Federal Bureau of Prisons: The BOP

Murderers Escape Arizona Prison: How'd They Do It?


People who commit federal crimes, such as terrorism or treason, are tried and sentenced in federal courts by federal judges. And, normally, anyone arrested by a federal law enforcement officer (FBI, ATF, DEA, etc.) is tried in federal court. After sentencing, the newly convicted federal inmates are required to serve their time in one of the 114 federal institutions located throughout the U.S. and its territories. Federal prisons, such as the US Penitentiary and Federal Prison Camp (USP/FPC) in Tucson, AZ. pictured above, are operated by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).


Over 35,000 BOP employees supervise the activities of over 200,000 prisoners. Each BOP institution is designed to house a specific custody-level inmate, such as:

Minimum security (Prison camps) – Work-related institutions located just outside a federal penitentiary with limited security (low staff-to-inmate ratio and sometimes no fencing). Inmates are housed in open dormitories. Sometimes over one-hundred prisoners live in one large room supervised by a single officer. Inmates in camps provide much of the support labor for the more secure facility.

Low Security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs)  – Inmates are housed in open dormitories, but with much more security, including more officers and double perimeter fencing.


Medium Security – Facilities with double fencing (electronic sensory detection) and a higher staff to inmate ratio. Inmates are housed in  two person cells, or rooms.


High Security – Also known as USPs (United States Penitentiaries). The facilities feature extremely secure perimeters, such as reinforced fencing, or solid walls. Inmate activity is very controlled and limited.


Administrative – These facilities house inmates with specific needs, such as those with medical problems, inmates who are escape risks, and extremely dangerous prisoners.

BOP Facts:

93.4% of the federal prison population is male.

Only 11.2 % of the federal prison population is housed in a high security institution.

71.5% of the federal inmate population is serving sentences of over 5 years.

Over 50% of all federal inmates are serving time for drug offenses. 0.1% are serving time for offenses involving national security.

Over 10% of the federal inmate population is serving time for immigration offenses.

36,422 federal inmates are serving their sentences in privately run contract facilities (prisons for profit).

Federal inmates are often given the opportunity to work for UNICOR (the trade name for Federal Prisons Industries, Inc.) a for-profit business that manufacturers office furniture, clothing, industrial products, electronics, and much more. Inmates working in UNICOR are required to use their pay to satisfy court fees and fines.

Some federal institutions are protected against helicopter escape attempts by thin wires strung high over the compound.

Some of the items made by UNICOR using inmate labor:

Draperies and bedspreads

Firearms instructor’s vest covers

Mock turtlenecks


Plastic tableware

Cable and wire harnesses

Clothing lockers


Presentation plaques

Wall plates and name badges

File cabinets

Office chairs and desks

Book shelving systems

16 replies
  1. joanb
    joanb says:

    Just a few more years and retirement is mine. I can put in a good word for you and you can work in the law library 🙂

    p.s. It isn’t one person rewriting the dictionary…there are MANY more (working for the system and those footing the bills for those convicts) who agree–if you chose to go against the established laws, you shouldn’t whine about the consequences.

  2. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Joan – I’m not disagreeing with you, entirely. I do agree that offenders should be in placed in prison or jail and that they should serve their sentences. You’re right, they chose to break the law and it’s their fault that they’re behind bars. But, I can’t imagine that any inmate is in prison because he wants to be there; therefore, he’s being held against his will – a prisoner. And because he can’t come and go as he pleases and can’t do the things he wants – go to bars, hang out, drive a car, etc, he’s being deprived of his liberties. There’s no spin there.

    However, where we really differ is our choice of reference material. I choose to use Black’s Law Dictionary because it is the standard used in the legal profession – yours, mine, and state and federal courts everywhere. But, I even went one step further just for you and took a glance at Barron’s Law Dictionary. Their definition of prisoner is as follows:

    Anyone who is held against his will. Specifically, one who has been committed to a prison, jail, or penal institution for the purpose of detention…

    I don’t think it’s time to rewrite dictionaries just to suit one person’s argument.

