplements available in the law library. Most facilities have access to an electronic database that maintains the policies; the facilities that lack the electronic database should have hard copies on file in the library.

If those Program Statements are not available, the person can request the Program Statement from a staff member.

Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification: Program Statement 5100.08

Determining where an individual will serve the sentence begins with an initial classification. The program statement above provides all the 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 points associated with any behavior after the crime—while in custody. By feeding those points into a matrix, administrators can make an assessment on the individual’s institutional need. Staff members use their scoring matrix to determine where the defendant will serve the sentence.

Prison security levels:

The Bureau of Prisons operates prisons of several different security levels, including:

  • 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 security levels, people should understand the term “custody” level. A custody level will play a factor in where the person serves the sentence. The custody level will also influence program opportunities that become available at various stages of the sentence. The Bureau of Prisons classifies people in accordance with the following custody levels:

  • 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 in one security level may, at various times and for various reasons, transfer to other institutions. During those transfers, a person may mix or interact with people who have different custody levels.

Sometimes those transfers take place inappropriately. To remedy such problems, a person should understand the custody and classification process. The more a person knows about custody and security levels, the better prepared the individual becomes to make decisions that keep him in appropriate institutions with the lowest possible security level.

To start, a person should anticipate the complications that come with living in a bureaucracy. Although a judge sentences an individual to a given term, the institution where that individual serves his or her term can have an enormous influence on the individual’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, individuals may believe that the nature of their conviction is the sole determining factor of what type of facility where they will serve their sentence.

That isn’t true, either.

Just because a person serves a sentence for mortgage fraud or securities fraud doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual will serve the sentence in a minimum-security camp. Many factors determine where a person will serve the sentence.

We want justice-impacted people to know as much as possible about how administrators make decisions regarding custody and classification levels.

Policy Statement 5100.08 provides extensive detail about how administrators classify individuals. We cover the salient parts below. Those who want more specific information may read through the policy statement. Our website provides more supplementary reading, videos, and audio files that will help people understand more about prison designations in the Bureau of Prisons.

How Does the Classification System Begin?

After the judge sentences a person, a clerk of the court will work together with the US Marshals to make sure the BOP gets the appropriate information. That information includes:

  • The Presentence Investigation Report (PSR)
  • The Statement of Reasons (SOR)
  • The Judgment and Commitment Order (Judgment Order)

Specialists at the Bureau of Prisons’ office in Grand Prairie, Texas, will review the information and designate the person to the initial prison.

The person serving the sentence may never meet staff members in Grand Prairie who makes the initial determination of appropriate custody level. This process of classification and initial “designation” can provoke considerable anxiety for people going to federal prison. Obviously, a person and the family members want as much insight as possible about where the person will serve the sentence.

Unfortunately, people in federal prison must learn to develop a high level of tolerance for frustration. Waiting for a designation order will be only one of many frustrations to come throughout the journey.

When judges impose a sentence, the transfer jurisdiction from the judicial branch of government to the executive branch of government. That is why they say, “I hereby sentence you to the custody of the attorney general.” At that point, the BOP designators have ultimate decision-making power. That said, if a person understands how administrators decide how and where a person will serve the sentence, the person may be able to influence a better outcome.

Initial Designation:

Officials in Grand Prairie will review the judgment order, the PSR, and the Statement of Reasons. From those documents, staff will collect information on the defendant. That information will include details that follow:

  • Racial background / Ethnicity
    • Prison officials try to keep a racial balance in the institutions, which can lead some prisoners to serve sentences far away from home.
  • Age
    • A defendant’s age can influence scoring on the custody matrix.
  • Criminal offense
    • The crime for which an individual is serving time may influences security level.
  • Citizenship
    • An individual’s citizenship will have an influence on custody level.
  • Judicial recommendations
    • Some judges agree to make recommendations on where an individual serves the sentence. BOP officials may consider those recommendations. Ultimately, the BOP has discretion on 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 both custody and security level.
  • Severity of the current offense
    • The Bureau of Prisons maintains a matrix that categorizes federal offenses for the purpose of classifying 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 influences 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 have an influence on the custody and classification score.
  • History of Escape attempts
    • Escape attempts, and even allegations of “failure to appear” for court will influence the custody and classification scoring.
  • Detainer
    • 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 that they have a high school diploma or high school 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 makes note of several personal factors that will influence where an individual serves the sentence. Those factors follow:
      • Member of a disruptive group
      • Convicted of a greatest severity offense
      • Sex offender
      • Threat to government officials
      • Deportable alien
      • Sentence length
      • History of violent behavior
      • History of escape
      • History of participating in a prison disturbances
      • History of juvenile violence
      • History of telephone abuse

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
    • Individuals with special medical needs may be sent to specific institutions.
  • Program Participation
    • In some instances, staff will determine that the prisoner may need to be confined in an institution where specific programs are available.
  • 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 serves 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 individual is cited for misconduct through the disciplinary system, the type and severity of infraction will influence the custody scoring.
  • Family / Community Ties
    • Individuals who show strong family and community ties will receive favorable consideration on the scoring matrix.

