What are the Different Types of Prisons?

September 7, 2023

Prisons serve as vital elements within the criminal justice system, serving as secure facilities for individuals convicted of various offences. 

These institutions play a crucial role in ensuring public safety, administering punishment, and facilitating rehabilitation for offenders. 

Understanding the different types of prisons is essential to comprehend how the justice system addresses the diverse needs of individuals based on their age groups, genders, and risk levels.

By exploring the different types of prisons in England, Wales, and Scotland, we gain insights into how these institutions are structured to cater to specific categories of offenders. 

Each type of prison is carefully designed to meet the distinct requirements of different groups, ranging from male and female inmates to young adults and individuals under 18.

In this article we will explain and elaborate on the distinctions between male and female offenders and how prisons tailor their approaches to address the unique challenges faced by each gender. 

Additionally, we will delve into the specific facilities dedicated to young adults, recognizing the importance of providing specialised care and rehabilitation opportunities to this vulnerable group.

Moreover, we will explore the possibility of prisoners changing categories during their sentences. 

This aspect reflects the dynamic nature of the criminal justice system, where offenders’ behaviour, progress in rehabilitation, and risk levels are continually assessed to determine the most appropriate environment for their incarceration.

Finally, we will investigate the option for prisoners to appeal their prison category. 

This aspect emphasises the importance of fairness and transparency in the criminal justice system, ensuring that decisions regarding an individual’s confinement are subject to impartial review.

Through our examination of the different types of prisons and their management, we aim to provide a comprehensive understanding of how the justice system operates to maintain security, deliver justice, and facilitate rehabilitation. 

By gaining insight into the practices employed in these institutions, we can better appreciate the complexities involved in balancing punishment, protection, and restoration for offenders and society as a whole. Ultimately, our exploration seeks to shed light on the efforts made by the criminal justice system to foster a safer and more just society.

What are the different types of prisons?

In the criminal justice system of England and Wales, prisons are categorised based on different security levels to ensure the effective management and containment of prisoners.

There are currently 4 separate prison categories, A – D.

HMP Wakefield - a category A prison
A drone shot of HMP Wakefield – a category A prison

Each category represents a distinct level of security and is designed to address the unique risks posed by different groups of inmates. 

Let’s explore each category in more detail:

Category A Prisons

Category A prisons are the highest-security facilities and house the most dangerous and escape-prone prisoners. 

These individuals often include those convicted of serious offences, high-profile criminals, or those considered a significant threat to public safety. 

Category A prisons have stringent security measures, including advanced surveillance systems, advanced scanning systems, and limited inmate movement, and a high staff-to-inmate ratio. 

The primary goal of Category A prisons is to prevent escapes and maintain tight control over potentially violent or disruptive prisoners.

Category B Prisons

Category B prisons are designed for inmates who do not require maximum security but still pose a significant risk. 

These prisoners may have committed serious offences but are deemed less dangerous or likely to escape compared to Category A inmates. 

Category B prisons also implement robust security measures, although they may allow for more freedom of movement compared to Category A facilities. 

HMP Wandsworth - a category B prison
HMP Wandsworth – a category B prison

The focus is on ensuring the safety and security of both inmates and staff while providing opportunities for rehabilitation, overcoming drug addictions and preparing inmates for potential reintegration into society.

Category C Prisons

Category C prisons house prisoners who cannot be trusted in open conditions but do not pose a high risk of escape. 

These inmates may have displayed problematic behaviour or demonstrated a moderate level of risk, but they are not considered as dangerous as Category A or B prisoners. 

Category C facilities maintain a controlled environment to prevent unauthorised movement and interactions among inmates. 

While security remains a priority, there is also an emphasis on providing access to educational and vocational programs, to support the rehabilitation process.

Category D Prisons

Category D prisons, commonly known as open prisons, cater to low-risk prisoners who are approaching the end of their sentences. 

These facilities offer a less restrictive environment, with a focus on preparing inmates for their eventual release and reintegration into society. 

Inmates in open prisons may have demonstrated positive behaviour and a reduced risk of reoffending. 

They often have more freedom of movement within the prison and may participate in work-release programs or community activities outside the prison walls.

The categorization of prisons helps to manage the diverse population of offenders effectively.

It allows authorities to match the level of security and control to the risks posed by individual prisoners. 

By providing different types of facilities, the criminal justice system aims to strike a balance between public safety, security, and the rehabilitation of offenders. 

The categorization system is dynamic, and prisoners’ security categories can change based on their behaviour, progress in rehabilitation programs, and perceived risk levels, ensuring that each inmate is held in the most appropriate environment throughout their sentence.

What are the different types of prisons for men?

In England and Wales, the prison system for male offenders is designed to address the unique needs and risks associated with different age groups. 

