Difference between Federal and State Prison

By: | Updated: Nov-19, 2017
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The US has the highest prison population in the world with more than 2.2 million inmates. A portion of these are incarcerated in the 122 federal prisons and the 1,719 state prisons all over the country. Let’s find out what determines where an offender will end up.

Summary Table

Federal Prison State Prison
Managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons Managed by the state
Usually holds non-violent offenders (e.g. drug offenders, fraudsters, corrupt politicians, money launderers) Usually holds violent offenders (e.g. murderers, rapists, purse snatchers)
Adequate facilities Inadequate facilities


Federal inmates sewing soldier’s uniforms

A federal prison is where inmates who have violated (or have been accused of violating) federal law are incarcerated. There are currently 122 federal prisons holding approximately 190,000 inmates in the US. In 2016, the majority of federal inmates were made up of 59% whites and 38% African-Americans. Males make up 93% of the federal prison population. Drug convicts make up 46.4% of all federal inmates. Federal prisons also house inmates charged with white collar crimes such as racketeering, money laundering, and fraud. Federal crimes also encompass crimes committed across state borders and against government officials, institutions, and agents.

Federal prison systems are managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is a federal law enforcement agency under the Department of Justice. The Federal Bureau of Investigation handles cases under their jurisdictions.

In 2013, the Federal Bureau of Prisons received close to $6.5 billion for its annual budget. This is the main reason federal prisons are often viewed as better-run facilities than state-managed prisons.

state prison
An overcrowded state prison in California

A state prison is managed by state authorities. Inmates are usually charged with violating state laws such as murder, rape, and gun-related offenses. These violations are committed in a single state and are usually handled by the state police. Considering the kind of inmates incarcerated in state prisons, they are often regarded as dangerous places. In New York, inmates are placed in maximum security cells where they carry out the majority of their sentence. While non-violent inmates are subjected to rehabilitation, keeping violent criminals away from society is the main goal of maximum security state prisons.

A state prison is typically funded by tax money generated by the state. Thus, it is common to see poorly managed state prison systems. This has resulted in inadequate rehabilitation programs for inmates. Many state prisons are isolated from the surrounding cities and are enclosed by high walls, electrified fences, barbed wire, and heavily armed guards.

Federal vs State Prison

So, what’s the difference between a federal and state prison? Federal prison systems are managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, while state prisons are run by state authorities. A federal prison typically holds people who have violated federal laws, whereas a state prison often houses state law violators. Inmates in federal prisons are considered less violent as many were charged with financially motivated crimes (i.e. white collar crimes). State prisons mostly hold inmates charged with murder, rape, and gun-related criminal activities. Thus, they are perceived to house more violence-prone and dangerous inmates.

Federal prisons get bigger budgets. These prisons have better facilities, food, and training programs. State prison systems get their budget from taxes generated by the state.


Here’s an interesting video about federal and state prisons

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