At Prison Professors, we offer instructional material to help individuals at different stages of both government investigations and criminal justice proceedings. With such a broad array of topics to cover, we break the information into several sections.
Please click any of the following links to learn precisely how we can help you. We offer information for people facing challenges with:
- Section 1: Judicial Proceedings
- Section 2: Overview of the Judicial Process
- Section 3: Understanding Sentencing Mitigation
- Section 4: Presentence Investigation Report
- Section 5: Understanding Prison Classifications
- Section 6: Preparing Before Going to Prison
Section 1: Judicial Proceedings
What do you need to know if you become the target of a criminal investigation?
Our answer to the first question is simple: A lot!
Many people that face law-enforcement challenges make decisions that exacerbate their problems. They don’t mean to worsen their troubles by not preparing for court. Yet if they don’t understand what’s coming, what options they have, or where to turn for information that will help them make better decisions, they’re vulnerable.
Targets of both civil and criminal investigations can unwittingly talk themselves into a criminal indictment. They may eliminate opportunities for a diversion from prosecution. Or they may expose themselves to more stringent sanctions.
Competent legal counsel is essential. If a person doesn’t have any experience, a primer on the system may be of help, too. With more knowledge, a non-specialist will feel more competent as he interacts with a criminal lawyer. Without experience, a person will always feel as if he’s operating from a position of darkness, never knowing what’s around the next turn.
Preparing for Court:
By learning about the criminal justice system, a person can arm himself to work more effectively with lawyers. He may understand how to resolve complex dilemmas better. Although the target of a criminal investigation may not like the limited choices available, he may feel more confident that he is going to make the best possible choice. When a person understands context, opportunity costs, and ramifications that follow each decision, that person empowers himself.
We can paraphrase an old Chinese proverb:
- If you want to know the road ahead, ask someone that has come back.
When under the spotlight of a criminal investigation, it makes a great deal of sense to invest time and energy to learn. By learning, a person can make more informed decisions. Operating without knowledge makes us feel as if we’re hanging from a string as if we’re marionette puppets. To stop that helpless feeling and restore confidence, we need to learn; then, we need to make deliberate decisions that will influence best-possible outcomes.
Acquiring knowledge and becoming more literate about the system is the first step. As the cliché holds, the greatest fear is the fear of the unknown.
Learning from our team at Prison Professors is a great place to start.
Defendants learn quickly that problems with the criminal justice system can lead to enormous costs. It isn’t only money that’s at stake. Liberty is at stake. Future earning power is at stake. Collateral consequences—like access to banking, housing, career opportunities—can linger for a lifetime. Don’t take our word for it. Easily verifiable statistics show the fallout for those who have been targeted by the criminal justice system.
It’s crucial to prepare, and it makes a great deal of sense to learn.
The learning process begins with the reality that many people get sucked into the criminal justice system. Although going through the system is difficult, there are best-practice ways to prepare.
According to a 2019 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, the American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in the following locations:
- 1,719 state prisons,
- 109 federal prisons,
- 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities,
- 3,163 local jails, and
80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.
Not everyone that goes into the system gets the best outcome. Those that learn more can prepare more. By learning more about the system, people facing criminal charges may put themselves into a different algorithm, framing possibilities for a better outcome. By using excellent critical thinking skills, targets or defendants may influence decision-makers to view them through a different lens, as if they’re fellow human beings rather than cogs that must grind through a criminal justice machine.
All people facing challenges with the criminal justice system share common traits. Their family members, friends, and colleagues care about them. Defendants would like to live in a world where investigators, prosecutors, probation officers, and judges see them as ordinary citizens. Prosecutors may charge people with a crime, but defendants, like all people, have many attributes that are reflective of their character. A crime may be an aberration, a one-time act that is contextual and doesn’t resemble how they would act in most circumstances.
Yet once the criminal justice system targets people for prosecution, stakeholders in the system turn their attention to the alleged criminal wrongdoing. A criminal charge can stop stakeholders from looking at an individual as a human being. In an instant, the person becomes a defendant. The goal or objective is not always justice. It’s a conviction followed by a punitive sanction.
Targets of criminal investigations would like to find some type of diversionary program to avoid prosecution. If they’re prosecuted, they want the best possible outcome. For most people, the best result means the least restrictive or least punitive sanction—preferably a sentence that does not include incarceration.
But how does a person go about getting the best outcome? Unfortunately, statistics show that few people that encounter the criminal justice system know how to position themselves for the best possible result.
Section 2: Overview of Judicial Proceedings
Relatively few Americans have more than a basic understanding of our nation’s criminal justice system. On the surface, people know that law enforcement officers arrest people, prosecutors bring charges, and some defendants who are convicted go to jail or prison. Yet the system is much more complicated than that, with many moving parts.
Targets should begin from the premise that the system has one function: to protect society. It has a series of procedures designed to enforce the laws of this country. The more we understand about the system, the better we can prepare to navigate the challenges.
All branches of law enforcement work together to prosecute crimes. Just as some offenders will make every effort to evade detection and apprehension by law enforcement, the different members of law enforcement will make every effort to solve a crime and win a conviction.
As citizens, we’re all charged with the responsibility of abiding by our nation’s laws. Legislators pass the bills, and heads of state sign the bills into law. It’s the criminal justice system that is responsible for enforcing the rules.
Few people understand that our country has 53 separate criminal justice systems, including one for each state, one for the District of Columbia, one for the military, and one for the federal government. Within the different systems, there are hundreds of jurisdictions, each with a series of trial courts that make findings of fact. Higher courts may review whether trial courts followed standard procedures.
This elaborately complex system has evolved over hundreds of years. For a person that enters the system, it can feel like authorities drop him into a byzantine labyrinth, with so many turns and dimensions that make it easy to lose direction.
To put this into perspective, think of the system as a zero-sum game.
We use the metaphor of a game for clarity, not to trivialize the conflict between the accused and the accuser. Defendants are the opponents of investigators and prosecutors. Both sides want to win. The defendants want to be diverted from prosecutions, acquitted, or receive the least restrictive sanction. Law enforcement officers want to convict. Prosecutors want to ensure that the defendants receive what they deem as an appropriate sanction.
In this “game” of criminal justice, the judge acts as a referee. Judges strive to ensure that both sides of the game adhere to the rules or due process. They must follow established procedures within the system. In some instances, juries will determine the outcome of this game. But in most cases, defendants will plead guilty before a judge. Then, the long game begins with post-conviction proceedings. They include a presentence investigation and a sentencing hearing. Classification processes follow. For some, the next step comprises appeals, imprisonment, supervised release, and all of the collateral consequences that stay with the “felon” class.
The sooner a target or a defendant starts preparing, the more influence that person can have on a better outcome.
As Mick Jagger sang, we don’t always get what we want. But if we try sometimes, we just might find, we get what we need. To understand what we need, we must work with a criminal defense attorney. And the more we know about what is to come, the better we prepare ourselves to help our lawyers get us the best outcome. For example, if we see what follows in prison, we may be in a better position to understand the impact of a plea agreement or a prison term. In all cases, knowledge can help us make more informed decisions and restore confidence.
Section 3: Understanding Sentencing Mitigation
When is the right time to think about a sentence-mitigation plan?
Answering that question reminds me of an old saying about the best time to plant an oak tree. I heard a speaker ask that question to members of his audience. Predictably, audience members ventured a guess.