There are two primary categories of men’s prisons:

Young Offender Institutions

Young Offender Institutions are specifically designated for male offenders between the ages of 18 and 21. 

These youth prisons aim to provide a supportive and rehabilitative environment for young adult offenders, recognizing that this age group often faces distinct challenges and opportunities for change. 

YOIs focus on education, vocational training, and other rehabilitative programs tailored to the needs of young offenders. 

The emphasis is on helping them develop essential life skills, address the factors that led to their criminal behaviour, and reduce the likelihood of reoffending. 

Young offenders in YOIs are also given access to age-appropriate support services to aid in their personal and emotional development.

Adult Prisons

Adult prisons in England and Wales house male offenders aged 21 and above. 

The standard look of different types of prisons in the UK
The standard look of different types of prison in the UK

These prisons are further categorised based on their security needs and are described in more detail above. 

What are the different types of prisons for women?

Women’s prisons in England and Wales are designed to meet the specific needs and risks associated with female offenders. 

The two primary categories of women’s prisons are as follows:

Female Closed Prisons

These prisons are high-security facilities that house female offenders who pose significant security risks or have committed serious crimes. 

Female closed prisons are equipped with strict security measures to ensure the safety of both staff and inmates. 

The main focus in these facilities is to maintain control and security while also providing access to various rehabilitative programs and support services. 

These programs aim to address the underlying factors that contribute to female offending, such as trauma, substance abuse, and mental health issues. 

By addressing these root causes, authorities hope to reduce the likelihood of reoffending and facilitate successful reintegration into society.

Female Open Prisons

Female open prisons are low-security facilities for women who are approaching the end of their sentences and preparing for release. 

In these prisons, the emphasis is on preparing female offenders for reintegration into the community. 

They offer a more relaxed environment compared to closed prisons, allowing inmates greater freedom of movement within the prison grounds. 

Female offenders in open prisons often participate in education, vocational training, and work programs to develop skills that can support them in finding employment upon release. 

Access to family support and community services is also encouraged to strengthen the social ties that play a crucial role in successful reintegration.

The classification of women’s prisons is based on individual assessments of security risks, behaviour, and progress in rehabilitation. 

Female offenders with similar security needs and risk profiles are grouped together to ensure that they receive appropriate supervision and support. 

Throughout their sentences, inmates may be transferred between different prisons based on their changing needs and progress in rehabilitation.

The ultimate goal of women’s prisons is to support the rehabilitation and successful reintegration of female offenders into society. 

By providing access to education, training, and support services, these facilities aim to break the cycle of offending and reduce the risk of reoffending. 

Additionally, maintaining connections with family and community support networks is crucial for women during and after their incarceration, as these ties play a significant role in reducing recidivism and promoting positive outcomes.

What are the different types of prisons for young people?

Young adult offenders in England and Wales require specialised facilities that address their unique needs and developmental stages. The two main types of establishments that cater to young offenders are Secure Training Centres (STCs) and Secure Children’s Homes (SCHs).

Secure Training Centres

STCs are secure facilities designed to accommodate both male and female young offenders aged between 12 and 17 years. 

These centres focus on providing a safe and secure environment while also offering a range of educational, vocational, and rehabilitative programs. 

The aim is to address the underlying issues that may contribute to offending behaviour and equip young offenders with the necessary skills and support to reintegrate successfully into society.

STCs are run by private organisations under the supervision and guidance of the Youth Custody Service. 

The emphasis in these centres is on education, with a structured daily schedule that includes academic classes, vocational training, and physical activities. 

Additionally, therapeutic interventions and counselling are available to help young offenders address trauma, mental health issues, and substance abuse problems.

The staff-to-inmate ratio in STCs is typically higher than in adult prisons to ensure close supervision and individualised care. 

The goal is to create a supportive and nurturing environment that promotes personal growth and positive behavioural changes.

Secure Children’s Homes

Secure Children’s Homes provide secure accommodation for young offenders aged 10 to 17 years who require a highly structured and safe environment. 

These homes are distinct from STCs as they are exclusively for younger offenders and cater to their specific needs and vulnerabilities.

SCHs focus on providing a homely and supportive atmosphere where young offenders can receive appropriate care and intervention. 

The emphasis is on offering individualised care plans, educational support, and therapeutic interventions to address behavioural issues and promote positive development.

The staff in SCHs are specially trained to work with young people and are equipped to handle the unique challenges that may arise in caring for vulnerable and troubled youth. 

The goal is to create a nurturing environment that encourages personal growth, educational attainment, and positive relationships with peers and staff.

The decision to place a young offender in either an STC or SCH is based on their individual circumstances, the seriousness of their offences, and the level of security required. 

The priority is to ensure that young offenders receive appropriate care and support to address their offending behaviour and set them on a path towards rehabilitation and reintegration.

