Differences Between Military and Civilian Prisons in the U.S.

military prisons vs civilian prisons

There are movies, TV shows, books, and documentaries that give Americans a glimpse into what life might be like behind bars in a civilian prison. Unfortunately, what we see depicted is violence, bad food, boredom, and overcrowded conditions.

But there are also military prisons in the U.S. These prisons are built to house criminals who have committed a crime while being enlisted in the U.S. military. Have you ever wondered how military prisons compare to their civilian counterparts? It turns out that these two institutions are quite different in ways that might surprise you.

Military Prisons vs. Civilian Prisons


1. Guards

The guards in a military prison are recruited from local military police units. Like civilian guards, their job is to ensure that inmates are kept safe and remain in control during their incarceration.

Military guards tend to take their roles quite seriously. Their military training has instilled a certain level of discipline and a code of conduct that they bring to the job.

That’s not to say civilian guards don’t take their jobs seriously, or that every military prison guard is perfect. But a military guard tends to approach his or her job with the same tenacity as a servicemember in battle.

2. Housing Facilities

military prisons vs civilian prisons

Prisoners in a military prison are responsible for the cleanliness and upkeep of the prison itself. They must keep their cells in order and be responsible for whatever area of the prison they are assigned to, whether it’s the latrine, the kitchen, the gym, or floors.

If there is anything even slightly dirty or damaged, the responsible prisoner will be disciplined swiftly. As a result, military prisons are incredibly clean and well-maintained.

Compare that to civilian prisons, where prisoners aren’t expected to meet the same standards of cleanliness you would find in a military prison. They are expected to clean the facilities of course, but many prisoners just do the bare minimum or just refuse to do the work. Civilian facilities can fall apart pretty quickly and tend to stay that way.

3. Rehabilitation

The military knows that anyone leaving the military prison system will have a dishonorable discharge on their record. Therefore, the military is keenly aware that prisoners must learn a trade that will lead to employment once they are free.

Therefore, military prisoners have an opportunity to be trained in carpentry, auto repair, landscaping, culinary arts, and more so they can earn a living once they’re free.

The civilian prison system also focuses on rehabilitation, in theory, but the reality is a bit different from what you see in a military prison. Civilian prisons offer high school diploma equivalency programs for inmates who haven’t graduated from high school. College coursework may be available to some, but inmates themselves must pay for it.

Some prisoners will have the opportunity to learn a trade, but it depends on the needs of the prison. So, if the prison needs carpentry work, then prisoners can learn that trade if it needs masonry work, then prisoners can learn masonry, and so on.

4. Salutes

military prisons vs civilian prisons

The issue of salutes isn’t relevant for civilian inmates, but salutes are a very big deal in a military prison.

Inmates at a military facility are not allowed to salute higher ranking officers. It’s actually a punishable offense. You might be thinking, what’s wrong with a salute?

Here’s the issue. Outside of the prison system, when enlisted members salute officers, officers return the salute as a sign of respect.

If an inmate in a military prison saluted a higher-ranking officer, the officer would be obligated to return the salute. In the eyes of the military, an inmate has lost the privilege of receiving a return salute.

It must be hard for prisoners in the military to “unlearn” the requirement to salute officers. But it’s necessary if they want to serve their time with as little incident as possible.

5. Fighting and Conflicts

Movies and television depict fights in civilian prisons as bloody brawls that can break out at any minute. Civilian prisons are violent places where fighting is common, but it’s still not quite as bad as the media portrays. For the most part, inmates are separated from each other many hours of the day. Most inmates try to keep to themselves and serve their time.

Fights are not a common occurrence in military prisons. Inmates were once military personnel, who were trained to maintain their discipline and focus their fighting on the enemy. Military inmates tend to retain that training even when in prison.

In addition, military inmates want to be released on good behavior. Being released with a good prison record could possibly help military inmates re-join the military upon their release. Plus, getting into fights will result in them losing access to the job training programs that they enjoy.

Finally, you just don’t see that many gangs in military prisons. They share the bond of being servicemembers. That doesn’t mean they all love each other, but there’s at least a baseline level of respect among military inmates that doesn’t exist amongst civilian prisoners.

6. Solitary Confinement

military prisons vs civilian prisons

Solitary confinement is one of the few similarities between civilian and military populations. Any inmate who disobeys a guard or refuses to follow a rule, risks being thrown in solitary confinement.

By all accounts solitary is a hellish experience. Inmates are locked in a small room by themselves for days, weeks, or even months at a time, with no access to other people save for an hour of exercise time every day.

In fact, the abolition of solitary confinement has been a hotly debated topic for years. Many believe it is a cruel form of punishment that should be banned immediately.

7. The Rhythm of Daily Life

Both military inmates and civilian inmates lead regimented lives, but as you would expect, the military inmate’s life is much more regimented. Almost every moment of their day is accounted for.

They start each day by bathing, shaving, and eating breakfast. Then they go to their work details. During the day there are multiple head counts, recreation time, and of course, meals. Most agree that the food in military prisons is better than food in civilian prisons.

Civilian inmates follow a strict schedule as well, but they less opportunities for work or schooling during the day. There’s more “down time” which can lead to boredom and restlessness. Prison food is notoriously bland and lacking in quality.

Prison Life is No Life

military prisons vs civilian prisons

Comparatively speaking, military prisons do seem to be a bit better than civilian prisons. But when it comes down to it, being an inmate in any type of prison sounds awful.

The far better option is to stay focused on your career, be it military or civilian, and take opportunities to get ahead without running afoul of the law.

Empire Resume Will Help You Transition into the Civilian Workforce

military prisons vs civilian prisons

We specialize in writing military resumes!

Dr. Phillip Gold is President/CEO of Empire Resume and has vast experience writing resumes for both professionals and servicemembers transitioning from the military into civilian roles. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and was responsible for leading nuclear missile security. Phillip is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and holds a BA in Communications from The Ohio State University, an MS in Instructional Technology, an MBA in Finance, and a PhD in Finance.

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