Difference Between Jail And Prison

The words jail and prison are sometimes used interchangeably, but they can imply different things. The two differ by the length of incarceration, the seriousness of the crime, and the entity that runs them.

In this article, we’ll lay out the differences between casual and official use of these words, explain what they often mean in practical terms, and discuss and define similar terms, that is, penitentiary and detention center.

What is a Prison?

Prisons are typically operated by either a state government or the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). They are designed to hold individuals convicted of more serious crimes or felony. In prison convicted offenders serve longer sentences. In other words, a person incarcerated in prison has been convicted of a major criminal offense called a felony. Felonies include major crimes such as:

  • Murder or manslaughter
  • Grand larceny
  • Sexual assault
  • Burglary
  • Kidnapping

Prisons in United States are categorized into State and federal prisons, which are further organized into different levels ranging from low-security to maximum-security. Besides security features, some prisons are classified by the types of services or programs they carry, such as drug treatment programs. People who have been found guilty of breaking a state law are usually sent to a state prison. Those who have violated federal laws are typically sent to federal prison located anywhere in the U.S.

State prisons house individuals sentenced to more than one years’ incarceration up to life imprisonment. Those given life without the possibility of parole or death row inmates will remain incarcerated until their death unless their case is successfully appealed, commuted, or pardoned. Inmates usually include defendants who committed crimes within that state. Additionally, prisons might hold out-of-state inmates who are no longer safe at facilities within the state or region where they committed the crime.

Federal prisons hold pretrial detainees accused of, and sentenced inmates convicted of, federal crimes. In the federal system, an inmate can land in prison anywhere in the country.

Prisons offer different programs to inmates depending on the inmate’s level of custody (i.e., minimum, medium, or maximum security, solitary confinement, etc.). Minimum and medium security programs include halfway houses, work release programs, and community restitution centers. Typically those who are eligible for such programs are nearing the end of their prison terms,

What is a Jail?

Jails are usually local facilities under the jurisdiction of a city, local district, or county. Jails are short-term holding facilities for the newly arrested and those awaiting trial or sentencing. Those sentenced to serve a small amount of time (less than a year) may be housed in the local jail for the duration of their sentence.

Examples of offenses that are sent to jail instead of prison include:

  • driving under the influence (DUI)
  • drug charges
  • assault and battery
  • parole violation

Jails are typically run by the county, local law enforcement, or other local government agencies that tend to focus on the daily or immediate needs of inmates – because of the shorter term of the stay.

Jails often operate work release programs and boot camps, and some offer educational, substance abuse, and vocational programs. While many of these programs are designed to help the inmates change their lives and improve themselves so they stand a better chance of avoiding a return visit, they also have the added benefit of keeping the inmates occupied and less likely to cause problems for jailers.

It is worth noting that both words (Prison and Jail) have meanings that are either figurative, or somewhat more general; prison may also mean “a state of confinement or captivity,” and jail may refer to “confinement in a jail.” Both words also function as verbs, and in this role are less influenced by misdemeanors or felonies than they would be as nouns. If you wish to avoid ambiguity in use you should use prison for serious crimes with longer sentences, and jail for less serious crimes, or for detention awaiting trial.

What is penitentiary?

A penitentiary is a prison, especially a state or federal prison in the United States or Canada. Penitentiaries house criminals who have committed major crimes. The word is often used in formal contexts. In less formal and slang usage, it is often shortened to pen or the pen.

The main purpose of a penitentiary is to punish offenders for their crimes and, ideally, to rehabilitate them in order to reintegrate them into society as law-abiding citizens once their sentences are complete.

The term “penitentiary” is often associated with a more structured and organized approach to incarceration compared to older forms of punishment. In a penitentiary, there is typically a focus on providing inmates with opportunities for education, vocational training, counseling, and other forms of rehabilitation to address the underlying factors that led to their criminal behavior.

What is a detention center?

A detention center is a facility designed to temporarily hold individuals who are suspected or accused of violating certain laws or regulations. These facilities are often used by law enforcement agencies or immigration authorities to detain individuals for various reasons, such as awaiting trial, processing immigration cases, or conducting investigations.

