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 What is a Disciplinary Infraction in Prison? 

Picture of Michael Santos

Michael Santos

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A former lawyer began working with us after his release from prison. He offered his summary of a conversation that two of our team members had regarding disciplinary infractions.

Guest Post on Disciplinary Infractions by Stan, an associate with Prison Professors

Reporting to prison for the first time can fill a person with anxiety. Popular myths and media depict a place where the worst can happen. The best way to learn the complexities of life in prison is by speaking with individuals who have spent time in the prison system.

Prison Professors is a company founded by ex-inmates to help those uninformed about the federal system of prisons prepare for the difficulties and realities facing the newly incarcerated. In the video, “What is a Disciplinary Infraction in Prison?” the team of Michael Santos and Larry Hartman of Prison Professors discuss what a future prisoner in a federal prison needs to know regarding the ins and outs of daily life in federal prison.

The discussion starts with the topic of security levels. The team identifies the different security levels of the institutions in which they were housed during their time of incarceration. The federal Bureau of Prisons has five security levels. The security levels are minimum, low; medium; high; and administrative. 

The Bureau of Prisons defines each level as follows. A minimum-security institution, also known as a Federal Prison Camp, has dormitory housing, a relatively low staff-to-inmate ratio, and limited or no perimeter fencing. The minimum-security camp is often adjacent to higher security facilities and the satellite camps provide inmate labor to the main institution and other off-site work programs.

The low-security institutions have double fenced perimeters, mostly dormitory or cubicle housing, and strong work and program components. There are often timed movement controls. The inmate to officer ratio is approximately fifteen inmates to every one officer.

Medium security institutions have strengthened perimeters, often double fences with an electronic detections system and towers. They have two-inmate cell-type housing and a variety of work and treatment programs. The inmate to officer ratio is approximately nine inmates to every one officer. All movement is on a control basis. Movement on a control basis means the designated time an inmate may move from one authorized area to another authorized area is announced over the public address system. Any other movement by the inmate requires direct permission from a correctional officer.

High-security institutions, also known as United States Penitentiaries, have highly secured perimeters. The perimeters are double fenced and feature high reinforced walls and manned towers. All prisoner movement is closed control. Closed control means any movement by an inmate must be requested and obtained from a correctional officer. The inmate to officer ratio is five inmates to every one officer.

Administrative facilities are institutions with special missions. Some administrative institutions house pretrial offenders, while other administrative institutions are for inmates with serious or chronic medical conditions. The administrative institutions usually have separate segregated units for each varying security level.

A prisoner designation to a particular institution is based on the individual’s security classification. The factors determining a prisoner’s security classification are the term of the sentence, the number of prior incarcerations, age at the time of arrest, and involvement with gangs or gang membership.

Larry was a first-time white-collar offender. He received a ten-year sentence. At the time of his arrest, he was forty-eight years old. As a result of these factors, Larry was initially designated to a low-security prison. His understanding of the different security levels came from other prisoners he met during the time of his incarceration. The knowledge of how prisons operated came from Larry’s personal experience and Larry’s interaction with the other inmates. The inmates around Larry were placed in the low-security institution for reasons similar to Larry’s designation. However, there were some inmates at the low-security facility who had worked their way down to a lower security level. Larry’s knowledge of the way higher security levels operated came from his interaction with these prisoners. 

At the age of twenty-three, Michael began his sentence in a high-security penitentiary. Although a first-time offender, the severity of Michael’s crime, his age at the time of his arrest, and the thirty-year sentence resulted in his being placed in a high-security facility. Michael describes the dangers of a high-security prison. The presence of gangs and violence sets the tone for existence in the penitentiary. Survival in such a dangerous environment required adaptive thinking. 

Michael came to understand involving himself in constructive activities requiring his physical assignment away from the general population, helped him avoid interaction with the violence and gang activity of penitentiary life. Michael found work as a clerk in a prison factory, and he volunteered in a suicide prevention program. The reclusive environment of both endeavors helped him avoid routine encounters with the other inmates. After seven years in the penitentiary, Michael engineered a transfer to a medium-level security facility. 

The new situation at the medium was a breath of fresh air for Michael. Michael attributes the distinct perspective by quoting the French existentialist philosopher Sartre, “Hell is other people.” Michael’s meaning of the quote relies not on a distinction of objective consciousness but a view of community standards. The difference in the degree of civility between the high-security penitentiary and the medium-security facility allowed for a greater degree of safety and humanity.

The remainder of the discussion between Michael and Larry focuses on the disciplinarian infractions process while in custody. Title 28 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 541 sets forth the rules regarding inmate discipline while in Bureau of Prison custody. Four levels of disciplinary infractions exist in the Bureau of Prisons. 100 and 200 series infractions are serious violations. 300 and 400 series infractions are minor infractions but can result in a loss of good time or earned time credits as well as a loss of other earned privileges such as telephone use, commissary, visiting, and recreation. 

For an individual entering prison it is good advice to investigate and familiarize oneself with this section of the Code of Federal Regulations. While inmates will receive the list of prohibited acts as part of the orientation handbook, they receive on arrival at a Bureau of Prison facility. The handbook will not provide you with detailed instructions on the procedures to contest a charged infraction. 

In the Bureau of Prison’s lingo, the filing of an incident report by a correctional officer against an inmate is called a ‘shot’. A correctional officer has only twenty-four hours to file the incident report after observing or learning of the commission of the prohibited act. However, the twenty-four-hour limit can be extended in the case of emergency conditions. Prison administrators have used the COVID-19 emergency to extend the filing period to seventy-two hours.

Once the incident report is filed by the reporting correctional officer, the inmate will be required to appear before the Lieutenant. The hearing before the Lieutenant, is the proper time to negotiate a deal regarding the alleged conduct. Asking the Lieutenant to dismiss the allegation in lieu of extra duty or work, is one way to avoid the consequences of being found guilty of committing the action alleged in the incident report.

If you cannot work out a compromise with the Lieutenant, the hearing process will begin. The Lieutenant will read the charges facing the inmate. The Lieutenant will inform you; you are not required to make a statement. However, any claim not made during this initial hearing will be evidence, through any Bureau of Prisons appeals, the unstated claim did not originally exist. The inmate is allowed to have a witness to testify on his behalf. As Michael points out in the video, keeping a detailed journal of prison life, will assist you establish events and individuals who can corroborate your version of the facts and incidents. 

The Lieutenant will determine your guilt or innocence of the allegation in the incident report. If the nature of the conduct alleged in the report requires your segregation from the general population, you will be immediately transferred to the Special Housing Unit. After determination of guilt, the next step in appealing the allegations is to appear before the Unit Disciplinary Committee (“UDC”). The UDC consists of two members of your unit team, usually your case manager and your counselor. The UDC will meet within two weeks of the Lieutenant’s decision. The UDC will assess the exact penalty for the violation alleged in the incident report. 

The UDC is a rubber stamp and rarely, if never, reverses the Lieutenant’s assessment of guilt. While you can appeal the UDC’s decision, my experience has been, any exoneration of innocence or guilt will occur only after the completed duration of the penalties assessed by the UDC. So, if the penalty is time contingent, i.e., ninety days loss of phone, commissary, visiting, etc., an appeal is generally futile. Only where the penalty regards loss of good time, earned time credits, or security status would an appeal have any real value.

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