Blog Article 

 Fixing Problems 

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Michael Santos

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Anyone going into the prison system should anticipate problems. The key to succeed will be in using discretion to make it through successfully.

Learn Strategies to Succeed

At Prison Professor, we teach our clients how to make the most of their journey inside. A successful outcome from an experience with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) requires an individual to know how the system operates. By educating our clients on the system, we empower them. Prison administrators can drop our clients into any environment and they will know how to succeed.

The System:

The Bureau of Prisons is organized as a large bureaucracy, spread across the entire United States. As a part of the Executive Branch, the agency is organized under the Department of Justice. It has headquarters in Washington DC, with six regional offices. For more specific information, we encourage you to visit the system’s website:

Leadership Within Each Institution:

From the perspective of a person in prison, each institution is basically an island. To clarify, a person confined at a minimum-security camp in California will not know what’s going on in a minimum-security camp in New York. Indeed, the person may not even know what goes on in an adjacent prison.

For example, during the 26 years that I served, authorities kept me in prisons of every security level–at various stages. I began inside the following prisons:

  • USP Atlanta
  • FCI McKean
  • FCI Fairton
  • FPC Florence
  • FPC Lompoc
  • FPC Taft
  • FPC Atwater

Each of those prisons has adjacent prisons beside them. Yet while confined in one institution, I rarely knew what was going on (other than rumors) at other prisons. For more information on security levels, the following article may be helpful to some readers:

Regardless of security level, every prison will have a series of staff members that oversee the prison. At the top of the hierarchy is a complex warden.

Before making decisions to interact with staff members, it makes sense to learn more about the different positions within an institution’s hierarchy. The following descriptions may help.


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

Wardens must adhere to the Program Statements that we described in a previous lesson. Still, as CEOs, they have enormous discretion within their institutions; Complex Wardens preside over multiple institutions. Our experts at Prison Professor have extensive experience of interacting with Wardens in every type of facility. They’ve observed that each Warden has a different management, or leadership style. We’ve known some Wardens who made themselves accessible to the inmate population, and others who’ve chosen to remain aloof and isolated from the inmate population. All Wardens are least accessible to the inmates who serve time inside of minimum-security camps. In contrast, Wardens who preside over high-security United States Penitentiaries are much more accessible to the inmate population.

Inmates who want to interact with the Warden will rarely see him alone. As a bureaucracy, the BOP is filled with layers upon layers of sycophants. Wherever the Warden steps in the institution, several subordinates and subordinates of subordinates will stand close by to rub shoulders. Those who are new to the prison system may cringe when they see how frequently BOP staff members fawn over the presence of their superiors. Inmates will enjoy a good laugh when they watch staff members in the presence of a Warden for the first time. The shameless flattery that takes place is absurd.

Associate Wardens and Camp Administrators:

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

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

Executive Assistant:

The Executive Assistant serves as the Warden’s chief sycophant, and is also the only person other than the Warden who has authorization to speak with the media. Together, the Associate Wardens, the Camp Administrator, and the Executive Assistant, make up the Warden’s Executive Staff. If inmates approach members of the Executive Staff, or any staff member, for that matter, they should expect the staff member to speak in a condescending, patronizing tone. Over time, some inmates may garner a modicum of respect, and staff members may recognize a common humanity that they share. But for the most part, at Prison Professor, our experts condition our clients to anticipate those who represent the system to speak in a dehumanizing manner. For example, there will not be any use of first names; staff members refer to people in prison as “inmates;” staff members will not begin conversations with inmates from a framework of trust. People in prison will encounter some genuine caring people along the way, but the culture of confinement does not encourage much in the way of tolerance.

Department Heads:

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

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

Chain of Command:

Numerous staff members work under the Department Heads. Under the Unit Manager, for example, there will be a Case Manager, a Counselor, and a Unit Secretary. Under the Supervisor of Education, there will be teachers and librarians. Under the Captain, there will be Lieutenants and Correctional Officers. Under Facilities Managers, there will be many foremen. Those staff members will have daily interactions with inmates. Most of them will supervise inmates who work on their assigned job details. If inmates ever have a grievance, they are supposed to adhere to the chain of command. That means, they must first express their grievance to the appropriate staff member. When they don’t receive the answer they want, protocol requires that they speak to the Department Head. When they still don’t receive the answer they want, they may seek redress from the appropriate member of the Executive Staff. Those who want to pursue the matter further would initiate a formal grievance through the Administrative Remedy Process, which we describe later in this lesson.

Unit Management:

In many ways, prisons resemble communities. In the Bureau of Prisons, institutions hold anywhere from 100 to several thousand people. Administrators make use of a system they call “Unit Management” to keep a handle on operations. With the Unit Management system, administrators can more effectively keep track of all the people. A small, minimum-security camp, like the camp in Atwater, California, only has one housing unit. A large camp, like Maxwell, the Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Alabama more than 1,000 people serve time in more than a half dozen different “Units.” Rules will prohibit an inmate from visiting anyone in a housing unit to which he is not assigned.

