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It is a trope that when powerful/rich people are sentenced, they are sent to cushy, low-security prisons (think The Wolf of Wall Street).

However, in my book, I'd like a certain character to be sent to a medium-security prison. The only problem is, they're the kind of person that the aforementioned trope applies to. They're a wealthy politician with a lot of influence, and they would certainly do everything in their power to rather wind up in a low-security prison.

That gives the context for my question; what circumstances could lead to a powerful person not being able to weasel their way into a low-security prison?

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  • 1
    Isn't the trope based around white collar crimes? I'd surmise that violent crimes (EG stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody) could change the sentencing depending on how extreme the crime was.
    – Peter M
    Aug 2, 2023 at 15:36
  • Related denverpost.com/2023/08/02/…
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 3, 2023 at 1:30

2 Answers 2

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Short Answer

They're a wealthy politician with a lot of influence, and they would certainly do everything in their power to rather wind up in a low-security prison.

The easiest way to do it would be to have a sentence of more than twenty but less than thirty years imposed because of a very large dollar amount fraud involving a great many victims (e.g. a large Ponzi scheme). Espionage is another plausible charge that could have the same sort of sentence length.

This would send them to a medium-security prison despite a lack of "points" from offense severity, a prior criminal record, or a history of violence, lack of gang involvement, or an absence of a prior escape attempt.

Long answer

Each U.S. state has its own system.

In the U.S. federal criminal justice system, a convicted felon's assignment to a particular prison is a decision made by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, after the defendant has been sentenced by a federal judge for a particular sentence length for a particular crime. The FBP states that:

The Bureau of Prisons shall designate the place of the prisoner's imprisonment, and shall, subject to bed availability, the prisoner's security designation, the prisoner's programmatic needs, the prisoner's mental and medical health needs, any request made by the prisoner related to faith- based needs, recommendations of the sentencing court, and other security concerns of the Bureau of Prisons, place the prisoner in a facility as close as practicable to the prisoner's primary residence, and to the extent practicable, in a facility within 500 driving miles of that residence.

It is quite an involved process and set of rules. And, there is necessarily flexibility in the system to reflect the availability of prison space at the time of assignment.

The overall context is as follows, according to a source writing as of November 2017 (the same source has at times had an online calculator helping people to predict an assignment):

The Federal Bureau of Prisons confines 184,855 people. About 83% of those people, or 154,844 inmates, serve their time inside Bureau of Prisons facilities. The other people serve their time in privately managed prisons or other types of facilities. Males make up more than 93% of the federal prison population. Those people serve sentences in the following types of security levels:

Minimum-security Federal Prison Camps: 32,189 people, or about 17% of the population

Low-security Federal Correctional Institutions: 69,437 people, or about 37% of the population

Medium-security Federal Correctional Institutions: 55,377 or about 30% of the population

High-security United States Penitentiaries: 21,524 people, or about 12% of the population

Unclassified: 6,980 people, or about 4% of the population

The full federal BOP policy is here which notes that:

The review process to assign a custody level based on an inmate’s criminal history, instant offense, and institutional adjustment. A custody level (i.e., COMMUNITY, OUT, IN, and MAXIMUM) dictates the degree of staff supervision required for an individual inmate.

The key table in the rules is below. It is somewhat hard to interpret without the larger context, but is the closest thing to an overall assignment key that exists in the rules. Basically, the left column lists a point score, which provides a default assignment, and each box has exceptions to the usual point score rules:

enter image description here

Medium security inmates either have 0-15 points with a prior serious escape attempt or a sentence of 20 years or more remaining, or 16-23 points. But they have less than 24 points, less than 30 years of their sentence remaining, are not part of a disruptive group (read hard core gang member) and have not been involved in a prison disturbance. The circumstances that gets someone to 16-23 points are not simple to describe succinctly.

Another source explains the factors involved (PSR is the pre-sentencing report presented to the judge before ruling on a sentence in the case):

  1. Voluntary surrender to custody. Where a court permits a defendant to voluntarily surrender to BOP custody for service of an initial term of confinement (not supervised release violation), three points are subtracted from the security point total.

