Prison Classification

Custody Placement and Escapes
  1992 1994 1996 1998 1999
Minimum-security placements (%) 12.0 27.3 25.1 32.7 37.5
Inmate escape risk 13.1 10.4 2.8 3.0 4.5
*source: Correctional Services Canada

Proper classification is crucial to the efficient and safe operation of any prison facility. Offenders are heterogeneous, and possess a variety of behavioural styles and treatment needs, in varying states of mental health. Because many prisoners are incompatible with either their immediate prison environment or the people they share their living space with, proper classification can reduce prison infractions and maintain a safer environment for both inmates and staff. Because intake units face both a large number and a large variety of cases, and because the law requires institutions to administer the least restrictive form of punishment to an offender while securing his or her safety, objective classification measures are used. Not only can proper, evidence-based placement reduce the number of inmates in expensive maximum-security facilities, but it can also reduce the escape risk by placing offender only in compatible environments. See the chart above.

To give a better idea of mental health needs among offenders, consider that nearly 40% of inmates in custody in state prisons were judged to have "psychological problems warranting treatment" by Department of Corrections staff in a study conducted by Hartstone et al (1999). Moreover, almost 50% of staff, when interviewed, believed that too few inmates were referred for mental health treatment in prisons. In practice, many correctional staff members believe they overlook mentally-disordered inmates either because they are not sufficiently trained in clinical assessment, or because there are so many aggressive, violent, and otherwise disruptive, non-disordered "problem" inmates that demand the staff's attention. Once a prison psychiatrist recommends an inmate be transferred to a mental health or medical facility for further evaluation or treatment, it is very rare that his or her decision will be reversed, so it is important to determine that placement and classification is done right the first time. In addition, inmates have little control, through their use of procedural safeguards, over the transfer process. This is despite the fact that the US Supreme Court requires independent reviews of inmate hospitalizations to ensure the integrity of proper placement.

Inmates Judged to Have Mental Health Problems by Staff1

Seriously Mentally Ill Mental Health Problem Needing Treatment
Staff Location Mean (%) N (Staff) Mean (%) N (Staff)
Central Offices 4.3 9 30.6 8
Mental Health Facilities 6.2 25 42.3 29
State Prisons 5.9 23 34.4 24
Total 5.8 57 37.7 61

The process of prison classification grew naturally out of socio-economic developments in the US during the 1950's, specifically toward greater specialized workforces in the prison (including physicians, psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, sociologists, and social workers), more government-funding, and a finer understanding of rehabilitation practices and the "medicalization" of the offender. This gradually led to the general offender lifecycle as we know it today: 1) sentencing, 2) intake, 3) diagnostics, 4) classification, 5) treatment, and 6) release (Irwin, 1980. Prisons in Turmoil).

The process of prison classification encompasses several different stages, including Intake Assessment, Initial Classification, Placement, and Reclassification.

Initial Assessment

Initial Assessment and Intake Assessment take place in maximum security placement, and all offenders upon intake are initially subject to this security level. Once initial assessment and classification assessment have been completed, the offender will be designated a final security level, either in minimum, medium, maximum, or super-maximum incarceration. Minimum security, in its ideal type, describes a "camp-like" atmosphere, where offenders serve their sentence in cabins, huts, portables, rooms, communal rooms or dormitories. There are usually no fences in minimum security, meaning offenders may leave if so inclined, however this is rare, as proper classification assessment instruments can usually identify those offenders most likely to escape, and designate them accordingly to a higher security level.

In medium security facilities, many of the features of maximum security are present, but not to the same degree. Inmates are secured by high fences or double fences, motion detectors, armed guard towers, and armed guard patrols, and a "pass-system" of mobility. These prisons are more expensive to operate and maintain than minimum security.

In maximum security facilities, all of the features of medium security apply, in addition to full, round-the-clock monitoring, accountability measures, electronic monitoring, and segregation of serious and misbehaving offenders who pose security risks. These prisons are the next most expensive to operate and maintain.

Initial Assessment is not focused as much on risk assessment as it is focused on integrating the offender properly into a sentence plan. This preliminary assessment first includes a basic orientation to the facility, which communicates basic rules and regulations of the prison and what is expected of the offender. The next step covers the initial sentence plan, which clarifies certain important dates, such as eligibility for parole, day-parole, full-parole, and the offender's warrant expiry date. The next step involves considering certain critical concerns, which are various health-concerns such as heart conditions and medication. Initial assessment also includes the administration of the offender's sentence.

Initial Assessment involves the most basic assessments necessary to place offenders into prison, including an orientation process where prisoners are given a brief introduction to the operation and rules of the facility, a health assessment, an overview of all the offender's relevant documents, and an outline of the offender's initial plans and sentence plans, including important dates and deadlines such as day-parole eligibility and the warrant expiry date (WED).

