The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) recently locked down all its 120 or so federal prison across the country because of a deadly fight at the U.S. Penitentiary in Beaumont, Texas, on Jan. 31, 2022. Here`s an “insider`s guide” on how lockdowns in the BOP work.
What`s Prison Like During “Normal” Operations?
Before we dig into what a lockdown looks like in the BOP, let me give you an idea of what federal prison is like during “normal” times. Some people might think prisoners normally spend all their time in cells, but that`s only on TV. Real life in just about every prison is that prisoners have a great deal of freedom inside the fence. They go to school, work, play sports and music, and just hang out and watch TV (when COVID-19 isn`t shutting everything down).
In fact, it`s the prisoners who run most of the prison`s daily operations. They prepare and cook the food, clean everything, mow the grass and shovel snow, take the trash to the dumpster, teach GED classes, do the laundry, work at the commissary, and do all the repairs and maintenance. And that`s just a few things prisoners do every day.
But when a lockdown happens, all of that stuff grinds to a halt. There`s usually not enough staff to take over those operations, and staff who are tasked with those jobs are so used to prisoners doing them that a lockdown puts a lot of that stuff on hold.
There are Several Types of Lockdowns
Lockdowns in the BOP come in all shapes and seizes. When people usually hear “lockdown,” they think of prisoners locked in their cells and staff sliding food through a slot in the door. But did you know that many of the BOP`s prisons don`t even have cells? Most federal prisoners are low-security and are housed in cubicles in a giant open dorm. This can range from 100 to 300 prisoners in one large room divided by half-walls. Only the medium- and high- security prisoners are housed in cells.
This means that a “lockdown” in the BOP looks very different depending on which security level the prison may be. Take USP Beaumont, where the deadly fight happened. It`s a high-security prison with two or three prisoners in locked cells during a lockdown. That`s a true lockdown. Compare that to FCI Seagoville, a low-security prison just up the road from USP Beaumont in Texas. Prisoners there are housed in open units and rooms without doors.
Full Lockdown: The most severe type of lockdown is the one that occurred on Jan. 31 in the BOP. This was a full lockdown where every prisoner was required to be in their cell or cubicle, with very little movement. Most BOP prisons were off this lockdown after a week, but some higher-risk facilities remain on lockdown longer until the BOP can verify that no further violence will happen. These are the prisons where gangs are prevalent — USP Beaumont being one of them.
Disciplinary Lockdown: A disciplinary lockdown is usually for just one prison facility or maybe a single housing unit within a prison. This typically happens when drugs or weapons are found in a housing unit, or some other disturbance arises. This can last for 24 hours to several days, and in theory is the same as a full lockdown but just locally.
Safety and Security of the Institution: Another type of full lockdown happens when the BOP says it`s needed for the “safety and security of the institution.” This vague term is a catch-all for the BOP when it wants to shut things down but either doesn`t have a valid reason or can`t publicize the reason. These lockdowns last as long as the situation dictates, which is usually a day or so.
Soft Lockdown: This unofficial “lockdown” usually confines prisoners to their housing units but not their cells. They can roam the unit, take showers, watch TV, and usually use the phones. In effect, it`s a “recall” requiring all prisoners to return to their housing units.
Operational Lockdown: This is the usual daily lockdown associated with count time and includes the nightly locking-in of prisoners at the medium- and high-security prisons. These lockdowns last from about 10 pm to about 6 am. Low-security prisons don`t have these nightly lock-ins, but prisoners must return to the area during count times.
Keeping in Touch During Lockdowns
As most families found out during the BOP`s recent nationwide lockdown on Jan. 31, the BOP shuts off communication with the outside world. They cut off phones and email, stop visits, and even shut off the TVs to prevent news of the gang fight at USP Beaumont from reaching other prisons. The only line of communication that the BOP cannot shut down is the U.S. mail. Prisoners have a right to voice their concerns to the media through the mail and to contact their family.
Medical Care is Limited to Only Emergencies
Medical care during a BOP lockdown will be for emergencies only. If a prisoner takes medication or insulin, nurses will come around to the housing units a few times a day. All non-emergency medical treatment, though, will be canceled. Dental care is limited to pulling the problem tooth in an emergency. No dental work will be done.
Showers are a Rare Event
Showers during a lockdown in the BOP are usually closed. The way it`s supposed to work is that prisoners locked in cells get a shower every other day or three times a week. In the open units at the low-security prisons, the showers were closed the first few days of the Jan. 31 lockdown but then opened for normal use. Otherwise, prisoners take what`s called a “bird bath” in the sink, washing their own clothes since laundry is not running during a lockdown (because the prisoner-workers in laundry aren`t avail to run laundry).
PBJ and Baloney — It`s What`s for Dinner
The food served during a lockdown will vary, depending on whether the prisoner-workers in the kitchen are allowed to go to work. If they aren`t, the meals are usually peanut butter and jelly or baloney sandwiches in a bag. Some prisons might still offer one hot tray per day, usually lunch.
Typically, prisoners supplement their bland prison diet with items purchased from commissary. Most BOP commissaries sell tuna, ramen soups, oatmeal, chips, cheeses, and a list of other snack foods. Creative prisoners can make some tasty dishes with these items.
But commissary is usually shut down during a lock down. This can be a form of punishment by the prison, but it`s also because the prisoner-workers aren`t available to work in the commissary. Rarely, a prison will offer a limited commissary list that`s filled by staff. Again, that`s rare.
Programs are Shut Down
All programs at BOP prisons are shut down during a lockdown. This includes recreation, all religious service, the library, and all educational services / mandatory GED classes. This is mainly, once again, because the BOP relies on prisoner-workers to run those programs and they`re not available because they are locked down.
But since the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the BOP`s programs have been shut down so a lockdown closing all programs wouldn`t be noticed right to now to most people in prison.
Dale Chappell is the author of hundreds of published articles on the federal criminal justice system, and the Insider`s Guide series of federal post-conviction books. He is a consultant in federal post-conviction procedure and an authority on federal sex offense issues.