Jail vs. Prison – What’s the Big Difference?

By Ben Hartwig
07 October, 2019

Do you know the difference between jail and prison?

For most people, these terms are interchangeable and define places of confinement. While both are facilities sanctioned by the law, jails and prisons couldn’t be more different from one another. Some mainstream media outlets should take the blame for the public’s confusion when it comes to using these terms.

The reason?

You’re more likely to hear or read something that mentions a person “going to jail for life.”

Some variations include:

  • Serving a 30-year jail sentence.
  • Rot in jail.
  •  Is in prison awaiting trial.

Of course, all these examples are wrong. Let’s pin that on the public’s limited knowledge of the American justice system and years of interchanging these two terms. This article aims to clear the air and shed light on the real uses for the words jail and prison.

Jail vs. Prison

The terms “jail” and “prison” both refer to institutions designed to incarcerate people, and any form of incarceration is an unpleasant experience by design. These facilities deprive people of certain constitutional rights within the criminal justice system. However, under the law, they are not the same.

So, what’s all the fuss about jail and prison being similar, yet so different?

The fundamental difference between jail and prison is how long someone gets locked up. Jails are more for short-term stays, while prisons are long-term. Other variations involve how these facilities treat the rights, policies, and day to day life of an inmate. Despite the size difference, jails often have worse conditions for inmates than prisons.

Let’s take a closer look at what makes these two facilities different.



Jails are secure detention centers operated by a city government or a county. Small communities with low arrest rates use facilities known as lockups, where the police detain people for a short period, pending transfer to a nearby jail. Many jails have boot camps and work-release programs designed to help people improve their lives.

A jail has three types of prisoners:

  • Arrested individuals waiting for sentencing, trial, or a plea bargain agreement.
  • Convicted individuals serving punishment for a misdemeanor criminal offense. Sentences are usually less than a year.
  • Sentenced individuals who are awaiting transfer to prison.

Being the first stop in the criminal justice system, jails see a daily influx of detainees. Some people stay for less than a day, while others may remain for several until the courts sign their release. Some detainees walk out of jail after putting up bail, while others get released by securing an agreement for a court appearance.

Issues Facing Jails

Due to budget constraints, jails often have less developed facilities and inadequate food. The endless number of transients who get thrown in jail are either high, drunk, or mentally ill. Some even arrive with fresh injuries from fights or other violations that led to their arrest. All this makes the entire process challenging for the jail’s medical staff and personnel.

Because of this, a lot of prisoners who had stints in prison prefer their time there compared to jail time. Prisons have better facilities, more programs, and offer a more regular life based on routines. Prisoners often complain about not being able to sleep, exercise, and eat on a regular schedule. When given a choice, many of them will choose prison time over jail and probation.


Prisons are secure facilities operated by either the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), state government, or a private company. This type of institution houses individuals convicted of a felony criminal offense. Sentences usually last for more than one year, and people who are going to prison know about it in advance.

Compared to jails, the number of people who enter prisons daily is far less. These prisoners are either jail transfers, recently convicted felons or those who need to report to prison on a court-appointed date. Designed for long-term incarceration, prisons are better equipped at providing a life for their populace.

Prison Programs and Custody Levels

Prisons have different programs for people based on their level of custody. Custody levels include solitary confinement, minimum, medium, and maximum security.

Minimum and medium security programs may offer:

  • Community resolution centers.
  • Halfway houses.
  • Work release programs.

Usually, these programs are only eligible for prisoners nearing the end of their prison terms. Incarcerated people released from prison get sent to a community program or for parole supervision. Some of them end up getting released with no oversight whatsoever. This scenario happens when prisoners have done their time and served their full prison term.

The Difference Between an Inmate and a Prisoner


The public often refers to incarcerated people as either inmates, prisoners, or convicts.

While the terms are harmless and interchangeable on the outside, they’re quite different on the inside. Prisoners follow a certain code when inside a correctional institution. According to incarcerated people, there are two types of prisoners: inmates and convicts.

Each belongs to a different “class” of prisoners, and the differences are like night and day. Some prisoners take offense over the use or misuse of these terms. The main reason is that convicts see themselves as superior to inmates due to the strict code they follow.

Inmate vs. Convict

Inmate. Follows the rules and would sometimes tell on fellow prisoners to save their skin. Inmates will place the blame on others and look out only for themselves. Inmates are viewed as having no moral code and values.

Convict. Doesn’t care about following prison rules and would never snitch on a fellow prisoner. Convicts will shoulder the blame and take the fall because he looks out for his fellows. A real convict will take full responsibility without uttering a word. Convicts are viewed as having a certain code of integrity that they hold themselves accountable to.

Calling a convict an inmate is a significant sign of disrespect. Corrections officers will often poke a real convict by referring to him as an inmate in an attempt to belittle his standing. On the other side of the coin, some inmates will refer to themselves as convicts to boost their status.

If you aren’t sure about these terms, using prisoner is fine and won’t get you into hot water.


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