Jail vs. Prison – What You Should Know

The Utah Criminal Justice system is riddled with nuances and confusing subtleties, and one of the most obscure is probably the distinction between the jails and prisons.  For those who have had no experience with either system, jails and prisons probably seem identical; but when someone is offered a plea bargain involving either jail or prison time as part of the package, it’s worth knowing the differences before accepting.

1)       Jails

Population: Of the two, jails are primarily used in Utah to house offenders convicted of misdemeanor crimes and those who’ve been given short-term sentences.  They are also used to hold defendants with open cases and, from time to time, felons for whom there isn’t room in a nearby prison.  As a result, the population of inmates you’re likely to find at a jail is not one of hardened criminals, but of minor offenders.

Operation: Utah jails are operated and funded by the 21 counties throughout the state, are smaller than their prison counterparts, and are less oriented toward rehabilitation than simply serving time.  That said, the average cost of housing an offender in a jail is still around $14,000.00 a year – about half that of the cost of a similar prison sentence – so significant resources and programs are usually still available for interested inmates.  While the relevant county typically provides this funding to operate their local jail, the Utah Department of Corrections does subsidize the county whenever they decide to house a prison inmate in a jail.

Resources: Because jails are operated by independent counties, the experience an inmate will have in one can vary widely.  For some inmates, their experience in a jail might be so short that they never participate in a jail’s programs and classes.  For those with longer sentences, most jails offer a number of programs designed to help inmates pass the time and be more easily reintegrated into society once their sentence is up.  Many jails offer GED/High School Diploma classes, along with classes designed to improve communication skills, anger recognition and management, parenting skills and relationship skills.  Finally, drug-therapy programs are often made accessible to inmates, including Alcoholic Anonymous.

Along with these classes, jails also typically offer work release and work diversion programs.  These programs are designed to allow inmates to serve their sentence intermittently – they are allowed to work at their normal jobs but are booked back into the jail each night or weekend – or to organize inmates into community service projects supervised directly by the county sheriff’s office. These programs typically require specific sentencing by a judge before inmates are allowed to participate in them, but can have a dramatic influence on the nature of the jail experience.

2)      Prisons

Population: The population of inmates at a Utah prison is usually very different from that of a Utah jail: not only are many inmates convicted of serious felonies – everything from theft to murder – but most of them have also been sentenced to long terms of incarceration.  That said, while their sentences may be long, purportedly 95% of prison inmates are eventually released back into the population, so the sentences are not necessarily life-long.

Operation: The Utah prisons are operated directly by the Utah Department of Corrections, the state agency tasked with keeping everything running smoothly.  To date, there are two prisons in Utah: the Gunnison Prison and the Draper Prison.  The Gunnison Prison is large enough to house around 1,600 inmates, while the Draper Prison is can house around 4,500 inmates.  Each prison is made up of a number of facilities covering a large campus.

Resources: Because most inmates are expected to spend a long period of time in prison, the Utah Department of Corrections has designed them to “provide education, programming, work experience and treatment to address underlying issues…[to] help keep offenders from re-entering the prison system and further burdening the general public.”[i]  At a cost of around $27,000.00 a year to house prison-inmates, this rehabilitative policy costs taxpayers about double what similar jail programs do, but probably result in fewer return-offenders.

In addition to these rehabilitative programs, both Utah prisons provide their inmates with access to religious services of their choice (though it is up to the inmate to arrange the service with volunteers from outside, in order to maintain separation between church and state), and have infirmaries on-site to handle most medical issues.  The prisons also offer various visitation services for eligible inmates, and work with the Board of Pardons and Parole to arrange for early release hearings when appropriate.

                Whenever you are offered a plea bargain that includes some amount of jail or prison time, be sure to familiarize yourself with what kind of experience you will have before accepting.  While a jail or prison sentence cannot always be avoided, taking a little time to prepare yourself can go a long way toward making the experience as palatable as possible.  And, as always, consult with an attorney before pleading to make sure all your alternatives have been exhausted.

Photo Courtesy of: franky242@freedigitalphotos.net

[i]  Utah Department of Corrections, Frequently Asked Questions (Utah, Utah Department of Corrections: 2014), [1].

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