County Jails vs. State Prisons: What Is The Difference? - (2024)

County Jails vs. State Prisons: What Is The Difference?

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County Jails vs. State Prisons: What Is The Difference? - (1)Differentiating between a County Jail and a state prison remains a challenge to most people not averse to legal and disciplinary facility jargon. Many people see absolutely no difference between the two institutes, while those who think they know tend to believe that size defines their difference.

Indeed County Jails may be smaller than state Prisons in most instances, but size doesn’t define their difference. Hoffman Associates opine that the primary way to define the difference between a County Jail and a State Prison remains the custody duration meted out on an inmate.

Follow this article as we walk you through it to let you know the difference between County Jails vs State Prisons.

Fundamental Reasons Why People Are Sentenced To Serve Time In Confinement

The criminal justice system envisages why people need to serve time in confinement when they commit a crime. Confinement in jail or prison for wrongdoers may cause the following.


Isolating the defendant from society may prevent future crimes. Examples of incapacitation include incarceration, house arrest, or even execution under the death penalty.

Incapacitation, therefore, takes away the defendant from society hence prevents him from committing any future crime.


Affecting the significant behavioral change of the defendant may deter future crimes. Behavior change may be realized by engaging the defendant in purposive programs to change his wayward behavior for the better.

You may achieve that by taking the inmate through educational and vocational programs, providing counseling and guidance, or opening treatment center placements.


Victims of criminal acts tend to harbor vengeful desires against the defendants. Therefore, retribution serves to remove the personal avengement desires of the victim against the defendant.

An excellent example of retribution comes with the satisfaction of the society or the victims that the punishment meted out to the defendant was proportional to the crime they committed.

When victims find that the defendant has been adequately punished for the crime, they get sufficient satisfaction that deters them from feeling the need to take revenge against the defendant.


Though restitution may not necessarily involve the defendant being put in confinement, it remains vital to prevent future crimes by punishing the defendant by imposing financial fines for the crimes they have committed.

What’s the difference between jail and prison? Is prison worse than jail?

What Is a Jail?

A jail may be defined as a local detention facility under a city, district, or county jurisdiction.

As a secure facility for inmates, a jail houses the following three types of inmates.

  • Inmates arrested and are being held pending a plea agreement, trial, or sentencing.
  • Inmates convicted of a misdemeanor criminal offense and are serving a jail term of less than one year.
  • Inmates sentenced for severe crimes and are waiting to be transferred to prison.

What are lockups?

As the name suggests, lockups are facilities used in smaller communities to house a few people who have broken the law, pending their transfer to a nearby jail.

Detainees Delivered to Jails

Many people who break the law are taken to jails or detention centers daily. These inmates remain in custody for a few days, pending their release through a court proceeding.

Conditions Under Which Inmates Are Released From Jail

Jails mainly house inmates for a short period. Thus, inmates need not be locked in prisons for over a year. Some inmates may stay in prisons for a few days or months, depending on the crime committed.

The following conditions may be considered before the release of inmates;

  • The inmate may stay in jail until he obtains a release from a court proceeding.
  • An inmate may be released from prison after securing a reasonable court bail.
  • An inmate may be taken to a pre-trial caseload.
  • An inmate may be placed under probation and be supervised by a probation agency.

What is a Prison?

Prison serves as an institution where individuals convicted of more severe crimes like a felony are housed. Unlike County jails operated by the county or district chiefs, a Federal Bureau or a State Government runs the prison.

Prisons being correctional facilities, offer programs that depend upon the length of the custodial sentence handed on an inmate.

Such programs may include, among others, educational and vocational programs.

County Jails Vs. State Jails: A comparison

Features of a Jail

  • Jails prove to be short-time confinement buildings for inmates who are either waiting for trial or sentencing.
  • Inmates convicted of a misdemeanor or other short-term sentences not exceeding one year may be sent to jail.
  • The City or county law enforcement agencies run the local jails.
  • Jails only maintain one level of security. Notably, they pale in comparison to the level of protection offered in prisons.
  • People sent to jail tend to stay for a shorter period compared to convicted prisoners.
  • Jails remain smaller institutions compared to prisons in most cases.
  • Jail inmates may be allowed to spend little time out of their cells, normally just a few hours each day.
  • Jails accommodate inmates whose crimes range from minor traffic offenses to severe crimes like murder.
  • Inmates in jail remain transient, meaning you tend to find consistent inflow and outflow of people in the facility.
  • Unlike prison, jails don’t offer correctional programs such as educational and vocational, not even counseling and guidance because inmates are not put there for a long term to sustain the program.
  • Inmates in jails may not be offered an opportunity to exercise as their counterparts in prisons.
  • The living conditions in jail are more deplorable compared to those in prisons. The cells may be tiny and least cleaned.

Features of a Prison

  • Convicted felons serve lengthy jail terms in prisons that are under State or Federal government jurisdiction.
  • People convicted of breaking State Laws serve their jail sentence in a State prison.
  • People convicted of breaking Federal laws are jailed in Federal prisons.
  • Prisoners are designed to serve lengthy jail terms or incarceration that goes beyond a single year.
  • You may find a campus where inmates live, work, and go to school among the prison facilities.
  • In essence, a prison is a community inside a wall; the inmates strive to make the community operational.
  • At a higher security prison, high-risk and very dangerous inmates are locked up for most of the day, running up to 23 hours a day in their cells. They enjoy minimal movement in the camp.
  • In the lower security level prisons, inmates may stay out of their cells for most of the day. They can move between prison buildings to attend school, work, medical, recreational, and other permissible activities.
  • Correctional officers are adequately dispersed around the prison facilities to ensure no prisoner can escape. They may be strategically placed both inside the housing units and outside the yard in every building.

Standard Features in Jails and Prisons

Jails and prisons remain different because they serve other purposes to inmates. While Jails house inmates who may be on transit and are only there for the short term, prisons hold convicted inmates whose custodial sentences run for more than a year.

There are standard features and similarities between the two facilities that you may need to note.

Inmates, whether in jail or prison, enjoy an inherent right to visit family members and friends.

However, whatever the crime, the isolated inmate may still enjoy visitation rights from friends and family members as this is a human right issue.

Fundamental prison rights go hand in hand with basic human rights. Therefore, inmates have a right to be treated humanely. Thus, it may not include cruel and unusual punishment from a sheriff or other law enforcement agents. Inmates must also be free from sexual crimes and exploitation.

Another fundamental right that inmates enjoy is the right to access the law library to help them throughout their cases and law courts. Inmates also enjoy the right to primary medical care though in a limited way compared to the free citizens.

County Jails Vs. State Prison: How They Operate

Prisons are designed for the long-term incarceration of the inmate, while jails, having been prepared for short-term stay for inmates, are operated a bit differently.

Prison facilities take cognizance that the prison population is extensive and maybe there for a lengthier time. Therefore, the living needs of prisoners are adequately taken care of in comparison to jail inmates.

Prisons have well-designed buildings, a more significant space that prisoners can interact in numerous activities, including schooling and games.

Programs and activities for prisoners are lined up, and the facilities are tailor-made to meet these needs.

Jails, by contrast, have a constant flow of inmates who are there for the short term; hence no meaningful programs can be lined up for them.

Complaints abound of jail inmates who can’t sleep or even eat well and participate in exercises.

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County Jails vs. State Prisons: What Is The Difference? - (2024)


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