The terms prison and jail are used interchangeably throughout the United States, but significant differences set these two institutions apart. Mass media, in general, has led to a lot of misconceptions about the prison system as a whole.
Not everyone who commits a crime ends up in a minimum or maximum-security prison, as most non-violent criminals rehabilitate in jails.
Let’s take a look at some of the other differences between country jails and state prisons.
What's the Difference Between County Jail and State Prison?
Staying in Touch With an Inmate in County Jail
Although most prisons will let you set up a frequent call schedule with inmates, mail over books or magazines, or book in-person visits, jails typically have harsher restrictions. This is typically because inmates will spend less time in county jails than they would in prisons.
Depending on the jail, they may not allow letters that are written in Spanish or use foul language.
Example: Pulaski Detention Facility in Arkansas
Inmates who reside at Pulaski Detention Facility can receive mail as soon as they’re admitted. In addition, jail staff will allow inmates to phone a select family member or friend for free to set up a call or in-person dates, learn where the facility is, and how they can receive money.
WHAT IS A COUNTRY JAIL?
A county jail acts as a holding cell for suspected criminals or people awaiting trial, but they are also institutions that house anyone convicted of misdemeanors or minor crimes.
It’s unlikely that a person who spends time in a county jail will stay for longer than a year. County jails are funded by the local government, are typically smaller in size, and are designed to rehabilitate criminals. Depending on the jurisdiction, some individuals may be eligible for expungement, which is when their criminal record is removed from public access and sealed. With the help of expungement lawyers, they can have a fresh start and move past their criminal history so they can apply for jobs, housing, or loans without fear of discrimination based on their records.
It’s common for jails to offer educational or vocational programs for people awaiting their court date to where they can apply for a bails bond.
What is a State Prison?
A person who is sent to prison has committed a major criminal offense, also called a felony. Whereas jails are populated by people who drive drunk or are charged with minor drug possession, state prisons include murderers or larceny fraudsters.
State prisons are separated by different levels of security. Criminals are divided further by the severity of the crime or the duration of the sentence.
- Minimum Security: For low-risk prisoners that are typically non-violent offenders. These prisons have fewer guards than prisoners, and inmates will have dorm-style housing.
- Low Security: Prisoners that commit a non-violent crime but seem to enact violence in their daily lives will be sent here. There will be additional officers and a perimeter fence.
- Medium Security: For inmates that have committed less serious crimes, like small thefts or minor assaults. However, inmates will be put in cells, movement within the prison will be controlled (outside-time is an exception), and perimeters will be guarded.
- High or Maximum Security: For inmates that commit serious crimes, typically of a violent nature. Institutions have high walls, fences, and multiple cells beyond an inmate's bedroom. Inmate movement is completely controlled and watched at all times.
While the government controls prisons, they are run at the state or federal level. They are larger in scale than county jails and house more inmates for a more extended period.
All criminals who reside in prison will stay for longer than a year with a maximum of 25 years.
Rehabilitation programs do exist for state prisons, but only for non-violent offenders.
The Major Difference Between County Jails and State Prisons
Jails aren’t used to keep violent criminals away from society like they’re typically portrayed in the movies.
Instead, they act more like prolonged detention or “time-out” facilities that seek to aid misdemeanor criminals to ease back into society.
Unfortunately, most jails are noisy, chaotic places due to the constant flow of inmates, and living conditions are subpar, at best.
Prisons are designed for long-term incarceration and often have campuses where inmates work, live, and go to school.
As a result, lower security prisons make it easier for inmates to adjust to a schedule and a “regular life,” despite the fact they’re expected to stay in their cells for most of the day.
On the flip side, maximum security allows little movement and individual agency.