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 Understanding Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification 

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Michael Santos

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Are you facing a term in federal prison? Our team at Prison Professors wants to help you master the system. The more you know about the system, the better you can position yourself to succeed. We’re happy to provide you with insight through our series of articles, How to Master Federal Prison—Quickly!

We offered two articles previously. This article will cover Custody and Classification. Those who have never been to federal prison may not know anything about custody and classification systems. But understanding the system can make all the difference in the world.

It’s something that each of our partners knows a lot about. For those who are reading the articles independently, rather than sequentially, let me validate the founding members of our Prison Professors team. All readers should know why we’re qualified to teach lessons on mastering the federal prison system.

Our website at features a full bio on each of us. Our founding partners include Shon Hopwood, Justin Paperny, and me. I’m Michael Santos.

Shon Hopwood served a decade in prison for armed bank robbery. Today he is a professor of law at Georgetown Law School. His story has been covered widely in the media, including a segment on 60 Minutes. Justin Paperny is a former stockbroker. He served an 18-month sentence for securities fraud. Today he leads our marketing and consulting divisions, living the life of success after prison. I served 26 years in federal prison of every security level, but returned to society strong, with my dignity intact.

Success after prison is a way a life for each of us. But success after prison began with the decisions we made while we were in prison. We mastered the prison system. Through our digital products and consulting services, we show others how to do the same.

People who want to master the federal prison system must remember that it’s a massive bureaucracy. The system employs more than 40,000 staff members. In an effort to keep decisions in harmony, the BOP relies about an extensive library of Program Statements and Policy Statements. The BOP invests heavily to train staff members so that they can make decisions in accordance with those Program Statements and Policy Statements.

The Bureau of Prisons operates a website at www.BOP.Gov. Through that website, visitors can access the Program Statements. The BOP published Program Statement 5100.08 on September 12, 2006. This Program Statement covers Inmate Designation and Custody Classification. It is the eighth version of the program statement. In time, the BOP will likely revise the Program Statement. When the BOP revises the Program Statement, it will be known as 5100.09. For now we will provide a primer on the system that is in use as of December 2017.

Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification

Our team at Prison Professors has thousands of stories that reveal why an understanding of Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification is so crucial. We’ll start with the case of Erik.

A federal judge sentenced Erik to serve a 48-month sentence for wire fraud. Prior to being charged, Erik said that he didn’t know the meaning of wire fraud. He didn’t consider himself a criminal. Many people make bad decisions during the course of their careers. Sometimes, those bad decisions lead to criminal prosecution. Erik owned, for example, a small finance company. Some financial structuring problems led prosecutors to indict Erik. Inappropriate use of Email and the Internet led to his guilty conviction. Regardless of his self-perception of not being a criminal, a federal judge ordered Erik to surrender to a Federal Prison Camp so that he could serve a 48-month sentence.

Had Erik understood the Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification system, he would have behaved differently, he said. Instead, Erik made decisions inside that really complicated his journey.

As anyone can see from the free calculators that we make available at, Erik should have finished his time in prison early. With credit for good time, credit for completion of the Residential Drug Abuse Program, and credit for halfway house, Erik should have served about two years in prison. Then he should have transferred to a halfway house. But Erik didn’t understand the prison system. He made decisions inside that resulted in his serving the entire 48-month sentence.

Further, authorities prosecuted Erik a second time for possession of contraband in prison. Although he could have returned to his family in less than two years, he Erik ended up serving the entire four-year sentence. He also received a new felony conviction, and an additional six-month term. Instead of serving his time in a minimum-security camp, he served substantial portions locked in the segregated housing unit and then in a low-security prison.

How did that happen?

Erik’s struggle came because he did not know the importance of decisions in prison. He did not consider himself a criminal. And he thought that others wouldn’t consider him a criminal.

Yet Erik’s self-perception didn’t have any bearing on how prison staff would treat him. Staff members would consider him an “inmate.” As such, they would judge him in accordance with what the various Program Statements prescribed.

The following sequence of events occurred. Erik surrendered to prison in accordance with the judge’s order. As soon as he settled in, he wanted to use the phone. He didn’t know the rules associated with the phone system. To use the phone, Erik had to wait for staff members to set up a list of approved numbers that he could call from his account. Erik grew frustrated. He wanted to talk with his parents, but the phone number wasn’t approved. Not knowing the rules, Erik asked his wife to patch him through on a conference call. Staff members learned about the three-way call. After finding him guilty of violating the phone rules, a Disciplinary Hearing Officer sanctioned him with the loss of telephone privileges for six months. Erik responded by using a cell phone that he borrowed from another prisoner. Cell phones are contraband. Staff members caught him. Possession of a cell phone brought a series of new problems. Because it wasn’t only contraband, it was also new criminal conduct. As a result of his decisions:

  • Erik lost his good time.
  • He lost eligibility for RDAP and the time off that would have resulted had he completed the program successfully.
  • Prosecutors charged him with new criminal conduct.
  • He underwent more expenses with legal fees.
  • He pleaded guilty to a second felony and he received a new six-month sentence that ran consecutive to his first sentence.
  • He served more than a year in the Special Housing Unit—otherwise known as the hole.
  • He served the remainder of his time in a low-security prison, where he faced other problems.

