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What is the Difference Between a Jail and a Prison?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Although the terms “jail” and “prison” are sometimes used interchangeably, most members of law enforcement distinguish between the two. Primarily, the difference is that a jail is used by local jurisdictions such as counties and cities to confine people for short periods of time. A prison, or penitentiary, is administered by the state, and is used to house convicted criminals for periods of much longer duration. Both are part of a larger penal system which includes other aspects of criminal justice such as courts, law enforcement, and crime labs.

Because a jail is designed for short time periods only, it tends to have fewer amenities than a prison. Individuals who are being housed in a jail have access to bathrooms and are provided with food and water, and in a low security jail, they may be able to socialize in common areas during certain periods of the day. Most jails are designed to hold a very small number of criminals, and have relatively lax security when compared to prisons, although in areas prone to violence, a jail may be run along very strict lines. A jail houses people who have been convicted to serve a short sentence, individuals awaiting trial, people who have not yet paid bail, and detainees who have just been picked up on suspicion of committing a crime. The criminals are processed through a booking procedure, and the criminal justice system decides what to do with them after that.

In a prison, the amenities are much more extensive, as some prisoners may be serving their lives behind bars. Prisons have exercise areas, common areas for eating and socializing in lower security areas, church facilities, and an educational facility which includes classrooms, libraries, and labs to work and study in. In lower security prisons such as those used to imprison people convicted of white collar crimes, the prison could sometimes be mistaken for a hotel. In most cases, prison inmates are expected to share cells with other inmates, and because of the long duration of most prison sentences, a complex social and political structure arises among the prisoners.

A prison is capable of handling far more prisoners than a jail is, and the prisoners are typically segregated on the basis of the types of crimes that they have been convicted of, as a safety precaution. In addition, in countries which still have capital punishment, a prison maintains facilities to carry out capital sentences, along with housing for criminals sentenced to this type of punishment. In general, the prison facility as a whole is very tightly secured, even if not all the criminals inside are violent, to prevent escapes or potential violence between wings of the prison. Prison staff are specially trained to work in a prison environment, and a board of governors appointed by the state oversees prison management.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon999906 — On Apr 12, 2018

Anon22999, it took me 5 minutes to get this info on the internet, and both sources are from the state: In California, in 2018, less than $10,000 per student per year is spent on public school education. (Source: CNN.) California spends $75,760 per inmate per year. (Source: calgov site.) So I think you to do a bit more homework before you throw out comments like the one you did.

I think that prisoners should be offered a choice: education or hard labor. And I mean hard labor, in an effort to encourage them to choose education.

Many will likely need to earn a GED first. Then they ought to be offered an accredited college education. They must keep their grades up in order to continue to be educated. Otherwise, back to hard labor.

After they earn a Bachelor's degree, they should have the option of obtaining accredited advanced degrees in whatever field they choose, and this is possible through online education programs.

Geez, if they had the opportunity to truly achieve goals that would seriously help them when they complete their sentences, we would have less recidivism, happier inmates, less violence in prison, and less crime by these people upon their release.

I was a public school teacher in California, and retired early to obtain a law degree. I have another year to complete my degree. I also have a Master's degree in Educational Administration.

But do you know what? I had parents who never drank, smoked, gambled, or even used foul language. I was never sexually abused, physically or emotionally abused, and grew up in a loving family, even though my parents divorced when I was six years old.

Many, many prisoners did not have the opportunities that I did. Many were raised in hellish situations. Many come from parents who were also criminals.

So before we judge them as less than we are--less worthy of being able to pursue a life of which they can be proud -- we should give them opportunities they may only get in prison! They were as precious when they were born as our children and grandchildren.

Compassion is the word of the day!

By anon935147 — On Feb 24, 2014

@Post 38: What did this female do? Obviously you are male and it is possible there was provocation for the crime you alleged she committed. Was there a trial or is she holding something on you? Otherwise, she would have been processed through the criminal justice system.