If an offender requires special medical care, such as the case would be for a heart condition, asthma, sickness, or broken bones, he or she will be referred to the medical unit. If the problems are psychological in nature, such as suicidal tendencies or serious mental illness, then he or she will be referred to the psychiatric unit, if one is available. In addition to these concerns, there will be consideration given to educational programs and substance abuse treatment opportunities, and various programs available to the offender.

Custody Placement

Placement occurs after a comprehensive risk assessment process is met. First is an administration interview, then the initial assessment (outlined above), followed by an assessment of static factors. Risk assessment scales may be used at this point, such as the Custody Rating Scale, to classify the offender on a broad range of static risk factors that determine his or her risk level, such as employment history, prior convictions, prior violence, prior prison misconducts, and substance abuse problems. Dynamic risk factors are then considered, such as hostility or anger management problems, antisocial attitudes, peer associations, family environment, and emotional states. These are sometimes assessed with scales such as the Antisocial Personality Questionnaire (APQ), the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL or PCL-R), or the Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire (BPAQ). Risk factors that are especially predictive of prison misconduct include: gang membership, history of violence, young age, program dropout, and disciplinary actions. Contrary to what many may think, risk factors that are not predictive of prison misconduct include drug abuse in prison, escape history, severity of offense, and time left to serve. Many of these former risk factors are also predictive of committing serious assaults and violent crime, more generally.

Such instruments that measure these risk constructs must be robust, accurate, and reliable. The Classification Unit itself must also be heavily centralized, so that discretionary decisions do not intrude into the process, leaving one offender with a different placement than another, even if both offenders are in reality of the same risk level. The process must also be fully automated to allow decisions to be recorded and evaluated for integrity. Decisions must also be able to include "override" factors, such as features of someone's personality that may be particularly suited to one custody level over another with one offender and not with another offender. Classification based on risk-assessment is a delicate procedure, and not surprisingly, the high case-loads in many state, federal, and provincial correctional facilities interfere with a thorough procedure.

While much of this is assessment is case-based investigation, some of it is also behaviourally-based, conducted by a trained psychologist or possibly a psychiatrist. For instance, the Hare Psychopathy Checklist is intended to be used only by a professional clinician with the proper educational background to interpret the results. Following this is the final, overall assessment that integrates all the information and comes up with a risk rating and custody placement level.

The entire process takes from 6 to 8 weeks to complete. In practice, in the United States, procedures for initial classification at intake differ widely across different states. In California, for instance, department staff generally refer the most dangerous and disordered inmates to the California Medical Facility (CMF) at Vacaville, and reserve the less dangerous referrals for the California Men's Colony (CMC), where such inmates are sequestered in separate areas of the facility. The California Department of Corrections has historically dedicated more of its operations to properly identifying, classifying, and placing inmates according to their mental health status than other department of corrections, such as those in Arizona (Alhambra), Iowa (Iowa Medical Facility), and Massachusetts (Bridgewater State Hospital), where states have simply one large facility for all types of mentally-disordered inmates. This is partly due to the sheer number of referrals done to California's mental health facilities for inmates, which stands at around 3,000 each year, whereas Iowa mental health facilities admit only 225-275 referrals each year, and Arizona mental health facilities admit only 10-20 referrals each year (Hartstone et al 1999).


Objective Offender Classification requires regular reclassification to occur every year, or sooner. This is to ensure that the process of classification is accurate both for one year the next, and to ensure that individual-differences among offenders are taken into account to avoid clumping all inmates who fall under a broad risk category the exact same level of custody or treatment. Above all, it injects sensitivity and responsivity into the process of risk assessment and classification, one of the central tenets of Andrews' Psychology of Criminal Conduct on which objective offender classification is based.

Reclassification places greater emphasis on dynamic factors than static factors. Because offenders change, learn, and adapt to new life circumstances and conditions, factors that concerned with prior offenses and behavioural history may have little value assessing the risk of someone who has or is learning to become more prosocial. Offenders may be participating successfully in treatment groups, they may be performing their duties well in workshop, or may be getting straight As in their educational courses. Would keeping the offender in maximum-security still be the best solution, both for recidivism reasons or cost-savings? Possibly, but in many cases, it is not. These factors must be taken into account when reassessing individuals. It may be more efficient and safe to place them in a lesser-security setting, where they will have a greater chance of socializing with more positive peers, and greater access to rehabilitative and mental health programs. One instrument that is useful for reclassification is the LSI-R, which assesses an offender on a broad range of dynamic risk factors and is particularly useful for detecting subtle changes in institutional adjustment, learning, and threat level.

Correctional researchers have proven that reclassification is effective both from a re-offending perspective as well as a cost-savings perspective. When offenders are more properly placed in a custody-level that matches their precise levels of risk and psychological needs, more offenders complete their sentence successfully.


1. Hartstone, Steadman, Robbins and Monahan. 1999. Identifying and Treating the Mentally-Disordered Prison Inmate. Mental Health & Criminal Justice, pp. 279-276.


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