Federal Crime Means Federal Time

black Image of scales on white background with the words, "calibrate the scales" overlaid. As with any set of scales, the scales of justice must, from time to time, be recalibrated. Total balance is never achieved, but all in the criminal justice and legal systems must strive for it as much as possible.

Federal Crime, Federal Time

The early years of penitentiaries in America were dominated by the individual states.  Today there exists not only state prisons but also federal, and even a few city prisons.  Indeed, the prison system today is vast and all-encompassing.  If a person commits a crime, there is sure to be a place for him or her to do the time.

A Brief History of Federal Prisons

The first federal prison facility in the United States was Leavenworth.

Located on the plains of Kansas, the facility was initially constructed in 1827 as a military fort by Colonel Henry Leavenworth–hence the name. However, the structure was converted in 1875 to house soldiers convicted by Court Marshal and initially, it held 300 inmates. By 1894, Congress determined that the military did not need the prison and by 1895 control was transferred to the Department of Justice. Thus it became the first Federal prison in America (Foster, 2006).

The history of Fort Leavenworth is notable among Federal Prisons. The first Federal correctional officer to be killed in the line of duty occured at this prison in 1901. His name was Joseph Waldrupe. As short time thereafter, an additional facility was constructed adjacent to the fort. By 1906, Congress returned control of the original unit to the War Department. Moving into the 1920s and 30s, construction of shoe shops, a broom factory, and a barber shop reflected the attitude of the time–forced, cheap labor. By 1930, the prison was again brought under the control of the Justice Department.

Since then, many other federal prisons have been constructed for a multitude of purposes.  A look at some of the more infamous criminals and the facilities to which these were sentenced can provide a better understanding of the Federal Prison System.

Federal Prison Security Levels and Classifications

In general, federal prisons may be categorized by the security levels

  • minimum
  • low
  • medium
  • high, and
  • administrative.

The main difference between each is the ratio of prisoners to guards:  Generally, the greater the security-level the lower the prisoners per guard ratio.  Another difference between security levels is the degree to which security and other measures must be taken:  Some of the considerations include:

  • additional surveillance requirements
  • electrified fencing
  • reduced inmate contact in the higher security facilities (Bureau of Prisons, 2011)
  • medical attention required
  • separation needs (i.e. segregating inmates to reduce potential violence)
  • available staffing
  • witness security
  • the release residence of an inmate
  • educational and vocational training
  • substance abuse programs
  • mental health of the inmate
  • facility capacity/bed space

There may be other reasons a convict may be assigned to a particular Correctional facility, but these are the main concerns. Of course, taking precedence is security: The number one concern in all cases is ensuring that the inmate cannot escape custody.

Famous Persons Sent to Federal Prisons

The nation received a shocking civics lesson in 2004. Model homemaker

“Martha Stewart was convicted of obstruction of justice, making false statements, and two counts of conspiracy in connection with dubious stock transactions” (Marshall, 2009, p. 695).

Although Ms Stewart could have received a much stiffer sentence, she was ordered to serve just five months in the Federal Prison Camp Alderson. FPC Alderson is a minimum security prison for women in West Virginia.

English: Federal Prison Camp, Alderson Español...
Doesn’t look much like a prison, does it? This is the prison to which Martha Stewart was sentenced. English: Federal Prison Camp, Alderson Español: Campo, Prisión Federal Alderson, WV (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Aside from the media attention the prison received because of the arrival of Martha Stewart, FPC Alderson has the distinction of being the first federal prison for women. It was built in 1928 specifically for that purpose.

The location of FPC Alderson, in the Allegheny foothills alongside the Greenbrier River lends itself nicely to the oft-believed perception of the country club prison (Bureau of Prisons, 2011; Foster, 2006).  Too, the comport with which Ms Stewart carried herself while inside the prison lends much to that perception. She spent time teaching other inmates hair styling and cooking tips; hardly different from what she did on the outside, except for the pay.  The inmates even threw her a pot-luck supper the last day of her internment (Tresniowski, Shepard, Simmons, Cotliar, Longley, Hazlett, Herbst, & Ingrassia, 2005).

By way of comparison, Ivan Boesky and Michael Millkin, both convicted for similar charges related to insider trading and junk bonds sales were each sentenced to low security facilities, though for much longer durations.

Ivan Boesky was sentenced to 3.5 years in the Federal Prison Camp in Lompoc, California and fined $100 million.  Millkin was sent to Dublin, California, (Jaffe, 1990; Zanona, 1992) for 10 years and fined $600 million.

According to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) website, the facility Boesky was sentenced to is a satellite of the medium security prison adjacent. The entire compound what is called a Federal Correctional Institution (FCI).  Located a few hours north of Los Angeles near Vandenberg Air Force Base, FCI Dublin is in the Central California Judicial District.  Millkin, though having ties to Boesky, served his sentence not far from that location, namely in the Northern California Judicial District.  The complex where he served is largely for female inmates, but also holds male holdovers (Bureau of Prisons, 2011).


Naturally one would expect the three previous individuals mentioned would be held in low-security facilities. Although wealthy and having the ability to go anywhere should they escape, their ties to the community and nature of their crimes make for a low flight risk. Likewise, aside from being theives, physical danger to public safety is small.  The next case fails such reasoning.

Not All Federal Inmates are Equal

In 1992, the United States’ military forces entered the nation of Panama. They arrested and extradited Manuel Noriega back to the United States to stand trial on drug trafficking and other charges.  This they could do because the former dictator of Panama had long been on the Central Intelligence Agency payroll. As an employee of the Federal government, he could be arrested; though the international legality was questionable considering he was arrested IN a foreign country.