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

  • Case Manager: Each inmate will be assigned a Case Manager. The Case Manager is responsible for monitoring the progress of an inmate. Case Managers keep track of the inmate’s custody and classification scoring, which we described in an earlier lesson. Case Managers also monitor the inmate’s release date and participation in programs that the institution may offer. If an inmate wants to transfer from one prison to another prison, the inmate would make his request to the Case Manager during a Team Meeting, which we describe below. Every three years, the Case Manager will prepare a “Progress Report” on each prisoner. If a special event is going to take place, like a transfer, or a release, the Case Manager will prepare the Progress Report sooner. We describe these Progress Reports further in the lesson on “Programs.”
  • Counselors: Each inmate will also be assigned a Counselor. Rather than offering counseling services, a Counselor in the Bureau of Prisons presides over issues pertaining to the inmate inside of the institution. For example, the counselor will be responsible for assigning the inmate a job and a housing assignment. The Counselor also will review applications from individuals who want to visit the inmate. If an inmate has a fine or restitution order as part of his sanction, the Counselor may play a role in monitoring the inmate’s compliance with the Financial Responsibility Program. Counselors also preside over issuing (or denying) permits to receive or send out packages through the mail.
  • Psychologist: Each institution will employ a staff Psychologist and other functionaries that work in the Psychology Department. They may serve as part of the Unit Team. In the Bureau of Prisons, a Psychologist will assess whether an inmate qualifies to participate in the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP). The RDAP is the only program that Congress has legislated to allow inmates an opportunity to work objectively toward advancing the release date. A subsequent lesson will discuss the RDAP in detail.
  • Unit Secretary: The Unit Secretary works for the Unit Team. Inmates rarely have any interaction with the Unit Secretary.

For those who’d like to read more details, Prison Professor recommends:

Unit Team:

Under the Unit Management System, the Unit Team, ostensibly, monitors each inmate’s progress throughout the course of the sentence. At Prison Professor, we try to temper our client’s expectations about having any influence over the Unit Team. It would seem that during a Unit Team Meeting, an individual would have an opportunity to have some type of positive influence over his destiny. Unfortunately, with the exception of prisoners who participate in RDAP, only two factors influence release dates for most prisoners:

  • The turning of calendar pages, and
  • The avoidance of disciplinary infractions.

Clients of Prison Professors understand that although an infinite number of possibilities exist to complicate or extend an individual’s time inside, the system doesn’t provide much in the ways of mechanisms to incentivize or even encourage a pursuit of excellence. That’s the reason it’s so essential for individuals to be creative. They must learn how to motivate themselves while living inside of an environment that feels exquisitely designed to extinguish hope. In any event, at Prison Professor, we believe that our clients are stronger when they know what to expect. Our experts advise clients not to expect too much from the Unit Team, as the Team serves a largely administrative function than a leadership function.

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

The Case Manager chairs the Team Meeting. The Case Manager will read pertinent parts of the PSI and the Judgment Order from the court. If the inmate has a financial obligation, the Unit Team members will enroll him in the “Financial Responsibility Program,” which we describe in the lesson on Programs. The Counselor will ensure that the inmate has a job assignment. The Team will determine whether the inmate needs to participate in any specific “Programs.” The Team may mandate participation in some programs. For example, if an inmate cannot prove that he has a high school diploma or GED, the Unit Team will mandate that he participate in basic education programs.

Although prisoners are required to attend the team meetings, they should not expect to interact much. And they should not expect much in the way of meaningful guidance from members of the Unit Team. For example, a Case Manager may advise the inmate that he should save money to prepare for his release; but the Case Manager will not provide an opportunity for the inmate to earn money that he can save. Further, if the inmate owes a monetary fine, the Unit Team will require the inmate to pay toward that obligation, leaving little money to save.

After the Initial Team Meeting, inmates who have more than 12 months to serve will meet for interim Team Meetings every six months. Inmates who have 12 months or less to serve will participate interim Team Meetings every three months until the release date. Team Meetings typically take about 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the Unit Team will only process certain requests, like a request to transfer to another institution, during an official Team Meeting. Inmates will also need to meet with the Team if they are cited with a disciplinary infraction, which we covered in a different lesson.

Again, although the applicable Program Statement indicates that the “Unit Manager is responsible for coordinating individual programs tailored to meet the particular needs of inmates in the unit,” and that “such programming often is highly innovative and complex,” experts at Prison Professor did not find such individual treatment—unless they’re to count interference from staff as being part of the “innovative and complex” programming techniques to condition individuals to work toward overcoming adversity.


  • In what ways do you feel prepared to interact with the Bureau of Prisons hierarchy?
  • Describe steps you intend to take to ensure that you do not exacerbate your situation in prison.
  • In what ways can your interactions with a staff member complicate your journey through prison?
  • How will your interactions with staff influence your prospects for success upon release from prison?
  • What influence will your time in prison have on your relationship with your probation officer who oversees you while on Supervised Release?

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