'Federal Prison' vs 'State Prison': What's the Difference?

By Katie Moore, updated on September 20, 2023

‘Federal Prison’ vs ‘State’ Prison’: What’s the difference? Putting words together can help us clarify the exact thing we’re talking about and specify details in our writing. Let’s learn how to differentiate ‘Federal Prison’ vs ‘State Prison’.

In a rush? Here’s a look at what you’ll learn:

  • ‘Federal Prison’ is a term that defines a place run by the federal government
  • ‘State Prison’ is a term that defines a place run by the state or local government

What’s the Difference Between ‘Federal Prison’ vs ‘State Prison’?

Before getting into what makes these new terms different, let’s feel confident in what makes them the same.

  • The word ‘Prison’ is defined as a building in which people are held legally as a punishment for a crime they’ve committed. 
    • Prisons can also be called jails or penitentiaries, but they are typically used for long-term sentences, while jails are more for short-term holding.

Note that prisons are specifically designed to hold adults (people over 18) and do not hold minors. So how do we tell apart a ‘Federal Prison’ vs ‘State Prison’? It’s important to note that these terms do not define the style or quality of the prison. They define who runs and owns the prison. 

  • For example, as implied by the name, the federal government has jurisdiction over ‘Federal Prisons’ while local and state governments preside over ‘State Prisons.’ 

In the same vein, what determines who goes to which type of prison is not the severity of the crime committed, but rather who the crime is committed against. 

  • People who commit crimes against a state go to ‘State Prison’ and people who commit crimes over the federal government go to ‘Federal Prison’.

While this may seem intuitive, it is important to clarify what exactly distinguishes the types of prisons from each other. And now that we have a general understanding let’s take a closer look individually at ‘Federal Prison’ vs ‘State Prison’. 

Definition of ‘Federal’: What Does it Mean?

According to Oxford Languages ‘Federal’ is an adjective that means:

  • Having or relating to a system of government in which several states form a unity but remain independent in internal affairs
  • Relating to or denoting the central government as distinguished from the separate units constituting a federation
    • “The federal agency that provides legal services to the poor.”
  • Relating to or denoting the central government of the United States
  • (historical) of the northern states in the American Civil War
    • “A loud Federal cheer was heard in battle.”

Synonyms of ‘Federal’

  • United 
  • Civil
  • National
  • Communal
  • Nationwide
  • Popular

Antonyms of ‘Federal’

  • Private
  • Local
  • Statewide
  • Divided
  • Separate
  • Uncoordinated

Phrases with ‘Federal’

  • Federal government
  • Federal law
  • Federal jurisdiction
  • Federal agent

Definition of ‘Federal Prison’: What Does it Mean?

According to the Dictionary, ‘Federal Prison’ is a noun that means:

  • A prison operates under the jurisdiction of a federal government as opposed to a state or provincial body. Federal prisons are used for convicts who violate federal laws. 

Note that ‘Federal Prisons’ aren’t unique to the United States, and in other countries such as Canada and Brazil, they are used to house dangerous inmates and those serving longer sentences. Those who go to ‘Federal Prison’ must serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before consideration to be released.

What Are Federal Crimes?

Federal crimes are often charged by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and can lead to punishments that are more severe than those given by ‘State Prisons’.

Here is a list of federal crimes: 

  • Treason
  • Piracy
  • Drug trafficking
  • Embezzlement
  • Fraud
  • Cybercrime
  • Murder
  • Terrorism

Those who commit any of the above crimes are subject to imprisonment at a federal facility and will serve an average of 5 to 15 years—the more dangerous the crime, the longer the sentence. 

Definition of ‘State’: What Does it Mean?

According to Oxford Languages, ‘State’ is a noun that means:

  • A nation or territory is considered an organized political community under one government
    • “Idaho, Ohio, and other American states.”
  • An organized political community or area forming part of a federal republic
    • “The German state of Bavaria.”
  • The civil government of a country
    • “Services provided by the state.”

As an adjective, the word ‘State’ can also mean:

  • Of, provided by, or concerned with the civil government of a country
    • “The future of state education.”

Synonyms of ‘State’

  • Community
  • Government
  • Federation
  • Land
  • Union
  • Territory
  • Commonwealth
  • Republic

Antonyms of ‘State’

  • National
  • Federal
  • Countrywide
  • Broad 

Phrases with ‘State’

  • State fair
  • State government
  • State law
  • State constitution
  • Church and state
  • State jurisdiction

Definition of ‘State Prison’: What Does it Mean?

According to the Dictionary, ‘State Prison’ is a noun that means:

  • A prison maintained under the jurisdiction of a state, especially to incarcerate those who committed crimes against said state
  • A state penal or correctional institution whose primary function is to provide for the custody, treatment, training, and rehabilitation of adult criminal offenders

Those who serve in state prisons are more likely to be released early, sometimes only having to complete 50 percent of their sentence.   

What Are State Crimes? 

State crimes are often less aggressive than federal crimes, but they can roll into federal investigations depending on their severity. Most misdemeanors are considered state crimes, and below is a list of other state crimes:

  • Driving Under the Influence (DUI)
  • Theft
  • Drug possession
  • Robbery and shoplifting
  • Domestic violence
  • Animal abuse
  • Real estate fraud

State prison sentences can be as low as 30 days, or as high as multiple years, depending on the degree of the crime committed and whether it was a first-time offense. 

How to Use ‘Federal Prison’ vs ‘State Prison’ in a Sentence

Now that you have a better understanding of what defines a ‘Federal Prison’ vs ‘State Prison’, let’s make sure you feel confident using the terms on your own. The example sentences below are a guide to using the terms in a variety of contexts. 

‘Federal Prison’ Example Sentences

  • He knew he was going away to a federal prison for a long time when the FBI showed up at his doorstep. 
  • Acts of terrorism are some of the most dangerous crimes you can commit and often lead to a life sentence in federal prison

‘State Prison’ Example Sentences

  • This was her third driving ticket which meant she now had to serve time in her state prison
  • They hired the best local lawyer to lower their sentence to only six months in a state prison

‘Federal Prison’ vs ‘State Prison’ Example Sentences

  • What started as a matter of local law and a question of state prison charges escalated when more evidence was revealed, and the convict was sentenced to time in a federal prison.
  • She had heard that state prisons were more lenient than federal prisons because the federal ones dealt with more heinous crimes. 

Final Advice on ‘Federal Prison’ vs ‘State Prison’

When we know the base word of a term, we can add others to make things more clear and more specific. Knowing terms like ‘Federal Prison’ vs ‘State Prison’ gives us not only social context but expands our vocabulary as well. 

Need a recap? Let’s review what we learned:

  • ‘Federal Prison’ is a noun that means a prison under federal jurisdiction for those who committed federal crimes.
  • Meanwhile, ‘State Prison’ is a noun that refers to a local institution under state jurisdiction for those who committed lesser crimes against a state. 

Want to learn more ways to make your writing more precise? Be sure to check out other confusing word articles that will help you further clarify your writing, and will also give you a better cultural understanding.

We encourage you to share this article on Twitter and Facebook. Just click those two links - you'll see why.

It's important to share the news to spread the truth. Most people won't.

Written By:
Katie Moore
Katie is a recent graduate of Occidental College where she worked as a writer and editor for the school paper while studying linguistics and journalism. She loves helping others find their voice in writing and making their work the strongest it can be. Katie also loves learning and speaking other languages and wants to help make writing accessible for everyone.

Add new comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WritingTips.org Newsletter
Receive information on
new articles posted, important topics, and tips.
Join Now
We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.