County Jail vs. State Prison: What Are the Key Differences?

County Jail vs. State Prison: What Are the Key Differences?

In the United States, there are over 2 million people incarcerated in jails and prisons.

In fact, the United States has the largest percentage of population in prison of any country. The number of prisoners has only grown over the last few decades. If you or someone you love has run into trouble with the law, you need to know the differences between county jail vs state prison.

They may appear similar, but besides having cells, there’s very little that is the same about jails and prisons.

Who Operates Them

The first distinction we have to make is who operates the county jail vs state prison. The county jail is operated by the country and overseen by the sheriff’s office in most states. The personnel that works the jail are also employees of the sheriff’s office, often called detention deputies or deputies.

In state prisons, the day-to-day operations and security are overseen by corrections officers. In most cases, the prison belongs to the state’s bureau of prisons. Some operations are under third parties.

This is only the first difference when we look at jail vs prison.

Who Lives There

The next thing to consider between state prison vs county jail is who lives there. County jails have people who are awaiting trial or serving time for misdemeanors and minor crimes. State prison inmates are felons who are serving their sentences for serious crimes.

You will encounter some state prison inmates in county jail, but they are often there for specific reasons. Some of these reasons are:

  • Work Release Programs or Trustee Programs
  • Awaiting trial or other legal proceedings
  • Awaiting transfer to a reception and diagnostic unit
  • Awaiting a trial on new charges

There are a few other reasons, such as healthcare, but this varies from state to state.

Living Conditions

A big difference between jail vs prison time is the conditions of incarceration. Most jails will keep prisoners locked down in cells for most of the day. In prisons, this depends on their level of custody.

Prisons are divided into minimum, medium, and maximum custody. Some systems, like the Federal Prison system, have super max or ADX which is sometimes considered different. For the most part, inmates in state prison don’t spend all their time in cells but have other areas they can travel to.

For the most part, inmates prefer the living conditions in prison over jail. Jails are often even more crowded than prisons, the food is often worse and it is easier to catch additional charges. Depending on the jail the cells can be smaller, or not feature windows and other amenities.

Visitation Privileges

While there are exceptions to this, most inmate visitation in jails occurs in a non-contact setting. This means there’s a piece of reinforced glass between the visitor and the inmate. In prisons, this is often not the case, with contact visits being far more normal.

There are various reasons why someone may have a non-contact visit in prison. This often has to do with the type of crime they committed. In jails, it is simply a matter of not having any facilities that can accommodate contact visits.

In both cases, there are often specific days and times when a visitor can go visit an inmate. If you know what prison or jail your loved one is in, you can check their website or information. Inmates are told when they can receive visits, so your loved one may also inform you.

Location of Facility

Jails are often inside city limits, and easy to reach. They can be part of a courthouse complex, or on their own, depending on the jurisdiction. Where they are located is a large jail vs prison difference.

Most prisons in the United States are not near or in large cities or population centers. This is often due to security concerns, which means prisons are often in remote areas. Next to small towns, or in the countryside, they are not as easy to reach or find.

If you have any questions about the location of a prison, you can always use a prison finder. Sometimes even knowing the town they are in is not enough, so take advantage of the map option so you can get specific directions. Otherwise, you may waste a lot of your visitation time looking.


Despite the fact that most people in jail aren’t convicted, there are fewer amenities in most jails. Prisons often have facilities for exercise and recreation of various types. Some even have arts and crafts areas. Jails don’t have the room or manpower for activities.

Both jails and prisons do have access to religious services. How in-depth and well provided for varies from institution to institution.

Prisons, by law, have to cater to the religious needs of their inmates. This means you’ll see a wider variety of services held at most prisons than in jails.

Inmates in prison are often allowed to have more personal property in their living space. This can include things like fans, radios, televisions, and personal food items. Most jails have a limited canteen, which means that they don’t have a wide selection of personal items available.

Prisons always have legal resources like a law library as well as a regular library. Reading books is something that a lot of inmates do to pass time. In jails, it can be harder to get your hands on a book, and the selection is almost always less than you’ll find in a prison.

County Jail vs State Prison

It is important to remember that no one wants to be in jail or prison. When you look at the differences between county jail vs state prison, remember that no one is having fun. No matter what crime a person has committed they are still a person, and the stress of living in a jail or prison can take a toll.

If you have any questions or want to find out where your loved one is being held, contact us. We can help answer any questions you may have.