Federal Prison vs. State Prison

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In the United States’ criminal justice system, state, local, or federal correctional authorities typically house inmates in a local jail or a state or federal prison. 

However, correctional facilities have crucial differences in how inmates should behave while serving their criminal sentences.

You may have wondered about the differences between the types of prisons and how these differences affect you or your loved ones in prison.

You must have also asked how to locate imprisoned individuals and whether books and films have accurately portrayed life in detention facilities.

lookupinmate.org can provide reliable search tools to locate prisoners or inmates through our website. Moreover, we have compiled the necessary data and listed links to relevant web pages to help you understand contrasting prison systems.

Federal Prison vs. State Prison: What Is the Difference?

Below are some federal or state prison definitions that indicate the differences between the two correctional institutions.

What Is a Federal Prison?

The federal prisons confine inmates under the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) supervision. These individuals are usually those who have violated federal law and are guilty of federal crimes.

Moreover, the BOP categorizes federal prisons according to their levels of security. The following indicates the different features and security statuses of federal correctional facilities:

What Are State Prisons?

Convicted individuals guilty of breaking state laws stay in state prisons, which are state-operated correctional facilities. State governments define the general rules for state prisons. 

Highlights: Differences Between Federal Prison and State Prison

The table below illustrates the summary differences between state and federal prisons.

Comparison Table Between State and Federal Prison

Feature Federal Prison State Prison
Quantity Fewer facilities compared to state prisons More institutions than federal prisons
Jurisdiction The U.S. government or the federal court State authorities
Safety Generally safer than the state prison Less safe than federal prisons
Duration of Prison Sentence Typically longer than in state prisons Shorter than in federal correctional institutions
Number of Prisoners Has smaller prison population than state prisons More populous than federal prisons
Availability of rehabilitation programs Has rehabilitation programs Has rehabilitation programs

Significant Differences Between Federal and State Prisons to Consider

Each section below indicates the significant difference between federal and state prisons in various aspects.

What Federal and State Prisons Do

Inmates guilty of federal offenses are in federal prisons. Typically, the federal prison system categorizes a crime as federal when it violates federal law codes.

Federal courts view specific crimes as federal law violations. Federal crimes include the following criminal activities:

  • Theft
  • Drug trafficking
  • Child pornography
  • Unauthorized firearm possession
  • Money laundering

In contrast, state prisons house individuals convicted of state law criminal offenses. The state’s law enforcement officers usually handle this type of crime.

State prison systems in the U.S. classifies the following acts as state crimes:

  • Violent crimes, such as assault, bank robbery, and homicide
  • Arson
  • White-collar crimes, such as fraud and identity theft


The BOP manages federal prisons and community-based correctional institutions that offer opportunities to assist offenders. On the other hand, state prisons are under the supervision of state agencies.

Quality of Management

The quality of management between federal and state correctional institutions depends on which aspects of these prison systems are under consideration.

For instance, federal prisons generally fare better than state prisons regarding security levels. 


One report suggests that there are more state prisons than federal prisons in the United States. For example, there may only be 102 federal prisons, whereas state prisons may have 1,719. 

Movement of Prisoners

State jurisdictions can transfer inmates to their native countries. 

Although state and federal prisons can send inmates abroad, only the federal prison system has the authority to accept and take custody of convicted Americans from overseas. 

Suppose a United States citizen is in a penitentiary overseas for a crime that would typically warrant a state court intervention. In that case, the individual can transfer to a U.S. federal prison institution.

Length of Sentence

A report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that federal inmates’ average prison term length surged in 2012. 

This data may have resulted from the federal prison system’s policy of no parole. Furthermore, this finding indicates that inmates in federal correctional institutions typically serve longer sentences.

In contrast, state prisons generally house inmates serving short-term sentences or inmates who can become eligible for parole.


Federal correctional institutions can have administrative, low, minimum, medium, or high security levels. Each of these categories intends to meet the needs of each prison inmate.

