What's the difference between a minimum and a maximum security prison?

Daily Brew
The men's maximum security unit of the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, Sask. (CP)

At 9:30 p.m. on Sunday November 1, 2015 20-year-old convicted robber Jesse Grant McMullen was found missing from a head count at Saskatchewan Penitentiary Minimum Security Unit.

Thankfully, McMullen was recaptured the next day. But his escape, along with the letters from notorious convicted murderer Luka Magnotta from medium and minimum security prisons in Quebec, makes you wonder just how secure minimum security prisons are, and who exactly the offenders housed in these facilities are.

“With any escape, we take that very seriously from a risk to public safety standpoint,” said Wayne Buller, assistant warden management services at Collins Bay Institution – a multi-level security prison in Kingston, Ont.

“The offenders that are at a minimum security prison would've been assessed as having a low risk to public safety, but once that offender has escaped lawful custody, and when they are returned to the correctional facility, they are immediately upgraded to a medium security facility because of their now high risk for escape.”

So what are the differences between maximum, medium and minimum security prisons? At its most basic, it comes down to freedom of movement.

Dynamic vs. static security

You probably think you know a maximum security prison when you see it: high walls, double fences, guard towers, perimeter patrols and more. Yes, a maximum security prison does have those things, but what really defines it is how an inmate is able to move inside its walls.

“In a maximum security facility you'll find cells – individual cells or two people in a cell, but they’re in cells,” says Colin Lobo, principal at Lobo Consulting Services Inc., a Toronto-based firm designing prison security systems.

“These inmates have a confined movement period, so they'd have to be within their cells for a certain period of time per day and then in a controlled dayroom for another period of time per day, even their movement to other areas of the facility is very controlled.”

Contrast that level of scrutiny with a minimum security prison and what you'll find is something not unlike the “university setting” Luka Magnotta described in his letters.

“It's a lot more dorm style, with bunk beds and possibly more than two inmates to a room,” says Lobo. “Their movement within the facility is not as heavily restricted as it would be in a maximum security facility.”

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There’s so much freedom in some of these facilities that there may be nothing more than a large sign keeping inmates from certain areas.

“Instead of the secure perimeter of a maximum or medium security prison, minimum security prisons have boundaries and the offenders need to stay within that boundary area, but there are no fences or other physical means holding them in other than a boundary sign saying what is out of bounds,” says Buller.

Instead of the static security that uses barriers to keep inmates in one place in a maximum security prison, minimum security prisons rely on dynamic security, which relies on human-driven resources like occasional patrols by program and security staff, as well as head counts four times a day to keep inmates where they're supposed to be.

Increased privileges

In addition to fewer physical restrictions, minimum security prisoners enjoy many more privileges than their maximum and medium security counterparts.

“At the minimum security institution, you could be looking at a day parole situation where you may go out on a day pass unescorted. You may also participate in a work-release program. For example, we have volunteers who pick up our offenders and they'll go and clean parks or scrub graffiti off of bus stations. You wouldn't be able to do that, even at a medium security facility,” says Buller.

A California State Prison-Solano inmate installs a garden on October 19, 2015 in California. (Getty)

The increase in privileges begins in a medium security setting. Though they have many of the same external security mechanisms as a maximum security system, medium security institutions have “responsibility wings” where inmates go from their individual cells to living in communal pods with up to eight inmates at once with common toilets and kitchen facilities. In these pods, they get to buy and prepare their own food from the prison's internal grocery store, which is seen as a major privilege by those housed there.

A fine balance

Being in a minimum security prison has nothing to do with the type of crime you commit.

“Those in minimum security have committed all different types of offences,” says Buller.

“Inmates could take longer periods of time to get to the minimum security level, but primarily the focus of corrections is to work on the criminal behaviour both on the street and while incarcerated, so that eventually they're showing progress by focusing on their corrective behaviour and as they succeed, they're reducing their level of risk and also their security classification.”

Just because you start out in a maximum security prison, doesn't mean you'll stay there, so prison officials must walk a delicate tight rope between rehabilitation and public safety: letting more guards down as an inmate's positive behaviour is rewarded, but also having faith that their trust in the inmate won't be violated and the public won't be put at greater risk.

This [graduating process] may result in rare escapes, but this cascading generally serves us well when accompanied by supportive release mechanisms and conditions,” says Justin Piché, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa and an expert on the sociology and the cultural representations of punishment.

One of those supportive release mechanisms includes an inmate's correctional plan. Every inmate gets one as soon as they enter Canada's penal system and following that correctional plan, without any further disciplinary infractions, goes a long way in getting you designated a minimum security prisoner.

“A correctional plan is totally individualized,” says Buller. “Once you enter a correctional facility, you are taken to an assessment unit where you're assessed on a variety of different things like what level of education you've completed, whether you're literate, what language you speak and what exactly got you in prison.”

An inmate’s correctional plan includes all of the programs such as substance abuse, anger management, high school completion and more that are recommended for your rehabilitative success. All of these programs are voluntary and optional, but completion of them will move you towards a lower security designation.

Officer Lt. Noseworthy stands in Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's, NL, on June 9, 2011. (CP)

Potential to abuse the system, but risks minimal

But for all the effort Correctional Service Canada makes to help these people in their rehabilitation and integration back into society, there always seems to be the fear that an inmate maybe gaming the system for more freedom and that someone of higher security risk will somehow be designated at a minimum security prisoner and be a greater threat public safety than they initially presented. But Wayne Buller says we can rest easy.

“Inmates don't just talk to one particular person, on one particular day and give them on particular line. We have a number of staff involved in their correctional program, so it's not just whether you participate in the programs, but how you are observed by all staff interacting on a day-to-day basis. All that information gets collected and contributes to the big picture of your future. It's tough to tell a lie so many times.”

No part of the correctional plan is one person's decision. Corrections officers are dealing with human nature and Buller believes enough people are looking over each other's shoulders to make sure things are being done the right way. As Piché reminds us, The Golden Rule even applies to those in prison.

We all need to keep in mind that it is the deprivation of liberty itself that is the punishment and that is quite painful in its own right. While we may want our pound of flesh, we must resist this temptation and treat others as we would want ourselves to be treated to preserve the dignity of all, including our own.”