Although the two words are often used interchangeably, jails and prisons are two different housing compounds for inmates. Jails are run by a county or other local government and house people serving impermanent sentences for misdemeanors and the like. Jails are also used to house people awaiting trial that cannot post bail.
Prisons are run by the state or federal government. They are larger, house more inmates, and have higher security. Inmates are serving longer sentences, so prisons tend to have more amenities and vocational opportunities. With high profile trials frequently making news headlines, the ongoing debate regarding the benefits of federal verses state prisons continues.
Federal prisons are for criminals who violate federal laws. These are crimes that are carried out across state lines or offenses against government agencies. Federal prisons house those convicted of large scale drug trafficking crimes, white collar criminals and political prisoners.
Federal prisons are managed by the federal government and have standardized processes. Federal prisons have different levels of security and house criminals separately according to their security risk. Federal prisons also have a much lower recidivism rate, only 34 percent in contrast to the state prison recidivism rate of 76.6 percent.
State prisons house criminals who have violated state laws. These are often violent criminals including those who have committed rape, murder and gun crimes. Because they house so many violent criminals and have a higher inmate on inmate attack rate, some consider state prisons unsafe.
Since state prisons are managed by state governments, rules and structure vary from state to state. These prisons also tend to have less funding, which translates to fewer programs and amenities. Prisoners are separated by the severity of their crimes, but live within the same compound.
In cases of crimes that violate both state and federal law, the crimes can be prosecuted in either jurisdiction. This is often the case for white collar crimes. While incarceration is likely to be an undesirable outcome, it is important to understand what facility you could end up serving the time in.