Prison Classification News
How Voters, Not Politicians, Are Reforming California's Harsh Sentencing LawsSunday, November 9, 2014
California voters approved a sweeping change to sentencing on Tuesday by passing Proposition 47 and
California Begins Dismantling the Prison Industrial ComplexSunday, November 9, 2014
The tough on crime period of the 1980s led to the passage of a flurry of laws that made many nonviol
You May Have Missed It, but There Was an Election Debate on Criminal Justice ReformThursday, November 6, 2014
It is no secret that the United States prison population surpasses that of any other nation, that th
Californians Vote to Weaken Mass Incarceration -- With the approval of Proposition 47 Tuesday, the Golden State will make major reforms to its sentencing laws.Thursday, November 6, 2014
Californias Proposition 47 wasnt one of the most followed votes in Tuesdays midterm election, but it
California’s Proposition 47: softer on crimeTuesday, November 4, 2014
The measure would change many crimes from felonies, which generally require prison terms, to misdeme
Opposing private prisons in ArkansasSunday, November 2, 2014
Shipping incarcerated people across state lines into for-profit prisons rather than prioritizing ref
Dealing with jail crowding to be costly for countySaturday, November 1, 2014
The number of inmates has grown along with the population in the region, which is on the fringe of t
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Custody Placement and Escapes
|Minimum-security placements (%)
|Inmate escape risk
*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
|Mental Health Facilities
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
State Departments of Correction with Dedicated Mental Health Facilities
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
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.