Classifying A Prisoner

This represents the first in a series of periodic posts in which I explain some facet of the prison system which may be helpful in understanding my stories and, as a result, the penal system as a whole. Feel free to post questions in the comments section.


Perhaps you’ve read a couple of my posts and found yourself wondering how it is that I came to be living with men who were convicted of seriously violent, and at times, heinous crimes. I’m not talking about what I did personally to land in the clinker. We can save that for another post. What I’m talking about is how it is that the California Department of Corrections (and Rehabilitation) decides which prisoners will go where and who they should or shouldn’t live with.

The first thing we need to think about are the four basic security levels that characterize the prisons in California. They are conveniently labeled Levels 1, 2, 3, and 4 in ascending order from low security to high security.

Level 3 and 4 are both what can be termed maximum security. In both cases, the prison has a secure perimeter fence or wall, inmates are housed in cell blocks, and there are armed guards in nearly every location of the prison, including the cell blocks, chow halls, and on the yard. The principal classificatory difference between Levels 3 and 4 lies in the locations of the cell blocks. In a Level 3 prison, the cell blocks can be adjacent to a perimeter wall and in a Level 4 they cannot. Obviously, this relates to the security of the prison and the types of prisoners the CDCR wishes to house there. But we’ll get to that in a bit. Old Folsom, where I lived for a couple of years and the subject of many of the stories on this blog, was a Level 3 prison when I was there.

Level 2 prisons are typically called medium security. Prisoners usually live in open space dormitories instead of cell blocks. There is usually an armed, secure perimeter fence and there may or may not be armed guards in the common spaces (but never in the actual housing areas). Sometimes, the back side of the housing units are actually part of the prison walls, as they were at the Level 2 in Jamestown, where I spent a handful months in 2009.

Level 1 prisons are minimum security. Inmates live in dormitories and there may or may not be a perimeter fence. There are no armed guards at a Level 1 facility. Sometimes, Level 1 prisons are called ‘camps’, as they often look more like the summer camp facilities we may have been to as a child rather than prisons. I spent 3 years in a Level 1 fire camp in Southern California, a facility reserved for inmates who are part of the state-wide wild land firefighting program. (Yes, California inmates fight fires.) The camp I lived in had had no walls, no fence, nothing physically preventing the residents from walking away from their prison sentence. Fire camps are a world unto themselves and I will be writing some personal stories about my time in one.

There are other types of prison sub-classifications which aren’t entirely necessary for understanding the inmate classification process, but I’ll briefly mention them. There are protective custody prisons for inmates who would be in danger if they were part of the general population. Also called “SNY’s” (Sensitive Needs Yards), these prisons house everyone from sex offenders to gang drop-outs to snitches to people who got themselves into too much trouble with other inmates in the general population. They have all four prison levels just like the general population, but I don’t know much else about them because I never lived in one.

Many people have also heard of the “SHU” (Secure Housing Unit), most commonly referred to as solitary confinement in the media and elsewhere.  The SHU, pronounced “shoe”, could be thought of as a Level 5 if there were one, and inmates have to earn the ability to live in one. There is a lot of controversy about when, if, and how inmates should be housed in these facilities, but the philosophy of the CDCR is that the SHU is supposed to hold inmates who would present a persistent danger to other inmates if they remained in the general population. Think of it as a prison within the prison. Again, there are a lot of problems with the SHU program but I won’t be getting into that here.

That’s the gist of it. Four levels, minimum to maximum, with the idealized segregation of the really dangerous and really endangered. But what determines which of these types of prisons a person will eventually come to live in? That is where inmate classification comes in to play.

When a person first gets to prison, he (or she) is sent from the county jail to a state prison designated as a reception center. While a prisoner is in reception, he will be locked in his cell 24 hours a day, with the exception of a few hours at the yard per week, while prison staff gathers all of his criminal history into a file in order to determine where to send him. This process can take a little as thirty days, if you’re lucky, and as much nine months, if you’re really unlucky. It usually takes about 3 months. Why it takes this long at all is beyond me, though I suspect it has something to do with the fact that the California prison system still uses paper for everything. Everything. Hence, they have to wait for documents to be retrieved, copied, mailed, delivered, compiled, and refiled before staff can try to make sense of it.

Basically, an inmate’s designation to a prison level comes as the result of a classification score. This classification score is the sum of a number of weighted factors that the CDCR deems to be a threat or security potential. These factors include, but are not limited to, the length of the prison term, the age of the inmate, the number of previous prison terms, gang affiliation, or recent violence against staff or inmates. I’ll use my own initial classification when I was in reception at DVI-Tracy, as an example.

Age at first arrest. 10 points. This is a measure of delinquency. Because I was 18 years old the first time I was arrested, I received the second highest score for this particular measure. Zero points are assessed for a person whose first arrest was after 36, and 12 points are assessed for a person who was arrested for a felony prior to 18. My point total = 10 points.

Age at reception. 6 points. This is the measure of testosterone; the younger the man the greater the threat potential. I was 26 at the time of reception. Eighteen year-olds get 8 points, 36 year-olds get none. My point total = 16 points.

Length of prison term, doubled. 28 points. This is clearly the measure of apathy; the longer the term the more somebody just doesn’t give a fuck. My sentence was 14 years and 4 months, so I had a pretty good bump in points because of this one. My point total = 44 points.

Gang / disruptive group. 0 points. This is fairly self-explanatory.

Mental illness. 0 points. This is an interesting one. A diagnosis with any serious mental illness raises the CDCR’s assessment of threat potential.

Prior jail sentence. 0 points. I actually should’ve gotten a point for this one, but I guess they didn’t read my file well enough.

