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What Is the Difference Between Jail and Prison?


What It Is Like in Jail

People often throw around the terms “jail” and “prison” interchangeably, but there actually is a difference between the two. Both are designed as holding centers for those who are in the justice system, but the primary difference is in the length of stays for each. Jails, also called detention facilities, are typically operated by local law enforcement or local governmental agencies, and they are designed to hold inmates who are waiting for their trial or simply serving a shorter sentence. Many new detainees are sent to jails every day, and some of them stay one day or only for a few days until they are released for a court proceeding. Others are released after making bail, are released to a pretrial services caseload, are released to be placed under the supervision of a probation agency, or are released with an agreement to appear in court. The main categories of inmates in jail include:

  • Those who have been arrested and are being held pending a plea agreement, trial, or sentencing
  • Those who have ben convicted of a misdemeanor criminal offense and are serving a sentence of less than one year
  • Those who have been sentenced to prison and are soon to be transferred to another facility

When we talk about “short” sentences, we are referring to less serious, misdemeanor convictions, whereas “long” sentences would be used to refer to a felony or a crime with a punishment of longer than a year. Because those staying in jail are there for shorter periods of time, jails are less developed. They tend to be less comfortable than prisons in terms of accommodations because they are not meant to facilitate long-term stays. However, many jails offer work release programs or boot camps with the intention to improve the lives of the individuals inside. Some even offer educational, substance abuse, and vocational programs that the inmates can use for educational purposes during their stay.

What It Is Like in Prison

On the other hand, prisons are usually operated by a state government or the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Those who are in prison have usually been convicted of more serious crimes, such as felonies. Similar to a jail, they offer programs for the inmates, but these programs are typically fixated with long-term goals due to the nature of the inmates’ stays. Many prisons provide comprehensive educational programs, treatment programs, and pre-release rehabilitative programs for offenders. The focus of the programs in prison is on cognitive behavioral interventions, pre-release education, planning, and skill development.

Prisons tend to be more developed and designed for long-term stays than a jail would be. The number of individuals sent to prisons every day is far less than the number of those who are sent to jails. There are also different levels of prisons with different comfort levels: low security and maximum security. The standard of living is typically better in a lower security prison because the crimes committed by the inmates are not as serious as those in maximum security prisons. The five levels of prison security include:

  • Minimum security

Minimum security prisons are also called Federal Prison Camps (FPCs). They are designed to hold inmates who have been convicted of non-violent offenses in dormitory-style housing. These prisons are usually reserved for white collar criminals who have committed offenses like embezzlement or fraud. Although these crimes are serious, they do not signal high risk of violence. Furthermore, inmates who only have a few years left of their sentence and have demonstrated excellent behavior might be sent to a minimum-security prison.

  • Low security

Low security federal prisons have higher inmate to staff ratios compared to minimum security prison camps. Monitoring of mail, email, telephone calls, and visits is also stricter. Low security prisons are also called Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs) and are surrounded by fences. Similar to a minimum-security prison, low security prisons house inmates in dormitory style housing. The difference between the inmates in these types of prisons is that some inmates in low security prisons can have a history of violence, but this is usually minimal. Unlike minimum security prisons, sex offenders are permitted to be housed at low security prisons. As a general rule, low security prisons hold those with no more than 20 years left to serve. Inmates must be determined to be a less volatile group than those populating the medium and high security prisons.

  • Medium security

Like low security prisons, medium security prisons are also called Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs). These prisons are the standard facilities used to house most criminals. Medium security prison houses inmates who have committed less serious crimes than those in high security prisons. Common examples include minor assaults and thefts. While many of the inmates in medium security prisons have committed violent crimes, the inmates are generally less dangerous than those in maximum security prisons. Inmates must have 30 years remaining on their sentences to be housed at a medium security prison. The housing is cage-style and the buildings have armed guards and a much more regimented daily routine than minimum security prisons.

  • High security

High security prisons are generally reserved for prisoners who will be serving long sentences – around 30 years or more. As the name would suggest, the security at these prisons is very strict, with high stone walls or strong chain fences surrounding most of them. Inmates in these prisons usually have a significant history of violence. Because of this, there is an abundance of guards and very little freedom at these prisons.

At any level of security, prison is never a favorable outcome. If you or a loved one are facing potential prison time, call Derek A. Adame at (940) 441-4239 or contact us online to find out what a persistent criminal defense lawyer can do for your case.

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