How Do Federal Prison Security Levels Work?

You’ve probably heard about maximum and minimum security prisons before. TV and movies often use these as shorthand for how “dangerous” a character who’s spent time in prison is. While it’s true that maximum security facilities often house more violent offenders, that’s just one aspect of why federal institutions have different levels. 

If you’ve been convicted of a federal crime, learning about the differences between types of federal prisons is worthwhile. When you understand the differences, you’re better prepared to argue for a lower-security facility during sentencing. Lower security prisons will generally offer you more freedom and activities. Here’s what you need to know about the classification system and the experience of prisoners at each level.

What Are Federal Prison Security Levels?

The federal prison system was created with the understanding that not every prisoner may poses the same risk to the public or other inmates. For example, someone convicted of embezzlement has committed a crime but is not violent. The criminal justice system has determined that keeping violent and non-violent offenders separated is safer, so it has developed different classifications for facilities to account for these differences in initial sentencing. Over time, it may be possible for offenders to move to lower security facilities as the specific risk they pose is determined.

How Each Prison Security Level Works

The Bureau of Prisons classifies all its institution as one of five levels. These levels range from minimum security “prison camps” to high or “maximum” security penitentiaries. The higher the security, the stricter the institution’s rules for inmates. Here’s what that looks like in practice:

Minimum-Security Federal Prison Camps (FPC)

These are the least restrictive of all federal prisons and may not even have a fence around the perimeter. At these camps, you could have significantly more free time depending on your job and required classes. You will likely be required to take part in a work and/or rehabilitation program. However, you will also be able to move around, socialize, and participate in activities. 

These institutions usually feature dormitory-style housing. Instead of cells, you’ll generally sleep in dorm-style rooms. “Camps” can vary significantly. They may be stand alone facilities or they may be part of a higher security prison. They’re intended for non-violent, first-time offenders, but they may also house people who have worked their way down from higher-security institutions. 

Low-Security Federal Correctional Institutions 

The next step up is a Federal Correctional Institute. These facilities include fences and more supervision but still offer some freedom in how you spend your time. They provide dormitory or cubicle-style housing, so you still have some privacy. They’re also likely to offer programs and activities, though not as many as “camps.” 

These facilities may include some offenders with violent convictions. They may also house people sentenced for the second or subsequent time. 

Medium-Security Federal Correctional Institutions

This level is where facilities begin to look like the common perception of prisons. They include significant security measures, such as multiple fences and armed perimeter guards. They also house inmates in cell-style housing, usually with two inmates in a cell. This heightened caution is because most of the population is typically convicted of violent and sex crimes.

In these institutions, there may still be activities and programs available. However, your movement during the day is going to be restricted. You will be held to a daily schedule and may be penalized if you don’t follow it. 

High or Maximum-Security United States Penitentiaries

These are the strictest of all general population facilities. They use stringent safety measures, including multiple fences, armed guard towers and patrols, and significant staff-to-inmate ratios. These facilities house the most violent of offenders and inmates who have been deemed unsafe for lower-security facilities. They only offer cell-type housing with little privacy. Movements and schedules are strictly controlled and monitored. 

Administrative Facilities

These locations are designed for prisoners who are unsuited to other facilities. There are several types of administrative facilities, including:

  • Medical institutions for offenders with severe health conditions
  • Institutions to house potentially dangerous pre-trial offenders
  • Facilities to house escape-prone offenders
  • “Supermax” locations designed to secure the most dangerous inmates

The specific features of each of these facilities depend on who they are intended to house.

Pursue Lower Security Sentences With Expert Help

Most convictions lead to sentences in medium, low, or minimum security facilities. In general, being sentenced to lower-security locations means you will have more freedom.

Depending on your conviction, you may be able to mitigate your sentence to serve your time in a lower-security facility. That’s why you should work with an experienced sentencing advocate like Tara Lenich. She can help you develop a Pre-Sentencing Report that may help you receive a reduced sentence within a minimum or low-security facility. Schedule your consultation today to learn more. 


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