Sex Offenders in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Sex Offenders in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Prison can be a dangerous place, even in the best of circumstances. For inmates convicted of sex offenses, an ever-growing population within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, unique challenges and pitfalls exist beyond those experienced by the prison population as a whole.

Introduction: Convict Stratification

Prison is a society unto itself. Inside the walls, as in traditional Western cultures, a stratification system dictates individual and group worth. While on the outside, where economic factors generally divide the population into classes, this is not the case in prison, where a large segment of the population comes from the lower echelons of the economic scale, and some of the other class distinctions like education, profession, and family history are irrelevant.

Race is the primary divider of inmates, both via longstanding institutional biases and by inmates’ choices. Like members of any other group, inmates tend to seek those with like values and ideals. Within these racial groups, there are divides, very often between age groups and gang or non-gang status.

Beyond the deep racial divides characteristic of American prisons, there are other variables. The offense of conviction is a factor. A drug conviction is neither a social plus nor minus within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Sometimes, there is a status dependent on the volume of illicit commerce they allege to have engaged in. Classic criminals, like bank robbers, tend to be higher on the hierarchical scale and less sophisticated criminals (e.g., property offenders, gun possessors, simple theft offenders) lower. This ranking system relies upon the inmate being a generally accepted criminal and not one who appears as a citizen, or worse, a weirdo.

It should be noted that this stratification is based upon general thought. The two wildcards are the thug mindset and the locale of the inmate. In the thug mindset, only fighting ability and skill at being a bully matter. It doesn’t matter where you are from or — to an extent — what you have done.

At the bottom of the stratification scale are thieves (who steal from other inmates), snitches, former law enforcement types, and sex offenders. Homosexuality and gender identity can sometimes be an issue as well. Depending on where the inmate resides on the scale, these groups can fluctuate in terms of being hated more or less than others.

Sex Offenders

Since the position of sex offenders is so undesirable, most do what they can to hide the reason for their incarceration. Some can pass themselves off for a while. I know of one who passes himself off as a cocaine transporter. This is perhaps because he looks the part with his tattoos, but the man has also done enough drugs to understand the drug culture he professes to be a part of. As such, the man’s time tends to be easier than most with this offense characteristic.

But others simply can’t pass themselves off as anything except a sex offender, perhaps because they are too non-convict looking or because they are suspected of being gay, or because they simply exude fear. This group tends to have serious problems. Sex offenders who can’t pass themselves off as something else will typically find themselves in an undesirable position. At best, they’ll be avoided, and perhaps openly and directly called names and excluded from activities (e.g., sports, card games, TV rooms, work assignments, etc.). At worse, they’ll be robbed, beaten, or even killed. Many will find that they aren’t welcome to sit at certain tables in the chow hall or might have to spend years in protective custody (i.e., the hole).

There are many reasons why sex offenders tend to reside in the lower echelons of the social strata scale. Obviously, everyone has a mother, and many inmates have a sister or child, making sex offenders an easy group to hate and vilify. Being of lower social status, the existence of this group increases the social status of the other groups. Even in prison, there must be winners and losers. By sex offenders being deemed the losers, others subsequently become the winners.

Other reasons this group is looked down upon revolve around what the typical prisoner — and the subculture itself — values. These values often include strength, fighting ability, criminality, and gang affiliation; none of which tends to be a forte of the typical sexual offender. Lacking this skill set results in the sex offender being the perfect victim of abuse and violence. As a group castigated by the prison community at large, they are often easy to subjugate, if only because many weren’t raised in the same criminal/prison culture that many other inmates operate within.

Generally, this lack of criminal pedigrees makes the typical sex offender easy to spot in prison, as they often fail to project the hardened attitude and (seemingly) fearless persona common to experienced convicts. Inexperience with prison social rules and values can draw unwanted attention. Indeed, the onslaught of sex offenses over the last decade has created a culture of suspicion for anyone appearing outside the criminal models of conduct. Since research dictates that many sex offenders suffer from emotional disorders that often render them socially inept, such differences are often glaringly apparent. Learning the unspoken rules of prison is thus vital to their quality of life.

