Federal Prison vs State Prison – What’s The Difference?

Aren’t all prisons created equal? Find out the difference between Federal Prison vs State Prison
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Federal Prison vs State Prison: The Key Differences

So, you’ve committed a crime. Save the reasons for your next appeal, because you’ve already been tried, convicted, and sentenced to a term in prison. The question now is which prison you’ll be sentenced to –Federal Prison vs State Prison. Aren’t all prisons created equal, you wonder the difference between federal vs state prison? Well, there I’m afraid, you’d be terribly wrong. We’re going to tell you about all the differences between state and federal prisons. What they are, what gets you admitted, what the general experience is like inside, and which one you’d prefer to serve your sentence in.

First, let’s take a look at state prisons. These are, as the name suggests, government prisons run by the state in which they’re located. Referred to as “State Penitentiaries” in Pennsylvania and most Southern states, these jails are intended for criminals who committed minor to major crimes within a single state. They’re tried by state judges, in state courts. And the care of state prisoners and the maintenance of the prisons themselves are funded by taxpayers within the given state. State prisons also make up the grand majority of prison facilities in the United States, as state crimes are significantly more common than federal. 

To give you some perspective of federal prison vs state prison, there are 122 federal prisons operated by the Bureau of Prisons in the United States. For comparison, there are 1,719 state prisons. Between them, they manage 1,518,559 inmates. 1,328,599 of these are state prison inmates.

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Federal Prison vs State Prison- Which has tougher conditions?

There are three different types of state inmate jails:minimum security prison, medium security prison, and Maximum security prisons. Some of these prisons even have the facilities to execute prisoners, in states that still practice Capital Punishment like Texas and North Carolina.

State prisons also more commonly offer the possibility of parole, and – on average – have lower sentences than their federal counterparts. The exact workings of a state prison can sometimes vary from state to state, and these prisons are significantly more likely to admit violent criminals – such as murderers, sex criminals, and people found guilty of most gun-related offenses. In spite of this, state prisons generally have a lower standard of security than federal prisons.

Some state prisons are even run by private companies contracted by the state authorities because the problem of overcrowding in state prisons has required the intervention of outside help.


Due to their overpopulation problems, these prisons are often underfunded, understaffed, and pretty dangerous. Getting hundreds or even thousands of violent offenders together in poor living conditions is a recipe for disaster. Prison mortality rates and suicides have been on the uptick since 2010, and prison riots are also a constant risk. Recently, tensions boiled over at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi. Brutal gang violence broke out, killing five inmates and allowing a further two to escape. Conditions in these state jails are often shoddy – with filthy cells and low-quality cafeteria meals. 

Inhumane treatment and Physical Violence in State Prisons 

The ACLU has even presented lawsuits against state prisons on the grounds of inhumane treatment, physical and sexual violence, and racial discrimination. Because 20% of all US prison inmates are convicted for drug offenses – and the grand majority of these inmates end up in state prisons – state prison populations are often disproportionately made up of minorities. This, in turn, is because mass drug incarceration disproportionately targets minorities, to begin with. Non-violent drug offenders end up shoulder to shoulder with violent criminals, creating huge risks to their safety. 

This is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the horrific conditions faced in a lot of state prisons, particularly in the South. The civil rights division of the Justice Department investigated a number of state prisons in Alabama and their findings were deeply disturbing: Prisoners left face-down, dead in their cells, for so long that their faces rotted and flattened.


There was other evidence that prisoners had been tied up and tortured for days on end. Attacks included a prisoner being doused with shaving cream so dangerously hot that it left the prisoner with second-degree chemical burns. And a prisoner having industrial bleach poured onto their skin, before being beaten senseless with a broom handle. 

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State Correctional Facility Murder Rates

According to Justice Department reports, some Alabama state prisons have murder rates at eight times the national average. The lack of funding also means that security standards have slipped, with prisoners sneaking in contraband like drugs and improvised weapons. These same Justice Department reports have reported rudimentary improvised knives, guns, hammers, and even small swords.

Sexual violence also runs rife in many state prisons, with guards under-qualified or simply unwilling to intervene and help. In order to make up for being understaffed, state prisons often force guards to work grueling hours for very little pay.


Fusing exhausted, understaffed prison guards with frustrated, overcrowded and often violent prisoners creates a dangerous powder keg. Federal investigators described the violations of prisoners Eighth Amendment Rights as “severe, systemic, and exacerbated.” Even the most well-staffed prisons often only operate with seventy-five per cent of the staff necessary to properly run the facilities and attend to the prisoners.

Many state prisons are basically an accident waiting to happen, and the staff of these prisons are rarely able to contain the results of these accidents. Even worse, with very little state government oversight, corrupt and poorly-trained prison guards are often responsible for the violence and abuse.

Criticism of State prisons 

State prisons are often criticized for their collaboration with private prison companies, such as the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, Inc. The stated objective of State Prisons is to rehabilitate inmates and reintroduce them into society. However, through prison violence and gang activity, prisoners admitted for non-violent offenses often end up being transformed into hardcore crooks.


While this could easily seem like an accidental result of the previously mentioned under staffing and mismanagement issues, there have been accusations of profit motivation. Because these private prison companies receive government subsidies based on the number of inmates housed, these companies benefit from large inmate populations and high recidivism rates. 

So, if you’re unlucky enough to get sent to state prison, you better hope it’s short term and that you’ve got an excellent attorney. Because you’re at risk of experiencing dehumanizing and unsanitary conditions, violence from both other prisoners and the guards, and the damaging effects of gang activity.

Government oversight bodies like the Department of Justice and activist groups like the Equal Justice Initiatives have campaigned for state prison reform, in order to end mass incarceration and improve the treatment of prisoners. But until these groups win their hard-fought battles for justice, state prisons are probably going to remain horrible places to be.

