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How Are Federal Prisons Different From State Prisons in Massachusetts?

May 04, 2022 by Anthony Riccio

Prison is never a place someone wants to land in for a time, but knowing the differences and similarities between state and federal prisons may help in preparation for what to expect in Massachusetts. Think of this as the safest way to tour the inside of these two types of prisons.

The main difference, of course, is in the name; state prisons are managed by the state, while the federal government owns federal prisons. However, there are further differences, similarities, and definitions to explore.

Note: Both federal and state prisons are different from jails, which are normally owned and operated by a city or county and incarcerate inmates for shorter periods of time (mostly under a year). Jails are also sometimes used as a local holding cell to keep suspects detained while they await a trial or sentencing hearing. 

What is a Federal Prison?

Operated by the federal government, a federal prison, or federal correctional institution (FCI), houses inmates convicted of breaking federal laws or committing federal crimes. Falling under the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) agency is set up to manage and regulate all federal penal and correctional institutions. Currently, there are 122 federal prisons throughout the United States that house more than 151,000 inmates.

There are five levels of security within the federal prison system, which are (in incremental order):

  • Minimum security, also called minimum-security federal prison camps, which have dormitory housing, low staff-to-inmate ratio, and limited to no perimeter fencing. According to the BOP, so far, in 2022, about 15.4 percent or 24,323 inmates were housed in these camps. 
  • Low security, which shares many similarities to minimum-security federal prison camps
  • Medium security, also known as an FCI, with strengthened perimeters and fencing, a higher staff-to-inmate ratio, and more enhanced security control. 
  • High security. The highest security prison is the Administrative-Maximum (ADX) Prison at the Federal Correctional Complex in Florence, Colorado, where prisoners have very little contact with others. 
  • Administrative security, which has a mix of prisoners from any security level, from those convicted of murder to those convicted of fraud. Because of this diversity in the inmate population, there are strict restrictions. More specific reasons for placing inmates in an administrative level of security include:
    • The prisoner has an active judicial proceeding.
    • The prisoner is in need of medical attention or special programming.
    • The prisoner is in transit from one institution to another.
    • The prisoner has been classified as being especially dangerous or prone to escape.

Overall, prisoners doing time in federal prisons:

  • are generally less violent
  • have no freedom to have visitors (only on special, rare requests) 
  • cannot go out on parole

Inmates are tried and sentenced in federal court, with prison sentences averaging 166 months. Federal crimes can include:

  • Sex offenses, including child pornography
  • Types of white-collar crimes, such as money laundering and identity theft
  • Drug dealing or drug trafficking
  • Racketeering
  • Breaking immigration laws

What is a State Prison?

State prisons are operated by the state’s Department of Corrections and house criminals who have broken state laws. There are currently more than 1 million inmates locked up in 1,566 state prisons throughout the United States. 

Inmates in state prisons are tried and sentenced in that state’s criminal justice system, with prison sentences averaging just shy of three years. While generally more violent than federal prisons, state prisons allow inmates the freedom to meet and visit with family members, go out on parole, or have a conjugal visit. 

Examples of these more violent crimes (from the most convictions in the U.S. to the least) include:

  • Murder and manslaughter (more than 140,000)
  • Rape and sexual assault
  • Assault and other violent crimes
  • Robbery, theft, and burglaries (car, bank, and other property)
  • Fraud
  • Drug possession
  • DUIs
  • Weapons charges (42,000)

Security in these state prisons is categorized into three levels, which include:

  • Maximum security, which houses criminals with a violent criminal history or who committed a crime while incarcerated. They pose the highest threat to other inmates, prison guards, and society outside the prison walls, so cells have heavy doors opened by a guard at a control center, one window, and a slot for a food tray to go in and out. Inmates spend about 23 hours a day in these cells and, when outside the cell for an hour, they have physical restraints.
  • Medium security allows inmates a bit more freedom to leave their cells and to have the opportunity to attend treatment programs. 
  • Minimum security does not confine all inmates behind prison walls; meaning some inmates are allowed to work in prison guard-supervised work camps. 

More Differences Between Federal and State Prisons

In addition to what has already been discussed, more differences between federal and state prisons is that federal prisons are typically less populated than state prisons, and they will usually have more security. This, oddly enough, means they are seen as “safer” for the inmates held within. Federal prisons statistically have less violence than state prisons. 

There are more state prisons in the US, though federal prison terms are typically shorter than state prison terms. 

What are Similarities Between Federal and State Prisons?

We have delved into the many differences between federal and state prisons, but the two do share a few common characteristics, which include that they both:

  • Offer rehabilitation programs, depending on the level of prison security
  • Are funded by taxpayers’ money
  • Have identical levels of security, from minimum to maximum
  • Offer separate layouts to each house men and women inmates
  • Feature nearly the same type of architecture, complete with high walls, armed guards, and electrified fences
  • Are ultimately dedicated to rehabilitating inmates

Together, both federal and state prison systems house nearly 2 million inmates in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, and 186 immigration detention facilities, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories until they fulfill their prison sentence or seek out a reduced sentencing with a defense lawyer before that.