- In the morning?
- In the winter?
- In the summer?
No one had a clue.
Pausing for dramatic effect, the speaker then answered. The best time to plant an oak tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is today.
We could say the same thing about a sentence-mitigation plan. Too often, a defendant doesn’t do anything to prepare for the sentencing hearing.
It’s understandable. Many defendants don’t think of themselves as criminals. Regardless of what type of activity brought them to the attention of authorities, they believe that they’re different, immune from law enforcement. They may not know anyone that has been through the criminal justice system, and they cannot conceive of themselves going into the system.
- How do you see yourself?
But authorities saw me differently. In their eyes, I violated securities laws. That made me a target for prosecution. And when federal authorities target a person for trial, their conviction rates exceed 85 percent. With those odds, it makes a lot of sense to begin thinking about a sentence-mitigation plan at the soonest possible time. Regardless of what type of charge a person faces, it’s essential to realize that sentencing proceedings will likely follow. Sentence-mitigation plans can help.
Start with an understanding of what the defense attorney will do. Attorneys will work with:
- The evidence against the individual,
- The procedural rules that determine what evidence the court will consider,
- The substantive law that Congress has passed,
- The case law that judges have decided,
- The prosecutor’s ability to prove a case against the defendant.
To succeed, the defense attorney will exercise judgment and discretion, fighting valiantly to get the best possible outcome for the defendant. Both the prosecutor and the defense attorney will be analyzing the case and pressing forward to get the result they want. Rather than justice, the prosecutor will strive for a conviction. The defense attorney will parry the prosecutor’s efforts, always assessing the strength of arguments that he can use.
While the defense attorney may be a great analytical thinker, he may not have time to listen to the defendant’s life story. For that reason, every defendant should invest the time and energy to present that life story.
A life story can make all the difference in the world when it comes to sentencing. Indeed, our team has worked closely with many federal judges. We’ve spoken with dozens of federal judges about the importance of preparing for sentencing. Two of those federal judges sat for an interview with us. I asked those judges what steps a person could take to influence the judge’s decision. Each judge responded by saying that, when it comes to sentencing, they want to hear from defendants.
Our interviews with both judges are available for free through our YouTube channel under the following playlist:
- Judge Mark Bennett from the Northern District of Iowa
- Judge Stephen Bough from the Western District of Missouri
- How to Prepare for Sentencing:
Defense Attorney’s Position:
Some defense attorneys support a pro-active sentence-mitigation plan, while other defense attorneys resist such initiatives. Why?
As stated above, attorneys are great analytical thinkers. Since they know it’s the prosecutor’s burden to prove a case, they operate out of an abundance of caution. They do not want to introduce any evidence that a prosecutor could use against their client. And since most defendants start in denial, incapable of fully appreciating the system or the charges against them, some attorneys do not want their clients to say anything.
Attorneys may have invested considerable amounts of time in constructing an elaborate defense. They do not want their clients to make statements that prosecutors may twist, making it more difficult for the attorney to argue for leniency at sentencing. Defense attorneys may prefer to rely upon case law, facts, and what the prosecutor could prove.
We have a different perspective. Our team has interacted with more than 1,000 people that have gone through the criminal justice system. We’ve had personal interactions with state and federal judges. Based on our experience, defendants put themselves in a far better position when they engineer an effective sentence-mitigation plan. When a person creates and executes an effective sentence-mitigation strategy, that individual does immense service to his defense attorney.
In our view, an effective sentence-mitigation plan will strive to achieve several outcomes:
- It will help the judge see and understand the defendant as an individual,
- It will help the judge grasp influences that led the defendant to the current situation,
- It will help the judge see aspects of the defendant’s life that could not be conveyed by the defense attorney’s eloquence alone,
- It will help the judge see the defendant in his environment,
- It will help the judge learn what other people in the community think about the defendant.
Engineering an effective sentence-mitigation plan does not excuse the misconduct or litigate the case. A sentence-mitigation plan does just the opposite. It is a strategy to show the judge why the defendant is worthy of mercy. It would not serve a defendant’s interest to minimize liability or to blame anyone. If referring to the criminal conduct at all, the sentence-mitigation plan should focus on some key points, including:
- Show an understanding and an appreciation for the victim’s pain, suffering, or loss.
- Show influences that led the defendant to become involved in the instant offense.
- Show what the defendant has learned from the experience.
- Show what steps the defendant has taken to reconcile with society, the victims, and his community to make things right.
- Articulate a coherent plan to show why the defendant will never break the law again.
What if I Go to Trial?
As stated in previous lessons, the vast majority of people charged in a criminal case start with a not-guilty plea. Their defense attorneys then assess the evidence and the risks of proceeding through trial, then negotiate the most favorable plea agreement possible. Still, a small percentage of defendants maintain their innocence and proceed through trial.
If a defendant proceeds through trial and is found guilty, that defendant may want to appeal. In that case, the defendant will want to create a sentence-mitigation plan that does not threaten the prospects for an appeal. Accordingly, he should refrain from discussing any aspects of the case. Instead, such a strategy should focus exclusively on helping the judge get to know him as a person.
There is always an opportunity to create a mitigation strategy. It is equivalent to building a sales presentation. And how do we accomplish that goal? We begin by thinking about our audience. A sentence-mitigation plan has an audience of one: the judge.
- What steps can you take to differentiate yourself from every other defendant that comes before the judge?
First Person Approach:
Let your lawyer argue the law and deal with the evidence against you. When it comes to articulating the story of your life, use your own words, in a first-person voice. From our perspective, this is common sense.
Your lawyer is a professional advocate, skilled in the arts of persuasion. Even if the most notorious criminal retained your attorney, a professional code of ethics would require your attorney to provide the most zealous defense possible. After decades of practicing law, judges know that the defense attorney is going to argue for leniency at sentencing.
While deliberating over the appropriate sentence, the judge isn’t too concerned with arguments on case law. He has read the case law; he has his own opinion. On the other hand, he doesn’t know much about the defendant.
Before sentencing, defendants have an opportunity to influence the outcome. Again, a defendant does well when he starts from the premise that he’s about to make the biggest sale of his life. The only question is how well he has prepared, or how much time, energy, and resources he wants to build a persuasive case.
Our team believes that an effective sentence-mitigation plan should begin at the soonest possible time. No one can change the past, but any of us can start crafting a story that will show who we are as individuals and how we got here. We’re big believers in a three-tiered strategy that includes:
- A personal sentencing narrative
- A strategic character-reference letter campaign
- A sentence-mitigation story of community service
- Bonus: A sentencing video
Based on what we’ve learned from judges, we believe that defendants serve themselves well when they write first-person, sentencing narratives. For defendants that have pled guilty, the sentencing narratives should adhere to the five-point list stated above, but that we’ll repeat here:
- Show an understanding and an appreciation for the victim’s pain, suffering, or loss.
- Show influences that led the defendant to become involved in the instant offense.
- Show what the defendant has learned from the experience.
- Show what steps the defendant has taken to reconcile with society, the victims, and his community to make things right.
- Articulate a coherent plan to show why the defendant will never break the law again.
If a jury or judge convicted the defendant after a trial, then it’s essential to consider the appellate strategy. Either way, a well-constructed narrative should focus on the judge’s perceptions, using the five-point above as a guideline. We’ve worked with many individuals that prepared effective sentence-mitigation strategies, even though they did not accept responsibility before being convicted after a trial.
