If you are sent to prison, you will be given a category ranging from A to D (or just ‘open’ and ‘closed’ for female prisoners). This determines the level of security that is needed during your time in custody.

Prison categorisation framework

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Prison categorisation

In England and Wales, there are different categories of prison. You have probably heard about ‘high security prisons’ and possibly even open prisons. The category of the prison determines how much security is present – and in theory, how easy it would be to escape.

When a defendant is given a prison sentence, the system will decide what category prison he or she should be sent to. This is based on a range of factors, including:

  • How likely it is that the prisoner will try to escape
  • The danger posed to the public, if the prisoner were to escape
  • Whether the prisoner is likely to continue criminal activity from inside prison

Prison categories for women

There are four possible prison categories for women, although most will either be sent to an ‘open’ prison or a ‘closed’ prison. An open prison is for those who present a low risk, whereas a closed prison is for those who present a high risk and cannot be trusted in an open prison.

There are two other prison categories for women: restricted status and category A. However, they are very rarely used. Restricted status is reserved for those whose escape would cause a serious risk to the public. Category A is for those deemed to be highly dangerous.

Prison categories for men

There are four possible prison categories for men: category A, category B, category C and category D. As with female prisoners, category A prisons are high security prisons and are reserved for those who present a significant danger. These prisons aim to make an escape impossible.

At the other end of the scale, category D prisons are open prisons and have minimal security. Prisoners are only sent to category D prisons if:

  • The risk of serious harm is low
  • The individual has less than three years to serve
  • There is a low risk of absconding
  • He is unlikely to continue with criminality in custody
  • He is unlikely to abuse the low security or disrupt the good order of the open estate

The majority of male prisoners are sent to category C prisons.

Can the prison category change?

A prisoner will not necessarily remain in the same category for the duration of their prison sentence. Reviews will be conducted periodically, depending on the length of the sentence. A review will also be carried out if there is a material change in the prisoner’s circumstances – for example, the prisoner tries to escape.

If prison staff feel that the prisoner requires less security – or more security – then the prisoner can be transferred to another, more appropriate prison. What are the rules on prison visits ?


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