    Yes, prisons and jails differ, inmates differ, and so corrections officers.

    Have you considered taking what seems like might be a much needed vacation away from the concrete and steel, and especially from inmates? 🙂 I’m kidding, Joan. Just kidding…

  3. joanb
    joanb says:

    Thanks for the kudos.

    I understand that many dictionaries define a convicted felon incorrectly. That is why I provided the definition I did. The dictionary may define the term, however, I challenge you and the dictionary writers to define how a convicted felon is deprived of “liberties?”

    Where people are tripped up is the definition of “liberties.” Again Mer :

    # The condition of being free from restriction or control.
    # The right and power to act, believe, or express oneself in a manner of one’s own choosing.
    # The condition of being physically and legally free from confinement, servitude, or forced labor. See Synonyms at freedom.
    # A breach or overstepping of propriety or social convention. Often used in the plural.

    # The condition of being free from restriction or control: EVERY PERSON SHOULD BE SCREAMING that they are prisoners. The government restricts people for doing specific things so that there is ORDER. Most people in the U.S. understand that if they do not commit a crime they are allowed freedom of confinement. Those who chose not to follow the law, give up that freedom (aka liberty). This definition goes directly into another bullet in this definition: “# The condition of being physically and legally free from confinement, servitude, or forced labor. Key word: LEGALLY. If someone has committed a crime, they are LEGALLY obligated to be punished.

    Being in the real world is not much different from being in prison…the MAJOR difference is that real world people CHOSE to follow the law in order to go home to their own bed every night, chose what they are going to eat, wear what they want to, and conduct their LAW ABIDING lives. INMATES are not prisoners because they chose to commit an action which in the big picture does not conform to the law and orderly running of society. They gave up the liberties that law abiding citizens enjoy. Again, convicted felons are only involuntary kept because they CHOSE go against the established laws.

    No matter how anyone slices it, inmates gave up certain liberties. No one deserves to be beat, raped, extorted, etc. (although these are many of the crimes inmates have done to others and they are rewarded to live out their lives “held against their wills.” PLEASE!)

    I believe it is time to rewrite the dictionaries–in NO WAY should a convicted felon ever be told that s/he “is deprived of liberty.” Again crime was a choice. AND if a convicted felon is “deprived of liberty” every person outside prison/jail should be SCREAMING that they do not receive:

    food paid and cooked by someone else (yes perhaps prepared by other deprived wo/men, but people outside the walls or fence (and in some cases imaginary lines) pay and cook for their own meals;

    have someone wash their clothes (again maybe by another deprived convict);

    a place to live without paying rent/utilities (who cares convicts have to pay for phones; for the most part the phone is a tool to help them harass the law-abiding (or not!) person for money, continue illegal activities, etc.), etc.

    As I have told many a convicted felon: as long as he (male prison) isn’t getting the sh*t beat out of him, dying, or excessively bleeding, move on. I don’t want to hear how the system did them wrong (despite what the news says, the majority of “deprived” people are rightfully convicted. In some cases, they were lucky to get caught when they did, otherwise, they would have ended up deprived of life.

    Just as there is a difference between jails and prisons, there are different types of inmates. Give me a gang inmate over a thug any day (the difference? Gang inmates live by a code; thugs–they live for the minute). Of course, I work in a penitentiary so I don’t consider “campers”–most of them fall under the “thug” definition (live for the minute).

    Yes I think it is time to rewrite the dictionaries.

  4. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Joan – Thanks for visiting and for your interesting comments.

    While I appreciate your obvious contempt for all law breakers, I try to remain impartial. And, in doing so, I use Black’s Law Dictionary as a standard for my definitions and terms. I’m sure you have seen the book many times, since it’s the standard in most legal circles, including criminal courts.

    Black’s defines “prisoner” this way:

    One who is deprived of liberty. One who is kept against his will in confinement or custody in a prison, penitentiary, jail, or other correctional institution, as the result of conviction of a crime or awaiting trial.

