What’s the Difference Between Jail and Prison in Texas?

 In Criminal

Technically, there are three types of lock-ups in Texas: county jail, state jail and prison. None are ideal places to live, of course, but there are distinct differences between the three. Where an inmate ends up primarily depends on the length of their stay. Here’s a look at the difference between jail and prison in Texas, including which ones have air conditioning:

County Jail

In general, county jail is a temporary facility for individuals who have been charged with a crime but are unable to post bail. They are housed in the county jail with other inmates while awaiting trial or resolution of their case, which can sometimes take weeks or months.

County jails also house people who have been convicted of a misdemeanor and received a sentence of less than a year. Good time credit is often available for those serving time in county lockup, which could lessen their time behind bars.

County jails are usually run by the local sheriff’s department, which is tasked with the custody and care of inmates, including getting them and to and from court. Depending on the size of the facility, county jails can house a few inmates or several thousand, according to a recent population report from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. It’s important to point out that not everyone in county jail has been or will be convicted of a crime.

State Jail

Unlike county jails, all inmates in a state jail facility have been convicted of a crime. A state jail facility is basically a minimum-security prison for low-level offenders who are serving six months to two years for committing a state jail felony. State jail facilities also temporarily house other inmates awaiting transfer to prison.

State jail facilities, which are under the control of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, were created in the early 1990s to reduce prison overcrowding. Currently, there are 18 state jails in Texas, which house about 9,500 offenders. State jails are geared for inmate rehabilitation and offer educational, vocational and substance abuse programs for non-violent offenders.

Interestingly, inmates in state jail facilities cannot earn good conduct time or parole, which is different than inmates in county lock-up or prison. However, some state jail offenders may be eligible for diligent participation credit, which will allow them to earn time credit by diligently participating in work, education or treatment programs.


Generally speaking, prison – which is also commonly referred to as the penitentiary —are long term, high-security facilities. State prisons, which are operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, are reserved for inmates who have been convicted of first, second or third degree felonies for breaking a state law. Currently, more than 135,000 inmates are housed in Texas’ prison units. Unless an inmate has been sentenced to death or life in prison without parole, inmates in a state prison will become eligible for parole in Texas – that is, eligible for release before completion of their entire sentence.

Federal prisons, which are run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, house inmates who have been convicted of a federal crime. There are more than 191,579 federal inmates across the country. There is no parole for federal defendants convicted of crimes committed after November 1, 1987, although some prisoners may be able to shave time off their sentences with “good time credit” for exemplary behavior.

Difference between Jail and Prison

The fundamental difference between jail and prison in Texas is the length of stay for inmates. Jails are locally operated, short-term facilities that house inmates accused of a crime or convicted of a low-level offense. Prisons are long-term lockups that are operated by the state or federal government and house inmates convicted of a serious crime or a felony. Another important difference between jail and prison is air-conditioning. County jails and federal prisons have it; most state prisons do not.

So while the differences between jail and prison in Texas are distinct, one thing is the same: Most people would rather not see the inside of any of them.

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