To get out at the earliest possible times, learn how to avoid disciplinary infractions while serving your sentence.
Shots and Tickets
In the federal prison system, the vernacular for a disciplinary infraction is a “shot,” as in, the officer wrote me a shot because I didn’t make my bed. People may also refer to a disciplinary infraction as a “ticket,” as in, an officer wrote me a ticket for taking an apple out of the chow hall. During this era of the First Step Act, it’s more important than ever to avoid receiving disciplinary infractions. Disciplinary infractions can interfere with a person’s ability to qualify for an earlier transition to home confinement.
Anyone who anticipates time in federal prison should have a basic understanding of how the “inmate disciplinary program” operates. Review the following information on the BOP’s Program Statement 5270 that covers the disciplinary code. Individuals who want to study independently should invest the time necessary to understand this code by taking the following steps:
By understanding how the Bureau of Prisons processes disciplinary matters, people will know more about how to navigate their way around them. Further, in the event that they’re cited with a disciplinary infraction, they will know what to expect and what options are available.
The Code of Federal Regulations codifies a series of “Prohibited Acts” in federal prison, dividing them into four distinct categories that include:
- Greatest-severity prohibited acts (Series 100)
- High-severity prohibited acts (Series 200)
- Moderate-severity prohibited acts (Series 300)
- Low-severity prohibited acts (Series 400)
Typically, people do not anticipate receiving disciplinary infractions while in prison. Despite such good intentions, prisons can be volatile. A person can control his or her behavior. But a person cannot control how others adjust. Each person has personal motivations. Staff members may want to write disciplinary infractions to advance their career path; people serving time in prison may violate rules that implicate others. The wise person will take all these factors into consideration, and make adjustment decisions to lessen the likelihood of exposure to disciplinary infractions.
People who understand how easily they can become trapped in disciplinary problems will have a better context from which to make decisions. The more people know, the better prepared they become to avoid altercations with the disciplinary process.
What distinguishes the different gradations of disciplinary infractions? First, we want to provide a narrative that will put the entire disciplinary process into context. This lesson will adhere to the following order:
- Who starts a disciplinary infraction?
- What happens when an individual is charged with a disciplinary infraction?
- What should an individual do if he is charged with a disciplinary infraction?
- What sanctions follow a disciplinary infraction?
- What steps can I take to minimize my exposure to the potential of a disciplinary infraction?
Who starts a disciplinary infraction?
The culture of confinement differs from other cultures in our country. Federal prisons isolate people. In many ways, it separates people into different factions, creating an us-versus-them mentality. BOP policies train staff members to be “firm but fair.” While people serve time, they sometimes feel as if staff members have their own agenda. That agenda may include writing disciplinary infractions to advance their career. Just as law enforcement relies upon laws to keep citizens in the broader society in order, prison administrators rely upon the disciplinary code to keep order within the institution.
Liberties, protection, and the level of due process that Americans take for granted in society do not exist in prison. For example, law enforcement officers require much higher standards of proof before they initiate actions that lead to either charges or arrests. Further, if an authority figure charges a person with wrongdoing in society, the person will have access to lawyers and judicial proceedings where he can argue for liberty.
In contrast, staff members in prison can cite a person with a rule violation for the most trivial of reasons. Once a staff member cites a person with a disciplinary infraction, the responsibility falls on the person in prison to respond. With so many possible violations, a staff member could likely find a rule violation on just about anyone serving time.
For these reasons, people should learn how the system operates before they surrender. Knowledge will help people make informed decisions. That knowledge could help a person make better decisions, possibly sparing themselves difficulties that can complicate time inside and threaten an earlier release date.
In the Bureau of Prisons, administrators consider every staff member a “correctional officer” first. Employees have the power to cite people with disciplinary infractions. In other words, officers can write disciplinary infractions. So can secretaries, cooks, chaplains, or electricians. Many staff members write those reports routinely.
In the federal system, people serving time and staff members alike use the jargon “shot” to refer to a disciplinary infraction. In other words, a staff member cites “an inmate” with a disciplinary infraction by “writing a shot.”
Any shot will complicate a person’s journey, bringing lasting ramifications that we describe throughout our lessons. Basically, a disciplinary infraction, or shot, results in further restrictions of liberty.
For example, if a person receives a shot, and authorities affirm the charge, the sanction may include reduced amounts of “good time,” loss of privileges, and limitations on a person’s contact with family or community. The process of issuing a shot follows.
