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 What Should I Know About Staff Hierarchy? 

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Michael Santos

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Navigating the bureaucracy of prison requires at least a cursory knowledge of the key players and their roles. This section provides a basic overview to consider for those going inside.

Bureaucratic Structure:

Our nation incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation on earth. Millions of people have gone through the system, and thousands of people work in corrections. It’s run like any other bureacracy, modeled in a hierarchical formation. The positions are more important than the individual, and the individuals rely upon program statements and policy statements to govern operations.

The organizational hierarchy is clearly defined and much more formal. Staff members that work alongside each other do not address each other with first names. Instead, we hear a lot “Mr.” and “Ms,” as if first names are offensive.

As stated previously, our team’s experience is with The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is organized under the Executive Branch of Government. For those that need a quick refresher course in civics, we have three branches of government in our country:

  • The Legislative System: Divided by two houses of Congress, the Senate and the House. They pass laws all citizens must follow.
  • The Judicial System: Where judges interpret whether the laws have been applied appropriately.
  • The Executive Branch: Administrators and functionaries of the government.

The President of the United States leads the Executive Branch, and he appoints the Attorney General. On recommendation of the Attorney General, we have the Directorof the Bureau of Prisons. The director oversees the BOP bureaucracy.

According to, in 2019 the federal prison bureaucracy includes 122 Bureau of Prisons facilities. Approximately 37,000 staff members oversee 184,000 people in prison. Obviously, such a huge system requires many rules and regulations. By adhering to those rules and regulations, they keep order. Those living inside can feel like cogs in a machine, without a common humanity.

The Regional System:

The BOP operates six regions, including:

  • Mid-Atlantic Region—prisons in West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee
  • North Central Region—prisons in Illinois, Minnesota, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, Indiana, and South Dakota
  • Northeast Region—prisons in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and New Jersey
  • South Central Region—prisons in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana
  • Southeast Region—prisons in Georgia, Florida, Alabama South Carolina, Puerto Rico, and Mississippi
  • Western Region—prisons in California, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington

Each region listed above has a single Regional Director. The regional director oversees policies and operations in each of the many institutions scattered around their respective territories. The various Directors of the Bureau of Prisons represent the highest levels of the BOP’s Executive Staff. Few people in prison have any interaction with them.

Occasionally directors tour the facilities. When they do, local staff exert great efforts to shield those leaders from interactions with people serving time in prison. Prisoners can think of the directors as managing from the allegorical ivory tower. Although each director likely spent many years working in institutions, once they reach the pinnacle of the BOP bureaucracy, they isolate themselves from people that lower level staff members interact with on a daily basis.

Local Management


Each institution has its own chief executive. In most cases this position is called warden in the staff hierarchy. During our team’s extensive experience of serving time in prisons of every security level, we’ve been associated with multiple wardens. Each warden has his or her own management style.

The most effective wardens—from our perspective, manage by walking around. They make themselves available to talk with the people they’re responsible for confining. Wardens in secure institutions stand around the cafeteria during the noon meal, which is the most popular meal in every prison. A few times each month, they may visit camps that are adjacent to the secure prisons to make themselves to people classified as minimum-security.  Wardens call it standing mainline, referring to the people that wait in the long lines for their daily meals. All prisoners are free to approach the warden, or any of the other staff members who stand mainline, to discuss a grievance or an issue of importance to the individual.

Many federal prisons are located within complexes that include several institutions of different security levels. Those complexes may have multiple wardens. Each institution has its own warden. But there would also be a complex warden, that oversees the entire complex. For example, the Federal Prison Complex in Colorado includes the following institutions:

  • ADX Super-max Penitentiary
  • USP High Security Penitentiary
  • FCI Medium-Security Prison
  • FPC Minimum-Security Prison

Florence includes one complex warden two wardens, and one camp supervisor.

Executive Assistant

An Executive Assistant serves each warden. More than anyone else, executive assistants shadow the warden. If a person approaches a warden, the executive assistant will listen to every word and possibly take notes. Few prisoners have any reason to interact directly with an executive assistant. The executive assistant is frequently the only staff member besides the warden who is authorized to speak with members of the media.  Prisoners who interact with representatives of the media may have limited interactions with the executive assistant. For the most part, this isn’t a staff member that will have much relevance to a person in prison.

Associate Wardens:

Most federal prisons hold in excess of 1,000 men. Some wardens are in control of institutions with more than 4,000 men and several hundred staff members. As the chief executive officers of these institutions, wardens have several colleagues beneath them on the organizational chart that manage various aspects of the prison.

In the prisons where we’ve been held, wardens rely upon associate wardens that concentrate on their own segments of the prison complex. Some typical associate warden positions include the following:

  • Associate Warden of Programs (AW-P)
  • Associate Warden of Industries and Education (AW-I&E)
  • Associate Warden of Operations (AW-O)
  • Associate Warden of Transportation (AW-T)
  • Associate Warden of Custody (AW-C)

The associate wardens, too, frequently stand mainline and make themselves available to speak with inmates who are concerned with departments under AW control. All members of the bureaucracy observe the clearly-defined chain of command, and associate wardens usually direct prisoners to seek assistance from staff members a bit lower in the bureaucratic hierarchy.

