Does the right to equal protection mean that all prisoners must be classified alike?

In general, despite the concept of equal protection, prison officials have wide discretion to manage prison life. In part, that means that they don’t have to treat all inmates similarly. For example, many prisons classify inmates as maximum, medium, or minimum security risks, and treat them accordingly. (However, laws and procedures may vary at least somewhat from federal to state prison, and from state to state.)

Minimum-security-risk prisoners are usually housed in a section of a prison with fewer restrictions on movement and greater work opportunities. Factors that prison officials may consider when assessing a prisoner’s security classification include:

  • the length and severity of the sentence
  • previous behavior in other jails or prisons
  • medical needs
  • gang affiliations (or the existence of enemies within the prison population)
  • work skills
  • proximity to outside family (especially if a relative is ill or elderly)
  • the likelihood of rehabilitation, and
  • whether the prisoner poses a threat to other inmates, guards, or himself.

Prisoners who are unhappy with their confinement status may seek review, especially if they can show proof of specific factors that warrant a lower risk classification, such as work skills or medical needs. But it’s most effective to present such documentation when a prisoner is first confined. Prison officials will be less inclined to change their minds once they make a designation, and courts often refuse to second-guess officials on a process they view as prison management.

For more on the treatment of inmates, see Prisoners' Rights.

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