Process for Disciplinary Infractions:
A staff member suspects that a person violated the disciplinary code. A staff member may become aware of that violation in any number of ways. Some examples follow:
- Another person may tell a staff member that he knows someone else violated a prison rule.
- A staff member may observe a person violate a rule.
- Routine surveillance from security cameras may reveal a rule violation.
- Routine review of a phone record may prompt a staff member to cite an individual with a rule violation.
- A routine search of an inmate’s living or work area may result in a rule violation.
The possibilities for rule violations are endless. People with the best of intentions cannot fathom themselves being involved in any type of activity that could lead to an altercation with the disciplinary code. Although people can control their behavior, they cannot control the behavior of others. Developing a higher level of critical-thinking skills will help a person through a more successful journey in prison.
Example of a Disciplinary Infraction:
The culture of confinement differs in significant ways from any other area of society. Perhaps an example is in order.
Margaret wanted to help her husband, John. John surrendered to prison after a jury convicted him of violating securities laws. He didn’t have any experience with the prison system. As such, he did not know anything about the disciplinary code or how severe it could be. Nor did John know how to prepare himself before he surrendered.
When John surrendered to serve his 36-month sentence inside a minimum-security camp, he intended to observe every prison rule and return to his family without causing any further disruptions. Unfortunately, John’s journey did not begin well.
When John surrendered to the camp, authorities did not have a copy of his PSR on file. John didn’t have any idea of what steps he could take to avoid that complication before he surrendered. John’s defense attorney was exceptional at negotiating a favorable sentence. On the other hand, the attorney did not have experience in dealing with all the nuances of federal prison. As a consequence, John got off to a bad start.
Without a PSR on file, administrators at the prison camp sent John to the Special Housing Unit (SHU). In other words, they locked him “in the hole.” The SHU is basically a jail within the prison. Authorities send individuals to the SHU as a sanction. They also lock people in SHU if they choose to conduct “an investigation.”
In John’s case, the authorities wanted to investigate what happened to John’s PSR. John didn’t have any idea what the staff members were talking about when they said that they didn’t have his PSR. Nor did he know the implications that would follow.
Guards took John to a cell and locked him inside. The staff informed John that he would remain in the SHU until they could locate his PSR. While locked in the SHU cell, John did not have free access to the telephone. Basically, the SHU cell was a concrete, windowless bunker. It contained two metal racks bolted to the wall that would serve as a bed and a thin mat on each. It had a stainless steel toilet and sink. Other than gang markings that decorated the walls, that was it.
John paced in the cell for two days before an officer allowed him to use the telephone. When a guard brought him a phone, the only phone number that John could dial was his wife’s. He called Margaret, his wife. When John spoke with her, he told her that there was a problem with the PSR and that he needed to talk with his attorney. Margaret patched John through on a three-way call. John explained the problem to his attorney and his attorney said that he would look into it.
All seemed fine until later that evening when a guard stopped by John’s cell. The guard called John to the door of the SHU cell. Then he cited John with a disciplinary infraction for abuse of the telephone. John didn’t know what the guard was talking about.
Rather than listening, the guard proceeded to read John his Miranda rights. When the guard told John that he had the right to remain silent and that anything he said would be used against him, John’s legs began to shake involuntarily. John didn’t understand. He couldn’t believe that the officer was charging him with an offense.
An officer who had been monitoring inmate telephone calls charged John with making a three-way phone call. John said that no one had told him that he wasn’t allowed to make a three-way phone call. He asked his wife to patch him through to his attorney because he wanted to resolve the issue of the missing PSI. The guard then made a note of John’s comment on the disciplinary infraction.
Two days later, a Disciplinary Hearing Officer (DHO) presided over a hearing to resolve the matter. When the DHO read that John admitted to instructing his wife to make the three-way call, the DHO found John guilty of committing the prohibited act. The DHO imposed the following sanction:
- One year loss of telephone privileges
- Six months loss of visiting privileges
- One month loss of commissary privileges
John protested, saying that he would need to use the phone to communicate with his family. The DHO listened, then told John that he should have thought about his family before he broke the law.
John did not surrender to prison with an intention of violating any prison rules. Yet the system did not accommodate him. Fortunately, John succeeded in reversing that finding. When authorities locked John in SHU, they failed to provide him with an inmate handbook that explained the rules pertaining to three-way calls. As a consequence, John prevailed on appeal through administrative-remedy,. But four months passed before John could use the phone or receive visits from his family.