Every case is different. There is no cookie-cutter approach. And there is no guarantee that a personal sentencing narrative will influence the judge. A defendant that engineers a well-crafted sentence-mitigation strategy will be in a better position than if he were to remain silent. No one should leave the judge without clarity about a person’s mindset, or the influences that led him into the predicament at hand.
A well-structured letter considers the audience. Judges get inundated with paperwork. When crafting the message, think about length. Our recommendation is to write a document of between 1,500 and 3,000 words. Some papers may go longer. Yet, in our experience, we’ve found this word count to be sufficient to write a coherent narrative. Keep in mind that we’re advocating for a multi-pronged approach that would include far more than the sentencing narrative.
Defendants should strive to write a highly personal story, adhering to the five-point plan above. The art of writing is re-writing. Take time to get it right. Ask others to read through the document. Other readers may offer guidance that can prove beneficial.
When it’s complete, share the letter with your defense attorney and consider his advice on steps to strengthen the document.
The second component of an effective sentence-mitigation strategy includes a well-coordinated character-reference letter campaign.
See our Prison Professors YouTube playlist:
- How to Prepare for Sentencing:
We reveal what we’ve learned from judges about character-reference letters. The judges with whom we’ve spoken tell us that rather than receiving character-reference letters from high powered professionals or celebrities, they want to read letters from people that knew the defendant best. They want to read stories that offer details showing something about the defendant’s character.
- If the defendant volunteered as an athletic coach, perhaps someone from the team could write about memorable experiences of working with the coach.
- If the defendant volunteered in the community, perhaps a program director could write about how the defendant helped someone without expectations of receiving anything in return.
- If the defendant helped a sick neighbor with lawn care, or grocery shopping, that testimonial would show a great deal about the defendant’s character.
Ideally, the person that writes the character-reference letter should reveal that the defendant has been open and honest about criminal behavior. Judges want to know that the defendant has not been deceptive. If the writer feels that the defendant has expressed remorse, then the writer should show what he has seen.
Judges with whom we’ve spoken told us that ideally, a defendant would be selective. Rather than submitting an overwhelming number of letters, the judges with whom we’ve spoken said that it’s far better to send a few, well-crafted letters. Based on what we’ve heard, judges do not want to receive more than a dozen character reference letters—especially if they all present the same message.
Character-reference letters should never make excuses for the defendant. It would not serve the defendant’s interest if the character-reference letter:
- Wrote that the defendant wasn’t at fault,
- Stated that the government or jury got it wrong,
- Opinionated that the defendant should not be going to prison,
- Followed a template that many others wrote.
Judges want to hear about the defendant’s character. That is all. They do not want to listen to the writer’s opinion about the case, or the fairness of the judicial system. Nor do they want others to tell the judge what sentence would be appropriate. The judge wants to hear from those that know the defendant best. If they know about the defendant’s conviction, and they still express a willingness to support him, that says a great deal.
Finally, defendants that have the time and energy may want to build a story of mitigation. This strategy can include participation in a course or the creation of a class. It can consist of biography or some type of vehicle that shows the defendant’s commitment to making things right.
As with the character-reference letter and the sentencing narrative, the sentence-mitigation video should help the judge get a complete idea of the defendant. We want the judge to know and understand the defendant. A video can help the defendant bring aspects of his life into the courtroom that the judge may never know. A picture speaks a thousand words, and a well-crafted video can be like 1,000 pictures that tell a moving story about the defendant’s life.
The challenge with video production is that it can be very costly to produce. Depending upon preparations and travel costs, artists charge between $5,000 and $25,000 to create a compelling sentence-mitigation video. Production costs run high because of the specialized equipment and training it takes to script, film, edit, and produce video content.
On the other hand, a defendant that is skilled with a cellphone camera and editing software may accomplish the same objective at no cost. The goal is to bring into the courtroom what would otherwise be missing.
Ideally, the video should not be any longer than 10 minutes. And during those 10 minutes, every second should count. It should feature b-roll footage that shows the defendant in his environment. It must tell a story, showing the complexity of the defendant’s life and how he interacts with his community. The more people and images in the video, the more effective it becomes.
The most effective video we played a role in producing included more than 30 people. We profiled the client in various locations. His home, business, clients, and employees all had a role in the video. The video featured interviews with family members, employees, and clients. It spliced in video-footage showing the results of his work and his contributions to the community. In 15 minutes, the video provided the judge with a far more comprehensive view of the defendant’s character than a defense attorney could ever offer.
Section 4: Presentence Investigation Report
After a person pleads guilty or is found guilty, the presentence investigation will be the next step. For more details, check out Rule 32 of the U.S. Rules of Criminal Procedure in the federal system. Each state system has a similar rule in the book of criminal procedure.
In federal cases, probation officers conduct these investigations to help sentencing judges and others evaluate the background of the person. The investigation culminates with an all-important presentence investigation report (PSI or PSR—used interchangeably). The report will include recommendations based on guidelines and the probation officer’s opinion. Sentencing judges will consider recommendations from the PSR when imposing sentence.
Besides the importance of the PSR for sentencing, people should pay close attention. The report will play a significant role in a person’s life if prison becomes a part of the sentence. Information in the PSR influences how authorities classify the prisoner when he is released, and what level of liberty he will have after he gets out of prison.
To preserve rights and to self-advocate once inside, it’s crucial to understand everything about the presentence investigation before it begins. Best-practice preparations require a person to invest the time and energy to understand the process well before the sentencing hearing, or even the investigation starts.
If a defense attorney fails to stress the importance of the PSR, be wary. In prison, the PSR will be the principal document administrators will use to make assessments, especially at the start of the journey.
- Case managers will use the document to consider the severity of the offense;
- Counselors will use the document to determine who can visit the offender;
- Educational administrators will use the PSR to determine whether the prisoner is required to participate in programs;
- Psychologists will turn to the PSR to see whether the individual is eligible for beneficial programs; and
- Medical personnel will turn to the PSR to determine whether the prisoner merits medical attention
Once the court accepts the PSR, it will follow the person until his journey concludes. If there are errors in the PSR, and the probation officer refuses to make adjustments, then it’s critical to ask the judge to address these errors in the Statement of Reasons, which we’ll describe below.
Beginning the Investigation:
The probation officer assigned to the case will begin the investigation by becoming familiar with the government’s version of the offense. Then, the probation officer will schedule a face-to-face. The meeting may take place at the person’s home, in the probation office, over the phone, or in the facility holding the person if he’s in custody. Before the meeting, the probation officer will have insight into the case from the prosecutor and the investigators. The purpose of the conference is to collect information from the person being investigated if he’s willing to offer it.
The probation officer will ask the person what he has to say about the offense. He’ll also ask about the offender’s background. Among other things, the probation officer will ask about:
- Family history,
- Criminal background,
- Employment history,
- Substance-abuse background,
- Medical condition, and
- Financial status.
Anyone going through a PSR investigation should remember probation officers are law-enforcement officers. If the probation officer believes the person lied or provided misleading information, or if he thinks the offender tried to influence others inappropriately, the probation officer may make things worse. The probation officer could charge the offender with obstruction of justice if he believed the offender tried to interfere with, manipulate, or subvert his investigation. With such a recommendation, the judge may add additional time to a defendant’s sentence.
