Want to know more about the prison system?
For many, encountering the prison system can come with a feeling of culture shock. It’s a world that has its own culture, language, and customs. Walking alongside a loved one who has been arrested—or even volunteering at a prison—can seem daunting. Just understanding the terminology can feel like a difficult task.
Here are some of the most commonly asked questions and answers about terms used in the prison system:
Note: Prison terminology may vary from state to state and on the federal level. Check with your state’s corrections agency or prison website for specific terminology and to learn what resources are available to you.
1. What's the difference between jail and prison?
Jails are short-term holding facilities for those who have recently been arrested or are awaiting trial or sentencing. Occasionally, jail residents are awaiting transfer to a prison facility. Jails are usually under the jurisdiction of a city, local district, or county, and are operated by local law enforcement authorities such as a sheriff, police chief, or county or city administrator. Those sentenced to serve a short amount of time, such as under a year, may be housed in a local jail for the duration of their sentence.
People who are sent to prison usually serve sentences that exceed one year. Prisons are institutional facilities under the jurisdiction of a state department of corrections or the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The sentenced person will be sent to either a state or federal prison, depending on whether a state or federal prosecutor brought the charges. (If a defendant faces state and federal charges concurrently for the same offense, where they will serve their sentence is decided on a case-by-case basis.) Some states use both private and state-operated facilities to house prisoners.
2. What is solitary confinement, and why might a prisoner be placed in it?
“Solitary confinement,” also known as “restrictive housing,” refers to the removal of a prisoner from the general population and their placement in a segregated housing unit. “General population” refers to prisoners who are not in a form of restrictive housing and who have more freedoms, including yard time, the ability to participate in programming, and visitation rights.
There are multiple types of segregation, some of which can include disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation, and protective custody. Disciplinary segregation refers to short-term segregation after the prisoner has broken rules by doing something like starting fights, having disorderly conduct, or disregarding instructions from correctional officers. Administrative segregation or restrictive housing is a longer form of segregation than disciplinary segregation and is a result of continued behavioral issues. A prisoner may be placed in protective custody if they are at a high risk of being attacked or have been repeatedly threatened. Protective custody allows staff to monitor the safety of an incarcerated person more easily.
When a prisoner is placed in restrictive housing, whether it be for disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation, or protective custody, most of their granted freedoms and privileges are revoked. They lose access to yard time, participation in programming, and are often placed in a cell by themselves.
3. What are the different types of security levels in prison?
While each state and locality may have its own specific terminology referring to the level of security in prison, the terms minimum, medium, and maximum are some of the most widely known. These classifications refer to the security levels employed by the prison.
Generally, minimum-security facilities have the fewest security measures and lowest staff-to-prisoner ratio. The next level of security is medium security, which has more security measures and a higher staff-to-prisoner ratio. Maximum-security prisons have the highest staff-to-prisoner ratio and use more security measures. Maximum-security prisons at the federal level are known as United States penitentiaries. Generally, prisoners with multiyear sentences will be housed in a maximum-security prison but may be moved to lower security prisons due to good behavior, changes in laws, or reduction in sentencing. Lastly, a super-maximum, or supermax, prison has the highest level of security. A prisoner is sent to a supermax prison based on their criminal history and/or behavioral history while incarcerated.
The specific terminology used for security levels differs by facility. Some states, such as Minnesota, use levels 1 through 5 instead of the terms minimum, medium, maximum, and supermax. The security level at which a prisoner is housed could impact visitation rights, mailing, and access to programing.
4. How does the public contact a prisoner?
Contact with prisoners is often limited to family, approved friends, and legal representation. Visitation rights depend on the security level of the facility, and some employ video visitation. Additionally, each facility has its own guidelines concerning mail. Some states, like Texas, may use an all-digital mailing system, while others may allow a variety of mailing options like physical mail, JPay, email, or services like Flikshop. For specifics on visitation rights and how to contact a loved one, consult your DOC website.
5. What are the living situations like in prison?
Living quarters in prison differ based on the facility. The two most common styles are dormitory and cells. Dormitory-style living refers to a large room with bunk beds that also often includes a multipurpose room and shared bathrooms. There may be as many as 50 bunks in dormitory-style housing.
Cells are individual rooms with a bed or bunk beds. A sink and toilet are usually included in the cell. Cells typically house one to four prisoners. Some prisons may incorporate both types of living quarters or use a variation, like cells built in a pod style, where multiple cells share a common area and bathroom.
6. What's the difference between state and federal prisons?
The difference between state and federal prison starts with who owns and operates the prison. Federal prisons are run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (a division of the Department of Justice), whereas state prisons are operated by a state corrections agency. When a public prison has exceeded capacity, state or federal governments may contract out to a privately owned prison operated by a for-profit, third-party entity. State prisons house those who have been charged with and convicted of state-level crimes. Because states all have different laws, there is a variety in lengths of sentencing, probation rates, and capital punishment among state prisons.
Federal prisons, on the other hand, house those convicted of a federal crime. Whereas a person in a state prison is generally—though not always—held in the state where the crime was committed, a federal prisoner is more likely to be housed in a state far from their home and family. For example, when Prison Fellowship’s founder pled guilty to a crime committed while he resided in Virginia, he was sentenced to complete his time at a federal prison camp in Alabama.
Prison Fellowship® is the nation’s leading Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. With life-changing programs in prison, an advocacy team leading the charge for justice reform, and ministry to families, we are dedicated to seeing all impacted by crime and incarceration restored.
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