There is even a stratification system within the sex offender group. At some federal prisons, the pornography possessors view themselves as being superior to the producers. The younger sex offenders also tend to view themselves as less culpable — or at least as less deserving of ridicule — than the older sex offenders because of the closer age difference between themselves and the victim or the person in the photos.

The stratification among sex offenders may, at times, be a bar to social standing, but for the most part, there is little danger to a member of the sex offender group from those within the group. The real danger comes from other inmates.

Identification as a Sex Offender by Other Inmates

Whether — and to what extent — a sex offender may find himself subject to actual physical peril depends largely on whether he is assigned to a sex offender-friendly institution or not. (In such an institution, there may be occasional issues as to offense of conviction, but in general, with a larger percentage of inmates in such a facility serving time for a sex offense, such problems are relatively rare.)  It should be noted that the Federal Bureau of Prisons does mix non-sex offenders in with those convicted of sex offenses, but most such inmates have a sex-related offense in their prior conviction history, making them less likely to attack a sex offender due to his or her crime of conviction.

This reduced likelihood of an attack is not based on empathy; in most cases, inmates housed in a sex offender “yard” have been castigated in other facilities for their own undesirable criminal history or conduct, and, as such, are not looking to be transferred back to a “hard yard.”  Such assaults are not unheard of, though, and should be a point of concern for the newly arriving inmate.

In the majority of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ higher-security facilities, sex offenders are not welcome by the population at large. Yet for reasons that are sometimes not clear, the Federal Bureau of Prisons will assign a sex offender to such a prison. The issue of paperwork thus becomes a grave matter.
Paperwork generally includes the following documents:

  • Judgment in a Criminal Case
  • Docket Entries
  • Presentence Reports
  • Transcripts of sentencing and other proceedings
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons Custody and Classification paperwork
  • Sundry other documents that might indicate the inmate’s crime of conviction or his criminal history

Generally, in such facilities, every newly arriving inmate will be expected to produce such paperwork for the gang which runs the prisoner’s race (e.g., the local white gang will demand such paperwork from all new arrivals that are white). This paperwork is demanded to ensure that the new arrival is an acceptable criminal type and worthy of remaining at that facility, or in that housing unit or cell.

Such requests for paperwork come in a variety of forms. In some facilities, a newly arriving inmate will be expected to immediately obtain copies of whatever documents are available from his or her case manager. In other prisons, a new man will be accorded until his property arrives at the institution, or until his attorney can mail documents in, as a grace period. In others, paperwork will be sought at various times. More commonly, when one inmate is assigned to a new cell, his new cellie will request such paperwork.

Just as likely, the new man will be quizzed by virtually everyone he meets: “Wha’cha in for?”  Just like in the movies. A new man should expect very specific questions as to where he was convicted, what judge, what specific charges were lodged — even questions about the Sentencing Guidelines provisions that were applied. Such questions sometimes carry the intent of tripping up a new man who might have something to hide. As is often the case in prison, good intentions should not be presumed.

Even without paperwork, armed only with a new inmate’s name and registration number, most interested inmates are able to procure verification of another inmate’s offense of conviction and other relevant information. This is conducted via contacts with outside parties, or, in some cases, simply searching for an inmate’s name in the prison’s law library computer system. (While these Lexis databases contain only published cases, such cases are quite prolific in these files.)

When an outside contact is used, a friend or family member may access Google, or some other database, for reports on another inmate. As virtually every federal case makes the news somewhere, such information is usually not hard to find. In some instances, particularly in the gang context, inmates will have someone access the federal court’s PACER network and retrieve the case files.

Commonly, and perhaps regrettably, information on an undesirable inmate will come from staff at the prison, either overtly or via implication. In 2008, it became known at USP McCreary, Kentucky that a staff member provided inmates with a list of which inmates’ files were marked with a Sex Offender Public Safety Factor designation.

