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Criminal Law FAQs

Jails and Prisons

Just as there are many different types of crimes that may be committed, there are many different ways a person may be punished and confined for committing a crime. The following are frequently asked questions about some of the kinds of jails and prisons, and other forms of confinement in America.

What is the difference between jail and prison?

Most often, the word "jail" is used for the city or county cells where people who have been arrested or charged with a crime are held until they are either released or sentenced to prison. "Prison" is most often used to mean a state (or federal) facility where people who have been convicted of crimes are sent to serve their sentences.

In practice, keeping people in jail is very expensive—prison more so. Therefore, when prisons are over-crowded, inmates may serve their time in jails. Also, people convicted of misdemeanors (which have sentences of six months are less) serve their time in jails.

Generally speaking, prisons are institutions run by the federal or state government. Jails, on the other hand, are institutions run by cities or counties.

Note: With limited exceptions, only inmates who are convicted of violating federal laws are sent to federal prisons. Most inmates who are convicted of violating state or local laws are sent to state prisons or city or county jails.

Are there different kinds of prisons? What kinds are there?

Prisons typically vary according to the type of inmates and the rules of the particular jurisdiction. While all inmates are entitled to basic necessities, such as food, water, and toilet facilities, some inmates are also granted privileges such as keeping radios, televisions, books, and "extra" food in their cells. In addition, most inmates are entitled to have contact with other prisoners, limited access to an outside exercise yard, the use of indoor exercise facilities, the use of a library, and other similar activities. Many jails and prisons offer employment to able-bodied inmates. In most situations, the employment is menial labor such as making electrical cables or license plates for the government.

Most inmates are also allowed to have visits from family, friends, although the scope of this contact is determined by the security level and rules of the institution.

For most inmates, good behavior in prison or jail is rewarded by giving credit against a sentence and may allow inmates to leave the facility before their actual sentence expires.

Are there private jails and prisons?

A number of jails and prisons in America are not run by the government, but are instead owned and operated by private companies under contract with the government. Generally, private jails and prisons are run in the same day-to-day manner of structured inmate schedules and limited contact with the outside world. Private institutions have come under attack from many people who argue that privatization of criminal incarceration facilities is improper, as it allows private individuals to "profit" from crime.

What are super-maximum security prisons?

The most dangerous inmates are generally kept in super-maximum security prisons or "Control Unit Prisons." In addition to federal super-maximum facilities, many states and counties have also constructed (or adapted existing facilities into) super-maximum jails.

  • Most super-maximum facilities require that prisoners in a control unit be kept in solitary confinement for between twenty-two and twenty-three hours per day. The inmates are not allowed to eat, exercise, work, or attend religious services together. The inmates are considered to be in permanent solitary confinement, as opposed to other less-secure prisons where inmates may be placed in solitary confinement for a period of time in order to punish misbehavior. The inmates are given access to medical and mental health care, books, clergy, and religious materials.

What are podular/direct supervision jails?

Podular/direct supervision jails, sometimes also called "New Generation" jails, house inmates in units or pods centered around a common multipurpose space, as opposed to being incarcerated in a traditional row of cells. Podular/direct supervision jails operate on the premise that consistent direct supervision of inmates can curb negative behaviors. This type of system is not a good method of incarcerating dangerous criminals, as the common interaction areas with other prisoners can lead to additional crimes.

What are regional jails?

Regional jails are facilities that two or more jurisdictions run together, and which are populated by inmates from those jurisdictions. In some situations, a regional jail may be the only incarceration facility in a particular jurisdiction. In other situations, a jurisdiction may have its "own" jail, and may also send some inmates to a regional facility.

What are secure mental health facilities?

When inmates are found by a court to be mentally incapacitated, they are often sentenced to "serve time" in a secure mental health facility, rather than placed in a normal prison or jail. The purpose of these specialized facilities is dual: they ensure the safety of others if the inmates are considered dangerous, and they are intended to provide proper care and treatment for mental disabilities.

What is "boot camp incarceration"?

Correctional boot camps (sometimes called "shock incarceration") are an alternative that focuses on deterring future unlawful conduct through a combination of military-style physical training and psychotherapeutic counseling.

  • In some jurisdictions, inmates may volunteer for boot camp as an alternative to incarceration, and may voluntarily drop out and go back to prison if they find it too tough.
  • The goal of most boot camps is the rehabilitation of the offender. Boot camps often use peer pressure in counseling sessions to reinforce positive behavior and discourage negative behavior. Many boot camps are designed to resocialize criminal drug abusers.
  • After release from boot camps, most inmates are closely monitored by the appropriate corrections department to aid their reintegration to society. Most inmates placed in boot camps "serve" less time than they would if placed in a typical incarceration facility.

How are juvenile detention facilities different from adult facilities?

Generally, offenders who committed their crimes when they were under 18 are placed in juvenile detention facilities. Many of these detention facilities focus on rehabilitation of the juvenile offender, rather than on pure punishment. In some cases, juvenile detention facilities are used to house offenders who commit a crime that, if not for their age, would have required incarceration. In other cases, juvenile detention facilities are used to punish behaviors unique to that age group, such as habitual truancy.

  • Juvenile detention facilities are often run much like a regular prison or jail, with strict schedules, codes of expected behavior, and punishment for misbehavior.
  • The purpose of placing juvenile offenders in separate facilities from adult criminals is to insulate juveniles from "bad influences," to protect them, and to attempt to curb criminal tendencies before adulthood. However, many juveniles who commit serious crimes are tried as adults may be placed in juvenile facilities until they reach adulthood, at which time they may be transferred to adult facilities.

What are probation and other "intermediate sanctions"?

Probation and other intermediate sanctions, are different from incarceration. An example of an intermediate sanction might be community service. An individual convicted of a crime who receives probation will be required to comply with rules set down by the court. For instance, the individual might need to participate in counseling or psychotherapy, might have to submit to drug testing, might have to search for and find work, and will have to report regularly to a probation officer. If the person violates the terms of probation or other intermediate sanction, they risk incarceration.

Copyright © 2008 FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters business

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