Both STCs and SCHs aim to strike a balance between security and rehabilitation, recognizing that young offenders have the potential to change and make positive choices. 

By providing young offenders with the necessary support and guidance, these establishments contribute to breaking the cycle of offending and reducing the risk of reoffending in the future.

What are the different types of prisons in Scotland?

In Scotland, the prison system is organised into different categories to accommodate various types of offenders based on their security needs and age groups. 

The three main categories of prisons in Scotland are Closed Prisons, Open Prisons, and Young Offender Institutions (YOIs).

Closed Prisons

Closed prisons in Scotland are high-security facilities designed to house adult male and female offenders who pose a significant risk to the public or have committed serious crimes. 

These prisons have strict security measures in place to prevent escape and maintain the safety of both inmates and staff.

In closed prisons, the focus is on maintaining order and security while providing a range of programs and interventions aimed at addressing offending behaviour and promoting rehabilitation. 

Inmates in closed prisons have limited freedom of movement and are closely monitored by prison staff.

Open Prisons

Open prisons in Scotland are low-security facilities for adult male and female offenders who have progressed in their sentence and have demonstrated good behaviour. 

Open prisons offer a more relaxed and less restrictive environment compared to closed prisons.

In open prisons, inmates are given more freedom of movement and may be granted temporary release to work or participate in educational and vocational programs outside the prison. 

The goal is to prepare inmates for reintegration into society by gradually reintroducing them to a more independent and responsible lifestyle.

Young Offender Institutions

Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) in Scotland are dedicated facilities for young offenders aged between 16 and 21 years. 

These institutions provide age-appropriate care, support, and interventions for young people who have committed criminal offences.

The focus in YOIs is on rehabilitation, education, and personal development. 

The staff in YOIs are trained to work with young offenders and address their specific needs and vulnerabilities. 

The aim is to equip young offenders with the necessary skills and support to break the cycle of offending and make positive changes in their lives.

In addition to these main categories, Scotland also has other specialised prisons to cater to specific groups of offenders, such as those with mental health issues or substance abuse problems. 

These facilities provide targeted interventions and treatment programs to address the underlying factors contributing to offending behaviour.

Does a prisoner stay in the same category through their sentence?

Throughout a prisoner’s sentence, their category within the prison system can change based on various factors, including their behaviour, progress in rehabilitation, and risk level. This dynamic approach allows for adjustments in their living conditions to better match their individual needs and level of risk.

Advancement to a Lower-Security Category

As prisoners demonstrate positive behaviour, engagement in rehabilitation programs, and a reduced risk of reoffending, they may be eligible for transfer to a lower-security category. 

This progression reflects the prison’s acknowledgment of their efforts to address their offending behaviour and reintegrate into society successfully.

In lower-security categories, prisoners enjoy more freedom and flexibility, such as increased access to educational and vocational opportunities, participation in outdoor activities, and even the possibility of temporary release under specific conditions. 

This transition allows inmates to gradually adapt to life outside the prison walls while still being closely supervised and supported.

Transfer to Higher-Security Prisons

On the other hand, if a prisoner exhibits disruptive behaviour, engages in misconduct, or poses an increased risk to the safety and security of others, they might face transfer to a higher-security prison. 

This move is a response to address their escalating risk level and protect both staff and other inmates.

Higher-security prisons impose stricter measures to prevent escapes, maintain order, and ensure the safety of all involved. 

Inmates in these facilities may have more limited privileges and face heightened restrictions on their daily activities and movements.

Assessing Risk and Needs

The process of determining a prisoner’s category and potential changes involves regular risk assessments and evaluations conducted by prison staff. 

These assessments consider factors such as the severity of their crime, their behaviour while incarcerated, engagement in rehabilitation programs, and any potential threat they pose to themselves or others.

These assessments are critical in guiding prison authorities to make informed decisions regarding prisoner categorization and the appropriate level of supervision and support required for each individual.

Can a prisoner appeal their prison category?

Prisoners have the right to appeal their prison category if they believe that they are wrongly placed in a particular security level. 

They can request reviews of their case to present evidence of their progress, efforts in rehabilitation, and improved behaviour to support their eligibility for a category change.

Appeals and reviews are an essential part of ensuring fairness and justice in the prison system. 

Prisoners have the opportunity to present their case and have their circumstances carefully considered before any decisions are made.


The classification of prisons in England, Wales, and Scotland provides an organised approach to managing offenders based on their security needs and age groups. 

The justice system considers the safety of both prisoners and society, ensuring that individuals are housed in appropriate facilities. 

The option for prisoners to appeal their prison category demonstrates the commitment to a fair and just criminal justice system. 

By understanding the different types of prisons, we gain insights into how the system promotes rehabilitation and reintegration while maintaining security and public safety.

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