Probation officers have huge caseloads, and it may feel as if they’re cynical. The investigator will interview the offender’s family members, check the offender’s school records, and obtain official records of the offender’s previous legal problems. The probation officer also will speak to prior employers, check with creditors, and search for information to verify the offender’s statements about his medical condition.
A person may reserve his right to remain silent during the investigation. But if he chooses to communicate, he should understand that any lies or attempts to mislead the probation officer could result in a more prolonged or more severe sentence. We recommend honesty and proper preparation before the PSR interview.
Some people refuse to provide any information to the probation officer. They may have valid reasons for wanting to remain silent. But if the person doesn’t participate in the PSR investigation, the probation officer’s writing will only reflect the government’s version of events.
An appellate strategy may influence a person’s approach. He may choose not to answer questions about the offense. If that is the case, the offender should be courteous, explaining that for appellate reasons, he cannot discuss the situation. He may want to cooperate with the investigation in ways that will not jeopardize his rights.
We recommend that unless the offender has a good reason, he ought to cooperate with the investigation. We urge defendants to prepare the sentence-mitigation strategy long before the PSR interview and to provide as much documentation as possible to the probation officer. By giving the officer the personal narrative, the person makes the probation officer’s job easier. He may cut and paste entire paragraphs or pages into the report. This strategy allows the person to influence a document that will prove enormously influential while the person serves his sentence.
The PSR will influence administrators that the prisoner may never meet. For example, when making the initial classification of where a person serves a sentence, administrators will rely upon the PSR. Others will use the PSR to determine who can visit. On top of all that, the PSR will include information that identifies whether the person gets a lower-bunk pass, qualifies to participate in beneficial programs, and for other crucial issues that can influence release dates.
Once inside prison, a Unit Team will meet with the prisoner. Administrators on the team—case managers and counselors—will consider the PSR and the record a person accumulates during his confinement.
For those reasons, before going inside, people should invest time to understand the myriad ways a PSR will influence the prison term. Then he can make a more competent decision on whether to provide more, rather than less information.
Those who’ve pled guilty should understand that the probation officer has the authority to recommend a significant downward adjustment from the sentencing guidelines. If the person convinces the officer that he provided a full and candid description of his criminal actions and demonstrates genuine remorse for his criminal behavior, the officer may recommend that the person gets credit for “acceptance of responsibility.”
The probation officer’s recommendation in the PSR isn’t binding on the judge, but it is influential. In our experience, people that express remorse for their actions help themselves. If they can persuade the court that their criminal behavior was an aberration rather than a pattern of behavior or a criminal lifestyle, they usually receive lower sentences than those who refuse to cooperate with the presentence investigation. Likewise, those who choose to exercise their rights to silence may be portrayed as unremorseful. Judges would likely consider a lack of remorse at sentencing.
The PSR Report Itself:
Once the officer finishes the investigation, court rules require him to write his complete report “in a non-argumentative style.” After describing the details of the offense and other identifying data, a model PSR from the Southern District of New York contains headings as follows.
In this section, the probation officer writes the government’s version of events and may describe discrepancies that the offender wants to insert in the document.
Victim Impact Statement:
If the crime had an identifiable victim, the probation officer might allow the victim to describe how the offense impacted him (or her).
If the offender was convicted along with others in the offense, the probation officer may detail the conduct of each defendant in the case under this heading. This can be prejudicial, because some participants may be much more culpable than others.
Offenders ought to ask the attorney to challenge any information that suggests or insinuates that he participated in the same behavior of others if he did not. Prison staff members who evaluate an offender may not make any distinction between participants. If the PSR indicates that one member of the offense was violent and predatory in nature, that information may have a material influence on all members of the offense as far as prison classifications are concerned.
Obstruction of Justice Adjustment:
If the person obstructed justice in any way, the probation officer may recommend a sentencing enhancement. Examples of obstruction of justice include when an offender tries to influence what others will say during a government investigation. If the offender calls an individual and says, “Don’t talk, or else….” the officer may charge the individual with obstruction of justice and with threatening violence. If so, prison administrators may characterize the offender as being violent in nature, which will prohibit participation in certain beneficial programs.
Acceptance of Responsibility Adjustment:
If the offender is candid about his responsibility, the probation officer may recommend a downward departure from sentencing guidelines. The level of the downward departure will depend upon when the offender accepted responsibility. People that plead guilty early in the criminal justice procedure receive the largest downward departures for acceptance of responsibility. It’s a reward for saving the government the time and expense of preparing for trial.
Those who proceeded through trial will have a higher burden to meet in order to receive this benefit. But going to trial does not necessarily preclude a person from receiving this sentencing adjustment. Remember, the judge has discretion, and it’s important to build an influential case on why you’re worthy of mercy. Acceptance of responsibility can weigh heavily on the judge’s decision to grant mercy.
Offense Level Computation:
Criminal statutes and guidelines influence this objective score. Offenders may read about these scores by studying the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual which is available in all federal prison law libraries. Those who do not have access to prison law libraries may review online or order the book from a bookstore. Guideline manuals may be too complicated to read for those that do not have a legal background. Our courses offer some video tutorials.
This information comes from past criminal convictions. Points are assigned to those who have been convicted for other offenses, and each prior conviction counts against the score. Chapter Four of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual explains how probation officers count the points.
Probation officers use this section to describe what he learned about the offender through his presentence investigation. It’s a subjective description. The offender’s family responsibilities also will be discussed as well as the offender’s community ties.
If the offender engineered a sentence-mitigation strategy earlier, he may want to share his personal narrative during the PSR interview. Probation officers may cut and paste parts of the narrative into this section. That strategy can prove extremely useful to the person as he goes through the system, both in sentencing and while in prison.
This section describes whether the person suffered from any substance abuse problems in the past. It is an extremely important section. In the federal prison, the BOP has authority to reduce a person’s by as much as 12 months if the offender completes a 500-hour drug treatment program during his incarceration. To qualify for this year off, the BOP will require the offender to provide documentation that he suffered from substance-abuse prior to imprisonment, ideally, during the 12 months that preceded arrest.
The substance-abuse section of the PSR report is an excellent place to document a history of drug abuse or alcoholism that would benefit from treatment. During the PSR investigation, defendants that suffered from alcoholism or abused other drugs should report those experiences. If those reports meet certain criteria, the defendant may qualify for participation in a drug-treatment program. If he completes the program successfully, he may get out of prison earlier.
People that do not understand the PSR sometimes conceal their history of substance abuse. They mistakenly believe substance abuse of any kind will reflect badly on them at sentencing. Hiding a history of substance abuse may limit access to beneficial programs that could result in a sentence reduction.
Here the probation officer describes health problems or medical conditions. If the person suffers from a bad back, has weak knees, or any ailments that may have an impact on his ability to climb onto a top bunk or perform certain duties, he should detail those ailments. If the probation officer documents health conditions in the PSR, it may influence housing assignments.
If possible, it’s helpful to get a letter from a physician and medical records. Good preparation includes documentation to support a medical condition. That documentation can help a prisoner self-advocate once his term of imprisonment begins. For example, a doctor’s letter verifying a bad back or weak knees will help an offender secure a coveted lower-bunk pass. That pass can be a blessing for an individual who lacks the strength to climb onto a top bunk.
