In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Prison Classification

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Development of Prison Classification Systems
  • Evaluating Classification Systems
  • Classification and Risk Assessment
  • Classification and Inmate Misconduct
  • Classification and Adjustment to Prison
  • Crowding and Classification
  • Classification, Treatment, and Programming
  • Gender and Classification
  • Classification and Mental Health
  • Classification to Administrative Segregation
  • Classification’s Consequences Outside the Prison

Criminology Prison Classification
Nicole Frisch-Scott
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0286


Classification processes determine the entire nature of the prison experience, including but not limited to where an inmate is housed, whom he or she is housed with, the programs and work assignments available to or required of an inmate, visitation rights, and the amount or type of movement an inmate has within a facility. In making these important decisions, prisons have long relied on procedures to determine where and how to supervise inmates under their control. These classification processes are designed to maintain prison order, allocate necessary treatment services, and provide a transparent basis for decisions that affect inmate life. Classification decisions can be divided into several types: initial security/facility classification and custody classification (determined by external classification systems), housing program and work assignments (determined by internal classification systems), and re-classifications. Inmates undergo a rigorous classification process upon reception into a corrections department’s custody and are often subject to re-evaluations throughout their time incarcerated. The predominant goal of classification systems is to identify and manage inmate risk, and many studies have focused on classification systems and inmate misconduct, recidivism, and violence. As classification systems are also intended to diagnose inmate needs and provide treatment, and ensure the efficient allocation of correctional resources, scholars have focused classification systems’ impact on adjustment to prison, provision of treatment, and prison crowding. Research has questioned the ability of a single classification system to assess the risk and need of all inmates. Many studies have considered gender equity in classification decisions as well as the additional treatment needs and management considerations for incarcerated individuals with mental illness. Additional research has focused on administrative segregation, or classification decisions that result in the isolation of those who cannot be housed in the general inmate population. Complicating this literature is the changing nature of classification systems over time and the fact that all states and the federal government have adopted unique classification systems. It is therefore difficult to draw conclusions about the state of knowledge on classification practices as a whole. Nevertheless, the past several decades have seen an emphasis on objective classification, or empirically based strategies to make classification decisions. The use of risk assessment tools has become commonplace in this realm. Though past research focused on classification systems as a means to control and monitor inmates, a promising future direction lies in needs assessments and the ability to deliver individualized treatment to incarcerated individuals.

General Overviews

The process of classification involves determining inmates’ risks and needs and assigning them to facilities, custody levels, housing, and programs consistent with those needs. Classification systems involve a series of related decisions. Initial classification decisions determine facility security and custody levels. Inmates must also be placed in specific housing within facilities and given individual program assignments. Levinson 1982 defines common security and custody levels and the procedures prisons use to assign them. Classification decisions are updated periodically in reclassification. The goals of classification systems are numerous. They include but are not limited to managing inmate risk, reducing prison violence, minimizing escapes, providing programs to address prisoner needs, equitably assigning inmates to facilities and custody levels. According to the National Institute of Corrections, the primary goal of classification is managing inmate risk and ensuring safety for inmates and staff. When inmates are admitted to prisons, they reside in a reception facility and undergo intensive screening, assessment, and observation to collect the information necessary for use in classification decisions. Hardyman, et al. 2004 outlines these intake procedures across the United States. At present, almost all prison systems in the United States now utilize objective classification systems, which rely on factors empirically related to inmate misconduct, violence, and escape to determine custody, housing, and program assignments (Austin, et al. 2001). Objective classification systems are more valid in predicting inmate behavior and reliable in assigning inmates to custody and security levels equitably than prior systems based on clinical judgements. Objective systems are also considered more transparent in that they utilize a scoring system to rate each inmate, have policies outlining discretionary overrides, involve periodic re-classification, and inform inmates of the criteria used and decisions made. Austin and Hardyman 2004 provides a complete overview of objective classification principles and practices, as well as a framework to evaluate those systems. Tahamont and Frisch 2019 documents the several factors utilized in objective classification systems, as well as the procedures agencies use to administer classification assessments in each state. Andrews and Bonta 2010 reviews the risk-need-responsivity (RNR) model, an important paradigm that serves as the basis for several classification systems and stresses the importance of assessing inmates’ risks and needs, and assigning programs accordingly. Austin, et al. 2001 highlights the ability of objective systems to promote equity in classification by providing a gender-responsive basis to custody, as well as their efficiency in identifying high-risk inmates for special management. The National Institute of Corrections website has two pages containing recent information on Prison Classification and emerging issues facing corrections officials in the Classification process.

  • Andrews, D. A., and J. Bonta. 2010. The psychology of criminal conduct. 5th ed. New Providence, NJ: Lexis Nexis.

    This book reviews the risk-need-responsivity (RNR) model of correctional intervention. The RNR model emphasizes the importance of determining inmates’ risks and criminogenic needs that can be changed with appropriate interventions. This framework underlies most classification processes and provides assessment tools used by many corrections agencies (e.g., the LSI-R).

  • Austin, J., and P. L. Hardyman. 2004. Objective prison classification: A guide for correctional agencies. Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections.

    The National Institute of Corrections published this guide to adopting objective prison classification systems. The document reviews the history and principles of objective classification (chapters 2 and 3), implementation strategies (chapter 4), evaluation criteria and designs (chapter 5), gender responsivity (chapter 6), and the role of classification for special populations, inmate behavior, and releases (chapter 7). A discussion of different types of classification (e.g., internal and external) is also provided.

  • Austin, J., P. L. Hardyman, and S. D. Brown. 2001. Critical issues and developments in prison classification. Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections.

    This brief reviews the nature and new practices in objective prison classification. Topics covered include evaluating objective classification, classification of female and high-risk inmates, internal versus external classification, the impact of classification decisions on inmates, and future directions in objective classification.

  • Hardyman, P. L., J. Austin, and J. Peyton. 2004. Prisoner intake systems: Assessing needs and classifying prisoners. Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections.

    This National Institute of Corrections report details intake and screening procedures that occur at admission to department of corrections’ custody across the United States. The vast majority of information used in classification decisions is obtained as a part of these intake processes. The national survey results reveal the specific procedures and functions of intake facilities and suggestions for improvement are given.

  • Levinson, R. B. 1982. A classification of classification. Criminal Justice and Behavior 9:133–142.

    This work provides one of the first complete overviews of correctional classification processes. Specifically, the author offers several definitions for important classification terms, many of which are utilized by practitioners today.

  • National Institute of Corrections. Classification.

    A website for corrections practitioners. The National Institute of Corrections provides resources to evaluate and improve classification systems for many corrections agencies, including but not limited to prison, jail, and pretrial detention populations. Current issues in classification are discussed. The website promotes the use of objective classification systems.

  • National Institute of Corrections. Prison classification.

    A website for practitioners specifically interested in prisoner classification. Resources and reports documenting the National Institute of Corrections’ efforts to improve prisoner classification are provided in addition to workshop, conference, and training materials.

  • Tahamont, S., and N. E. Frisch. 2019. Correctional classification and security. In Oxford research encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice. Edited by Henry N. Pontell. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This review covers common custody and security classification procedures in the United States. The authors consider the factors that agencies use to classify inmates into facilities, units within facilities, and individual custody designations, as well as the outcomes of those classification decisions. A state-by-state comparison of security and custody classification practices is provided.

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