Even though a person doesn’t intend to violate the disciplinary code, the bureaucracy of confinement can bring unanticipated consequences.
Getting a Shot:
Once a staff member becomes aware that a person violated the disciplinary code, the staff member writes a shot. Rules encourage the staff member to write the shot within 24 hours, but it’s not absolutely necessary for a staff member to comply with the 24-hour rule.
Staff members will expect all people to comply with the rules. The shot will detail the following:
- Time the officer became aware of the incident
- Time the shot was written
- Disciplinary code that the inmate is alleged to have violated
- Description of the disciplinary infraction
After an officer issues a disciplinary infraction, a representative from the “Lieutenant’s Office” will present the shot to the person. The lieutenant will read the person his Miranda rights, informing him that he may remain silent and such.
If the person wants to make a statement that he believes could exonerate him, he should make the statement at the time the lieutenant requests whether he has anything to say. If the person chooses to remain silent, “the system” may or may not give him another opportunity to explain.
After the Shot:
The lieutenant who issues the shot has the discretion to dismiss the charges. Persuading a rattlesnake not to eat a rabbit may be easier than persuading a lieutenant to dismiss disciplinary charges at that early stage of the proceeding. On the other hand, if a person agrees to serve the lieutenant as an informant, the lieutenant may choose to exercise his discretion and dismiss the charge.
Assuming the lieutenant allows the charge against the person to stand, the next step of the process would be for the lieutenant “to investigate” the allegation of misconduct. The investigation is a perfunctory process. If the person makes a statement, the lieutenant will make some inquiries to learn more. After that so-called investigation, the lieutenant will either dismiss the charge or advance the process by passing the shot along to the Unit Disciplinary Committee (UDC).
The UDC refers to the staff members who have the authority to hold an “initial hearing” for the inmate disciplinary proceedings. UDC officers are like the judge and the jury. They usually include a Unit Manager, a Case Manager, a Counselor, or two out of three. Those individuals preside over the first stage of the disciplinary hearing.
During that disciplinary hearing, a staff member reads the charges against the person. Then they read the investigative report if the lieutenant completed one. Then the members of the UDC inquire whether the inmate has a response to the charges. At that point, the UDC will do one of the following:
- find that the person is guilty of the violation and impose a sanction,
- dismiss the charges, or
- refer the matter to the Disciplinary Hearing Officer (DHO).
The DHO is an officer that reviews and presides over the disciplinary hearings of all greatest-severity infractions, most high-severity infractions, and some moderate-severity infractions. The DHO will repeat the process of the UDC. Then the DHO will make a final decision on whether the inmate is guilty of the infraction or dismiss the charges.
Many people refer to the entire disciplinary process as a kangaroo court proceeding. If one prison guard writes an infraction, others within the system will take a principled path to support the process.
What to Do:
Think strategically if charged with a disciplinary infraction. A journey through prison can bring many complications, and a wise individual must choose which battles are worth fighting. We only encourage individuals to contest disciplinary infractions if they’re absolutely innocent of the infraction. If a person violated the rule, and the person knows that the staff members have the evidence necessary to sustain the charge, the person should express remorse and offer to resolve the matter informally or accept the sanction.
In the example cited above, it made sense for John to appeal both the finding of guilt and the draconian sanction.
John was absolutely innocent of the offense and the punishment was severe. He could prove his innocence. Guards locked him in the SHU within a few hours of his surrender to prison. Since he never received an “inmate handbook,” notifying him of the rules, no reasonable person would expect John to know the rules about conference calls. Since John didn’t know the rules:
- He did not know that the couldn’t use the phone to make three-way calls;
- He did not know how to respond when an unknown officer charged him with a disciplinary infraction;
- He did not know how to respond when a DHO imposed severe sanctions.
If an individual is charged with a disciplinary infraction, the first step is to decide how he wants to respond. In the event that the person wants to accept the charge and sanction, we advise people to respond as follows:
- I recognize that I made a bad decision and I apologize. Although it’s no excuse, I’ve been under a lot of stress because I miss my family. I’m going to do better and you won’t have any further problems with me.
Officers in the BOP are used to hearing complaints or denials of wrongdoing from people. When a person immediately admits culpability and expresses some sign of remorse, officers tend to impose less severe sanctions.
On the other hand, if a person chooses to contest the charge, he should know the steps. When a lieutenant notifies a person of a disciplinary infraction and recites the charges, the lieutenant will ask the person whether he has any comment.
The person should respond as follows:
- “I would like to make a written response that you can attach to the record.”
