How Are Cells Assigned in Prison?

By Prison Insight Staff

Updated: March 1, 2022

Something that many of us take for granted in the free world is the ability to choose our housing. In America, we can live where we want, and we can rent or buy a house or an apartment. 

When you are convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison, the luxury of choosing your housing accommodations goes out the window. Whether you are locked up for 25 days or 25 years, your housing assignment is not up to you. An inmate does not get to choose where they live. Instead, this decision lies in the hands of the facility’s administrative staff.

This leads us to today’s blog topic where we answer the question: how are cells assigned in prison? In this post, I will cover the following topics:

  • All prison inmates are classified by prison staff
  • Cell assignments are based on classification
  • An inmate can request a housing change

All prison inmates are classified by prison staff

When an inmate is first sent to prison, they go through a process called receiving and orientation. This is known as “R&O” on camp. Depending on the facility, an inmate can be in R&O for as little as a couple of weeks, or as long as three months. 

During this time, inmates are classified by prison staff. Classification is a method of assessing inmate risks that balance security requirements with program needs. Inmates are sent through a series of evaluations that include medical and mental health screenings and educational testing.

Prison classification specialists then develop an individual profile of each inmate that includes their crime, social background, education, job skills and work history, health, and criminal record, including prior prison sentences. 

Based on this information, the inmate is assigned to the most appropriate custody classification and prison. This information also informs whether or not an inmate is assigned to work or school. They may also be required to participate in rehabilitative self improvement programs, and/or treatment. 

As inmates serve out their sentences, if they comply with prison rules, do assigned work, and participate in corrective programs, they will progress toward minimum custody ahead of their release. 

Believe it or not, all of this determines where an inmate is assigned for housing. Roommates are usually chosen by staff based on age, affiliation with groups (or gangs), work assignments, medical concerns, mental health issues, protection issues, history of violent behavior, and space availability. 

I should also mention that during screening at R&O, prison staff will straight up ask you, “who do you run with?” If you are a gang member, you have to let them know. As a rule, facilities try to keep gang members separate, but they don’t always have the space to do that. 

Cell assignments are based on classification

Maximum-security prisons usually house their inmates in single cells, but some do have double cells. Lower security levels have housing that varies from double occupancy cells to group warehouse-style dorms. 

Where I was incarcerated, we lived in college-style dorm housing. There were six inmates assigned to each room, and we had a key for our doors. We were restricted to our housing unit, but not our rooms. Which meant we had access to the day room, bathrooms, showers, and the yard. 

Housing assignments can also be determined by programming. Facilities will segregate inmates who are in treatment, as well as honor dorm residents and work release inmates. There is also separate housing for inmates who are locked up for sexual offenses. 

The best housing unit to live in is the pre release unit. This is where you prepare for your release by taking classes and getting things set up on the outside with family and friends. It also keeps you away from inmates with longer sentences, who might try to get your date taken with a fight.

Facilities that house long-timers will often have a separate housing unit for inmates serving a sentence of a decade or more.

An inmate can request a housing change

If an inmate doesn’t feel safe in their cell, they can request a change. But, there’s no guarantee that the request will be accepted. If it gets bad enough, an inmate can request protective custody. Which will eventually force a change. But that does usually require a few days of solitary confinement.

When I was locked up, I went through numerous roommates and housing changes over four years. Every time, I had to pack everything I owned up in a metal foot locker and drag it to my new room. It was the worst!

My best roommate story happened when I was moved into a new room after getting a job at the commissary. I was setting up my space, and I had my TV on. I was watching Snapped and listening with my headphones.

As I was listening to the case — which took place in Missouri, where I was incarcerated — I discovered that the woman they were talking about who had been convicted of killing her husband was my new roommate. Her name was Sandra Plunkett. That was one of the craziest experiences of my life, but it only lasted one day. She got into a fight the next day and was sent to solitary. They moved her out immediately. 

If you’ve done prison time, let us know your worst roommate story in the comments below.


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