Erik liked to say that he wasn’t a criminal. Yet those who worked in the system did not concern themselves with Erik’s self-perception. They judged him in accordance with objective information.

  1. He pleaded guilty to the white-collar crime of wire fraud.
  2. A judge sentenced him to serve a 48-month sentence.
  3. BOP staff members relied upon Program Statement 5100.08 for his Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification.
  4. The objective scoring showed that he should serve his time inside of a minimum-security Federal Prison Camp.
  5. Yet his adjustment in prison resulted in a new scoring.
  6. He received a Public Safety Factor that resulted in his serving the remainder of his time in a higher-security environment.

Security in The Federal Bureau of Prisons:

At the time of this writing, in November 2017, The Federal Bureau of Prisons confines 184,855 people. About 83% of those people, or 154,844 inmates, serve their time inside Bureau of Prisons facilities. The other people serve their time in privately managed prisons or other types of facilities. Males make up more than 93% of the federal prison population. Those people serve sentences in the following types of security levels:

  • Minimum-security Federal Prison Camps: 32,189 people, or about 17% of the population
  • Low-security Federal Correctional Institutions: 69,437 people, or about 37% of the population
  • Medium-security Federal Correctional Institutions: 55,377 or about 30% of the population
  • High-security United States Penitentiaries: 21,524 people, or about 12% of the population
  • Unclassified: 6,980 people, or about 4% of the population

Our partner Justin Paperny served time for a white-collar crime. He served his entire sentence in at the Taft Federal Prison Camp, a minimum-security camp. Shon Hopwood served time for armed bank robbery, and he served his entire sentence inside the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin, Illinois. I served time for convictions related to selling cocaine. And over the course of 26 years, I served time in every security level.

Developing literacy of Program Statement 5100, also known as the Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification system, or the Custody and Classification Manuel helps people who want to master the federal prison system. No one can change the past. At any time, however, we can start sowing seeds for a better future. In our book Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, I show how I started sowing the seeds very early during my journey. The seeds I sowed allowed me to make significant progress in prison.

I took the opposite approach of Erik. He started in a camp. Once he surrendered, Erik made bad decisions that led him to higher-security prisons. I say they’re bad decisions because he told me they were bad decisions.

I started in a high-security United States Penitentiary. As soon as I got there, I started making decisions that would put me on a path to ease my adjustment. By understanding the Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification system, I laid the foundation carefully. That foundation would allow me to transfer to a medium-security Federal Correctional Institution. Then I transferred to a low-security Federal Correctional Institution. Then, at the soonest possible time, I transferred to a minimum-security Federal Prison Camps.

Understanding Program Statement 5100.08:

The Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification system is an objective system. On our website, we offer a free calculator to help people determine how staff members in the BOP will score them. Simply visit, click on the “Calculators” button in the main menu, and respond to the questions.

The calculators simulate Program Statement 5100.08, seeking responses to questions on two separate levels:

  • Base Scoring
  • Custody Scoring

To arrive at the scoring level, respond to 10 separate questions. The response to each question will provide an objective score. Those questions include the following:

  1. What type of detainer do you have, if any?
  2. What is the severity of your current offense?
  3. How many months do you expect to serve before your scheduled release?
  4. What will the BOP say about your criminal history?
  5. Do you have a history of escape attempts?
  6. Do you have a history of violence?
  7. Will staff in the BOP recognize that I voluntarily surrendered to prison?
  8. What will the BOP say about your age?
  9. What will the BOP say about your education level?
  10. What will the BOP say with regard to your history of alcohol or substance abuse during the past five years?

Notice that we always ask what the BOP will say. It’s not important what you or anyone else says. We need to assess what the BOP will say in order to calculate your score appropriately.

Program Statement 5100.08 will attach a score to each of your responses to those questions. This score will be known as your “Base Score.” When it comes to the base score, you will note that the questions focus on your past. For the most part, you will notice that they require static answers—meaning that you will not have opportunities to change the outcome. Since you cannot change the past, you must wait for calendar pages to turn to influence the Base Score.

It’s important to understand this score as early as possible. You may be able to influence the score during the presentence investigation process.

Once you calculate the Base Score, the next step will require you to answer questions that will lead to your Custody Score. Those questions follow:

  1. What will the BOP say with regard to how much time you’ve served as a percentage of your sentence?
  2. With regard to program participation, will the BOP assess you as average or good?
  3. How will the BOP assess your living skills?
  4. What will the BOP say with regard to your record of disciplinary infractions?
  5. What will the BOP say about the frequency of disciplinary reports you’ve received in the past year?
  6. What will the BOP say about your community ties?
  7. What will the BOP say about your gender?

