Jail vs. Prison

Most people don't realize that there is a difference between jail and prison and use the words interchangeably.

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Holds People awaiting trial; people sentenced for a short duration, typically less than a year. Not normally used in UK. People convicted of crimes; sentenced for a longer term
Jurisdiction In the U.S.A : Run by the county sheriff's department. In Canada, run by provincial governments. In the U.S.A. :Run by the Prisons and Corrections office in the respective states. There are also federal prisons. In Canada run by the federal government (also called Penitentiaries).
A prison cell in Alcatraz, California.
A prison cell in Alcatraz, California.

edit Definitions

Jail: A place of detention; a place where a person convicted or suspected of a crime is detained.

Prison: A place of long-term confinement for those convicted of serious crimes.

edit Difference

The most notable difference is that prison inmates have been tried and convicted of crimes, while those in jail may be awaiting trial. A prison is under the jurisdiction of either federal or state, while the jail holds people accused under federal, state, county and/or city laws. A jail holds inmates from two days up to one year.

The following video explains the differences between a jail and prison:

edit In the United States

Jails are most often run by sheriffs and/or local governments and are designed to hold individuals awaiting dispostion of their case, waiting for transport to the state prison system after they have been convicted, or they are serving time on a misdemeanor sentence.

State Prisons are operated by the state where the person was convicted of a felony.

Federal Prisons are operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and are designed to hold individuals convicted of federal crimes such as racketeering (RICO), bank robbery, and others.

Jails operate work release programs, boot camps, and other specialized services. They try to address educational needs, substance abuse needs, and vocational needs while managing inmate behavior. Inmate idleness contributes to management problems.

Alcatraz prison
Alcatraz prison

State prison systems operate halfway houses, work release centers and community restitution centers - all considered medium or minimum custody. Inmates assigned to such facilities are usually reaching the end of their sentences.

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Comments: Jail vs Prison

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Anonymous comments (8)

August 23, 2010, 5:48pm

I live in rhode island. If you committ a crime, you goto the ACI. Your in the mods if you haven't been sentanced, once you've been sentanced, you get placed in a unit.... but its still the same piece of land. Its not like you go specificly to jail, then, go serve your time in prison at a different location. I mean, what I'm trying to say is, I don't see no difference in jail and prison... your still locked up! Why bother writing a definition to seperate the two? Like I said, in my state, jail is also prison! Its not exactly how it is described in this article.

— 97.✗.✗.227

January 3, 2014, 8:40pm

It would be nice to add the word "imprisoned" to the clarification, as I believe it can apply to a broader set of confinements than strictly "prison". Thanks for the article!

— 184.✗.✗.19

January 26, 2013, 2:08am

who cares about the rest of the world anyways. If jail and prison mean the same thing, why have two words for it.? Sometimes people say jail, actually alot of times on tv, but I dont remember hearing someone refer to a prison sentence as a jail sentence.
IF you think there is no difference, or think there shouldn't be, then you are either lasy, or stupid, or both.

— 68.✗.✗.74

July 17, 2012, 3:54am

The given definition might hold (to be generally) true in the USoA. However prison and jail/gaol are absolutely interchangeable in Australian English.

— 122.✗.✗.1

September 29, 2011, 4:20am

You should think outside of your state box on this one. With Rhode Island being so small, it may be a rare exception to the given definition. Generally a prison and a jail conduct the same type of business, ( housing inmates), by correctional workers, however, the length of time and the inmates status themselves have a big difference in comparison. Not to mention the commodities available to inmates in the two different arenas of detention.

— 97.✗.✗.222

May 19, 2010, 7:38pm

I'm pretty sure older English spelling is Gaol, and was used in parts of the commonwealth like Australia for long than in England. In fact, the prison vs jail distinction might be US only, as Prison has French roots.

— 137.✗.✗.128

May 17, 2009, 4:36pm

Also, I've heard that prisons are preferable to jails - the conditions are better since people are staying there long term.

— 76.✗.✗.196

March 10, 2014, 5:20am

RI guy. Yes smaller states like DE and yours have state prisons that handle in sentenced inmates. Here in PA as is the general rule over 2 years on your max date gets you state prison or penitentiary time. There are exceptions suck as parol violations that must be served in county and can run longer. If you think they are all the same spend a month or two on 22/2.

— 76.✗.✗.21


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