  • Minimum Security: This type of prison, also known as Federal Prison Camps (FPCs), have a minor security level and confines criminals with no criminal history of violent or sex crime. Moreover, prisoners in these facilities have a low risk of escaping.

FPCs have little to no surrounding fence, and inmates live in dormitories.
FPCs also provide occupational and education programs to help prisoners with their rehabilitation.

  • Low Security: Low-security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs) have double-fenced surrounding walls, dormitory or cubicle housing, and work program offerings.

    The staff-to-inmate ratio in this type of facility is higher than in minimum-security facilities.
  • Medium Security: Medium-security Federal Correctional Institutions (FCIs) lean toward housing more violent criminals.

Moreover, medium-security FCIs have secure perimeters, such as double fences with electronic monitoring devices. These institutions are primarily cell-style housing and have many occupation and therapeutic initiatives.

Furthermore, FCIs possess a higher staff-to-inmate ratio than low-security FCIs and more internal constraints than low-security FCIs.

  • High Security: United States Penitentiaries (USPs), or high-security prison institutions, have fully guarded perimeters with walls or reinforced fences and cell houses.

Additionally, USPs have strict restrictions on inmate mobility and the highest staff-to-inmate ratio.

  • Administrative: This group of prisons consists of numerous establishments that the BOP specifically built to hold prisoners who need specialized care.

Administrative inmates are very dangerous, have significant medical issues, or have a high risk of fleeing.

The administrative institution includes the Administrative Maximum Security Penitentiary (ADX), the only “supermax” prison in the United States.

  • Complex: Prison complexes are groups of prisons with various security levels close together.

Integration of services can increase efficiency at Federal Correctional Complexes (FCCs). Workers in this context can acquire knowledge at institutions with different levels of security.

The FCC setup can also improve emergency readiness by bringing together extra resources.

On the other hand, state prison security levels also have some resemblance to that of the federal prison’s model. However, these levels of security may be less sophisticated than those in federal prison systems.


Based on the information above, individuals perceive federal prisons are safer than state prisons.

Number of Inmates

A 2022 report by the Prison Policy Initiative shows 1,042,000 inmates in state prisons and 208,000 incarcerated individuals in federal correctional facilities. These numbers indicate that state prison systems hold more inmates than federal ones.

Federal vs. State Prison Pros and Cons

Listed below are the possible advantages and disadvantages of federal and state correctional facilities.

Federal Prison Pros and Cons

The information from the preceding sections indicates the following pros and cons for federal prisons:


  • Federal correctional facilities may be safer than their state counterparts.
  • Fewer inmates in federal institutions have a criminal history of violent crimes.
  • Federal correctional facilities have higher security levels.


  • The imprisonment period may last longer because federal prisons do not offer parole to inmates.

State Prison Pros and Cons

State prisons have the following pros and cons:


  • Short-term prison confinement


  • State prisons have less security than federal prisons.
  • More inmates in state correctional facilities have criminal records of violence.

What Are the Similarities Between Federal and State Prisons?

Federal and state prisons have certain similarities despite their distinctions. These correctional institutions share the following traits:

  • Taxpayer-funded
  • Have various organizations of security levels
  • Have separate correctional arrangements for women and men
  • Availability of rehabilitation and recovery programs

What About Jail vs. Prison?

The length of time that offenders must spend serving out their entire sentences is the essential distinction between jail and prison.

Moreover, prison establishment, management, and inmate rights follow federal and state law.

Additionally, inmates serving sentences of more than a year typically stay in prisons maintained by the state or the federal government.

In contrast, local law enforcement and government organizations supervise jails. Detainees awaiting trial and those serving brief terms, often one year or less, stay.

The county sheriff is typically in charge of local law enforcement in most states. 

The criminal justice system intends for any form of incarceration to be an unpleasant experience. However, inmates’ policies, rights, and daily lives can vary significantly between a county jail and a federal prison.