Department Heads:

Think of the prison as a miniature city, separated from the greater society by a series of boundaries. Just as in cities outside, the miniature prison city has various departments—like the department of housing, of health, and public works. In prison, the people leading these departments are department heads. Department heads report to their respective associate warden.  Department Heads are much more immediately accessible to prisoners than higher members of the executive staff. Some of the Department Heads include:

  • Unit Managers—One or more dormitory buildings comprise a housing unit, and the unit manager acts as a mini-warden over these units. He oversees matters related to inmate management, including the unit team (see below), each prisoner’s central file, and each prisoner’s release preparation.
  • Supervisor of Education—In charge of administrating the education and recreational programs.
  • Supervisor of Health Services—In charge of the medical and dental services.
  • Captain—In charge of Lieutenantsand custody staff.
  • Supervisor of Food Services—In charge of the meal preparations.
  • Supervisor of Facilities—In charge of maintaining the facility.

All department heads have a coterie of staff members that work beneath them. Those staff members interact directly with prisoners. Prisoners that have complaints against staff members are supposed to seek a resolution with the staff member first. If they’re not satisfied with the response they receive, the prisoners are supposed to work their way up the chain of command. If a grievance remains unresolved, prisoners have access to the administrative remedy procedure which we describe in the next module.

Unit Team:

With individual prisons holding well over a thousand men together, it would be impractical for the warden to know each of the prisoners under his control. Each federal prison, therefore, uses the Unit Management System. By assigning people to smaller, more manageable groups within the prison, the system keeps better control. The group of staff members with whom prisoners have the most frequent contact (except their immediate work-detail supervisor) are those who serve on their unit team.

On a typical prison compound (USPs, FCIs, and FPCs), the prisoners are free to mix in the general population.  They eat in the same chow hall, participate in educational programs together, and share the same recreational facilities. Each inmate is assigned to a particular housing unit. Those housing units are restricted and considered off limits for people assigned to different housing units.

Each housing unit is led by a Unit Manager. The unit manager is adepartment head that presides over case managers and counselors—the other members of the Unit Team. BOP Program Statement 5321.07 tells us that the unit team is also supposed to include an Education Advisor, and a Unit Psychologist. In our experience, those staff members have minimal interaction with people on the unit team.

Case Managers:

Case managers monitor progress of the prisoners assigned to their case load. They keep track of the prisoner’s custody and classification scoring, his release date. If the prisoner requests a transfer to another institution, the case manager is responsible for initiating this request. Every three years, or sooner if there is some change in the prisoner’s status (transfer or nearing release), the case manager also prepares a progress report, which describes the prisoner’s institutional adjustment.

When staff members activate programs within the First Step Act, case managers will document progress that prisoners make toward program completion. Those completions will result in “Earned Time Credits,” which they can redeem through various undefined incentive programs that should include transfer to home confinement.


Contrary to the title, counselors do very little in the way of counseling. Rather, their duties include overseeing the visiting lists and prisoner work details. They also may have a role in monitoring compliance with the Financial Responsibility Plan, assigning quarters, overseeing the sanitation of the unit, taking care of package mailouts, and participating on the Unit Disciplinary Committee.

Team Meetings:

People in prison that have more than two years remaining to serve are scheduled to meet with their unit team members twice each year. People with fewer than 24 months to serve meet with their unit team members more frequently. Usually, a person’s unit manager, case manager, and counselor are present during these team meetings.

People in prisons shouldn’t expect to learn much during these routine team meetings.  Although rules may require attendance in team meetings, there is not much interaction or guidance with regard to what steps people can take to improve their status.

During the meeting, the case manager verbally reads for everyone present whatever documentation the unit team has accumulated since the previous team meeting. This documentation may include the person’s work performance rating; his disciplinary record; his progress on the FRP plan; and whatever programs the individual has completed.

Newer people in the system may feel let down after a team meeting. They come into the meeting with hopes that they will find some meaning as to what they are supposed to be doing in prison. To many staff members, the only matters of importance include:

  • The passing of time,
  • The avoidance of disciplinary problems, and
  • the payment schedule toward the FRP plan.

The counselor’s function during the meeting is to describe a person’s participation in the FRP program, and passes the prisoner a copy of his visiting list. The unit manager asks the prisoner whether he has any questions or requests.  In most instances, the Team Meeting lasts fewer than 10 minutes.

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,”

Our team’s experience has not shown that to be the case. 

People that are determined to grow must become resourceful. They should become skillful at finding opportunities to do so on their own. They should anticipate some level of interference from staff members who view any type of activity that is “highly innovative and complex” as a threat to the status quo. As part of a large and complex law-enforcement bureaucracy, all prison systems revere uniformity.

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