Serving Time in Federal v. State Prison

Photo by Ron Lach on

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Serving time in federal prison v. state prisons vary according to the particular prison, as all prisons are not created equal. The security level of the prisons influence many of the factors an inmate will experience, as well as the economy of the prison systems involved.

[Revised for clarity and to add photos on April 19, 2019]

One of my more popular answers on is in response to “How does serving time in federal prison compare to state prison,” which you may read below or by visiting by clicking here.

When I first began my federal sentence in the late eighties while at the United States Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, an old-timer said, “The states control you physically and the feds do it psychologically.”

United States Federal Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas

I found that true. The feds use incentive-mechanisms to control its prisoners (gives prisoners something to lose, recreation privileges, more freedom of movement, better food and living conditions; something authorities take or restrict access to for misbehavior).

The typical prisoner mentality in the federal system is milder, less-violent than many state prisoners. Again, an old-timer gave me a few words of wisdom:

“The federal system lulls people to sleep because it’s more laid-back, and there’s not as much violence every day, so guys forget where they’re at because they get away with so much. And then when one of them does something stupid to the wrong person, he gets stabbed or killed.”

I behaved better in the federal system than when I served time in the State of Georgia, where violence dominated every day activities.

Georgia State Prison, Reidsville, Georgia

The published writings in Essays and More Straight from the Pen by Wayne T. Dowdy, show the difference between the young knucklehead I was while serving time in Georgia, where I didn’t have much to lose, in comparison to the responsible man I become, due in part to the aging process, and having programs available to help me change while in the federal system. Read The Price of Change (included in the collection) for an example of the differences in my behaviors in the State versus the Federal system.

Being paid for working in the Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR) made a significant difference because it allowed me to take care of myself, rather than to burden my family for support, and that made me feel better as a human being.

The difference in my behavior illustrates the effectiveness of incentive programs, as well as the difference in the life of a prisoner serving time in a federal or state system; however, prisoner experiences vary.

My experience in the federal prison system was more of an exception than that of the typical prisoner experience, as was my last state sentence, where I was involved in assaulting two correctional officers, and then later escaping and being involved in taking over the prison. I changed during the federal sentence, after serving seven of the thirty-years I served between 1988–2018.

During the state prison sentences, I did as most prisoners do: became worse.