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Why do federal inmates get transferred so much?

It’s not uncommon for federal inmates to be moved around to different facilities during their sentence. There are a few main reasons why federal prisoners regularly get transferred from one facility to another:


The federal prison population has ballooned over the past few decades. Harsher sentencing laws have led to more people being incarcerated for longer periods of time. This has caused massive overcrowding in many federal prisons. When a facility becomes too crowded, inmates will be transferred to other sites that have available space.

Security Level Changes

Inmates are assigned a security level (minimum, low, medium or high) based on factors like their criminal history and behavior in prison. As an inmate’s security classification changes, they may get moved to a new facility that matches their current level. For example, an inmate with good behavior may transfer from a high to medium security prison.

Medical/Mental Health Needs

Some federal prisons are not equipped to handle inmates with serious medical or mental health conditions. If an inmate requires specialized care, they will likely be moved to another facility that can meet their needs. For instance, inmates may transfer to Federal Medical Centers that provide advanced health services.

Proximity to Release

Many inmates are placed in facilities close to where they lived prior to incarceration or near their release destination. As an inmate gets closer to their release date, they may be moved nearer to their home to facilitate the transition process.

Reasons for Frequent Federal Inmate Transfers

Now that we’ve covered why transfers occur in general, let’s look at some specific reasons federal prisoners tend to get moved around more frequently than state inmates:

More Available Facilities

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has 122 facilities nationwide compared to most states which only have a handful. This gives the FBOP many more options for placing and transferring inmates. If an issue comes up at one federal prison, inmates can readily be sent to another.

Centralized System

The FBOP is one unified agency overseeing the federal prison system. This allows for greater coordination between facilities. State prisons systems are often fragmented between different entities, making transfers more difficult. The centralized FBOP bureaucracy can easily reroute prisoners.

Uniform Classification System

Federal inmates go through the same intake and classification process, which makes them more interchangeable between sites. Wide variance in classification systems among states can hinder transferring state prisoners. The uniform federal system gives officials flexibility to move inmates between appropriate security levels across the country.

Longer Sentences

The average federal prison sentence is over twice as long as the average state sentence. People serving decades in prison are more likely to undergo multiple transfers than short-term inmates. Their needs and circumstances are bound to change over such long sentences, necessitating moves.

Gang Management

Federal prisons house inmates from gangs that span state lines, like MS-13. Prison officials frequently transfer inmates to disrupt gang activity and organization. Breaking up gang concentrations across facilities helps reduce violence and illegal activity.

Impact on Inmates

Getting transferred takes a major toll on federal inmates:


Inmates have to leave familiar surroundings and people behind. They need to get acclimated to new facilities, personnel, rules and fellow prisoners. This can be mentally disorienting.

Lost Support

Transfers can remove inmates from family and external support systems. Loved ones may be unable to visit or stay in contact after a long distance move.

Feelings of Instability

Frequent transfers prevent inmates from settling into stable routines and relationships. The uncertainty and disruption can heighten stress and frustration.

Danger of the Unknown

New prisons come with risks like inmate violence, contraband problems, and abusive staff. Inmates worry about having to prove themselves again amongst unknown potential dangers.

Loss of Programming

Inmates get interrupted from positive programming like education, jobs and rehabilitation services. Transfers can delay progress and achievement.

Recidivism Concerns

Research indicates that high rates of prison transfers correlate with increased recidivism rates upon release:

Cuts Rehabilitation

Each disruption from a transfer impedes participation in rehabilitative programming. This can prevent inmates from getting the full treatment needed to succeed on the outside.

Worsens Behavior

The instability of repeated transfers exacerbates behavioral problems in some inmates, causing more disciplinary issues. This makes them more likely to reoffend.

Release Planning Disruption

Last minute transfers leading up to release can interrupt the reentry planning process. This leaves some inmates unprepared to transition back into society, and more prone to failure.

Loss of Outside Support

As discussed earlier, transfers can separate inmates from positive influences on the outside. Losing these social supports increases their risk of returning to crime.

Post-Release Instability

The constant disruption experienced during incarceration can make functioning difficult after release. Former inmates struggle to readjust and succeed outside prison if they grew dependent on its structure.

Efforts to Limit Transfers

Recognizing the downsides of over transfers, some initiatives try to limit unnecessary inmate movement:

Alternative Housing

Building new units allows prisons experiencing crowding to spread inmates out without transferring them elsewhere. These include jailhouse tents, barges and portable buildings.

Expanded Early Release

Programs like halfway houses and home confinement provide alternatives to continued incarceration. This saves bed space for remaining prisoners without transfers.

Limiting Disciplinary Transfers

Some prisons try to handle infractions locally instead of reflexively moving the inmate. This prevents transfers being used as informal punishments.

Increased Oversight

External oversight boards review transfer decisions to ensure they are justified and in inmates’ best interests. This prevents unnecessary movement.

Transfer Notification Policies

Requiring prisons to notify inmates of upcoming transfers allows them time to notify outside contacts of the change. This minimizes disruptions.


The frequent transfer of federal inmates is driven by institutional factors like overcrowding, population management, and government bureaucracy. While often administratively convenient, these transfers take a real psychological and rehabilitative toll on prisoners. New approaches that limit unnecessary movement can help improve federal incarceration and recidivism outcomes. Going forward, the FBOP must be judicious in utilizing its transfer powers and carefully weigh the impacts transfers have on inmates and public safety.