By gj14191 — On Dec 22, 2013

My boyfriend has been in Oakland County Jail since March. He is serving a year for DUI, his third one in the last 12 years. He had been sober for a year before he picked up and got pulled over for a tail light being out. He blew 1 point over the limit. The last DUI he blew 2 points over the limit.

I'm sure nobody on here has ever had one or two drinks before they drove. He has severe epilepsy and totaled his work truck because of a seizure, has lost countless jobs because of his epilepsy and Social Security has denied him help. I believe his depression over this contributed to him drinking again. He did the crime and is serving the time. He will owe $60 for every day he spends there.

I send him money when I can and they take most of it. He has had many seizures in jail because they are not medicating him properly. He broke his foot Friday and can't get help because there are not doctors there over the weekend so he is hopping around and hoping some crazy idiot won't mess with him. He has countless tales of the unlawful things going on there. He has been outside three times in nine months and they are supposed to let them out for a short period every day. They are supposed to get at least one hot meal a day, but that does not happen.

The sheriffs put unnecessary stress on the inmates by the way they treat them and then wonder why they get in fights? They made fun of a blind man by taking his cane away and then coercing him to run into walls and laughing about it. These are the so-called officers running the jail.

Some of the stories he tells me are so ridiculous; it's just a bunch of punks running the place. They have a badge, so it's all good, right? These people don't get rehabilitated. They come out angry and way worse off than they were when they went in. Will he drink and drive again? Hopefully not. Can we guarantee that? Nope. The system is really screwed up.

By anon346447 — On Aug 28, 2013

If you live paycheck to paycheck and you are charged with a crime and you are innocent, you will have to await trial in a county jail. You will be dehumanized, humiliated and the officers in charge of the jail will put you through the hardest stress test that you have ever encountered, and all the time you are innocent! You have not been convicted, but are merely awaiting a trial to prove your innocence. Why are you subjected to inhumane treatment from the guards and officers? Why do they intimidate you with physical harm? Why do you have to eat things I would not feed my dog?

I was put through this! I was 100 percent not guilty of the charges and was found not guilty of the charges that were filed against me. But I will tell you that when you get out of jail, you look at the police and sheriff with a different attitude. These police and sheriffs have to spend two years at the county jail before going out on the street and this is where they learn to be complete jerks to the public. They do what they do to a person in jail so you will want to take a deal instead of going to trial. I almost did take a deal! But my faith carried me through eight months of living hell.

Do I think police and sheriffs are corrupt? You bet they are! If someone is convicted of a crime, I do not see that that person deserves a hotel room, but when you are just awaiting trial you should have some decent food and respect. But like I say, it's designed that way to get everyone to take a plea bargain so the District Attorney and police departments can show the world what a good job they are doing!

By anon340728 — On Jul 05, 2013

People who do stupid stuff like DUI, not paying child support or paying fines should get a free ride in prison on taxpayers money. Our jails and prisons are overcrowded now. I wonder how many murderers and sex offenders get released to make room for the ones who just do stupid stuff and get a free ride on taxpayers hard earned money.

By anon336727 — On May 31, 2013

It amazes me that so many people are so vain. They actually think that if someone is convicted of a crime, they are guilty? There have been many who are innocent and what breaks my heart, are the ones who have been executed who have been later found innocent. You can't go back and fix that.

You can't go back and fix all the years many of these inmates serve who were later found innocent.

By anon329312 — On Apr 09, 2013

I agree with if you commit the crime you do the time, but a lot of time that is handed out is ridiculous. And regardless of the crime, everyone deserves to be fed properly.

I have a loved one in prison who has been there for 17 years. And to know the crap they feed them is sad. And honestly, I'm sick of it and I've been researching about who I can talk to and what can be done about this issue. These people are human beings first. Now I don't feel they should be treated like kings and queens. Because if you do that, then they'll just want to go back when they can't make it out here in the real world. But if they are taught life skills and how to cope with the outside once released, we will more than likely not have to worry about them going back.

And these companies out here who are paid to hire felons really do what they are paid to do that's also a lot less we have to worry about.