Length of Detention for Jails and Prisons

Generally, the length of service in jail varies from that in prison. The detainment period differs based on a competent jurisdiction’s sentencing guidelines. 

In most cases, individuals in jail serve shorter sentences than prisoners.

What Does a Penitentiary, a Detention Center, and a Correctional Facility Mean?

There is no vital distinction between detention centers, penitentiaries, and correctional facilities. However, there are a few specifics to each facility.

A detention center is any facility that holds individuals on legal grounds. Detention facilities detain

  • Illegal immigrants
  • Delinquents
  • Inmates awaiting trial or transfer

A correctional institution is a jail, prison, or another detention facility where a criminal justice organization or a court confines convicted individuals.

On the other hand, a United States penitentiary is a high-security correctional facility.

Seeking Legal Help

Prison inmates have fewer rights than regular citizens due to their legal position. However, inmates still retain restricted rights to free speech, property ownership, and other civil liberties.

You should speak with a lawyer if you, a family member, or a friend are facing criminal charges.

A lawyer can keep you out of jail or prison completely. If a conviction is unavoidable, they can assist you in spending less time in correctional facilities.

United States Prison Statistics

A 2021 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows some significant statistics regarding prisons in the United States:

  • In 2020, the prison population in state or federal institutions had decreased by 214,300 (down 15% compared to 2019) and by 399,700 (down 25% compared to 2009), the year the prison population in the United States peaked.
  • Nine states suggested a decrease in prison inmates of at least 20% from 2019 to 2020.
  • The prison populations of Texas, California, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons dropped by more than 22,500 from 2019 to 2020, accounting for 33% of the overall prison population decrease.
  • In 2020, the rate of imprisonment was 358 per 100,000 U.S. citizens, the lowest since 1992.
  • The rate of sentenced imprisonment from 2010 to 2020 for U.S. residents dropped by 37% among blacks; 32% among Asians, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders; 32% among Hispanics; 25% among American Indians and Alaska Natives, and 26% among whites.
  • The number of federal prison admissions (decreased by 19,000) and to state prison (decreased by 211,800) dropped by 40% from 2019 to 2020.
  • Federal and state prison releases declined during 2020 (decreased by 58,400 or almost 10% from 2019). However, this trend is still slower than the decline in admissions.


  1. What kind of criminal goes to federal prison?

Convicted individuals of federal crimes are candidates to be federal prison inmates.

  1. What is the main difference between inmates in federal and state prisons?

The primary difference between inmates in state and federal prisons is the nature of the crime. 

  1. Why would you go to federal prison?

Jurisdiction can sentence you to federal prison if the court has proven beyond reasonable doubt that you are guilty of a federal crime.

  1. Do states have more lenient sentencing guidelines than the federal government?

Each state varies in its sentencing guidelines. On the other hand, the federal government follows only one sentencing regulation. 

Given that the federal government does not usually grant parole, you can say that the federal government has stricter and harsher sentencing guidelines than the state.

  1. Who is responsible for the operation of state prisons?

Each state has its department of corrections, responsible for supervising and managing the state prisons.

  1. Do federal prisons allow conjugal visits?

According to the BOP rules, federal prisons do not allow conjugal visits.

  1. Is there parole in federal prison?

In general, the federal prison system does not grant parole to inmates.

  1. What percentage of federal inmates are female?

As of 2022, the percentage of female inmates in federal prisons is 6.8%.

  1. What percentage of federal inmates are male?

As of 2022, the percentage of male inmates in federal prisons is 93.2%.

  1. Is federal prison safer than state prison? 

Generally, federal prison is safer than a state prison. 


1. Correctional Institutions
2. About Our Facilities
3. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022
4. Fiscal Year 2020: Overview of Federal Criminal Cases
5. Transfer of State Prisoners
6. Prison Time Surges for Federal Inmates
7. Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables
8. General Visiting Information
9. Inmate Legal Matters
10. Inmate Gender

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