Federal Prison vs County Jail

Prisons & Jail

Federal Prisons

Separate federal prisons also exist to house criminals who are convicted of federal offenses, such as drug offenses, treason, and terrorism. These facilities are all prisons (not jails) and house only felons. A sheriff operates most county and city jails; the state government runs state prisons; and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) supervises federal facilities. Occasionally, in rural areas, several towns and counties join together and operate one multi-jurisdictional jail called a regional jail. The sheriff and chief of police from each of the regions serve as board members for the regional jail. These board members in turn hire and supervise a jail administrator who’s responsible for the day-to-day operations of the facility.

An offender who’s convicted of a crime normally serves his time in an institution located within the area where the original crime took place. The exception to this rule is when an offender is convicted of a federal crime. Federal inmates may be required to serve their time at any one of the federal prisons located in the United States. Federal Bureau of Prisons officials make every attempt to incarcerate their prisoners within five hundred miles of the inmate’s hometown so they may maintain contact and visit with family members.

People who commit federal crimes are sentenced according to mandatory-minimum guidelines (note that some Felony Florida State cases also have minimum sentences and also follow a criminal score sheet). A federal judge must impose a sentence (juries decide a particular sentence, but a judge imposes the sentence) within the range specified by those guidelines, but she may not dole out punishment outside of those limitations without an extremely good reason, such as in the case of an offender’s diminished mental capacity, or in the instance where an offender has provided substantial assistance to the government as an informant.

If extenuating conditions exist whereby a federal judge feels a sentence reduction is warranted for a medical reason, the offender may be ordered to serve all or part of his time in a facility that specializes in that condition, such as the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky, or the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (MCFP) in Springfield, Missouri.

The MCFP specializes in the treatment and care of prisoners who are in need of mental health services and medical and dental treatment. Since there are a limited number of these special federal medical facilities, prisoners who are in need of their services may be transferred several hundred miles away from the cities and towns where their family members reside.

It’s interesting to note that all crimes occurring within the city limits of Washington, D.C., may be considered federal crimes since the city isn’t geographically located within a state. Offenders who commit crimes within the boundaries of the District may be tried in federal court and sentenced accordingly. Let’s further examine the two types of institutions, county jails and prisons.

County Jails


A good number of county jails are outdated, understaffed, overpopulated, and underfunded. They feature cells and lockup facilities with poor or nonworking plumbing, inadequate lighting, dark hallways, and many blind corners that are dangerous for both the staff and the inmates. Cells are often not cleaned between the release of one inmate and the reception of another. There have been reports that new arrivals are sometimes forced to sleep on floors littered with feces, urine, vomit, and matted human and rodent hair.


Like their larger counterparts, state and federal prisons, county jails are overcrowded. Some jails are filled to two and three times their capacity and simply can’t hold even one additional prisoner; therefore, they must request that a neighboring county hold prisoners for them. If a sheriff is asked to house an inmate from another jurisdiction, the sheriff is entitled by law to receive payment from that agency for housing the inmate. The cost to house a prisoner from another jurisdiction in the state of Ohio for the year 2006 was approximately sixty dollars a day.

The overcrowding of jails and prisons has become such an issue that many county sheriffs have learned to be quite creative when it comes to finding bed space for prisoners. Some sheriffs have made the decision to release some low-risk, minor offenders from jail before the completion of their sentences. Sheriff Gene A. Kelly of Ohio looked to an unlikely place for the solution to his overcrowding problem – container ships and oilrigs.

When the sheriff learned that workers on stationary oil rigs located in the Gulf of Mexico slept in compartments fashioned from large, metal shipping containers that had been converted into living quarters, he decided to explore the possibility of converting those containers into portable jail cells. He found the containers to be a perfect solution for jail overcrowding.

Each of the heavy, metal containers is ten feet wide by forty feet long, which allows ample space for inmate sleeping quarters, shower and restroom areas, and a dayroom area for ten inmates. The containers are equipped with heat and air-conditioning, lockable windows and doors, fluorescent lighting, tile floors, sheetrock walls, and bunk beds. The cost of each fully equipped Interior living quarters of a jail pod. Each container is just over thirty thousand dollars, a fraction of the cost to build new jail cells.

Sheriff Kelly converted the lower floor of a multilevel parking garage into a jail annex by purchasing and installing seven of the fully equipped shipping containers that he now calls jail pods. He had contractors surround the entire garage area with heavy-duty chain-link fence. The area outside and in between the pods is large enough for a recreation yard equipped with basketball equipment and picnic tables. The entire area is so secure that only one corrections deputy is needed to supervise, and he does so from outside the fence. Should trouble occur on the inside of this mini-compound, other deputies would be summoned to assist.


Most jails have at least one nurse on duty at all times, but many jails are large enough to justify employing an entire medical staff. Some even have fully equipped dental facilities and X-ray equipment. Smaller county jails don’t have the budget for a full-time doctor and employ a local doctor on a part-time basis.

County jails offer religious services to inmates, but most don’t have full-time chaplains. These facilities often rely on local churches and religious organizations to provide spiritual activities and material. They also rely on civic organizations for other needs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.