The lieutenant then may ask, “just tell me your statement and I’ll include it.”
The person should respond:
- “Please let the record show that I want to make a written response and I will submit the written response within two hours (or within a reasonable time, but that same day.).
A written response makes sense for the appeal. When an officer charges a person with a disciplinary infraction, the odds are very high that others within the system will uphold the charges and impose a sanction. A fully documented, written record will help the appeal. That record should begin at the earliest possible stage, which is when the lieutenant reads the charge.
The written response should provide as much clarity as possible, citing witnesses if available.
The Unit Disciplinary Committee will likely find the person guilty of committing the offense, guilt or innocence notwithstanding.
The sanctions that follow a disciplinary infraction depend upon the nature of the charges. Program Statement 5270 details the possibilities. The sanctions may include a combination of the following, depending upon the severity of the charge:
- Time in SHU
- Forfeiture of good time
- Change of housing or job assignment
- Disciplinary transfer to a higher security prison
- Monetary restitution
- Loss of telephone, visiting, or mail privileges
- Additional criminal charges
How to Minimize Exposure:
Develop a comprehensive understanding of the disciplinary code. Then, avoid breaking the rules.
Sadly, living in prison can bring complications that no one expects. Sometimes, the toxic culture of confinement brings consequences that no one anticipates.
For example, a person may plead guilty to a white-collar crime like bank fraud or tax evasion. After receiving a sentence of 36 months, the person may learn that administrators in the BOP designated him to serve the sentence in a minimum-security camp. As such, the person may believe that he’ll serve his sentence around other people who do not adhere to a criminal lifestyle.
People of questionable mental stability serve time in all prisons, just as people with mental health challenges or poor critical-thinking skills live in all communities. Further, some people serve time in a camp because authorities convicted them of a trivial offense; the person may also be a psychopath but didn’t get caught for such an offense. Guards will determine where a person sleeps, and with whom he shares living quarters.
He will not have much insight into the values or motivations of the person who shares a cell, room, cubicle, or bunk with him. If it’s a person from a criminal lifestyle who chooses to engage in contraband, that person may hide the contraband in the living quarters.
What will happen if a guard discovers that contraband?
If a guard finds the contraband, the guard may charge the white-collar offender with a disciplinary infraction. At that point, the charges become a problem, potentially a big problem, like. new criminal charge.
Staff members who will determine guilt will not take the time to look at the person’s background. All they will see is the charge. They will want to support their fellow officer who wrote the disciplinary infraction and they will want to support the process. It’s crucial that individuals understand such scenarios and know how to respond.
Serve time with a purpose and establish a principled adjustment strategy. Participate in activities that minimize exposure to trouble. Try to serve time independently, rather than participating in the herd mentality. Each person should be selective in choosing friends in prison.
- Shots begin when a staff member writes a formal infraction and files the disciplinary infraction with the Lieutenant’s office.
- A lieutenant reviews the shot, then calls for the person to appear before him. The lieutenant provides the person with his only opportunity to make a statement or present evidence that could lead to further “investigation” by the lieutenant.
- In most cases, the lieutenant will refer the shot to the Unit Disciplinary Committee, and those on the committee will adjudicate the shot.
- The person may or may not be taken to segregation immediately upon the issuance of the shot, depending on its seriousness.
- People should be aware that it may be easier to find a four-leaf clover in a field of hay than to overturn a disciplinary infraction once a staff member writes a shot.
Collateral influences of disciplinary infractions
Besides bringing immediate sanctions, disciplinary infractions adversely influence a person’s Custody and Classification score. The form used to compute a person’s security level takes credit away for any disciplinary reports received within the past year. Disciplinary infractions at the 200-series level count against a person for two years. Disciplinary infractions at the 100-series level count against a person for ten years.
Further, if staff members find a person guilty of fighting, the BOP may consider that person a violent offender. That distinction will adversely influence his custody scoring for the remainder of time in confinement. Few opportunities exist for a person to distinguish himself positively, yet there is no limit to the number of ways a person can make his time in prison more onerous.
Segregated Housing Unit (SHU):
The Segregated Housing Unit (SHU), also known as “the hole,” usually is contained in its own building within the prison fences. I spent several months in SHU during the 300+ months that I lived in prison. Many people go to the SHU for administrative reasons. If we think of prison as a miniature city, we can think of SHU as the equivalent of a county jail.
