The terms “prison” and “jail” are often used interchangeably, and many people, even within the legal field, use them to refer to the same thing: incarceration. However, there are huge differences between facilities classified as jails versus those classified as prisons.
One of the biggest differences between these facilities is that prisons are run by the state while jails are typically operated at the county level. Additionally, state prisons are usually more secure than county jails, house inmates for longer periods, and are typically involved in more serious offenses. Defendants are often sentenced to time in county jails for lesser offenses or if they are transitioning from one facility to another. Life inside these facilities is also different, as prisons are more secure and may offer a wider variety of education and skill-building programs for inmates.
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The Difference Between County Jail and State Prison in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, almost all incarceration facilities are referred to as prisons. County jails are actually called county prisons. However, referring to them as jail makes it easier to differentiate between the two, and they are often called jails in casual conversations or discussions.
County jails and state prisons are vastly different facilities. Many believe that jails and prisons are largely the same and operated by the same authorities, but this is untrue. Our Northeast Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys can help you if you are facing a potential jail or prison sentence or if you have a loved one currently incarcerated.
County jails (technically called county prisons) are typically smaller than prisons and operated by county authorities rather than state officials. If you have a loved one currently being held in a county jail, you would need to contact county authorities, not the state or the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Many county jails are under the authority of county prison boards, and an attorney can help you contact the appropriate parties for help.
County jails usually hold inmates who have been convicted of lesser offenses, are transitioning between facilities, or are being held while awaiting trial. For example, if your alleged offense was a minor misdemeanor or summary offense, a sentence of incarceration would likely be in county jail. Since offenders in county jails are often sentenced for less severe offenses, the time spent in county jails tends to be shorter. For particularly minor offenses, defendants might only face a few weeks or months in jail rather than years.
State prisons are, of course, operated at the state level by the Department of Corrections (DOC). They are typically named “SCI” (State Correctional Institution), e.g., SCI Chester and SCI Pheonix, two of the prisons closest to Philadelphia.
There are 23 state prisons across Pennsylvania responsible for tens of thousands of inmates. While the DOC is a large agency with thousands of employees, it is not responsible for county jails. However, state prisons and county jails frequently work together to coordinate things like the transfer of inmates.
State prisons tend to house inmates convicted of more serious offenses. As such, state prison inmates usually serve somewhat longer sentences. Nearly all inmates serve sentences over a year, and many others serve very long sentences of several decades or even life.
Since state prisons house inmates convicted of more serious and sometimes violent offenses, they tend to be far more secure. Getting in and out of a state prison, even just for a visit, is a difficult process, and visitors are often heavily restricted on what they can and cannot bring into the prison.
When is a Defendant Sentenced to County Jail or State Prison in Pennsylvania?
Exactly when a defendant is sentenced to county jail or state prison can be difficult to predict and is often determined by your unique circumstances. Generally, defendants convicted of misdemeanors are more likely to be sentenced to time in county jail. Defendants convicted of felonies tend to be sentenced to time in state prison. However, many defendants face a mix of charges, and some charges do not necessarily result in predictable sentencing outcomes.
People facing a mix of misdemeanor and felony charges are more likely to be sentenced to time in state prison than in county jail. A felony conviction, even if accompanied by misdemeanors, still often warrants prison time. Even certain misdemeanors, such as violent first-degree misdemeanors, might lead to time in prison rather than jail.
Jail time is more likely when charges do not include felonies or acts of violence. Not only that, but defendants are usually held in state prison before they are convicted while they are awaiting trial. An inmate might also be temporarily held in a county jail while being transferred between correctional facilities.
Life Inside County Jail and State Prisons in Pennsylvania
Life inside each of these facilities also tends to differ. First, inmate life tends to be less restricted in county jails. Since county jails are less secure, meaning less restrictive of inmate movements, inmates might have an easier time getting around the facility. Depending on which facility an inmate is in, they might have greater freedom with some supervision by guards.
On the other hand, state prisons tend to be far more secure, with much greater restrictions on inmate life and movements. Generally, an inmate cannot even move from one room to another without permission or an escort by a correctional officer. There might also be heavier restrictions on external communications, like mail, phone calls, and visits.
One thing state prisons might provide that many county jails do not are educational and rehabilitative programming for inmates. For example, many state prisons across Pennsylvania have programs to help inmates earn their GEDs while incarcerated. They might also have training courses so inmates can learn trade and job skills to prepare them for their eventual release. County jails might have some degree of programming, but it is often less extensive as inmates are not there for more than a few years at most.
Call Our Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Attorneys Today
Call (215) 302-0171 to arrange a free case assessment with our Montgomery County criminal defense lawyers at The Law Offices of Lloyd Long.