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Difference Between Jail and Prison

Rujuta Patil Oct 23, 2020
A jail is a facility usually run by a local government, which includes sentenced or arrested inmates awaiting trial. In contrast, a prison is operated by a federal or state government, and houses inmates sentenced for long-term imprisonment. Get to know the differences between these two terms.

Quick Fact!

Of the 183,000 total federal inmates, 84% are in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the rest being held in privately managed or other facilities.
According to 'The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences' (by The National Academies Press, 2014), the United States has the largest penal population in the world of 2.2 million. It is argued that jails across the country have become warehouses for the poor, mentally ill, and the addicted, as they cannot afford bail.
There is a difference between a jail and a prison but people in each institution together is called 'incarcerated population'. Besides prison and jail, it may have individuals in boot camps, weekend programs, halfway-houses, or other such places where inmates are confined overnight. Though both are two kinds of correctional institutions, they are different.

Jail Vs. Prison


Jails: Correctional facilities that confine persons before or after adjudication, and are usually operated by local law enforcement authorities.

Prisons: Long-term facilities run by the state or federal government. Federal prisons are facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
(Bureau of Justice Statistics)

Duration of Stay

Jail: A short-term facility; detention for less than one year. Inmates generally have a sentence of less than a year.

Prison: A long-term facility; imprisonment for one year or more.


Jails: Administered by a local law enforcement agency, like the Sheriff's department.

Prisons: Operated by the federal state government.

Type of Inmates In Jail

▸ Individuals are confined here because a trial is pending, they are awaiting sentencing, or have been convicted in some cases.

▸ Though usually detaining adults, jails may hold juveniles prior to or after a judgment. Juveniles held to be transferred to other facilities, or mentally ill to be shifted to appropriate mental health facilities are held here.
▸ Witnesses for the courts, individuals held for the military for protective custody, or also for contempt are held in jails.

▸ Consists of misdemeanants, which refers to individuals who have committed a crime that is less serious than a felony.

Type of Inmates In Prison

▸ A prison consists mainly of felons, or criminals convicted of serious crimes.

▸ The level of custody of an inmate may vary: solitary confinement, minimum, medium, maximum security, etc.
▸ The number of persons entering prisons everyday is far less than wrongdoers entering a jail on a daily basis.

▸ The inmates of a prison are considered to be quite stable and less violent, as compared to the inmates in a jail.

Functions and Conditions in Jail

▸ Other than detention of offenders or suspects, jails also have inmates under community-based programs as an alternative to incarceration. They release these inmates back to the community upon completion of their sentences. Jails act as houses of inmates who are transferred due to overcrowding facilities.

▸ A jail would normally not have many amenities.

Functions and Conditions in Prison

▸ Prisons, on the other hand, differ from jails in terms of the conviction status, offense distribution, and length of stay, as they confine only sentenced offenders serving a term of more than one year. Also, the two facilities are unlike with respect to average size, treatment and programming resources, and crowding.
▸ Prisons today source their origin around the late 1700s, attributed to the penal reformers then. Penitentiaries, developed in the 1800s (in New York and Pennsylvania) proved to be a failure, giving way to reformatories, and later replaced by prisons.

Integrated Correctional System

Definitions of what is classified as a jail or a prison is not the same throughout the United States. It differs according to state laws. The length of sentences may vary depending upon the system of correction prevailing in the given state.
In the integrated correctional system, jails and prisons are combined. An example of this are the six states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Alaska, Delaware, Vermont, and Hawaii.
Even as prisoners, individuals are entitled to primary rights like humane treatment, not to undergo cruel punishment, access to courts, freedom from sexual assaults or crime, rights against racial discrimination, and right to medical care, etc.