Education and V.T. Skills:
The probation officer will ask about education and credentials. To avoid complications, help the probation officer get the information necessary to confirm diplomas and degrees. Administrators in prison will require those that do not have a verified high school education to attend prison-sponsored GED courses for at least 240 hours. They will receive lower wages from their prison work details. Participation in GED classes may have an impact on an ability to earn good time or earned time.
Prison administrators frown upon prisoners who have extensive computer experience. If the PSR indicates that an individual has computer programming skills, administrators may deny that individual access to coveted clerical jobs by placing computer ban on his file. Administrative rules may deny camp placement for defendants that have crimes related to sophisticated computer programming and wireless networks.
Probation officers will check with prior employers to obtain an evaluation of the person’s work habits. A good work history may influence the sentencing judge. Also, an extensive work history may help a person advocate for himself if he is seeking a specific job in the prison.
Consider all financial liabilities and responsibilities when meeting with the probation officer who is preparing the report. Most criminal convictions result in monetary fines or restitution orders. All felony criminal convictions result in criminal-assessment fees. For some defendants, sentencing courts impose cost-of-confinement fees.
Sentencing judges may choose not to impose fines and cost-of-confinement fees if the person is incapable of paying. Judges are less forgiving when it comes to restitution. Laws may require judges to impose felony-assessment fees.
If the court imposes a monetary penalty, BOP staff members will demand monthly payments. They will consider any funds that pass through the offender’s commissary account as being available for such payments. These charges can make life more difficult inside.
If a monetary sanction becomes part of a person’s sentence, the offender’s attorney ought to ask the judge to specify that the fine is not to be collected until after the offender’s release from confinement. If the judge’s commitment order specifies that the offender doesn’t have to pay the monetary portion of the sanction until the person is released, the BOP will not be able to pressure the person for payments during confinement.
The probation officer discusses options the judge may consider when imposing sentencing. The options are rather limited in that they only offer a monetary fine, probation, or incarceration in some form—either house arrest, a community confinement center, or imprisonment. Many crimes, particularly offenses related to the distribution of drugs, require mandatory-minimum sentences that preclude sanctions less than imprisonment. One can develop a better understanding of federal sentencing options by reading the most current edition of the very detailed Federal Sentencing Law And Practice by Thomas W. Hutchison, et al, and published by West Group.
Factors that May Warrant Departure:
In the federal system, judges must consider sentencing guidelines. The guidelines are not mandatory, but most judges use them as a starting point. If the judge chooses to depart from established guidelines for a specific offender, the judge must articulate his reasons during the sentencing hearing.
The probation officer will describe factors that may warrant either a downward or upward departure from the sentencing guidelines. The most common downward departure is when an offender cooperates with the government in the investigation and provides assistance in the prosecution of others. People that place the highest value on getting out of prison at the soonest possible time may choose to cooperate with prosecutors. Such decisions may influence where a person serves his time, and whether that person is ostracized by others in prison.
In rare instances, probation officers may recommend downward departures for other reasons. They may find that a person’s situation is markedly different from others that were convicted of the same type of offense. It is a high burden, but in rare cases, people receive downward departures for issues other than cooperating in the prosecution of others.
Upward departures are more common. Judges issue sentences that are harsher than the guidelines when they’re convinced that the sentencing guidelines do not reflect the seriousness of the offender’s conduct.
The Completed PSR Report:
Following the completion of the PSR, the probation officer will deliver copies of the report to the prosecutor and the offender’s attorney. Both parties will have time to review the document. If inaccuracies appear, each party will have an opportunity to object to the perceived errors. Once the objections are noted, the probation officer will determine whether the objections are valid. If so, changes to the PSR will follow.
If the probation officer refuses to make changes that either party wants, that party can bring the matter up with the sentencing judge. The judge will listen to both sides and each side may present evidence to bolster its position. After hearing the arguments, the judge will make a determination. Sometimes, though, the judge may sentence the offender according to his findings at the hearing, but not order changes to the written PSR.
Defense attorneys should be vigilant in efforts to get a PSR that accurately reflects the judge’s findings. The BOP will use the PSR for classifications and to make other decisions, which can have a huge influence on how and where the person serves the sentence. If the judge chooses not to order the probation officer to correct a PSR, the defense attorney may ask the judge to make specific findings in the commitment order, and also in a Statement of Reasons for the sentence.
Statement of Reasons:
In addition to the PSR, the court will submit a Statement of Reasons to the Bureau of Prisons. See Title 28 United States Code Section 994(w)(1)(B), which tells us:
the written statement of reasons for the sentence imposed (which shall include the reason for any departure from the otherwise applicable guideline range and which shall be stated on the written statement of reasons form issued by the Judicial Conference and approved by the United States Sentencing Commission);
In February 2016, the Judicial Conference issued, and the Sentencing Commission approved, Form A.E. 245B. Section IB4 of the revised form tell us that:
“comments or factual findings concerning any information in the presentence report, including information that the Federal Bureau of Prisons may rely on when it makes inmate classification, designation, or programming decisions.”
The United States Sentencing Commission published a video at the following location that offers more insight into the Statement of Reasons:
The Bureau of Prisons will review both the Statement of Reasons and the PSR when classifying a person. For that reason, attorneys should make a strong case to persuade the judge to put specific language in the Statement of Reasons that may help a person qualify for specific BOP programs. That Statement of Reasons could potentially influence an earlier release date. Program Statement 5322.13 requires the BOP to consider the Statement of Reasons when calculating each prisoner’s security level. For that reason, some may argue that the Statement of Reasons may be an excellent remedy to overcome problems with an inaccurate PSR.
Section 5: Understanding Prison Classifications
—The Different Levels:
All federal prisons fall into one of five different security levels: minimum, low, medium, high, or administrative. Administrative-level facilities are designed to hold prisoners from any security level. That means an administrative facility may be holding mass murderers together with people that mailed envelopes with fake postage stamps. Because administrative facilities hold such diverse groups of prisoners, life inside of them is strictly controlled.
Prisoners held in administrative facilities are usually there for a specific purpose besides serving the sentence. Their freedom of movement is strictly controlled.
For the most part, administrative facilities are like large county jails, holding any type of offender. Generally, they serve five purposes:
- Holding people near the courthouse to ease transportation for judicial proceedings;
- As transit facilities while prisoners on being transferred to other prisons;
- As medical centers, where staff and equipment are available to treat complicated health concerns of the BOP prisoner population.
- As high-security facilities that limit a prisoner’s ability to interact with the public or with other prisoners.
- As witness-protection facilities for offenders that may be particularly vulnerable in general population.
The vast majority of federal prisoners serve their sentences in minimum, low, medium, or high security prisons. Ordinarily, authorities hold people in administrative facilities for limited amounts of time, and for specific reasons. As a result of the Bureau of Prison’s complex system of classifying prisoners, the prisoners held in each respective prison will have similar security needs.
Seven factors determine an institution’s security level. They include:
- The use of mobile patrols that drive around the institution’s perimeter 24 hours each day;
- Gun towers located around a prison’s outside perimeter from which armed BOP guards monitor the activities inside of a prison;
- The perimeter barriers that separate the prison from the community;
- The use of detection devices like metal detectors and sound guns that can intercept prisoner conversations;
- The internal security features like locks on individual doors and bars on windows;
- Specific housing issues, such as whether prisoners are confined in locked rooms, cages, or open dormitories; and finally,
- The ratio of inmates to staff members.
