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Profiling inmates by custody level.

In June 1990, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics carried out the nation's fourth census of state and federal correctional institutions. In the summer of 1991, BJS conducted a nationally representative sample survey of nearly 14,000 offenders held in state prisons. At the same time, the Federal Bureau of Prisons carried out a similar sample survey of its inmates. Together, the census and the surveys offer the most comprehensive information ever gathered on correctional facilities and offender populations.

The 1990 Census found that the 957 state prisons contained 298,213 housing units (cells, rooms and dormitories used as sleeping space), which contained 37,518,751 square feet of housing space and housed 640,991 inmates. This equals an average of 670 inmates per prison, 2.15 inmates per housing unit and 56 square feet of housing space per prisoner (excluding space in infirmaries and other places not used for regular inmate housing).

For each housing unit, state prison officials were asked to designate the unit's security grade. Maximum security housing accounted for 25.8 percent of all prison housing space, holding 26.8 percent of all inmates. Medium security used 48.8 percent of all housing space, holding 49 percent of all inmates. Minimum security used 25.4 percent of housing space, holding 24.5 percent of all inmates. On average, maximum security inmates spent 18.5 hours per day in their housing space, compared with 12.7 hours per day for those in medium security and 11.3 hours per day for those in minimum security.

In 1984, BJS conducted a similar prison census in which it found there were 694 state prisons containing 180,468 housing units providing about 22 million square feet of housing space for 381,955 inmates. Compared with 1984, prisoners in 1990 had about 1 square foot less of housing space. About the same average number of people shared a housing unit in 1984 and 1990.

In 1990, prisoners were less likely to be in maximum security housing than in 1984. The percentage in maximum security housing dropped from about a third of all inmates in 1984 to about a quarter in 1990.

The number of staff working in prisons increased at a faster rate than did the number of inmates being housed. Between 1984 and 1990, the number of staff increased more than 70 percent from 140,959 to 240,307, compared with a 68 percent increase in the number of inmates.

The 1991 inmate survey, which included interviews with nearly 14,000 inmates representing the 711,643 prisoners in state facilities, yielded a security grade distribution that was nearly identical to the 1990 census. It found that 26.1 percent of all inmates were in maximum security, 49.4 percent were in medium security, and 22.9 percent were in minimum security housing. (An additional 1.7 percent of the sample was in unclassified housing.) Through the survey, it is possible to analyze the background factors that distinguish the types of offenders held in each security grade and describe the differences in activities in each type of housing.

Table 1 shows the most serious current offense for inmates held in each security grade. Maximum security inmates are about twice as likely as those in minimum security to have been convicted of a violent offense and about half as likely to have been convicted of a drug offense. About one in five maximum security inmates had been convicted of murder, compared with about one in 11 medium security and about one in 16 minimum security inmates.


In terms of the absence or presence of a prior criminal history, those in minimum security housing were not substantially different from those in medium and maximum security-inmates in the two higher security grades were slightly more likely to have had three or more prior convictions or incarcerations (See Table 2). Those in minimum security housing were slightly more likely to have been on probation or parole at the time of their admission, though the majority entered for new convictions rather than for technical violations.


Not surprisingly, criminal history data reveal that the prevalence of violence varies directly with the security level of the inmates' housing: about three-fourths of maximum security inmates had a current or past history of convictions for violent crimes, compared with less than half of those in minimum security (See Table 3).


Inmates housed in maximum, medium or minimum security are demographically similar (See Table 4). There were few racial/ethnic differences, though Hispanic prisoners and prisoners aged 24 or less accounted for a slightly higher percentage of those in minimum security housing. No differences were noted in the categories of marital status, education or prior employment.


The illegal use of drugs in the month preceding the arrest that led to incarceration also was similar among inmates residing in each type of housing (See Table 5). About half the inmates in each security level had used drugs prior to arrest, about a quarter of each group reported prior use of a needle to inject drugs, and between 15 to 18 percent of the three groups reported they had committed their crime to obtain money to buy illegal drugs.


The survey did reveal substantial differences in the levels of participation in drug treatment: While about 25 percent of those in maximum security had received drug abuse treatment since admission, about 32 percent in medium and 43 percent in minimum security reported having received such treatment. Minimum security inmates were about twice as likely as maximum security inmates to have participated in group counseling for drug abuse.

The higher level of freedom of movement in lower security-graded housing was evident in the extent of inmate participation in programs and activities. Table 6 shows that while 32 percent of minimum security prisoners reported participation in at least five separate programs or activities since admission, about 22 percent of those in medium security and 17 percent in maximum security reported involvement in five or more activities or programs. Inmates at all security levels were about equally likely to have participated in some type of prisoner-organized activity, religious activity or counseling program. Vocational training and education programs, however, had somewhat higher participation levels among minimum security inmates than among others.


Overall, 43 percent of state prisoners were estimated to have been convicted of at least one institutional rule violation since admission (See Table 7). Rule violations were more prevalent among maximum security inmates - about 53 percent reported having violated facility rules at least once, compared with 40 percent of medium security and 37 percent of minimum security inmates. In all three security grades, the most prevalent rule violations were for physical assault on another inmate (20 percent of maximum security, 11 percent of medium security, and 8 percent of minimum security inmates) followed by verbal abuse of staff (15 percent of maximum security, 10 percent of medium security and 6 percent of minimum security inmates). An estimated 8 percent of maximum security inmates reported at least one conviction for an assault on a staff member compared with 3 percent of all other prisoners.


Among state prisoners convicted of rules violations, the most commonly imposed penalties were solitary confinement, loss of good-time and loss of privileges. Solitary confinement was more frequently used to punish rules violations in maximum and medium security housing, while loss of specific privileges, such as commissary or visiting privileges, was most commonly used in minimum security. Loss of work assignments was more extensively used for rules violations by maximum security inmates, while assignment to extra work was more commonly used in minimum security.


1984 Census of State Adult Correctional Facilities. August 1987. BJS, U.S. Department of Justice.

Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 1990. May 1992. BJS, U.S. Department of Justice.

Correctional Populations in the United States, 1990. July 1992. BJS, U.S. Department of Justice.

Population Density in State Prisons. December 1986. BJS, U.S. Department of Justice.

Prisons and Prisoners in the United States. April 1992. BJS, U.S. Department of Justice.

Survey of State Prison Inmates, 1991. Spring 1993. BJS, U.S. Department of Justice.
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Author:Greenfeld, Lawrence A.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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