New Prisoners Ought to Understand Security Level Classifications

By · Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Prisoners who are new to the system should understand how their behavior can influence their security-level classification. Such an understanding can help them adjust in manners that will allow them to serve their sentences in the least-restrictive environments possible. Unfortunately, many prisoners make decisions in the camp that result in their moving to higher-security prisons. A better understanding of the system can help, and I write about my experiences with hopes of making that positive contribution.

All new prisoners should have a clear understanding of how their behavior influences the Security Level Classifications that administrators assign to them. When I was initially arrested, in 1987, I was 23-years-old and I didn’t know anything about prison management or how administrators would classify me. I didn’t even understand the difference between jail and prison. Since then, I’ve passed more than 21 years inside these boundaries. The lessons have taught me a lot, and I’m always trying to pass them along to new prisoners so they make better decisions.

My time began inside the walls of a United States Penitentiary, where I was forced to share eating space, and shower space, with 2,500 other felons. Many of them were predatory, violent offenders. They lived by a code of values that differed in remarkable ways from the affluent, north Seattle suburb where my parents reared me. I served more than five years inside those walls, yet the choices I made resulted in the achievement of significant goals that influenced my continuing adjustment through prison.

In 1995, administrators transferred me to a series of medium- and low-security Federal Correctional Institutions. Those places may have been designated with a more euphemistic name, though they were still prisons. I did not perceive any administrative emphasis on correcting anything, though the levels of stress, volatility, and violence were appreciably lower than I experienced in the high-security penitentiary.

After more than a decade in those FCIs, administrators dropped my security-level classification to minimum, and in 2003 they transferred me to the Federal Prison Camp system. In prison camps, I’ve known a higher level of freedom than at any time since my journey as a prisoner began. Although I look forward to my release, I feel grateful for every day that I serve inside the more relaxed atmosphere of the prison camp. I’ve known much worse.

My appreciation of minimum-security and the camp environment comes as a consequence of my having endured many years in higher-security prisons. Other prisoners who self-surrender to camp sometimes take the privileges we have for granted. Rather than recognizing the low-level of stress that accompanies open movement, lack of gangs, and total absence of mass disturbances, they whine about the indignities associated with confinement.

Because I have served my entire adult life in prison, I do not dwell on what I consider to be the minor annoyances of confinement. I expect them. Strip searches do not bother me. Special census counts mean nothing. The loss of privileges is a fact of life I can handle. What I don’t want is to return to environments where I have to walk through puddles of blood, where I hear the cries of violent gang rapes, where I see regular abuse of force. I know such environments are only a bus ride away.

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