Serving legal documents to an individual in prison has its challenges. There are several factors that dictate the process, including whether the witness or defendant is in federal or state prison, the level of security and custody level, and the process of the prison housing the individual.
There are four custody levels for federal prisons: minimum security, low security, medium security, and high security. These security levels range from dorm-style housing with basic fencing systems to solid walls with reinforced fencing with prisoners housed in cells. Federal prisons also have administrative facilities that house inmates from all levels of custody as they await trial, transfer, or receive medical help. Many states only allow service of process by law enforcement officers in federal prisons.
State prisons also have four levels of custody: minimum, medium, close, and maximum. Minimum custody inmates are considered at low risk and may work on community work crews. Inmates housed in maximum custody facilities are housed in single cells and must be escorted when moving throughout the prison and also wear restraints.
Why Custody Level Matters
The custody level dictates what level of contact, if any, the inmate is allowed to have with visitors and how much time they spend out of their cell. High security and maximum custody prisons have strict schedules that dictate where inmates must be, and defendants in minimum security prisons may work off site. All of these factors will be considered by the corrections officer when determining when and where process may be served.
Serving Legal Process on an Inmate
It’s important to remember that the safety and effectiveness of the prison depends on the staff adhering to a strict routine. Visitors, including process servers, need to submit to that routine and understand that they are a visitor under the control of the staff once they enter.
Before serving process, the first step is to contact the staff at the prison and ask about the process for serving an inmate. If the prison allows a private process server to serve documents, the process server must submit to a criminal background check. Once the background check clears, a corrections officer will coordinate with the process server and the rest of the prison staff to determine when, where, and how process will be served. It’s generally not a good idea to show up without contacting the prison and walking through the process first.
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