United States Penitentiaries and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP)

“Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on”. – Robert F. Kennedy, 64th United States Attorney General

United States Penitentiaries

USP Leavenworth Federal Bureau of Prisons
USP Leavenworth Federal Bureau of Prisons

The United States government created the federal prison system with the Three Prisons Act of 1891 (BOP, 2015). This new legislation funded the construction of three federal prisons (BOP, 2015). In 1903, the first of the original three federal prison opened for business and this was the United States Penitentiary (USP) Leavenworth, Kansas (BOP, 2015). The federal prisoners soon had a nickname for USP Leavenworth and they called it the “Hot House” (BOP, 2015). The nickname came from the lack of air circulation causing extremely warm temperatures inside the cell houses (BOP, 2015). The construction on the new federal penitentiary was completed first; however, the USP Leavenworth did not receive its first federal prisoners until after USP Atlanta was already operational (BOP, 2015).

USP Leavenworth had several infamous and celebrity federal inmates over the years such as prohibition era gangster George Kelly, a.k.a. “Machine Gun Kelly”, and NFL quarterback Michael Vick who fell from grace after being convicted of funding and running an illegal dog fighting ring (BOP, 2015).

USP Leavenworth is still operational today by the BOP.

United States Penitentiary: Atlanta, GA
United States Penitentiary: Atlanta, GA

In 1902, USP Atlanta became the second federal penitentiary constructed and immediately started taking federal prisons the same year (BOP, 2015). USP Atlanta is the largest institution of the original three federal penitentiaries (BOP, 2015). Federal prisoners nicked name the USP Atlanta “The Big A”.

Some of the most infamous and celebrity federal inmates who have served federal prison sentences at USP Atlanta is Chicago’s organized crime boss Al Capone and Detroit Tigers 1968 World Series pitcher and two-time Cy Young winner Denny McLain who was convicted of extortion, racketeering, and drug trafficking (BOP, 2015).

USP Atlanta is still operational today by the BOP.

McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary
McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary

The third of the original federal penitentiaries is USP McNeil Island located in Puget Sound, Washington (BOP, 2015). McNeil Island was a prison complex that housed both state and federal prisoners before becoming part of the new federal prison system and undergoing renovations in 1901 and becoming operational in 1902 (BOP, 2015).

The most infamous federal inmate at USP McNeil Island was Charles Manson who in 1965 committed a federal crime of interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle and received a sentence of 4-years (BOP, 2015). After his release from prison in 1969, his followers known as the “Mason Family” committed the brutal murders of 4 people in California (BOP, 2015). The BOP correctional officers reported that Charles Manson was a sensation at the inmate talent shows at USP McNeil Island, and was a model inmate (BOP, 2015).

USP McNeil Island closed as a U.S. penitentiary in 1981, and renovated to a modern state prison for the State of Washington Department of Corrections (DOC). The McNeil Island prison complex is the only penal institution in American history to have served as a territorial jail, a federal penitentiary, and state prison.

The early U.S. penitentiary system was the precursor to the Bureau of Prisons.

Bureau of Prisons (BOP)

BOP correctional officers
BOP correctional officers

Federal law created the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in 1930 (BOP, 2015). The mission of the BOP is to manage federal prisoners and administrate all 44 U.S. federal correctional institutions (BOP, 2015).

The BOP correctional officer’s initial training is a 3-week residential Staff Training Academy (STA) conducted at FLETC in the Introduction to Correctional Techniques (ICT) program. The field training occurs upon successful completion of the STA and ICT courses and new BOP correctional officer is assigned to one of the 44 U.S. federal correctional institutions (BOP, 2015).

The Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed in 2001, at the USP Terre Haute, Indiana by lethal injection for the bombing of the US federal building that killed 8 federal law enforcement officers and 160 civilians (BOP, 2015).

In an effort to combat illegal drug manufacturing and trafficking in the U.S., new federal sentencing laws have directly impacted BOP operations and increased the federal prison population (BOP, 2015). Federal sentencing laws increase the penalties for drug related crimes (BOP, 2015). The new U.S. laws have increased longer federal prison sentence, created mandatory minimum sentencing, abolishing federal parole, and reducing a federal prisoner’s ability to shave off sentence time by good time served (BOP, 2015). The new U.S. correctional laws have caused the federal prison population to double in the past 30-years (BOP, 2015). At present, there are over 200,000 federal prisoners spread out among the 44 different BOP institutions in the United States (BOP, 2015).

Alcatraz, nicknamed “The Rock”
Alcatraz, nicknamed “The Rock”

Fun BOP Fact: The most famous United States Penitentiary (USP) is Alcatraz, nicknamed “The Rock” (BOP, 2015). Before Alcatraz became a USP in 1933, it was a military maximum-security institution known officially as the United States Disciplinary Barracks of Alcatraz (BOP, 2015). Alcatraz closed in 1963 after operating 30-years as a USP (BOP, 2015).


Bureau of Prisons (BOP). (2015). A storied past. Retrieved from http://www.bop.gov/about/history/

About the Author

Mark Bond

Mark Bond has worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms instructor for more than 33 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in criminal justice, and M.Ed in educational leadership with Summa Cum Laude honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education (EdD) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.