The higher the security level of an institution, the more stringent the security needs. The most secure federal prison in the United States is the Administrative-maximum security prison at Florence, Colorado (ADX), In the ADX, authorities have strict control over all movement and interactions.
United States penitentiaries (USP’s) are high-security institutions. They can have higher rates of violence because they hold prisoners with violent backgrounds in more open settings.
Medium-security prisons (Federal Correctional Institutions—FCI’s) also have relatively high-security needs. They generally hold prisoners with up to 30 years remaining to serve. These long-term prisoners may bring higher levels of volatility to an institution.
Low-security FCIs maintain a substantial degree of control, but they are more open than medium-FCIs or high-security USPs.
Federal Prison Camps or Satellite Prison Camps (FPCs and SCPs), on the other hand, hold prisoners that the BOP has determined need the least amount of supervision or security controls. People in camps have about as much exposure to violence as people shopping in a grocery store. Violence can happen, but it’s rare and isolated because most of the people in camp do not want disciplinary infractions that can lead them to higher security prisons.
Custody, Classifications, and Security Scoring:
After a federal judge imposes a sentence of incarceration, the U.S. Marshals will send the judgment order and the PSR to the BOP office in Grand Prairie, Texas. State prison systems will have a similar process, with a group of administrators determining where the person will serve the sentence.
Officials that will never meet the person will make a determination on where he should serve the sentence. For that reason, when requesting a judicial recommendation at sentencing, defense attorneys should ask the judge to do more than recommend an institution. Attorneys should provide the judge with specific reasons why one institution is in the best interest of society and the attorney should request the judge to state those reasons in the judgment order.
Ideally, the judge’s Statement of Reasons will make specific findings on why the institution is appropriate. For example, there may be a specific program that would benefit the person. Or there may be external reasons why confinement in a specific institution would serve the needs of society. If the judge provides a reason, officials in the BOP will place more weight on the judge’s recommendation.
The BOP published a Custody and Classification Manual (Manual) which describes guidelines prison administrators use when designating an individual’s place of imprisonment. The Manual is available on the Bureau of Prisons’ website at www.BOP.gov under Program Statement 5100.07 (check the latest version).
Interested parties that have access to the Internet should consult the www.BOP.gov website. It includes considerable amounts of useful information, including program statements. Anyone going into the federal prison system would be wise to review Program Statement 5100.07 to understand how prison behavior influences placement in specific facilities.
Although a person may begin with one custody and security score, the scores may change over time. Those changes could result in transfers to other institutions.
In an effort to ensure all designation and transfer decisions are made without favoritism given to an individual’s social or economic status, the Manual provides a matrix which allows BOP case managers to arrive at an objective score that will determine each offender’s security needs.
Once case managers identify an offender’s security level, he will be designated to a corresponding facility. Basically, the manual uses a point system for two types of offender scoring.
- The Base Score, evaluates an offender’s legal status;
- The Custody Score, evaluates an offender’s prison behavior.
With the Base Score, an offender can score from a minimum of zero points to a maximum of seven points. It assigns points to such issues as:
- Whether the individual has a detainer filed against him (pending additional legal action);
- The severity of the current offense;
- Any type of prior commitment;
- Any history of escape attempts;
- Any history of violence; and
- An individual’s pre-commitment status (whether he self-surrendered).
On this Base Score, the lower the number of points, the better for an offender.
With the Custody Score, an offender can score from a minimum of ten points to a maximum of 30 points. It evaluates:
The percentage of time served as related to expected stay in prison;
- History of drug or alcohol abuse;
- Mental / psychological stability;
- The seriousness and quantity of disciplinary infractions received while in custody;
- Frequency of disciplinary problems during the past year;
- Level of responsibility demonstrated during incarceration; and
- Family ties.
On this Custody score, the higher the number of points, the better for the offender.
After BOP administrators calculate a Base Score and a Custody Score, they plug the two separate numbers into a formula which will provide the administrators with a total security-level score. For male offenders, barring special circumstances outlined in Chapter Seven of the Manual, total score between zero and five points may qualify for camp placement. Scores between six and eight points usually are held in low-security prisons. If a person scores between nine and fourteen points, he generally will be designated to serve his sentence in a medium-security prison. If the score is higher than fifteen points on the security-level scoring system, the person may go to a high-security federal penitentiary.
For female offenders, the BOP uses a similar system, but assigns different points to the criteria determining each female offender’s security level. Females with zero to ten points usually are designated to minimum-security facilities; females with eleven to twenty-one points usually are designated to low-security facilities; and females who score higher than twenty-two points usually are designated to a high-security facility for women.
Management Variables and Public Safety Factors:
Despite an offender’s classification scoring, some additional circumstances may play a role in an offender’s security level. The Bureau of Prisons accommodates these factors through the use of Management Variables and Public Safety Factors.
Management Variables identify criteria that may have an impact on where an individual serves his sentence. Case Managers can apply a Management Variable to an individual offender for the following reasons:
- Judicial Recommendation: when the offender’s sentencing judge recommended a specific institution;
- Release Residence/Planning: to help an offender remain close to his area of release;
- Population Management: to maintain balance in a facility’s inmate population;
- Central Inmate Monitoring: to monitor specifically targeted offenders;
- Medical / Psychiatric Treatment: to provide medical attention;
- Program Participation: to allow inmates to participate in programs available at only certain facilities;
- Work Cadre: to make use of inmate labor;
- Mariel Cuban; to monitor a group of prisoners whom the BOP identifies as having caused widespread disruption in the federal prison system;
- Greater Security: to confine prisoners in higher-security facilities than for which they would otherwise qualify; and,
- Lesser Security: to confine prisoners in lower-security facilities than for which they would otherwise qualify.
The Bureau of Prisons applies Public Safety Factors to screen offenders that administrators deem may require a more secure prison than the classification point system indicates. Public Safety Factors are applied for the following reasons:
- Disruptive Group: for inmates who are identified as belonging to a group suspected of subverting prison management policies;
- Greatest Severity Offense: to screen leaders of criminal enterprises, racketeers, and offenders convicted of serious crimes;
- Sex Offenders: to monitor inmates who have been convicted of sexual crimes, including Internet pornography;
- Threat to Government Official: to monitor inmates who have been identified as seriously threatening government officials;
- Deportable Alien: to keep track of prisoners who may be deported at the conclusion of their sentences;
- Sentence Length: to track offenders with long sentences;
- Serious Escape: to monitor prisoners who have escaped from secure prisons; and,
- Prison Disturbance: to monitor prisoners identified as having participated in prior riots, strikes, or other subversive behavior.
After BOP administrators consider all factors, including the Classification score, Management Variables, and Public Safety Factors, they will designate the person to a particular prison. The stated objective of the BOP’s security designation system is to confine offenders in the lowest security-level facility for which the offender qualifies, normally within 500 miles of the inmate’s release residence.
But that doesn’t always happen. Our team is firmly convinced that by understanding what’s coming, it’s easier for people to prepare for a successful journey.