Prior prison sentence. 1 point. They didn’t miss this one though. I think they are trying to measure whether an inmate has learned the system well-enough to manipulate it. More sentences would equal more manipulative skills. My point total = 45 points.

And that’s where I stood after classification. 45 points. There are other factors that are assessed on a case-by-case basis, such as recent disciplinary behavior, but none of that applied to me. Determining what level prison I would go to was fairly simple after this process had been completed. 0-19 points is Level 1, 20-29 points is Level 2, 30-49 points is Level 3, and 50+ points is Level 4. I was a Level 3 prisoner and was sent to Folsom State Prison in Represa, CA.

Let’s unpack this a little bit. So, I was a nonviolent offender who, because of my prior record and strict recidivism laws in California, received a fairly long sentence. There are plenty of people who might’ve received 5 or 10 years for a violent crime but, because they had no prior prison sentences or were older when they were first arrested, ended up at a Level 2 yard. Similarly, there are plenty of instances in which youngsters getting arrested for relatively minor, nonviolent felonies end up on the Level 3 yard due to the testosterone and delinquency measures. This, alone, means that violent and nonviolent offenders are going to be housed together, but it doesn’t explain why nonviolent offenders would share space with people who received really long sentences, such as murderers.

This happens because of good and bad behavior. Every disciplinary-free year a person spends in prison drops his classification score 4 points (if he is not working) or 8 points (if he is working). Thus, a man convicted of murder may start out with something like 90 points but could find his way onto a Level 3 yard within 10 or 15 years. And, moving in the other direction, bad behavior gets rewarded with additional classification points. Get in a fight, 6 points. Multiple contraband write-ups, 4 points. It only takes a couple of measly tattoo or tobacco write-ups to push a nonviolent offender in a Level 2 prison onto the same yard as that lifer who made his way down to Level 3.

And this is why any given prison is a melting pot of offender types. Of course, Level 4’s will always tend to have the most lifers and the most violent criminals, just like Level 1’s will always tend to have the greatest proportion of nonviolent offenders. It is at the Level 2 and 3’s where you will see the largest variety of offenders and, unfortunately, these are the two levels that most prisoners begin their sentences at. As such, almost every inmate, no matter what they ended up in prison for, must first learn to navigate the social minefield of the higher security level prisons. This is, of course, where people often get ruined.

Note: this classification scheme refers specifically to the way I was classified in 2006 and the way inmates continued to be classified until at least 2012 (when I paroled). It is my understanding that new state laws have impacted the way that inmates are classified, specifically, the number of points that determine which level prison an inmate will be housed at.

11 thoughts on “Classifying A Prisoner

  1. I have a feeling I’m going to know a whole lot more snout the prison system before you’re through. I’m sure it’s even more perplexing than juvenile justice where I had experience as a counselor and teacher.

  2. Do you suppose it has ever occurred to DOC that there could be a more effective and safer means of classification? Your essay makes clear that DOC is creating situations with dangerous scenarios that could be prevented. They must know that and do not correct the circumstances. Tragic.

    1. As much as I’d like to say I have the solution to the classification problem, I really don’t. It wouldn’t be as simple as keeping nonviolent offenders away from violent offenders because, in my opinion, the controlling offense not that great of an indicator of behavior on the inside.

  3. I thought SHU was repealed in NY and CA as inhumane in a recent election. Besides that I feel working and steering clear of violations should be credited somehow. A violent offender who can pull this off means they can control their impulsivity enough to warrant a drop in security. But non-violent offenders should be housed away from them anyway.

    1. I haven’t heard anything about the SHU being banned. I think I would’ve noticed that on the ballot, and it certainly would’ve been a major event if it were the case.

  4. Great BLOGS!. Having went through my indoctrination through Wasco-RC then on to bigger and better things. Also, you are right they did have a big lawsuit passed by the high courts that let a lot of people out who I believe were in the SHU for 10 years or Longer into the step down program, which is a whold different thing. And I believe they put a cap on the SHU years in CA, I think it is now 6, and infraction free. But, in California anyway, our 3 SHUs are filling back up at this moment(Tehachapi, Corcoran, PB). But besides me getting sidetracked, we all know how the points work for ourselves and our friends, but rarely do i see someone explain so well and the issues. And then you have the people that fall through the cracks. And it does happen. My buddy, did his second term in Calipatria, its just seemed that it was so crowded, that where there was a bed some people went. Another one ended up in Corcoran, 4 yard, on his first committment. He was only doing a nickel. So I know it is rare but it happens. And in California, I believe the nature of the beast is to always self-segregate. You have a gift Matt, it is to paint a picture of the inside to people on the outside. And just to let you know, well, you probably already know, you will still be judged by these very close=minded people who really don’t believe THE FACT there really are good people who wind up in prison. And you know what, they are your next door neighbor, they are your former teachers, lawyers, and millionaires. When I first starting going to County Jails down in Southern California, the first think I took note of was how many white, middle class people were in there. But you always only here of the disparity in numbers and yes, that is very sad. It should not be that way, but I must say there is a movement toward making prisons nationwide a more rehabilitative means of the system. But the Federal Prison System has more of these SHUs, SMUs, ADXs than any state prison. Thank you again Matt, for your great reporting and autobiographical account. You could be that leader to change things, because when I was in there it was a bit tense, and i can take care of myself, and the politics were always changing as you know depending on where you went next. But Thanx. Im so glad I found your site.

  5. Thanks for your very clear & complete explanation. I had no idea that was how placement was done. It makes it much easier to understand why some of the violence that we read about can happen. Like the previous poster said you have a real gift with language & storytelling, and I’m glad to see you’ve created this space to explore it.
    FYI, I’m here via the Marshall Project and absolutely loved your post about your contraband veggies. Could almost taste them. Plus, I’d never given it much thought that there might not be veggies in prison.
    Best of luck

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