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Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, Level 4, and Level 5 Prisons in California

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) classifies prisons into five different security levels based on the security risk and behavior of the inmates housed there. The levels range from Level 1 being the lowest security to Level 5 being the highest security facilities. Factors that determine a prison’s security level include the inmate’s criminal history, length of sentence, behavior in prison, gang affiliation, and tendency towards violence or escape. The higher the security level, the more restrictions, security measures, and limited privileges there are for the inmates.

Level 1 Prisons

Level 1 prisons in California are the lowest security facilities in the CDCR system. Inmates here pose the least risk for violence or escape. Level 1 prisons have minimal security features like low security perimeter fencing, dormitory housing, and lower staff to inmate ratios. Inmates have more freedom of movement and access to rehabilitation and education programs. Some examples of Level 1 prisons in California include Sierra Conservation Center and California Correctional Center. These prisons house inmates with short sentences for non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenses.

Level 2 Prisons

Level 2 prisons have slightly higher security than Level 1. Inmates here are deemed to be a low security risk but require more supervision and monitoring than Level 1 inmates. Level 2 prisons have double perimeter fencing with electronic detection systems, celled housing, and more correctional staff present. Privileges like access to programs are still relatively open. California State Prison, Los Angeles County, and California Men’s Colony are examples of Level 2 prisons. These facilities house short-term offenders convicted of property or drug crimes.

Level 3 Prisons

Level 3 prisons house inmates considered a moderate security risk with tendencies for violence or escape. These prisons have highly fortified perimeters with walls or lethal fences, frequent guard patrols, and controlled inmate movement. Cell housing predominates but dorms may exist in some facilities. Access to rehabilitation programs is possible but limited. Level 3 prisons include California State Prison, Sacramento, California Correctional Institution, and California State Prison, Solano. These facilities hold inmates serving sentences for violent crimes like robbery, assault, and rape.

Level 4 Prisons

Level 4 prisons are high security facilities that house inmates with serious violent histories and demonstrated behaviors that pose a threat within prison. These maximum security prisons have highly sophisticated electronic security systems, cell housing with armed coverage, and constant inmate supervision during limited movements. Privileges are severely restricted in Level 4 prisons. Examples include California State Prison, Corcoran, California Correctional Institution – Tehachapi, and Kern Valley State Prison. Level 4 prisons hold inmates convicted of the most violent offenses like murder, high level drug trafficking, and violent sex crimes.

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Level 5 Prisons

Level 5 prisons are super-maximum security facilities reserved for inmates with serious discipline and behavior issues who pose an exceptional threat to staff and other inmates. These inmates require special management plans and intensive control and supervision. Level 5 prisons have the strongest perimeter security and cell containment with restrictive policies that severely limit an inmate’s privileges and mobility. Pelican Bay State Prison is California’s only Level 5 maximum security facility. Inmates here are placed in long-term solitary confinement due to repeated violent acts while incarcerated.

A Brief History of California’s Prison Security Level System

California introduced its classification system of assigning security levels to prisons in the 1970s. The first prisons designated as higher security facilities included San Quentin, Folsom, and Soledad. This was in response to rising violence and unrest in the prison system during that decade. Initial classification levels went from I (lowest) to IV (highest). The system was later expanded and modified into today’s 5 security levels to better manage and separate the diverse inmate populations and security needs.

Some key events in the evolution of California’s prison security levels:

  • 1971 – Classification system created with 4 levels (I to IV)
  • 1980s – Rising gang activity and violence require stricter controls, higher security facilities constructed
  • 1985 – First “supermax” facility opened at Pelican Bay State Prison, designated as Level IV
  • 1990s – Inmate population doubles, more maximum security prisons built, overcrowding issues
  • 2008 – Prison overcrowding declared unconstitutional, reforms and changes to security designations begin
  • 2015 – Security level V created for restricted housing units at Pelican Bay and other prisons
  • 2021 – Security levels revised with 5 levels, changes to high security prison population management

The differing security levels today allow the California prison system to safely incarcerate over 95,000 inmates with diverse criminal histories, gang affiliations, and behavior issues. Classification helps separate less violent inmates from higher security risks.

