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The Federal Bureau of Prisons Explained by a Lawyer

By Spodek Law Group | October 20, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 20, 2023)

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 01:38 pm


The Federal Bureau of Prisons Explained by a Lawyer

Hey there! As a lawyer whose represented people incarcerated in the federal prison system, I wanted to give you an inside look at how the Federal Bureau of Prisons (aka BOP) operates. I know the federal prison system can be complicated and intimidating, so my goal here is to explain it in a simple, easy-to-understand way.

What is the Federal Bureau of Prisons?

The BOP is the agency responsible for managing and regulating all federal prisons across the U.S. They’re part of the Department of Justice and ultimately report to the U.S. Attorney General. The BOP runs all different types of federal prisons, including minimum, low, medium and high-security facilities, as well as medical centers for inmates requiring specialized care. Some key things to know:

  • They oversee 122 federal prisons, as well as manage halfway houses and community centers.
  • The BOP houses over 150,000 inmates convicted of federal crimes.
  • They employ around 36,000 people, including correctional officers and other prison staff.

So in a nutshell, the BOP controls the federal prison system and is responsible for the care and safety of all federal inmates.

How Do People End Up in Federal Prison?

Many people assume that federal prison is only for hardened, dangerous criminals. But that’s not always the case! You can end up doing federal time for all sorts of crimes, including non-violent offenses. Here’s a quick overview:

  • Federal courts handle cases that involve violations of federal laws. For example, federal crimes include things like mail fraud, tax evasion, embezzlement, bank robbery, kidnapping, terrorism, drug trafficking across state lines, and civil rights violations.
  • If you’re convicted of a federal crime in U.S. District Court, your sentence will be served in the federal system, even if the crime wasn’t violent.
  • The length of federal sentences tends to be longer than state sentences. Even for low-level federal crimes, you can get 5, 10, 15+ years in federal prison.

So while Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer would wind up in federal prison, so could a 75-year-old convicted of health care fraud whose crime didn’t physically harm anyone. The nature of the offense doesn’t always determine where you serve time.

How Do Federal Prison Assignments and Transfers Work?

When first sentenced, inmates go through a classification process to determine their security level and prison assignment. Here’s how it works:

  • Inmates are assigned a security class – minimum, low, medium or high. Higher security is for more violent crimes or escape risks.
  • Men are sent to a federal prison closest to their primary residence, ideally within 500 miles. Women go to the nearest female facility.
  • Minimum security inmates are often sent to prison camps on the grounds of larger facilities. These are dorm-style and have the lowest security.
  • Medical centers house inmates who need specialized or long-term care.
  • Administrative facilities have extra amenities and are for inmates with good behavior.

However, transfers between federal prisons are common:

  • Inmates can transfer to be closer to family or a release residence.
  • Disciplinary issues or violence can get someone moved to a higher security prison.
  • Medical or programming needs may require a transfer.
  • Court appearances or case factors might require a temporary or permanent transfer.

Overall, the BOP aims to house inmates in the least restrictive facility possible based on their history and needs. But changes in security level or programming availability impact transfers.

What’s the Difference Between Federal Prison Camps and Penitentiaries?

Within the federal prison system, facilities are distinguished based on their specific security levels and purposes:

  • Prison camps are minimum security facilities, often adjacent to larger complexes. Inmates sleep in dorm-style housing and have more freedom of movement. Camps have limited fencing and more programming. They house non-violent offenders with shorter sentences.
  • Low security federal prisons have double-fenced perimeters, mostly dorm-style housing, and more extensive work programming. Inmates with moderate to short sentences who present low risk may be held at low security facilities.
  • Medium security federal prisons have strengthened perimeters, mostly cell-style housing, a wider variety of work programs, and enhanced correctional programs. These house inmates with more serious or violent offense histories who don’t pose major security risks.
  • High security federal prisons (aka United States Penitentiaries) have highly secured perimeters, walls, guard towers, cell-style housing and limited inmate movement. These house inmates with histories of violence or escape attempts.
  • Administrative facilities contain separate areas for high-security inmates including those with disciplinary issues. But they also provide enhanced services, programs and activities for well-behaved prisoners.