Section 6: Preparing Prior to Prison
As I wrote in Earning Freedom, authorities confined me from the day of my arrest. I started in detention centers, and then U.S. Marshals transported me to prison. When the convictions relate to a non-drug, non-violent offense, and especially white-collar offenses, people frequently voluntarily surrender to prison.
A benefit with self-surrendering is that it confirms a federal judge did not see the person as a threat. Prison officials give consideration to the judge’s discretion. When assessing, or classifying prisoners that self-surrender, BOP officials give credit that results in a lower score on the custody and classification system.
In the federal system, the U.S. Marshals transports people to prison. Although there is no easy way to report for confinement, those who have the privilege of turning themselves in experience less frustration and humiliation.
Thoughts on Self-Surrendering:
Unless a person has a valid reason to postpone the surrender date, it may be best to start serving the sentence as quickly as possible. Intuitively, many people want to postpone their surrender date.
Our personal experience convinces us that unless there is a valid reason, it’s best to surrender to get started in prison at the soonest possible time.
From the time a person becomes a target of a criminal investigation, it feels as if the person is serving time. The criminal charge interrupts an ability to earn a living. It disrupts the family and social life. It’s as if the person is serving time, but the time is not counted toward satisfying the sentence.
Our team has worked with people that repeatedly request the judge to postpone the surrender date. Sometimes there are valid reasons to postpone a surrender date. For example, a person may have family or business complications to resolve. Judges have discretion to suspend the surrender date. For some people with whom we’ve worked, judges postponed a surrender date by several years. Through our courses and consulting practice, we teach from those stories.
On the other hand, we’ve worked with many people that postpone their surrender to prison simply because they want to procrastinate. Those people serve time without the time counting toward the sentence. They can’t get their life together. Once they do get to prison, they realize that their fear of the unknown was the worst part. They adjust. On the other side of the journey, when they’re counting the days to be released, they always wish that they had surrendered earlier. Some realize that they wasted time by postponing their surrender.
Every case is personal and individual. In some cases, it’s best to rip the band aid off and start the process of healing with an early surrender date. For people without financial resources, we recommend getting to prison as quickly as possible. Those that have complicated businesses to operate may have valid reasons to postpone their surrender.
After the judge imposes sentence, a designator for the Bureau of Prisons will assign the individual to report to a particular prison. BOP policy states that:
individuals ordinarily will be placed in prisons with the lowest classification rating for which the prisoner is eligible within 500 miles of his residence.
Those that want to see the locations of all federal prisons may visit www.BOP.gov.
The system is crowded. It may not always be possible for the BOP to designate a person to serve the sentence in an institution within 500 miles of the person’s residence.
- Some regions have fewer prisons than other regions.
- Some people may want to participate in programs that are only available in prisons outside of the region.
- Some people may need specialized medical care that is only available outside of the region.
The First Step Act includes a provision regarding this 500-mile guideline. And people may be able to participate in programs, or advocate for themselves to influence a transfer to a specific prison. But it’s important to remember that judges sentence people “To the custody of the Attorney General,” BOP officials have enormous discretion with regard to where a person serves the sentence.
If a judge authorizes a person to self-surrender, but traveling to the prison is too costly, the person has the option of accepting free transportation through the prisoner transport system. If the option is available, our team recommends surrendering voluntarily to prison. Avoid traveling in chains and steel cuffs if given the option.
Bringing Items into the Prison:
If self-surrendering is an option, people may want to know what they can bring with them. With few exceptions, the short answer is nothing other than medical necessities and identification.
Rules in the BOP apply to all facilities. Yet wardens have enormous discretion. Some wardens or staff members may authorize a person to enter the prison with sneakers, athletic apparel, medication, religious articles, wrist watches, radio, or other personal items of limited value. In our experience, however, prisons prefer people to surrender without any personal items. Those that want clarification from the prison where they’re going may want to call for clarification before surrendering. They also may download an inmate handbook from the prison by visiting the www.BOP.gov website for more clarity.
Although the prison system provides the necessities for an individual to survive, it also offers access to a commissary. People with financial resources may purchase various items to ease the burdens of confinement. As with anywhere else in America, people with financial resources may have an easier adjustment.
Prisoners have a right to keep legal documents in limited amounts. For that reason, it may make sense to write important phone numbers, addresses, and other information on a page and place that page in an envelope marked “Legal Material.” Bring that material to the prison when surrendering. It may also make sense to put the information in a self-addressed envelope and place it in the mail the day before surrendering. This information will prove valuable when settling into the prison and setting up approved lists for phone calls, visits, and emails.
Besides considering money and legal documents, consider any information from a physician that documents medical conditions. If a person is taking prescriptions, it would be wise to consult the formulary on the BOP website. The formulary will show all medications that the BOP authorizes. If the medication is not listed on the BOP formulary, it may be wise to ask a physician for a different prescription that complies with the formulary. It may also be wise to bring a 30-day supply of medication to the prison.
If an individual suffers from a bad back, from weak knees, or from any ailment that prevents the individual from specific work details, from climbing stairs, or from climbing to a top bunk, get a letter from a physician. It’s best to document medical conditions in the PSR. Letters from doctors can also prove helpful. Think about steps to coordinate these letters that may be helpful prior to surrendering to prison.
Prisons usually allow people to keep their eyeglasses with them when they report. Once inside the system, however, it may not be so easy to replace the eyeglasses. Those who wear eyeglasses ought to check the prison policy before they report. Ideally, they should bring two pair of durable eyeglasses with them. A spare set of eyeglasses will help a person if the primary set loses a screw or breaks.
Create a Contact Plan:
Whether a person surrenders to prison voluntarily, or arrives via a law enforcement transport system, the first step will be to go through the admissions process. That process may take several hours. It’s a good idea to let a family member, friend, or attorney know that they should expect a call within 24 hours of surrendering. Even if a person doesn’t get immediate access to a telephone, he should be able to ask another person in prison to make a call to someone that can relay a message. The message should be basic: “I’m fine and I will call within a few days, or as soon as I can access the phone.”
If the contact person does not receive the message, it may be because authorities locked the individual in the SHU upon arrival. On occasion, that happens because the person arrives at the prison before appropriate paperwork arrives. If no one checks on the paperwork—including the PSR, Statement of Reasons, and Judgment order—the person may languish in the SHU for several weeks.
People should have an advocacy plan in place in the event that contact is not made with the support group within a day or two. Their loved ones or attorneys would be in a better position to make inquiries with the BOP to resolve the matter. A person in prison may not have access to a telephone if he is in the SHU.
Being Processed Inside:
The first stop for people being admitted to prison is the Receiving and Discharge (R&D) Department. Moving through R&D is like a booking procedure. If the person has been arrested before, he will find the process familiar. Sometimes a person will be processed through R&D in fewer than two hours. Other times the booking process can take a full day. Everything depends upon staff availability and the number of people being processed at a given time.
If a person surrenders in the morning voluntarily, he may be the only person being processed. In that instance, he could be on the prison compound before lunch. If a person arrives on a bus with 50 other people, he may not get to the compound for eight hours or longer.
Officials will lock the prisoner inside of a holding cell that is consistent with his security score. People that have been classified as minimum-security will be held in separate holding cells from people that are going into adjacent, higher-security prisons.
Once staff members lock people in the appropriate holding cells, they pass out many intake forms. Each person will need to complete the intake forms, and they become a part of the individual’s Central File.