The Characteristics of Inmate Populations at Each Security Level

The types of inmates housed at each security level have distinct characteristics in terms of sentence lengths, offenses, criminal histories, and behavior. Here are some of the defining features of the inmate populations at each level:

Level 1 Prison Inmates

  • Short sentence lengths (1 year or less)
  • Non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offenses only
  • Minimal or no criminal history
  • No gang affiliation
  • Compliant behavior with no discipline issues
  • Low recidivism risk
  • Often minimum custody inmates nearing parole

Level 2 Prison Inmates

  • Short to medium sentence lengths (1-7 years)
  • Non-violent property or drug offenses
  • Minor criminal histories
  • Little or no gang involvement
  • Generally cooperative behaviors
  • Moderate recidivism risk

Level 3 Prison Inmates

  • Medium to long sentences (5-15 years)
  • Violent offenses like robbery, assault, rape
  • Extensive criminal histories
  • Gang affiliated, moderate discipline issues
  • Higher recidivism risk and tendencies for violence

Level 4 Prison Inmates

  • Very long sentences or life sentences
  • Serious violent offenses like murder, kidnapping, sex crimes
  • Long criminal histories with violence
  • Gang leaders and members with discipline problems
  • High recidivism risk and proven violent behaviors

Level 5 Prison Inmates

  • Indeterminate SHU sentences
  • Previous Level 4 inmates who committed violent acts in prison
  • Confirmed prison gang members and leaders
  • Severe discipline and behavioral issues
  • Require intense control and isolation
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A Comparison of Security Measures at Each Classification Level

The distinguishing security features at California prisons intensify with each ascending security level. Here is a comparison of some of the typical security measures in place at the different classification levels:

Security MeasureLevel 1Level 2Level 3Level 4Level 5
Perimeter BarriersMinimal fencingDouble fencing with alarmsConcrete walls or electric fencesReinforced walls and lethal fencesImpenetrable and alarmed walls
Correctional StaffLow staff to inmate ratioModerate ratioConstant armed coverageExtensive armed coverageMaximum staff presence
Housing StyleDormitoriesCelled housingMostly cellsExclusively cellsSingle cells only
Inmate MovementUnescortedMinimal escortsHighly controlled escortsEscorted alwaysExtremely limited
SearchesRandomFrequentConstantBefore and after all movementsFully unclothed
Rehabilitation AccessWide accessModerate accessLimited accessVery limitedNone
PrivilegesMost allowedReducedHighly restrictedExtremely limitedVirtually none
LockdownsRareOccasionalCommonFrequentNear total
Supervision LevelLowModerateHighContinuousIntensive and constant

A Timeline of Notable Events Related to Prison Security Levels in California

California’s prison system has gone through many changes in policies and procedures related to security levels over the decades. Here are some notable events:

  • 1968 – Lockdown at San Quentin State Prison leads to new classification system
  • 1975 – Soledad Prison designated as maximum security facility
  • 1983 – New Folsom Prison built as Level IV to replace Old Folsom
  • 1985 – Pelican Bay State Prison opens as California’s first supermax facility
  • 1994 – Federal court rules Pelican Bay SHU conditions “inhumane”
  • 2001 – New Valley State Prison built with high security facilities
  • 2011 – Hunger strikes begin at Pelican Bay to protest SHU policies
  • 2015 – California begins releasing some inmates from SHUs after court orders
  • 2018 – Kern Valley State Prison converted to Sensitive Needs Yard facility
  • 2020 – COVID-19 outbreaks lead to lockdowns at many California prisons
  • 2021 – Security levels updated with lower Level I and new Level V designations

Key events like inmate protests, lawsuits, and policy reforms related to solitary confinement and maximum security prisons have impacted how higher classified facilities in California operate over the past 50 years. Security levels continue to evolve and change in response to inmate management needs.

A Summary Table of Notable Level 4 Prisons and the Types of Inmates Housed There

Here is a table summarizing some of California’s most well-known Level 4 maximum security prisons and details on their inmate populations:

PrisonLocationNotable FeaturesInmate Profile
California State Prison, CorcoranCorcoranSHU with sections for protective custody and mental health treatmentLong-term sentenced inmates with violent histories and behavior issues
California Correctional Institution – TehachapiTehachapiHighly restricted SHU for disruptive group leadersGang leaders, violent inmates with serious discipline problems
Kern Valley State PrisonDelanoMajority of inmates housed in maximum security facilitiesHistory of violence, murderers, violent sex offenders
California State Prison, SacramentoRepresaHouses the Condemned Inmate Complex with death rowInmates sentenced to death or life without parole

These Level 4 prisons confine California’s most dangerous inmates that require intense security and isolation from other incarcerated populations and correctional staff. The restrictive conditions are due to extensive violent criminal histories and proven institutional misbehavior.