The administrative distinction is based on an inmate’s behavior, while the rest are based on security classifications determined at sentencing.

What’s Daily Life Like in Federal Prison?

Daily life inside federal prisons adheres to strict schedules and protocols. Here’s a quick look at what inmates can expect:

  • Morning wake-up calls and cell inspections before breakfast in the mess hall.
  • Work programs based on vocational skills, industry training, facility maintenance and daily operations.
  • Lunch and dinner offered in the dining hall.
  • Scheduled hours for recreational activities – exercise, TV, games, libraries.
  • Evening lock-up and lights out at an early hour.
  • Head counts conducted throughout the day.
  • Oversight by correctional officers when moving between activities.

Higher security prisons have less flexibility and freedom of movement. But well-behaved inmates at any facility may qualify for:

  • Job assignments with more responsibility.
  • Cleared access to facilities like recreation, libraries, classes, religious services.
  • Unescorted movement around facilities.

Adherence to rules and avoidance of disciplinary issues allows for more privileges. But overall, loss of personal freedom and privacy are realities at all federal prisons.

What Types of Programs Are Offered to Inmates?

Federal prisons offer various programs to occupy inmates’ time and hopefully prepare them for re-entry when released. Options can include:

  • Education classes – GED, ESL, adult continuing education, vocational training.
  • Job skills programs – specific career training and certifications for industries like construction, technology, food service.
  • Counseling and therapy – drug abuse, anger management, victim impact classes.
  • Life skills classes – health education, parenting, financial literacy.
  • Recreation activities – exercise, intramural sports, hobby crafts, music.
  • Religious services – various faith services, ceremonies and studies.

Programs vary by facility security levels, resources and inmate needs. Participation can improve living conditions in prison and opportunities after release. But spaces are limited.

Can Inmates Earn Time Off Their Sentences?

One question inmates and family members frequently have is whether federal prisoners can earn time off their sentences for good behavior. The answer is yes – with a few caveats.

The federal prison system has a program called “good conduct time” that allows inmates to earn a reduction of up to 54 days per year off their sentences for following prison rules . This time off is awarded automatically, assuming no disciplinary issues. So well-behaved inmates can end up serving around 85% of their total sentences.

However, this program has some key limitations:

  • It does not apply to inmates serving life sentences.
  • Time off earned may be forfeited if disciplinary issues arise.
  • Release dates are impacted, but minimum mandatory sentences cannot be reduced through good behavior.
  • For sentences under a year, awards are prorated – so only about 5 days per month can be earned off.

So while good behavior time can incrementally reduce sentences, it’s not an early release free-for-all. Institutional misconduct can cancel out time earned.

What Should You Do if You or a Loved One Is Facing Federal Prison?

If you’re in the scary position of facing potential federal prison time for a crime, some advice:

  • Get an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer. Their expertise negotiating federal cases and sentences can make a big difference.
  • Learn the federal sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums that apply to your charges. This helps assess possible plea deals or trial risks.
  • If convicted, get placed at a prison close to family if possible. This makes visitation easier during incarceration.
  • Enroll in programs that can reduce time served or provide skills for after release.
  • Stay positive and use your time productively to pursue education, counseling, vocational training or faith-based help.

The federal prison experience can be eased somewhat through proactive planning and compliance on the inside. But avoiding federal time in the first place is ideal.

Key Takeaways

Hopefully this overview gave you a better understanding of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and how federal incarceration works. Some key takeaways:

  • The BOP manages all federal prisons and inmates convicted of federal crimes.
  • Minimum security camps house non-violent offenders, while penitentiaries are high-security.
  • Inmates can earn time off sentences for good behavior.
  • Programs to improve life skills and job prospects are offered.
  • Experienced criminal defense counsel is critical when facing federal prosecution.

The federal prison experience can vary greatly depending on the facility, security levels and privileges earned. But the loss of freedom – and months or years away from home – will always be significant challenges. Here’s hoping we can all avoid the inside of a federal prison cell!

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