In a rare instance of proactive protective action, the Federal Bureau of Prisons removed several dozen inmates from the population in one day, averting a planned en masse assault. That staff member was relieved from duty.

It is important to acknowledge the lengths to which inmates will go to root out those they view as undesirable. Putting aside speculation as to why such zeal exists (pecking order, “I’m better than him,” etc.), the bottom line is that the safety of such an inmate in such facilities is tenuous at best. 

Consequences can be severe, even involving death or permanent injury. In the routine case, when an inmate is found to be a member of an undesirable group, he’ll be attacked by several other inmates. (Sadly, Federal Bureau of Prisons’ staff members are, in some cases, inclined to ignore or go lightly in punishing these assailants, concluding that such an event was inevitable or unavoidable.)  The fortunate inmate will simply be threatened with such harm if he doesn’t check in — this means to ask for protection from the staff — to Special Housing immediately. The inmate is essentially being asked to be locked in the hole for their own protection.

As a final note, it is a matter of public knowledge that several prison consultants offer clients a service where they provide falsified documents to address such concerns. This is a tactic that should be avoided as such cover stories rarely last long and could even aggravate the matter.

Rolling the Dice: The Decision Whether to Check In

For most inmates convicted of a sex offense, the best hope for a safe incarceration is to end up at one of the sex offender-friendly facilities mentioned earlier. However, sometimes bed space considerations, length of sentence, and other factors can result in the inmate being housed at a non-friendly facility. Or an inmate, who is not presently sentenced for a sex offense but has such a crime in his past, may end up in the wrong institution. At that point the inmate may be faced with the choice of whether or not to check in — voluntarily seek placement in the Special Housing Unit (the hole), for his own safety.

While life in the hole is sometimes difficult, when an inmate seeks protection from the general population, staff will usually refer that inmate for transfer to another facility. Quite simply, inmates in protective situations are a management problem in the Special Housing Unit; they sometimes require single-cell status or cannot be offered recreation time with other inmates. As such, most such offenders will be transferred to another facility of the same security level, where they might fare better.

Unfortunately, the wait for such a transfer can be many months in duration; more than a year’s wait is not uncommon. In many institutions, staff members make it clear that a long delay for transfer is by design, to discourage inmates who merely seek a transfer for non-protective reasons from checking in over drug disputes or debts or other less serious matters.

As such, the decision to seek protective custody is a bitter pill to swallow for many inmates. Nonetheless, any inmate in danger of being exposed as a sex offender at the USP level (maximum security), or at many FCI-level institutions (medium security) with a reputation for harsh treatment of such inmates, should be advised that discretion is the better part of valor; while many inmates may believe that their secret will not become known, the truth is that such matters cannot be kept secret. In the insular world of prison, virtually everything comes out in the wash, and no matter how well an inmate may believe that he is well-regarded or respected, being tagged a sex offender will not end well at many facilities.

The sex offender designation applies to a wide variety of conduct, present and past. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, an inmate will be deemed eligible for a Sex Offender Public Safety Factor, an internal label used for administrative purposes. See PS 5270.08, Custody and Classification, at 24 (describing Public Safety Factor criteria). On the yards, the label can apply to an even wider variety of conduct. Virtually any conduct relating to sexual misconduct may be deemed cause for an inmate’s removal. For example, in the USPs in the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Western Region, numerous inmates have been “smashed off” those facilities due to prior instances of lewd conduct relating to convictions for public urination or indecent exposure for mooning someone. Another inmate was stabbed after he refused to leave when it was discovered that he had a prior conviction for statutory rape — he was 18 and the woman 16 — and the victim later became his wife of 20 years. There is little sympathy extended to such offenders by other inmates.