What Are Some of the Unique Challenges Posed by Higher Security Inmates and Facilities?

Managing maximum and supermax security prisons comes with many unique challenges compared to lower level facilities:

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Constant Threat of Violence

Inmates with violent histories confined in close quarters pose dangers to staff and each other on a daily basis inside higher security prisons. Assaults, stabbings, fights, and even homicides occur at increased rates compared to lower level prisons. Extensive security protocols and features like controlled movements are required to try to prevent violence.

Gang Activity and Disruptions

Prison gangs wield enormous power in higher security prisons, often calling shots from within SHUs. Controlling gang communications, intelligence gathering, and disruptive protests or actions directed by incarcerated gang leaders requires constant effort and awareness.

Mental Health Issues

Many maximum security inmates suffer greater rates of mental illness that require counseling, therapy, and psychiatric medications. Providing proper mental health treatment in restrictive environments is challenging for prison staff and healthcare workers.

Excessive Use of Force Concerns

More security threats lead correctional officers to resort to force more often through pepper spray, batons, physical restraints, tear gas, and firearms as a last resort. Excessive use of force allegations by inmates are not uncommon in maximum security prisons.

Smuggling Contraband

Getting weapons, drugs, cellphones, and other illicit items into higher security prisons for inmates looking to continue criminal activities or violence can be an ongoing problem. Corrupt staff and dishonest visitors are the main sources that require stringent visiting and employment screening.

High Operational Costs

The extensive security infrastructure, staffing, and logistical needs make supermax prisons extremely expensive to construct and operate annually. Housing the state’s most dangerous inmates comes at a very high price for California’s correctional system.

A Summary of Notable Level 5 Facilities such as Pelican Bay State Prison

California’s only current Level 5 supermax facility is Pelican Bay State Prison located in Crescent City near the Oregon border. Here are some key facts about Pelican Bay:

  • Opened in 1989, designed for long-term solitary confinement
  • About 2,000 inmates, many serving indeterminate SHU sentences
  • Housed some of state’s most dangerous maximum security inmates
  • 8ft thick reinforced concrete walls, lethal electrified fences
  • 1,280 windowless solitary cells, electronically controlled doors
  • Constant camera, alarm and correctional officer monitoring
  • Severely restricted inmate movements and access to anything
  • Hundreds of violent incidents since opening, multiple homicides
  • Subject of lawsuits and controversy over solitary confinement policies
  • Criticized by human rights groups as inhumane treatment

Pelican Bay is reserved for inmates with repeated serious disciplinary infractions at other high security prisons. They are confined to solitary cells for 22-23 hours per day under intense supervision and restrictions. It is the highest form of incarceration in California’s prison system.

What Kinds of Changes Have Been Proposed for Higher Security Prisons in California?

Several reform proposals have been made over the years to improve conditions at Level 4 and Level 5 maximum security prisons in California:

Limiting Solitary Confinement

Human rights advocates have called for limits on solitary confinement sentences in SHUs to no more than 1-2 years to avoid lasting mental damage. Prisoner lawsuits have led to some reductions in SHU terms already.

Increasing Out-of-Cell Time

Increasing daily out-of-cell time for exercise, therapy, education, and rehabilitation programs could help improve outcomes, reduce violence, and prepare inmates for lower security imprisonment.

Independent Oversight

Some have argued for independent civilian oversight committees with access rights to investigate abuses, monitor conditions, and propose reforms at high security prisons away from CDCR control.

Improved Mental Health Care

Adding more mental health staffing and access to treatment programs tailored to inmates with behavioral disorders could lower tensions and help reduce isolation-related issues.

Staffing Increases

Higher staff-to-inmate ratios allowing for more direct supervision and interactions with inmates could improve safety and access to positive programming.

Restrictive Housing Reforms

Policies to limit certain vulnerable populations like the mentally ill from restrictive housing and routine review of SHU placement could reduce isolation.

Prison Culture Changes

Emphasizing rehabilitation, positive incentives over punishment, increased staff training, and modern conflict resolution tactics could help make high security prisons safer.


California employs a multi-tiered classification system to incarcerate inmates at varying security levels matching their criminal histories and potential risks. More dangerous inmates serving long sentences for violent crimes are confined to the restrictive conditions of Level 4 and Level 5 maximum security facilities. While these prisons are expensive to operate and pose unique challenges, reforms have been proposed over time to try to improve conditions for both staff and inmates. As attitudes evolve on issues like solitary confinement, further changes to policies and operations at Pelican Bay and other high security prisons seem likely.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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