English: View of Alcatraz Island, an island lo...
English: View of Alcatraz Island, an island located in the San Francisco Bay. Often referred to as The Rock, the small island early-on served as a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison, and a Federal Bureau of Prisons federal prison until 1963. Nederlands: Alcatraz, een eiland in de Baai van San Francisco. Van 1934 tot 1963 was het in gebruik als zwaar beveiligde gevangenis. De beroemdste gevangene was Alphonse “Al” Capone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to drug trafficking, Noriega had been trained in every aspect of covert operations including media manipulation and psychological warfare. He had taken control of the nation by force and was known to have used rape, murder, and torture throughout his career (Ryan, 2005).  After what “may have been the costliest criminal conviction in history” (Cohn & Reiss, 1992, p. 37) Manuel Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in the Federal Correctional Institution located in Miami, Florida, (U.S. News & World Report, 1992).  What is odd in this case is that this particular prison is also a minimum security facility (Bureau of Prisons, 2011).  Apparently, the villainous Noriega is not as dangerous as the public was led to believe.

Some prisoners are clearly very dangerous and the federal prison system has a place for such offenders.  After his conviction for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995, Terry Nichols was sentenced to life in ADX Florence, Colorado (Watson & Brant, 1995).  This facility is an Administrative Maximum security prison located an hour and a half south of Denver. It is home to offenders requiring the tightest controls possible (Bureau of Prisons, 2011).

Access a List of Federal and State Prisons here

Timothy McVeigh, the person responsible for carrying out the bombing by contrast was sent to the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. FCC Terre Haute is a high security facility with a special confinement unit for holding federal death row inmates until execution (Bureau of Prisons, 2011).  In 2001 McVeigh was executed at that facility (Hutchinson’s Biography Database, 2003).

It is understandable that persons who carry out violence against the public are sent to high security facilities as was McVeigh and Nichols.  Traveling back in time leads to the infamous crime boss Alphonse (Al) Capone.

Al Capone and John Gotti in Federal Prison

During the time of alcohol prohibition, Al Capone rose to become one of the most powerful and feared organized crime bosses ever known.  Capone was careful to appear an upstanding and altruistic citizen, so much so that the citizens of Chicago loved him.  As a result, authorities could not find any hard evidence linking him to serious criminal activity.  Eventually, Treasury Agent Eliot Ness managed to obtain evidence of tax evasion. Using this, Capone was convicted and sentenced to 11 years at Alcatraz (McGill, 2005).

Federal timeline US prisoners
As seen from this chart, Federal prison populations exploded after Congress last reformed the justice system in 1984. Now Congress is coming to the same conclusion as many in America: Maybe crime is not the problem, but law. Federal timeline US prisoners (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Capone was convicted in 1931, Alcatraz was but one of a few Federal prisons.  Unlike prisons today, the Rock, as Alcatraz was called, was a fortress.  Surrounded on all sides by San Francisco Bay, the prison was high security and hard Federal time; it was windswept, dank, and cold.  Another unique feature of prison life at Alcatraz was the ability to hear the echoes of partygoers across the bay. This daily reminded prisoners of the life they were missing (Adams, 2000).

Another crime boss to serve time in a federal facility was John Gotti. Gotti was one of the heads of the Gambino crime family in New York City.  Arrested in 1990 and charged with murder and racketeering, Gotti received a sentence of life without parole.  His time would be served in a seven-by-eight-foot cell at the Federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois.  Described by U.S. News & World Report as “America’s toughest prison,” (1992, p. 23) USP Marion is really just a medium security prison.  The reason for this discrepancy could be because the Bureau of Prisons alters the security levels when needed. The basis for such changes are the needs of the system (Bureau of Prisons, 2011).

The Federal prison system in America has grown large–so much so that as of 2016, Congress is considering serious changes to the system for the first time in decades. The reason is as much financial as it is a shifting of the political winds. What exactly Congress will do is unknown, but the goal is to reduce the populations.

Although Federal prisons have changed much since Leavenworht was built, one thing has remained the same:  Commit a Federal crime, do Federal time.  In the modern Federal prison system, there is a place for everyone.

Read Also

State and Federal Prisons: A History of Growth

U.S. Law Enforcement Agencies Complete List

Justice Careers


  • Adams, J. M. (2000, May). Alcatraz. Biography, 4(5), 48.
  • Bureau of Prisons. (2011). Prison Types & General Information. Retrieved from http://www.bop.gov/locations/institutions/index.jsp
  • Timothy McVeigh (1968-2001). (2003). Hutchinson’s Biography Database, 0(0), 1.
  • Tresnioski, A., Shepherd, A., Simmons, M., Cotliar, S., Longley, J., Hazlett, C., Herbst, D., & Ingrassia, L. (2005, March 21). Martha’s Moment. People, 63(11), 74-79.
  • Watson, R., & Brant, M. (1995, May 1). Three Strange Friends. Newsweek, 125(18), 32.
  • Zonana, V. (February 28, 1992). Milken to Pay $500 M, Serve 40 Months under Settlement. Retrieved from http://tech.mit.edu/V112/N9/milken.09w.html
  • Cohn, B., & Reiss, S. (1992, April 20). Noriega: How the Feds Got Their Man.Newsweek, 119(16), 37.
  • Foster, B. (2006). Corrections: The Fundamentals. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentis-Hall.
  • Jaffe, T. (1990, March 19). FortBoesky. Forbes, 145(6), .
  • John Gotti. (1992, July 6). U.S. News & World Report, 113(1), 23.
  • Manuel Noriega. (1992, July 20). U.S. News & World Report, 113(3), .
  • Marshall, K. C. (2009, Spring). Why Can’t Martha Stewart Have a Gun? Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, 32(2), 695-735.
  • McGill, S. A. (2005). Al Capone. : Great Neck Publishing.
  • Ryan, J. (2005). Manuel Noriega. : Great Neck Publishing.

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