Bruce K. (not his real name) was sentenced to nearly a century of imprisonment for offenses relating to the production of child pornography. Pursuant to Federal Bureau of Prisons’ policy, his lengthy sentence dictated that he be housed at a United States Penitentiary, the maximum security level for the federal penal system. Populated with the most dangerous and violent inmates in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, such institutions are generally controlled by gangs and have a racially segregated culture, in which inmate “shot-callers” decide who is allowed to remain in general population. In most of the other 14 USPs, any inmate identified as being unacceptable — informants, those with law enforcement connections, sex offenders, and, in some institutions, homosexuals — will be told by other inmates to seek protective custody or face attack.

Sometimes, though, a particularly undesirable inmate is simply smashed off the yard. In Bruce’s case, negative press attention led to a trail of information about him on the Internet. He was assigned to a USP and given an empty cell in the far corner of his housing unit. Having no prior prison experience, he did not sense that he was being set up for assault by Federal Bureau of Prisons’ staff. On his third day, when the cell doors were unlocked, several members of a prison gang rolled into his cell, catching Bruce still in bed. He was beaten with locks on belts and a large rock for several minutes, and then stomped into unconsciousness. After the beating, his assailants walked out and Bruce was eventually found by an officer on his cell’s floor.

He was taken to an outside hospital for several days to repair his broken jaw and other facial injuries that have permanently disfigured him. While his assailants were never charged, Bruce spent nearly a year in his prison’s Special Housing Unit, awaiting a transfer to another facility.

Bruce ultimately ended up at USP Tucson, Arizona, which has become the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ chief dumping ground for long-term sex offenders, former law enforcement types, and gang dropouts. While hardly idyllic, Tucson is a relatively safer institution for inmates like Bruce, who simply cannot survive at other USP facilities.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons offers several medium security facilities for such inmates, as well, including FCI Petersburg, Virginia, FCI Marianna, Florida, and FCI Marion, Illinois. Several low security facilities also handle this population.

Ostensibly, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ handling of sex offenders revolves around their treatment for the underlying causes for the sexual offenses. The Inmate Admission and Orientation Handbook for FCI Petersburg contains the following information:

Sex Offender Management Program

The Sex Offender Management Program (SOMP) at FCC Petersburg was established to assist in effectively managing the Bureau of Prisons’ population of offenders with sex offense histories, regardless of whether the actual offense behavior is associated with the inmate’s current offense. SOMPs typically involve assessment/evaluation, treatment, and monitoring/managing components. The assessment/evaluation component of SOMP is non-voluntary.

Assessment of recidivism risk will be completed for all inmates with a sexual offending history prior to their release.

Sex offender treatment is a voluntary component of SOMP. Inmates interested in SOMP Treatment should contact SOMP staff to discuss their interest. The monitoring/management component of SOMP is non-voluntary.

Inmates with a sex offense history, who also engage in risk-relevant behavior while incarcerated, may be subject to the development of a Correctional Management Plan (CMP). CMP’s may impose relevant restrictions in the interest of ensuring the good order, discipline and the security of the institution, and/or to protect the public. Risk relevant information obtained from inmates, or obtained about inmates during the course of their incarceration, is not considered to be confidential. Risk relevant information obtained during an inmate’s incarceration may be documented in an inmate’s Psychology record, and reviewed in association with formal evaluation procedures utilized in the determination of whether an individual meets criteria for designation as a Sexually Dangerous Person, pursuant to the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons also hosts a Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP) which offers both non-residential treatment (NR-SOTP) and residential treatment (R-SOTP) for inmates with a “documented history of sexual deviance,” and who meet other criteria. See PS 5310.12, Psychology Service Manual, at § 5.2 (describing SOTP). Whether an inmate should agree to participate in such a program should be discussed with qualified legal counsel, as the pros and cons of disclosing such information can be significant.


The ever-growing number of federal inmates convicted of sex offenses face great challenges beyond those faced by the American prison population at large. But with a little commonsense, prison life for these inmates can be a safe and productive experience.