The central file follows the person throughout the term in the BOP. It includes the PSR and the Judgment order provided by the court. Over the duration, staff members add various forms and reports that document progress. The case manager keeps the central file in order. People have a right to review the contents of the central file, and generally may do so after submitting a written request to the case manager.
Intake forms ask the individual to identify whom the BOP should contact in case of death or emergency. They offer insight into a person’s medical history. Other forms provide consent for the person to receive mail and they confirm that the person received a copy of the “Inmate Handbook.”
The handbook details all of the rules, rights, and responsibilities of every person in the prison. By confirming receipt of the handbook, the person immediately becomes responsible for adhering to the rules and regulations. If a person doesn’t follow the rules, authorities will subject him to the code of disciplinary proceedings. For that reason, those that have access to the Internet should review inmate handbooks available for download through the BOP website, or through our courses.
Besides filling out many forms, staff members will take a new mug shot of every incoming prisoner. They will record his fingerprints. They will strip search him. They will provide him with a new set of clothing. In most cases, prisoners have a choice of mailing home the clothing they wore into the institution or donating it to the prison. Prisoners who arrive at a prison wearing their own clothing would be wise not to wear anything they particularly value.
Before moving a person from R&D to the next station in the admissions journey, a series of staff members will interview each new prisoner. After reviewing the central file, a case manager will ask the prisoner whether there is any reason he feels he would be in danger if he were to mix with the general population. That may be an intimidating question. A response may be institution specific. Obviously, minimum-security camps and low-security prions have very low levels of volatility. Medium- and high-security prisons will be more volatile.
People that fear for their safety do not have many options. If they have a valid reason, they may ask to check into protective custody (P.C.). P.C. is an area of the Segregated Housing Unit where inmates are kept locked in their cell for 23 hours each day and isolated from others. The living conditions and privileges are much more spartan than in the general population. Relatively few people in prison choose this option.
Besides case managers, a representative from Health Services will interview each person in the holding cell. They will review the PSR and any medical records to determine whether the person has any special medical needs.
Staff members from psychology and the custody departments may also ask questions. A counselor may also speak with the person before processing him into the system.
Identification (ID) Card:
Once the Receiving and Discharge department processes the person, an officer will give each person his identification card. The ID includes the mug shot and registration number. People in prison are supposed to have the I.D. card with him any time he leaves the housing unit. If a person loses the card, staff will charge him a fee to replace it. Being without an I.D. card may result in a disciplinary infraction.
Admissions and Orientation (A&O) Unit:
People that go to minimum-security prisons will ordinarily go directly to the camp. Those going to low-, medium-, or high-security prisons may go to unit reserved for new prisoners. They may remain in that Admissions and Orientation Unit for several days or weeks while they await placement assignment to more permanent housing quarters.
While in the A&O unit, prisoners become acquainted with the prison routine. They usually are not assigned permanent jobs or quarters until after they have completed the A&O program. A&O prisoners may or may not mix with the general population outside of the unit, in the chow hall, in the recreation areas, library, or any common areas besides the individual housing units. It’s a good idea to use time in the A&O unit to gather information about routines and resources available in the prison.
Every federal prison publishes a daily printout, the Callout Sheet. The callout sheet is like a schedule of events. All people in prison have a responsibility to check the callout sheet daily. It lets the person know whether he is required to report to various departments at a given time.
The callout sheet is available in the same place every day, usually by the unit officer’s desk. The callout sheet lists names in alphabetical order with the prisoner’s registration number. It includes the time and location of all appointments. Staff members publish callout sheets Monday through Friday, except holidays, after the daily 4:00 p.m. census count.
If the callout sheet lists an appointment—known as a callout—and the person fails to report, a staff member may write a disciplinary infraction, accusing the person of being out of bounds for missing the callout. During the A&O process, prisoners generally have callouts every day.
Admissions and Orientation Program:
In the federal system, all prisoners must participate in an A&O Program. This involves a series of lectures that take place over a day or two. A specific person, like a counselor, is usually assigned to coordinate the A&O program. He coordinates staff members from various departments that come speak with the people in A&O. People may ask questions during A&O, but we’ve found it best to remain silent and listen. It’s best to get information from other people that are living in the world of confinement and get out of A&O as quickly as possible.
Be cautious about asking too many questions during A&O. Although people may be curious, it’s generally not a best-practice technique to questions in a public forum. Those questions give away personal information to an experienced prisoner. Some prisoners will spread rumors, and information can prove toxic to a person’s reputation in prison. Remember the submarine metaphor. Be silent and aware while going through prison.
Prior to going through the A&O process, inmates will get a handbook which includes all rules, regulations, and information concerning the operation of the prison. People in prison should study the handbook closely. They may find details that can prove helpful during the adjustment process.
After prisoners complete the A&O program, they become a part of the general prison population. Our team likes to quote a study by Stanton Wheeler a criminologist. Dr. Wheeler suggested that prisoners come into the system with values that closely resemble the society they left behind. As prisoners move deeper into their sentences, the prisoners gradually pull away from the values of that society. They become more familiar with prison culture and adapt to the world inside. The men become “prisonized,” so to speak. They begin using the vernacular that exists in the fences and participating in activities that they otherwise would not consider.
As the prisoner passes beyond the halfway point of his sentence, and starts moving closer to release, the criminologist suggested that prisoners go through another value shift. They move back in line with behavior acceptable in the society he left behind.
Wheeler suggested that prisoners adapt according to this U-shaped curve. Society outside of fences is above the “U” and society inside the fences is below the “U.” Stanton Wheeler published his study in 1961, but I find it just as valid today. All prisoners, theoretically, move through the U.
After the prisoner leaves the A&O Unit and joins the general prison population, he must adapt to this abnormal society. The prisoner will have to make choices from options that do not exist in the world outside of fences. Ramifications follow those choices. Dilemmas present themselves every day.
- Do I respond to problems in a manner that is appropriate for the society in which I live outside of prison?
- Do I respond to problems in a manner that is appropriate for the prison society in which I now reside?
- What are the ramifications of each decision I make?
Although every prisoner can control his own behavior, he cannot control the behavior of the thousands of other people serving time alongside him. In order to survive the sentence with minimal aggravation, and to grow through it, prisoners need a strong mind and a sense of balance.
Our team and the lessons we provide offer enormous insight. We highly recommend that people learn from those courses to prepare for best outcomes.
A model inmate (from the vantage point of prison administrators) is one who abides by every prison rule, who holds a full-time job—preferably in the prison factory—and asks for nothing outside the ordinary. Our experience, however, suggests that people in prison should strive for something more.
Rather than offering a “how-to-live-in-prison course,” we teach people how to get best outcomes. People should use time in prison to prepare for successful lives upon release. Members of our team did not only make it through prison successfully, we got out of prison and built successful careers. Anyone can do the same if they learn to make values-based, goal-oriented decisions. We’re confident our courses can help people get best outcomes.
As a man who has gone through 26 years in prison, and served time in prisons of every security level, I highly recommend that every individual learn as much as possible before going inside. Anyone can benefit by seeing examples of a pathway to excellence through prison—meaning, learn how to thrive through the experience. And learn what success looks like after the prison journey.
You can see our commitment to providing such resources through our YouTube channel, our podcast, our books, and our courses.
We hope all individuals going into the system, or individuals with loved ones going through the system, find value in this material.