Scoring of Custody and Security Levels:

As Program Statement 5100 shows, the system of classifying offenders is, for the most part, objective. A series of points is assigned to each of the characteristics above. Those points are fed into a matrix. The sum of all numbers and factors in the matrix will yield a given 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 appropriate for the individual to serve 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 the person’s offense, which remains “static” throughout the person’s commitment. On the other hand, a person’s behavior over time can have an influence on the custody and classification factor, as is shown by such factors as program participation on the positive side, and disciplinary infractions on the negative side.

People should understand the ramifications of every decision they make. Although people frequently step into the prison experience with the best of intentions to avoid any behavior that could exacerbate problems, life happens. The prison’s infrastructure and culture can bring unanticipated complexities. Ramifications follow every decision.

People serving sentences for white-collar crime may encounter people who think differently or behave differently from what they consider normal. Although we can govern our own thoughts and decisions, we cannot control how others think and act.

People going into the system should expect administrators to put the needs of “the institution” ahead of the needs of the individual. Despite a person 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 the personal characteristics of an individual 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 make the decision of where the person should begin serving time. In most cases, the person will serve time in the institution that is consistent with the person’s scoring on the custody and classification matrix. When administrators make mistakes, a person must use Program Statement 5100 as a resource to make a compelling argument to reverse the decision.

Good advocacy will also be crucial to the process.

To gauge whether you’re ready for the designation process, consider the following questions:

  • Based on the appropriate Program Statement, what custody and security score do you anticipate administrators will assign to 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 the steps you’re taking now 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 possible prison to serve your sentence?

Advocacy Template:

Federal Bureau of Prisons

Designation and Sentence Computation Center

346 Marine Forces Drive

Grand Prairie, Texas 75051


·       RE: Last Name, First Name (Reg. No. 00000-000)

  • U.S.D.C. No: (Insert Case Number)

Dear Designator:

On (INSERT DATE), US District Court Judge (INSERT NAME) sentenced the above-named individual in the (INSERT DISTRICT) to a (INSERT SENTENCE LENGTH) for (INSERT NAME OF CRIME). During the sentencing hearing, Judge (INSERT NAME) recommended that the Bureau of Prisons designate (INSERT NAME) to the (INSERT NAME OF THE PRISON).

The judge requested the designation request for the following reasons:

  • Insert reason
  • Insert reason
  • Insert reason

Earlier this week, the U.S. Marshals’ Office informed my client of his designation to (INSERT NAME OF PRISON), an institution which is (INSERT DISTANCE). Incarceration at the (INSERT NAME OF PRISON) would pose an extreme hardship on the family, especially considering some very recent events the family experienced. The Court recognized these events during the sentencing hearing.

I respectfully request consideration for a change in his initial designation from the (NAME OF FACILITY) to the (NAME OF FACILITY), or if placement there is not feasible, the SCP located at the (ALTERNATE FACILITY), which is also within proximity to (INSERT NAME’s) legal residence.

Mr. (INSERT) has no criminal history, and the instant offense, which is classified as Moderate severity, represents his only conviction. There are no pending charges, no history of violence or escape, and nothing in INSERT NAME background which would preclude placement at a minimum-security level prison camp.

The BOP should not place my client in (NAME OF FACILITY) for the following reasons:

  • Insert reason
  • Insert reason
  • Insert reason

As members of Congress have indicated, I trust that you can appreciate the importance of maintaining family ties are for all people in prison. When a family member has unique needs like those of my client, proximity becomes essential to the rehabilitative and reentry process.

A designation to (DESIRED PRISON) will help to ensure the term of imprisonment does not further traumatize the family. A designation to either of these two facilities is also consistent with the First Step Act which encourages the BOP to place offenders at an institution as near to their primary residence as practicable.

Should you require additional verification regarding the claims I have made to assess and designate an appropriate facility for my client, please feel free to contact me. I understand and appreciate your expedient attention to this matter of mutual concern. Thank you for your time and consideration.

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