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What are federal prisons?

This brings us to the other subject of today’s video: Federal prisons. What exactly is a federal prison or Federal Correctional institution? Well, the clue is in the name. Established under the Hoover administration in the 1930s, the federal bureau of prisons or fbop are reserved for criminals who’ve broken federal laws – such as one or more of the following examples.

Crimes taking place on federal land or crimes committed against federal officers. A crime involving the crossing of state lines. Immigration and customs violations. And a grand majority of financial crimes, like fraud, embezzlement, and identity theft. Violations of federal law tend to be less violent than state crimes, and this difference is also often reflected in the facilities themselves. Still which is better between Federal prison vs state prison? Continue reading!

Federal prisons are run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (or BOP), a government body under the Department of Justice. The BOP is typically allocated a yearly budget of around $6.5 billion. Divided between the Bureau’s fewer than 200 facilities, this results in far better funding for each facility than their state-run counterparts.


This often results in better-quality buildings, living conditions, training programs, and food. Despite having fewer inmates to process than state prisons, there are five main types of federal prison facilities rather than three, mostly divided by the level of security.

State Maximum, Medium and Minimum Security prison 

There are minimum security federal prisons, referred to by the BOP as Federal Prison Camps. These are for prisoners judged to pose no risk of escape or danger to public safety. These are the facilities often referred to as “Club Fed” – as prison goes, these are about as easy-going as you get. Larry Levine, director of the Wall Street Prison Consultants – an organization that helps future inmates from the financial industry adjust to their impending imprisonment – compared the experience to junior college.

Prisoners are hosted in dormitories rather than cells, and the ratio of guards to inmates is low. While it isn’t exactly a day spa, it’s far from the terrifying environment of an Alabama State Prison. For Federal Penitentiary Camp inmates, the biggest threat is the soul-crushing boredom of the daily routine.


Low security prisons are similar, but with slightly stronger security precautions – such as double-fenced perimeters. Prisoners are still housed in dormitories and cubicles rather than cells. medium security prisons, on the other hand, do have largely cell-based living facilities.

They also have higher security and a greater number of guards. High security federal prison institutions – also referred to as United States Penitentiaries – are the closest to state prisons in terms of control over their inmates. These prisons are reserved for the most violent criminals, and criminals with the highest probability of escape attempts. Examples include violent political criminals, murderers, and high-level members of organised crime.

There are also some Federal Corrections Complexes, wherein two different federal prison facilities work closely together, despite having different security levels. These facilities pool resources in order to better achieve their respective missions. It’s a level of cooperation and coordination not found in state prisons.


Lower-end security facilities also have smaller facilities nearby, referred to as Satellite Prison Camps, that use inmate labor and work programs to support the main institution. Despite state prisons’ stated intention to rehabilitate inmates and re-introduce them into society, Federal prison seems a lot better equipped for successfully rehabilitating its inmates.

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Differences between federal prison vs state prison institutions 

But the differences between federal prison vs state prison institutions don’t stop there. On average, sentences served in federal prison tend to be longer than their state counterparts. This is both because federal prisoners tend to have a narrower spectrum of crimes – most of which are typically more severe – and because these crimes tend to have higher mandatory minimums.

People convicted for federal crimes are also a lot less likely to be offered probation. Compared to the disproportionate number of minorities imprisoned in state prisons, the populations of federal prisons are disproportionately white. 


Federal prison inmates predominantly white

Out of a total of around 190,000 inmates, 59% of the federal prison population is white and only 38% is African-American. Whereas, in state prisons, these stats are a lot more even. Almost 50% of the inmates in federal prisons have been convicted of drug-related offenses, such as production and trafficking. The rest is largely white-collar crime. Unlike criminals sentenced to state prisons, federal criminals aren’t always admitted to a prison in the state where they’re convicted. People convicted of federal crimes can be housed in any federal prison facility in the country.

White Collar crimes

Federal criminals convicted of white-collar crimes – if not judged to be a flight risk – can even self-report to their prison facility on the first day of their sentence. People in state prisons are likely to spend the duration of their trial in a local jail. While federal prisons do have violent inmates, violence within the prisons themselves is a less frequent issue because these prisons aren’t as overcrowded.

Unlike most state prisons, federal inmates are often moved from facility to facility as needed. Federal facilities work closely with the US Marshall service, which handle tracking and transporting federal inmates across the country.


Federal inmates that become violent or repeatedly break prison rules may be transferred to a higher security federal prison. Though the facility is more likely to put a troublesome inmate in solitary confinement before resorting to these costlier methods.

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Federal prisons Advantages

Compared to the overcrowded, brutal conditions of state prisons, medium, lower, and minimum security federal prisons also regularly offer a wide range of recreational activities. In the prison yard, inmates may have access to sports like tennis, bocce ball, and volleyball to maintain physical fitness. Inside the building, there are often gymnasiums with basketball, exercise, and wellness facilities.

Many federal prisons also offer arts and crafts classes, allowing inmates to develop skills like painting, crochet, and leather-craft. If you’re lucky, you may also have access to televisions and computers with a closed-network internet connection. Federal prisons also offer rec rooms where inmates can interact and let off steam.


While these facilities have been known to help reduce prison violence – and keep inmates in a more relaxed, cooperative mindset – this must feel almost like a cruel joke to non-violent drug offenders left for dead in overcrowded, underfunded state prisons. But hey, nobody ever said prison was fair. So, which is better between federal prison vs state prison?

 If you plan on committing a major crime sometime soon, you should probably do yourself a favor and keep it federal. Especially if you live in Alabama. See more