Federal Prison vs. State Prison: What’s the Difference?

Many of us have seen shows or movies with scenes inside of prison, and it’s not always pretty. However, two different types of prisons in the United States today look entirely different. In this guide, we’ll examine how federal and state prisons compare and which type might be best suited to your situation if you have been charged with committing a crime. Keep reading to learn more about the differences between these two types of prisons!

Main Difference

When it comes to criminal justice, there are a few different types of prisons: federal, state, and local. Federal prisons house offenders convicted of crimes that fall under the federal government’s jurisdiction. These crimes include drug trafficking, weapons offenses, and white-collar crimes.

State prisons incarcerate offenders convicted of crimes that fall under the state government’s jurisdiction. These crimes include murder, robbery, and burglary. Local prisons incarcerate offenders convicted of crimes that fall under the local government’s jurisdiction. These crimes include traffic violations and vandalism.

There are several key differences between federal prisons and state prisons. The most obvious difference is their respective jurisdictions: federal prisons house offenders who have committed federal crimes, while state prisons house offenders who have committed state crimes.

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What is Federal Prison?

A federal prison is any correctional facility operated by the United States Bureau of Prisons (BOP) under 18 U.S.C. § 4042. There are currently over 100 BOP facilities located throughout the United States. Each facility is run by a warden appointed by the United States Attorney General.

What is State Prison?

A state prison is where people convicted of crimes go after serving their time. These prisons are run by the government and are often referred to as correctional facilities. Most states have different types of prisons based on what crime was committed. Sometimes, prisoners may be sent to state prison if sentenced to death.

Types of State Prisons

There are three basic categories of state prisons:

  1. Maximum security: Maximum security prisons are considered to be the most dangerous prisons
  2. Medium security: Medium security prisons have less violent inmates than maximum security prisons.
  3. Minimum security: Minimum security prisons house the least violent offenders.

Basic Information

  1. When someone goes to jail, they are first taken to the local county jail. After serving their sentence at the county jail, they are transferred to state prison. If a person is charged with murder, he or she might be sent to a state penitentiary.
  2. A prisoner’s average length of stay is about two years. However, some people spend much longer than that in prison.
  3. The United States currently has 2,000 state prisons. Each year, around 1 million people are arrested in the U.S., and about half end up in jail.
  4. People who commit serious crimes are usually sent to maximum security prisons.
  5. The most extensive state prison system in the world is in China. There are over 1.5 million prisoners in Chinese jails.
  6. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
  7. The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its total number of prisoners.
  8. The United States has more people in prison than any other country in the world.
  9. The United States has a higher percentage of black men in prison than any other nation.
  10. The United States has steadily increased the number of people in prison since 1980.
  11. The United States has spent 80 billion dollars annually on corrections.
  12. The United States spends more money on corrections than on education.

Key Differences Between Federal Prison and State Prison

Federal prisons are run by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). These prisons house federal inmates convicted of crimes against the United States government. Federal prison facilities are located throughout the country and are under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a division of the DOJ.

  • State governments run state prisons. These prisons house state inmates convicted of crimes committed against their respective states. State prisons are not under the jurisdiction of the BOP, but rather, they fall under the authority of individual state departments of corrections.
  • Inmates in both types of prisons are housed according to the severity of their offenses. However, federal prisoners may receive sentences longer than state prisoners. Additionally, federal prisoners are often incarcerated at higher-security facilities than state prisoners.
  • Federal prisons are generally considered to be harsher than state prisons. According to the BOP, federal prisons offer fewer rehabilitative services than state prisons. Also, federal prisons are overcrowded, while state prisons do not face these same issues.
  • Federal prisoners are eligible for parole after serving two-thirds of their sentence. On the other hand, state prisoners must serve the entirety of their sentences before being eligible for parole.
  • Both federal and state prisoners have access to educational programs. However, federal prisoners can attend college courses at public universities, whereas state prisoners must take classes offered by private institutions.
  • Federal prisoners are entitled to medical care and treatment equal to that of state prisoners. However, state prisoners are permitted to use only state-run hospitals and clinics for medical care.
  • Federal prisoners are allowed to earn money while incarcerated. However, state prisoners cannot work outside of prison.
  • Federal prisoners can participate in religious activities. However, state prisoners must worship by their own beliefs.
  • Federal prisoners are allowed visitation rights. However, state prisoners may only visit family members and friends monthly.
  • Federal prisoners are allowed conjugal visits. However, state prisoners do not have access to this privilege.
  • Federal prisoners are allowed phone calls. However, state prisoners have no access to telephones.
  • Federal prisoners are allowed legal assistance. However, state prisoners lack this right.
  • Federal prisoners are allowed access to the courts. However, state prisoners lose this right upon entering prison.

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Personal Items In Prison: Federal Prison vs. State Prison

If you are incarcerated in federal prison, you are allowed to bring a few personal items to help make your stay more comfortable. These items include clothes, books, and photographs. However, some items such as weapons, drugs, and alcohol are not allowed in federal prisons.

Recreation and Jobs: Federal Prison vs. State Prison

In federal prison, inmates have opportunities to work within the prison and earn a small wage. They also have more recreational options, like playing sports and attending religious services. In state prison, inmates typically don’t have jobs, but they may be able to work on a farm or in a factory outside the prison. They also have fewer recreation options.

Education in Prison: Federal Prison vs. State Prison

Many programs are available to inmates who want to better their lives and prepare for release back into society. However, not all prisons offer the same opportunities. Federal prisons typically have more resources and programming than state prisons, making them a better choice for those seeking educational opportunities while incarcerated.

Reading Material in Prison: Federal Prison vs. State Prison

In federal prison, inmates can have much more reading material than in state prison. Books, magazines, and newspapers are all allowed in federal prison, as long as they follow the Federal Bureau of Prisons guidelines. In state prison, on the other hand, inmates are typically only allowed to have a few books at a time. This is because state prisons are usually overcrowded, and there is not enough space to store all of the inmates’ belongings.


The main difference between federal and state prisons is that federal prisons are run by the federal government, while state governments run state prisons. Federal prisons are usually for people who have committed more severe crimes, while state prisons can be for people who have committed less serious crimes. In terms of prison conditions, federal prisons tend to be better than state prisons because they have more resources. Finally, federal prisoners typically serve longer sentences than state prisoners.