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Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Slammer: Incarceration 101 for Writers

English: A view of the door to a maximum secur...
" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You have your character in the lock-up - but is it the right facility?

Jail is not synonymous with prison.


  • not yet convicted by a court
  • convicted of a misdemeanor (less than a year of incarceration)
  • convicted of a felony (more than one year of incarceration) but there isn't a free bed available in the prison system, so they are waiting their turn for a prison bed.
  • typically operated by a sheriff.
  • Because these are usually small facilities, there is often an overcrowding issue (picture 2-3x the number of inmates than was intended)
  • Jails often do not provide the same level of medical attention available to inmates in prison. Most jails have a nurse on duty, others have equipped medical care including dentistry.
  • These facilities are often in quite bad repair and filthy with bodily fluids and feces on the ground and no easy access to cleaning supplies.
  • Programming is typically minimal. Local churches provide religious services and groups such a AA and NA provide services as well.

Regional jail - when in rural areas where small towns cannot afford to maintain
       their own jail house, they will cooperate with nearby townships to have a
       multi-jurisdictional jail.

State Prison 

  • Inmates have broken state law.
  • Are run by the individual states and include:
    • juvenile
    • low security
    • medium security
    • maximum security
  • State prisons are either male prisons or female prisons

Federal Prison 

  • Holds prisoners who have been convicted of a federal offence(s). A federal offence breaks a United States law. These include such crimes as terrorism, extortion, embezzlement, and bank fraud.
  • The prisoners are serving mandatory times. There is a range within the guidelines. After the prisoner is convicted by a jury, then the judge decides that sentence.
  • All crimes that happen within the limits of DC may be seen as federal offences since DC does not belong to any state.
  • Overseen by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) 
  • Inmates are separated by levels of security 
  • Prison Camp (minimum)
    • prisons without fences
    • low risk prisoners
    • they have less than ten years to serve in their sentence
    • sometimes called "Club Feds" 
  • Low - (the following quotes are the definitions as found on "Low security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs) have double-fenced perimeters, mostly dormitory or cubicle housing, and strong work and program components. The staff-to-inmate ratio in these institutions is higher than in minimum security facilities."
  • Medium - "Medium security FCIs (and USPs designated to house medium security inmates) have strengthened perimeters (often double fences with electronic detection systems), mostly cell-type housing, a wide variety of work and treatment programs, an even higher staff-to-inmate ratio than low security FCIs, and even greater internal controls."
  • High - "High security institutions, also known as United States Penitentiaries (USPs), have highly secured perimeters (featuring walls or reinforced fences), multiple- and single-occupant cell housing, the highest staff-to-inmate ratio, and close control of inmate movement."
  • Complex - "At Federal Correctional Complexes (FCCs), institutions with different missions and security levels are located in close proximity to one another. FCCs increase efficiency through the sharing of services, enable staff to gain experience at institutions of many security levels, and enhance emergency preparedness by having additional resources within close proximity."
  • Administrative - "Administrative facilities are institutions with special missions, such as the detention of pretrial offenders; the treatment of inmates with serious or chronic medical problems; or the containment of extremely dangerous, violent, or escape-prone inmates. Administrative facilities include Metropolitan Correctional Centers (MCCs), Metropolitan Detention Centers (MDCs), Federal Detention Centers (FDCs), Federal Medical Centers (FMCs), the Federal Transfer Center (FTC), the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (MCFP), and the Administrative-Maximum Security Penitentiary (ADX). Administrative facilities, except the ADX, are capable of holding inmates in all security categories." 
  • Supermax prisons (ADX):
    • were designed for the absolute worst offenders
    • prisoners are only allowed human contact during count time, meal time, shower time 
    • Shower time:
      • 20 minutes 
      • 2 -3 x a week 
      • hands and feet remain shackled
      • guarded by at least two guards 
      • Shaving happens about once a week
    • no work assignment
    • mail is heavily censored
    • They are in a cell by themselves behind a steel door for their entire term for 23 hours a day. 
    • They get 1 hour of recreation - this is a done in a cage.
    • video study 

  • Federal timeline US prisoners
    Federal timeline US prisoners (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In both state and federal prisons

  • Guns are not typically allowed inside the prison and are only held by officers in the caged turrets.
  • Programs are available such as educational programs.
  • Exercise often does not allow for weightlifting or martial arts practice to protect the corrections officers.
  • New arrivals are kept separate from other prisoners until they are taught the rules and what they can expect out of prison life.
  • Inmates are given a classification that takes into consideration length of sentence, education, probability of flight, psychological status, and medical issues (criteria differs from institution to institution). The prison keeps similar classifications together.
  • The offender will be sent to the facility that is near the place where the crime took place. In the case of federal offenders, they can be sent to any of the federal prison. This may mean far from family and friends. An effort is made to keep the prisoner within 500 miles of their families.

Corrections officers (COs) run the jails and prisons.

  • high job turn-over rate
  • usually less training than police officers. Their operations are paramilitary so their training is training mimics a boot camp structure. Training includes among other aspects:
    • handcuffing and restraints
    • riot squad
    • defensive tactics
    • weapons including pepper spray, batons, tasers, firearms 
    • prisoner supervision
    • securing a crime scene and collecting evidence
    • drug training (identification and spotting its use)

related blog article - Locked up

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Police Procedure and Investigation - Lee Lofland


  1. Are the local and regional jails not segregated by gender?

    1. That depends on the jail. But in my county, no - they are in different wings of the same building.