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Jail, state prison and federal prison: what is the difference?

When someone commits a crime, they will likely face incarceration. Jail, state prison and federal prison are all places where one can go, but what are the differences between the three?



Many people think that jail and prison are the same. Often, the two are referenced as interchangeable, but jail and prison are, in fact, two different things. The two main differences between jail and prison are the governing body and length of time the inmate stays.

  • Governing body: A city or county often owns jails, using them as a local holding cell. On the flip side, prisons are owned by either state-owned or federal-government owned.
  • Length of time: As mentioned above, states often use jails as local holding cells. Local law enforcement may use jails as a place for prisoners to stay while waiting for trial or to hear their sentence. Most times, the jailed does not stay for more than a year.

State vs. federal prison

The main difference between state prison and federal prison is who owns the prison. State prisons are, no surprise, managed by the state. On the other hand, the government manages federal prisons. However, the ins and outs of both prisons are often different due to who runs them.

  • Prisoner type: Often, individuals who commit white collar crimes are sent to federal prison. Crimes committed against federal law are likely to go to federal prison. Other types of criminals may head to a state prison.
  • Security: Federal prisons generally have greater security, while state prisons are still secure, but less so.
  • Number of prisoners: Because white collar crime is less common, federal prisons are often less populated than state prisons.

Considering the possibility of ending up in a jail or prison is scary, but knowing the differences between the types of correctional facilities may help.

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