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What is Federal Prison?

The federal prison system, also known as the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), is responsible for housing and rehabilitating individuals convicted of federal crimes in the United States. Federal prisons are operated by the U.S. government and overseen by the Department of Justice.

Key Facts About Federal Prisons

Here are some key facts about federal prisons in the U.S.:

  • There are 122 federal prisons in operation as of September 2023. These include penitentiaries, correctional institutions, prison camps, and medical centers.
  • The BOP has jurisdiction over more than 200,000 inmates. This represents approximately 10% of the total U.S. prison population.
  • The majority of federal inmates are housed in high-security facilities. These include administrative maximum, high-security, and medium-security institutions.
  • Minimum-security federal prison camps house the lowest risk offenders. These inmates often provide labor and services to the larger institutions.
  • The average annual cost to house an inmate in the federal prison system is around $37,000 per year. The total BOP budget is over $7 billion annually.
  • Federal prisons employ around 36,000 full-time correctional workers. There is roughly a 10 to 1 inmate to staff ratio system-wide.
  • The average sentence served in federal prison is 62 months or just over 5 years. This is considerably longer than the average state prison sentence of 21 months.
  • Drug trafficking, weapons, and immigration offenses make up the majority of federal inmate convictions. Other major offenses include sex crimes, fraud, and racketeering.
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Types of Federal Prisons

The BOP classifies federal prisons into several different facility types based on security levels and inmate housing configurations:

Administrative Facilities

These house inmates requiring the highest level of security and supervision. They maintain very strict controls over inmate communications and movements. The BOP’s only administrative maximum facility is ADX Florence in Colorado.

High Security Prisons

Also known as United States Penitentiaries (USPs), high security institutions have reinforced perimeters with walls or double fences. They house violent offenders with longer criminal histories. Inmates at high security prisons have their movements and interactions severely restricted.

Medium Security Prisons

These are known as Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs) and have strengthened perimeters but allow more inmate privileges. Most federal inmates are housed in medium security facilities. They provide work and program opportunities to help reduce recidivism.

Low Security Prisons

Called Federal Prison Camps (FPCs), these minimum security facilities house the lowest risk offenders. Inmates live in dorm-style housing and can work outside the perimeter. Approximately 20% of federal inmates are held at minimum security prisons.

Administrative Facilities with Special Missions

A handful of federal prisons have specialized missions beyond standard incarceration. These include treatment centers for inmates requiring long-term medical or mental health care. Others house specific populations like pre-trial defendants or civil confinement detainees.

Life Inside Federal Prisons

Living conditions and inmate experiences can vary greatly between different federal prison facilities:


Most federal inmates are housed in cell blocks with barred doors and shared common areas. Higher security facilities use celled housing exclusively, while lower security institutions utilize dormitories. Medical centers maintain hospital-style wards for inmate patients.

Work & Education

Inmates are encouraged to work and participate in rehabilitative programs. Prisons operate industrial work programs, including manufacturing goods like clothing or furniture. Inmates can also complete vocational training and earn academic degrees up to a bachelor’s level.


All federal prisons provide basic medical, dental, and mental healthcare. More extensive services including surgery, specialized treatments, and long-term care are available at designated medical centers. Telehealth services help increase access to medical providers.


Family and friends can visit during set hours, with higher security prisons having more restrictive policies. In-person visits may also be replaced with video visits. Inmate phone access and email systems keep incarcerated individuals connected with loved ones.

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Commissary & Services

Inmates can purchase food, clothing, electronics, and personal items through the prison commissary. Other services like laundry, email access, educational programming, and recreation activities are available. Access is a privilege that can be restricted for disciplinary reasons.

Federal Prison Locations

The BOP maintains federal prisons spread across the geographic regions of the United States. Certain states, especially in the South, contain a higher number of federal institutions.

Table 1. Number of federal prisons by state as of September 2023:

StateNumber of Federal Prisons
New Jersey3
New York8
North Carolina8
South Carolina6
West Virginia2

Federal Prison Population Statistics

The makeup of the federal prison population includes inmates of diverse backgrounds and conviction offenses:

  • Gender: 93% male and 7% female inmates
  • Race: 59% Hispanic/Latino, 37% Black, 27% White, and 2% other races
  • Age: Average age of federal inmates is 40 years old
  • Citizenship: 72% U.S. citizens and 28% non-citizens
  • Convictions: 46% drug offenses, 12% weapons offenses, 10% immigration crimes, 9% sex offenses, 7% fraud, 5% violent crimes, and 11% other
  • Sentences: 55% inmates have sentences over 10 years, 30% between 5-10 years, and 15% under 5 years

Life After Release From Federal Prison

The BOP aims to help inmates successfully rejoin society after serving their time:

  • Reentry Preparation: Prisons offer resume writing, job readiness, financial planning, computer skills, parenting, and other programs to prepare for release.
  • Supervision: Most former federal inmates serve a term of community supervision overseen by a probation officer after release.
  • Employment Assistance: The federal probation system works to connect former inmates with job training and employment opportunities.
  • Housing Assistance: The BOP coordinates with transitional housing providers to secure housing arrangements prior to an inmate’s release.
  • Continued Treatment: Medical, mental health, and substance abuse treatment programs initiated during incarceration can continue post-release.
  • Recidivism Rates: BOP statistics show that 44.7% of federal inmates are rearrested within 5 years, with a 19.1% reincarceration rate in federal prisons.
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Frequently Asked Questions About Federal Prisons

Here are answers to some common questions about federal prisons and inmates:

What is the difference between federal prisons and state prisons?

Federal prisons house inmates convicted of violating federal laws while state prisons incarcerate those who commit crimes under state law. The BOP oversees the federal system while each state has its own department of corrections.

Do federal inmates have parole?

There is no parole option in the federal prison system. Inmates must serve a minimum of 85% of their sentence before being eligible for release if they maintain good behavior. Some exceptions can be made by a judge at sentencing to reduce the 85% minimum.

Can federal inmates earn early release?

Under the First Step Act passed in 2018, federal inmates can earn time credits for participating in recidivism reduction programming. These credits of up to 15 days per year can be used to qualify for early transfer to community supervision.

What kinds of communication are allowed for federal inmates?

Inmates can send and receive postal mail and use monitored email systems. Phone calls are permitted but limited in number and duration, especially for inmates at higher security levels. Prison visits provide valuable face-to-face interaction with approved friends and family.

How do federal prisons address inmates with mental illness?

Specialized Residential Treatment Programs at select locations provide intensive mental health treatment. All prisons maintain staff psychologist and psychiatrists, with access to medications, therapy, and crisis intervention services.

What is the Central Inmate Monitoring System?

This BOP program oversees communication monitoring and threat assessment activities to control the underlying behaviors of specific inmates like terrorists or domestic and foreign intelligence threats.


While federal prisons represent a small subset of correctional institutions in the United States, they play an important role in administering justice for higher level federal crimes. The Federal Bureau of Prisons continues to balance its challenging mission through humane treatment of inmates, progressive rehabilitation initiatives, focus on successful reentry, and maintaining safe operations. The system provides a structured environment for offenders to serve their sentences, while working to help them gain skills and treatment to reduce recidivism after release.

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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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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