12 Types of Prisons

Learn about the 12 different types of prisons based on various classifications and functions.


Alcatraz Island in San Francisco

There are more different types of prisons than meets the eye.

We set out the 12 here.

1. Minimum Security

A minimum security prison may also be referred to as a Federal Prison Camp (FPC). Most of the people in a minimum security prison are white collar criminals, which means they’ve commitment something like fraud or embezzlement. While these crimes are still considered serious, the criminals themselves are not considered dangerous – they don’t carry the same risk of violence as other prisoners might.

White collar criminals are sent to minimum security prisons where they’ll live in a dorm-style atmosphere. There are also fewer guards here and prisoners enjoy more personal freedoms that at higher security facilities. These facilities also have little-to-no perimeter fencing.

Many minimum security prisons have work programs or other types of programs. They’re also often located near a large institution or on a military base. The inmates may help with the labor needs of the nearby institution or base.

2. Low Security

A low security prison, also called a Federal Correctional Institution (FCI), will have a double-fenced perimeter and either cubicle- or dormitory-style housing. Like minimum security prisons, they usually have work programs or other types of programs. While the staff-to-inmate ratio here isn’t very high, it is higher than at a minimum security facility.

3. Medium Security

Most criminals end up in a medium security prison. These are probably the prisons you’re most familiar with ¬– they have cage- or cell-style housing, a strict daily routine and armed guards. Other features of medium security prisons include strong perimeters, like via double fencing with electronic detention systems; a high staff-to-inmate ratio; and an assortment of strong internal controls in order to keep order. These prisons also have different types of work programs and other programs.

4. Maximum Security

Maximum security, or high security, prisons are for dangerous and violent offenders. Everyone in a maximum security prison is considered high risk. The staff keeps a close eye on the inmates and there’s a very high staff-to-inmate ratio in these sorts of prisons. While there are multi-occupant cells, there are also single-occupant cells in these prisons.

These types of prisons have more guards than you’ll find in a minimum or medium security prison. Those locked up in a maximum security prison also have very few personal freedoms. The perimeters here are highly secured with either reinforced fences or high walls.

5. Supermax Facilities

A supermax prison is a facility within a maximum security prison. This is where the most dangerous and hardened criminals are kept, and it’s also where the inmates who have trouble being controlled are kept.

The main goal of a supermax facility is to keep everyone safe, including the inmates, prison staff and the public. This is where inmates will be sent if they’ve shown violent behavior against a staff member or another inmate, or if they’ve seemed to have trouble following the rules in other, lower security facilities. Supermax facilities may also house those on death row or inmates who are part of another type of special population.

Many supermax facilities keep inmates in solitary confinement for as many as 23 hours a day. Inmates in these types of settings are not allowed to do things together like eat, work, attend religious ceremonies or exercise. This type of solitary confinement is permanent, as opposed to other types of solitary confinement in less secure prisons, where solitary is a form of temporary punishment.

6. Ankle Bracelets for Home Detention

Electronic ankle bracelet for home detention



In various jurisdictions across the U.S., electronic ankle bracelets are used instead of putting a defendant in custody. The criminal justice system has issues with things like overcrowding and the high cost of keeping a person in jail, which is why an ankle bracelet is a great alternative for some criminals. Ankle bracelets are used to ensure the individuals stays at home or within certain areas, such as work or school.

Ankle bracelets are sturdy and waterproof, and they can’t be removed by the wearer. If the unit is tampered with or the wearer tries to remove it, the authorities will be notified. Many ankle bracelets are on a GPS system and monitored that way.

7. Halfway Houses

A halfway house is a home for people who would otherwise be in either jail or prison. Halfway houses may be run either locally, by the state or federally. Prisoners who are either serving an alternative type of sentence or who have been released into the halfway house from jail can be found here.


For the most part, an individual in a halfway house falls into one of three designations: (1) they are receiving help for addiction to drugs or alcohol, (2) they are receiving help for a mental health disorder or (3) they need to learn how to re-enter life following incarceration.

8. Juvenile Options

A person who is under the age of 18 years old is legally considered a juvenile. Juveniles are not put into the same prison as adults. Instead, they’re put into a facility or program that’s specifically for juveniles. There are several types of sentencing options in juvenile court, ranging from incarceration to non-incarceration options.

Incarceration options include home confinement or house arrest; placement with a relative or in a foster home; a juvenile detention facility; or probation following a stay in a juvenile detention facility. On rare occasions, a juvenile may be sent to an adult prison based on the specific circumstances of the case.

There are several non-incarceration options, too. These include verbal warnings, fines, required counseling or community service, electronic monitoring via a wrist or ankle bracelet, or probation.

If a juvenile is placed in a juvenile detention center or juvenile hall, they’ll follow a similar structure and routine to that of a traditional jail or prison.

9. Military Prisons

The different branches of the military each have their own prison that’s used to house any military personnel who has broken the law, specifically if that crime impacts national security. Military prisons are also used to lock up prisoners of war.

10. Podular Jails

A podular jail, also sometimes referred to as a direct supervision jail, is different from the jails that have rows of cells. In a podular jail, the inmates are houses in units or pods that are built around a common center space. This allows for more consistent and direct supervision of the inmates for the sake of keeping negative behavior at bay. This isn’t the type of incarceration that would be used for dangerous criminals because there’s too much interaction with other inmates, which could lead to problems.

11. Psychiatric Prisons

When a person breaks the law but is considered to be mentally unfit for a traditional prison, they’ll be sent to a psychiatric prison. These prions resemble hospitals and it’s where the prisoners can get treatment for their mental disorders. Instead of simply confining the inmate, psychiatric prisons also strive to help them.

The Difference Between Jail and Prison

While some people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, they’re actually different types of facilities. A jail, also called a county jail, is a facility that’s locally operated and that’s only for holding inmates for a short term. Typically, jails are used to hold inmates as they’re waiting for a trial or for sentencing, or inmates who have a sentence that’s under one year.

A prison, on the other hand, may be either federally or state operated, and inmates here stay for a longer time. Some inmates will go to a prison after being sentenced and spending time in jail. Prisons are also for those inmates who have a sentence over one year.

While the specific setting of the jail or prison will vary, all inmates, no matter where they are, are entitled to the basic necessities: food, water, shelter and toilet facilities. Depending upon the type of facility and the inmate’s behavior, they may also be allowed to have niceties like a radio, TV access, books or extra food; contact with other prisoners; and the use of facilities like the library or exercise room.

12. Federal Prisons vs. State Prisons

Federal prisons are run by the Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the DOJ. If the crime is federal, most criminals will be put into federal prison instead of state prison. However, violent crimes, even if they’re federal, often end up with the criminal in state prison.

There are more state prisons in the United States than federal prisons, and each state has its own prison system. While the state prisons systems may be similar to one another, they tend to have some of their own unique traits. Each state is able to determine how their own correctional system will be run.

One area where federal prisons differ greatly from state prisons is regarding the length of the sentence. Since federal prisons don’t allow parole, inmates here tend to spend more time here than in state prison, where it’s more likely parole will be allowed.