  2. Severity of current offense. Appendix A to Program Statement 5100.08 contains a scale of various offense behaviors, and the Designation Manual provides a corresponding point assignment for assessed severity. When evaluating offense severity, staff consider the most severe documented behavior, as set forth in the PSR, not necessarily the offense of conviction.

This ranges from 0-7. The key for assigning this score starts at page 97 of the pdf linked.

  1. Criminal history score. Points are assigned based on an offender’s criminal history points, taken from the judgment’s statement of reasons or, if not found there, from the PSR. Scoring does not factor in whether the court found a defendant’s points over – or underrepresent criminal history.

This ranges from 0-10 based upon the criminal history score assigned at sentencing. If it is absent the BOP will (per the rule linked above):

(a)Add 3 points for each prior sentence of imprisonment exceeding one year and one month;

(b)Add 2 points for each prior sentence of imprisonment of at least sixty days not counted in (a);

(c)Add 1 point for each prior conviction not counted in (a) or (b), up to a total of 4 points for this item; and,

(d)Add 2 points if the instant offense is a revocation accompanied by a new state or federal conviction, or if the instant offense occurred while under federal supervision including incarceration, probation, parole or supervised release.

This together with the severity of the crime are major factors.

  1. History of violence. In assessing the violent nature of prior documented findings of guilt (convictions and supervised release violations), policy distinguishes between “serious” and “minor” incidents as well as time relative to when the case is being reviewed. This category does not factor in the instant offense and can change over time based on an offender’s institutional adjustment (i.e., violence in the BOP can result in assignment of points).

The rule provides with regard to this factor:

enter image description here

  1. History of escape or attempts. Acts for which there are documented findings of guilt, including absconding from community supervision or failing to appear for a criminal case, will be scored.

  2. Detainers. Points are scored for detainers, including both those actually lodged and where law enforcement indicates a firm intent to lodge one. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers are not scored. Age. Given the correlation between age (youth) and negative institutional adjustment, points are assigned, with inmates under 24 years old receiving eight points and inmates over 55 receiving none.

  3. Education level. Where the PSR verifies a high school degree or GED, no points are assigned. Where neither is verified, two points are assessed.

  4. Drug/alcohol abuse. Where the PSR documents a defendant’s drug or alcohol abuse within the past five years, one point is assessed. If there is no known abuse or abuse more than five years old, no points are added.

An inmate’s security point total corresponds to a security level from which staff determine facility placement. However, security point total is not dispositive. The application of a public safety factor (PSF) or a management variable can impact the placement decision. The application of a PSF, which is not confined to evidence of convictions, is intended to address information suggesting a need for greater security precautions. Examples include sentence length, removable alien status, sex offender status, and threat to a government official. Management variables are grounded in the “professional judgment of bureau staff” and are used to effectuate an inmate’s placement at a facility inconsistent with the inmate’s scored security level. This most commonly occurs when an inmate poses either a greater or lesser security risk than his or her assigned security level denotes or to facilitate program participation (e.g., permit completion of residential drug treatment despite a drop in security level).

It is also worth noting that the federal criminal justice system, generally speaking, deals disproportionately with lower risk felons committing white collar crimes and immigration offenses, while state criminal justice systems generally deals with higher risk felons who have mostly committed "blue collar" crimes, often violent ones.

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Prisoner placements are risk-managed by the HM Prison Service (i.e. not the court or police etc) according to the:

  • risk of escape

  • harm to the public, if they were to escape

  • threat to the control and stability of a prison

Source: Your A-D guide on prison categories

Setting aside bribery, corruption and undue influences the obvious way to prevent your character from weaseling out of being placed at a lower category prison is to prevent them from manipulating the risk assessment - for example, they could try to get downgraded by:

  • feigning being an exemplary model prisoner demonstrating good behaviour

  • making a show of passing on their financial/legal (or even political?) knowledge and skills by actively educating other inmates

One option to counter these weasel-tactics would be to introduce a sceptical character, potentially with inside information, intent on scuppering their plans. But I digress towards being off-topic.


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