Program Statement 5100.08 will assign a score to each answer that you provide. The sum of those scores will result in your Custody Score. Then, Program Statement 5100.08 will require you to consult a variance table that may either add or subtract from your score.

By taking all factors into consideration, you receive a scoring. That scoring reflects all of your security points. Those security points will determine the type of prison where you will serve your sentence. Your behavior in prison will determine whether you move to higher security levels, and potentially extend your release date, as was the case with Erik. Or if you pursue the path of a master, your behavior in prison will result in your moving to a lower-security prison, and potentially advancing your release date.

These scores will come from your Presentence Investigation Report. If you want to influence these scores, then learn as much as possible before the PSI. We urge you to review the information available on our website. It will help you understand the importance of the PSR, and it will offer guidance on how to influence that PSR. If you need guidance, contact us today.

Higher-Security Prisons as Compared to Lower-Security Prisons

The security-level of a prison influences the level of liberty. As stated earlier in this chapter, about 18% of the federal prison population serves time in a minimum-security camp. More than 80% of the federal prison population serves time in higher-security prisons. Regardless of where a person starts the sentence, various factors can influence the security scoring. A change in security scoring can result in a transfer to either higher or lower security prison.

Learn how behavior in prison influences the Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification. Although nothing but the passing of time will influence the Base Score, the Custody Score is more dynamic. In other words, behavior in prison can result in lowering or raising the Custody Score. By understanding how the Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification system works, a person can choose to behave in ways that reflect a mastery of the system.

Experience in Different Security Levels:

As a founder of Prison Professors, I would be remiss if I did not share what I learned from serving time in prisons of every security level. I started my term in 1987. Initially, authorities locked me inside a detention center in Miami. At the time, it was called the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Since then, the BOP changed MCC Miami into FCI Miami. When I started, I didn’t understand the system at all. I only cared about getting out of prison. Later, after a jury convicted me and a judge sentenced me, I changed my thought process. I wanted to leave prison successfully. Every decision that I made inside would put me on the trajectory of success.

What types of decisions will you make?

After being sentenced, authorities transferred me to the United States Penitentiary, in Atlanta. I had a 45-year term. Under the laws that existed at the time, I could earn credit for good behavior. As long as I didn’t lose any of those credits for good behavior, I could complete that term in 26 years. I started to set goals. I wanted to get out of prison at the soonest possible time. Further, I wanted to make sure that when I returned to society, I would be in the best possible position to succeed. I understood that there were some things I could not control. But I had opportunities to make decisions every day. Those decisions would lead me closer to success, or further away from success.

Coincidentally, Program Statement 5100.08 rewards decisions that I consider to be consistent with success. By avoiding disciplinary infractions in prison, I could put myself on a path to move to lower security levels. It wasn’t going to happen overnight. Yet by gradually working through programs in prison, I could begin to influence change. I could assess my environment. Although I couldn’t avoid the volatility of prison, I could make choices that would minimize my exposure to problems. I could choose jobs that would be more consistent with my goals. I could maneuver my way into the best possible housing situation. By understanding Program Statement 5100.08, I could succeed in a high-security penitentiary. I did not receive any disciplinary infractions. I earned an undergraduate degree. I successfully coordinated my transfer to the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution of my choice.

Once I got to the next stop, I repeated the process. At the soonest possible time, I transferred from the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution to the low-security Federal Correctional Institution of my choice. By the time I arrived, I had a master’s degree. While in the low-security prison, I continued the same pattern. While there, I married the love of my life. And at the soonest possible time, I transferred to a minimum-security camp. While there, I built many relationships that influenced my success in prison and beyond. Indeed, I met my co-founders at Prison Professors while I was serving time inside of those minimum-security federal prison camps.

Get Ready to Master Federal Prison

If you or a loved one is facing challenges with the criminal justice system, we urge you to understand the Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification system. You may research the entire manual by reading Program Statement 5100.08. If you want a quick assessment of how the Bureau of Prisons will score you, turn to our free calculators at The more you know about the system, the stronger you will become. As you restore confidence, you’ll make better decisions. Those better decisions will show that you’re a master of the system.

Regardless of where you serve your sentence, you can make decisions that will lead to a life of meaning and relevance. That said, we ask you to consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We all have the basis need of safety. If you can maneuver your way into less-volatile environments, then we urge you to do so. By understanding the Inmate Security Designation and Custody Classification system, you’ll know how to seize upon opportunities to influence the scoring level. The sooner you get started, the better off you will be. Our courses and books at Prison Professors will help.

Contact us today if you want more personal assistance.

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