    So you see, Joan, my use of the term prisoner was, and is, absolutely correct. Also, I’ve pointed out the difference between jail and prison many, many times on this blog. I also dedicated an entire chapter to prisons and jails in my book Police Procedure and Investigation.

    By the way, thanks for the great job most of you folks do over at the BOP.

  5. Elena
    Elena says:

    It’s been my pleasure to benefit from all this wonderful info, plus getting to travel to new places each weekend.

    Thank you!

  6. queenofmean
    queenofmean says:

    I should hit this site more often. There’s all kinds of interesting info on it. The previous comment got me thinking about the old Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, PA. It’s pretty cool looking from the outside. It was built in the late 1800’s, back when everything (even jails) were built with great architectural aspects: beautiful archways and metal work. It’s no longer used as a jail, but is still standing (used as juvenile court now). It would definitely be a shame if it were torn down.

  7. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    You’re right, Lee. I’ve put a few in that Jail. I use to put them in the old jail, too, until 1980, when this one opened. The old jail was over one hundred years old and the prisoners were clothed however they came in. Prisoners were booked in via a large ledger book the jailer filled out. Now, everything is computerized, including the fingerprinting process.

    This jail is hands down much nicer than the old, but I still don’t know too many people who want to spend time there.

  8. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Elena – I think the major positive side is that private prisons are generally easier on the US budget. That’s about it.

    There’s no comparison to a state or county run facility and a federal prison. Federal prisons are much, much nicer, in many ways.

    SZ – Here’s the link to one of my old posts about county jails. Lots of photos, too. Dave Swords should recognize the photos. He’s put enough people in that jail.


    By the way, when I looked at that earlier post I noticed that Elena has been with this blog since the beginning. Thanks for sticking with us, Elena.

  9. Elena
    Elena says:

    I’ve not heard much happiness over prisons for profit due to conflict of interest where the needs of the prisoners are eclipsed by the need to make money. I’d be interested to hear if there is a positive side to this coin.

    BOP blog got me thinking – in the 60’s some of my high school students aspired to be sent to Joliet Prison (IL) as a step up from reform school. In the 80’s some of my clients, as a probation officer, asked me to help them figure out how to get into a federal pen. They had heard good things about them.

  10. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    SZ – I see you haven’t read my book! 🙂

    Normally, jails are for housing bad guys who are awaiting trial. They’re also places where people can serve a sentence for misdemeanor crimes that carry sentences of up to 12 months in length. Jails are run by sheriffs, or in the case of some smaller jurisdictions, they’re run by a board consisting of several sheriffs and police chiefs. These are called regional jails.

    Prisons are where convicted felons serve sentences of one or more years.

  11. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Elena – That’s very true. In fact, some of the federal institutions have culinary classes for the inmates. I can think of one institution that features a salad and drink bar, choice of entree, etc. They even teach the inmates how to carve things out of fruit and vegetables, such as animals, trees, and other things of similar nature, to adorn the serving areas. It sounds a little weird, but they’re actually teaching the prisoners a decent trade. There should be more of that, instead of just warehousing prisoners who will someday be back on the street trying to earn a living. That’s a positive point for the UNICOR business, too. Plus, they pay for their keep, and they earn money to pay off their fines and restitution. They even send some home to help support their families. The pay scale for UNICOR is more like working an outside job, not like the pennies per day other inmates earn for the small prison jobs, such as cleaning toilets and mowing grass.

    By the way, normally, the food in the prisons for profit is nowhere near as good as that served in the BOP facilities. Neither is the medical care. They’re in business to make money, so they cut corners whenever possible.

  12. SZ
    SZ says:

    Interesting stuff ! How does a prison for profit work ?

    I am embarrased to say that I do not know the differences between jail and prison. Other then this one.

  13. Elena
    Elena says:

    I have been told by excellent sources that another BOP fact is that the food is considerably better than non-Federal institutions 🙂

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