Detention centers can be of different types based upon purpose, conditions and the populations they hold. Examples include:

  • Correctional Detention Centers: These are facilities used to hold individuals who are awaiting trial, have been convicted of a crime, or are serving short sentences. They are commonly associated with the criminal justice system and are used to house individuals who are deemed a flight risk or a danger to society.
  • Immigration Detention Centers: These centers are used to detain individuals who are being held by immigration authorities due to concerns about their legal status, pending immigration hearings, or deportation proceedings. They are often used to hold individuals who are awaiting decisions on their asylum claims, visa applications, or other immigration matters.
  • Migrant Detention Centers: These facilities are specifically designed to hold migrants who have crossed international borders without proper documentation or authorization. They are often managed by immigration enforcement agencies and can be a subject of controversy and debate due to concerns about conditions and treatment.
  • Youth Detention Centers: Also known as juvenile detention centers, these facilities are intended for holding minors who are involved in the criminal justice system. They provide a separate environment for young individuals who have committed offenses, focusing on rehabilitation and education.
  • Temporary Holding Centers: These are short-term facilities where individuals might be held briefly, often for processing, identification, or awaiting transfer to other facilities. They are commonly used by law enforcement during initial stages of an investigation or arrest.

Also Read: Difference Between Sheriff And Police

Prison vs Jail: Key Differences

Purpose and Duration of Stay

  • Jails are usually short-term facilities designed to hold individuals who are awaiting trial, sentencing, or arraignment. They may also house people serving sentences for minor offenses, usually less than a year.
  • Prisons are long-term facilities intended for individuals who have been convicted of more serious crimes and are serving longer sentences, typically exceeding one year.

Type of Offenders

  • Jails primarily house individuals charged with misdemeanors, those awaiting trial, and individuals sentenced for short periods of time.
  • Prisons house individuals convicted of felonies, which are more serious crimes, and who have been sentenced to longer periods of incarceration.

Facility Size and Security Level

  • Jails are generally smaller facilities with lower security levels, as they house a more transient population and individuals with shorter sentences.
  • Prisons are usually larger institutions with varying security levels, including minimum, medium and maximum security facilities, to accommodate inmates with different risk levels.

Services and Programs

  • Jails usually provide limited rehabilitation programs due to the short duration of stays.
  • Prisons offer comprehensive educational, vocational, and treatment programs aimed at reducing recidivism and preparing inmates for reintegration into society.

Legal Status of Inmates

  • Inmates in jails are just awaiting trial and are legally presumed innocent until proven guilty.
  • Inmates in prisons have been convicted of a crime and are serving sentences as punishment for their actions.


  • Jails are usually located in or near urban centers, making them easily accessible for court appearances and legal proceedings.
  • Prisons are often located in more remote areas due to their larger size and security needs.

Timeframe for Incarceration

  • The average length of stay in jail is shorter, usually a few days to a year.
  • Inmates in prison serve longer sentences, which can range from a few years to life, depending on the severity of the crime.

Inmate Population Mix

  • Jail populations are more fluid, with a turnover of individuals as they await trial or complete short sentences.
  • Prison populations are more stable, with inmates serving longer sentences, leading to the formation of social structures and routines within the facility.

Legal Process

  • Inmates in jails are often still going through legal processes, such as awaiting trial or attending court hearings.
  • Inmates in prison have completed their legal processes and have been sentenced for their crimes.

Release and Parole

  • Inmates in jail are often released when their trial concludes or after serving a short sentence. Parole is less common in jails.
  • Inmates in prison may be eligible for parole after serving a portion of their sentence, based on good behavior and other factors, as a means of supervised release before completing their full sentence.

Prison vs Jail: Key Takeaways

Points of ComparisonPrisonJail
DescriptionPrison is generally a place for holding criminals convinced of felony or more serious crimes.Jail can be used to describe a place for those awaiting trial or held for minor crimes.
OperationPrisons are typically operated by either a state government or the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).Jails typically operated or under the jurisdiction of a city, local district, or county.
ConvinctionIn prison convicted offenders serve longer sentences.In jail convicted offenders serve shorter sentences.
FacilitiesPrisons bigger budgets, meaning food and other necessities can be of either a high quality or even adequate.Jails typically have lower budgets, meaning food and other necessities can be of either a lower quality or even inadequate.
CategorisesPrisons can be of different levels ranging from low-security to maximum-security.Jails can be of different sizes from small to large.

More Perspective

  • Jail and prison are often used interchangeably as places of confinement. If you want to be specific jail can be used to describe a place for those awaiting trial or held for minor crimes, whereas prison describes a place for criminals convicted of serious crimes.
  • Because prisons are designed for long-term incarceration, they are better developed for the living needs of their populations. Jails tend to have more transient populations and less well-developed facilities.
  • In both Prison, the inmates have a right to visitation and the right to make outgoing calls home or to their attorneys, although they do not have the same right to privacy as a regular civilian.
  • In both Prison and Jail, Inmates do, however, have the same basic rights of any prisoner, including the right to be treated humanely, the right to access the courts, a right to medical care, and a right to not suffer any kind of discrimination – based on gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.