When staff members send people to SHU, the person loses access to many of the privileges available in the general population. While confined to a SHU cell, people have limited movement. They may remain locked in a closet-sized room for 23- to 24 hours each day. Sometimes staff members lock them into the room alone. More often than not, staff members will confine two people together in the SHU cell. On more rare occasions, staff members may lock more than two people in a SHU cell, requiring one or two people to sleep on the floor..
Staff may limit SHU prisoners to the number of showers they may take—usually three per week; they may limit one clothing change per week; they may put other restrictions, such as limiting people to one hour of recreation per day. While in the SHU, recreation means that staff members transfer a person from their cell to another cell with fresh air; they have limited access to mail, reading materials, telephone, and commissary.
Time in SHU exacerbates the pains of imprisonment. Some people remain in SHU for prolonged periods of time. People sometimes complain of becoming disoriented. There are few opportunities to interact with others in a meaningful way. It’s difficult to escape the noise that others generate. Many people try to relieve their boredom of being locked in the small rooms by banging on the doors or yelling through the spaces in the door jamb to others on lockdown. Some seek attention by stuffing their clothing into the toilets, then repeatedly flushing the toilet to flood the tier. It’s a pathetic attempt to frustrate staff members and garner attention.
I kept a positive mindset in SHU by both writing and exercising. Although SHU rooms are smaller than a walk-in closet, I could run for hours in the cell, going from one end to the other. I could set goals by doing pushups or other exercises. As human beings, we can adjust anywhere, even in closed quarters.
Each person should strive to remain free of problems that could lead to placement in the SHU. But if a person has to go, the person should keep a strong mindset, focusing on ways to make the time productive.
Staff members may send people to the SHU for any number of reasons. The obvious reason is as a sanction for having been found guilty of violating a disciplinary rule. A less coherent reason is for “investigation.”
Each prison has its own Special Investigative Services (SIS) lieutenant. The SIS operates as a kind of FBI agency, or group of detectives within the prison. They may launch investigations for suspected violations of prison rules or policies.
The SIS investigates wrongdoing, or suspected wrongdoing by people serving time, and by people working in the prison. SIS lieutenants may learn of activities they want to investigate through any number of methods, including “shakedowns” of personal property that result in incriminating evidence.
SIS lieutenants get their information from a variety of sources, including people in the population. In order to get some type of personal benefit, many people tell staff members about the activities of others. For example, someone may talk with staff about:
- A person that operates a gambling pool;
- A group of prisoners who extort weaker people;
- A person that takes food from the kitchen and sells it to others in the housing unit; or
- A person may talk about staff members that have romantic relationships with people in prison, or staff members that bring contraband into the institution.
Such information may result in an SIS investigation. The SIS may place suspects under administrative detention (AD) until the investigation is complete.
The SIS may hold a person in AD for several months. While under the AD status, people live quite similar to those who are being punished for having been found guilty of committing disciplinary infractions. They have less liberty, and less access to telephones, books, radios, and other property.
Besides investigations, staff may hold people in the AD ward of the SHU for a number of other reasons. One reason may be a person’s request. Some people feel so threatened in the general population that they choose protective custody (PC) and they voluntarily live under the more spartan conditions of SHU.
Staff may keep people in the SHU until more room becomes available in the general population, or until they get more information regarding classification. It is unfortunate, but in some cases, a person gets to the prison before his PSR or other paperwork arrives. When that happens, out of an abundance of caution, staff members may put the individual in SHU until they get clarity on his classification.
Like any large and growing bureaucracy, the Bureau of Prisons is a highly structured organization. It is exceptionally impersonal. People should prepare themselves mentally for the challenges that accompany confinement. As we’ve written before, it’s 100 times more bureaucratic than other government agencies, like the IRS or DMV. Awareness of how the system operates can lead to better decisions and the avoidance of disciplinary problems.
Despite the rigidity, opportunities for growth exist. In order to harness those opportunities, our team recommends that people make themselves aware of every rule. Learn how to navigate rules like a skier slaloms down a snow-covered mountain.
For insight on how to contest a disciplinary infraction, please see our article on the administrative remedy process.
- In what ways would participation in organized sports in prison influence the possibility of receiving disciplinary infractions?
- How would you respond to a lieutenant who offered to dismiss a disciplinary infraction if you agreed to serve as a confidential informant?
- If others became aware that you received a disciplinary infraction, how would you respond to their inquiries about what happened?
- What would steps could James have taken to avoid the disciplinary infraction that he received?
- In what ways are you preparing yourself now for the challenges that can present themselves during confinement?