By anon298428 — On Oct 20, 2012

As a victim whose life will never be the same as the result of a female offender, I doubt that psychopath will ever get rehabilitated and society is lucky she is in prison. Her lack of remorse and regret for her crime, will probably cost we taxpayers for years to come.

Criminals are in prison because they caused harm to society. Where are there any posts of prisoners taking responsibility for the lifelong damage they caused to their victims and family?

By anon246569 — On Feb 10, 2012

@post 32: Was that a joke? Not everyone who is arrested or charged is guilty. I recently spent a night and the following day in jail for protecting myself. I was arrested because I was protecting myself from a female, and though she was unharmed and I was not as lucky, being the man meant the finger was pointed at me.

Yes, I made the choice to become involved with a woman who has serious mental issues. No, it does not mean I am not a human being. Nor does it mean I deserve to be stripped of my rights.

By anon189112 — On Jun 22, 2011

Remember that most of those people are going to get relased back onto the street. Would you rather them come out better than they went in or worse?

If they come out worse, they are going to cost you more than what it cost because they are going to commit more crimes. If you treat them like humans they might come out and be productive.

By anon171031 — On Apr 28, 2011

This is to post 15. You know why people who are awaiting trial get treated worse? Because the criminal justice system wants that person to know how much it stinks so that they can hopefully be scared. So you don't want to go.

Prison and jail are scare tactics created by the us government to get the crime under control as well as to house criminals. Also, jails and prisons weren't created to to allow you to keep your rights. When you go to jail or prison, you broke the law. Breaking the law is a lack of intelligence. It's easy: just don't do it. There's no human medical condition that makes you break the law. It's either, "oh that's not a good idea" or it's "I don't care what happens." It's not hard. Stop breaking the law and shut your trap. Stop talking crap and you won't get hit.

If you go to jail or prison you're not a human being and that's that. But i do think they should feed them a little more. Medical care is expensive. Especially for a government corporation that doesn't make that much money. It's not possible.

By kcouch — On Apr 16, 2011

Everything in our political system needs an overhaul and that certainly includes the Florida State Prison system. I'm not sure why the costs are so high per inmate, but I can tell you that the inmate is not beginning to receive the dollar value of the services directly as we might imagine. I say all of this from a first encounter with the prison system through my first cousin who was recently incarcerated om January 2011.

She is a 5'1" overweight, little old lady of 62. She did commit the crime of which she was accused. She is a first time offender - never even had a parking ticket. She received a four-year sentence for a non-violent crime (theft of money entrusted to her). She did wrong and acknowledges that she deserves the appropriate correction.

However, never in her wildest dreams, nor in mine, did she anticipate today's prison conditions. First, the good part: The prison guards and people who deal closely with her are decent, civil and kind most of the time. She is in a medical ward with other old and sick women. She happens to be in a wheelchair. Also, the women are allowed to socialize and talk with each other, except at certain times such as roll call, meals, walking to and fro in a line from one place to another.

Now the bad parts: For her, it is lack and availability of medical care. She got diarrhea shortly after arriving at Lowell six weeks ago. She has lost 42 pounds. At times, she is afraid she will die and no one will notice. The food is very foreign and tasteless to most inmates. They only get meat (chicken or fish) once a week. They never get beef. The rest of the time they are fed what they call "blow-up meat". It is textured vegetable protein and is tough, flavorless, and difficult for some people to digest. It is made from soybean flour. Vegetables are sparse and flavorless. She gets a piece of fruit each day because she is diabetic. Breakfast is at 3:30 a.m. -- a bit early, don't you think. Most women skip breakfast for this reason. It's not the prison's fault. They have limited facilities, staff, etc., and 1500 women to look after. Lunch is at 10:30 a.m. and supper at 4:30 p.m. The kitchen keeps going constantly.

As for amenities, in her cell block of 200 women, there is one small tv in the center of the socialization room. They are limited to three channels. The beds are small cots with a two-inch cotton mattress. Their wardrobe consists of one drawer under the center of the bed. In it they keep their prison-issued clothing: ill-fitting clothing that is used over and over until it is in shreds, literally. My cousin was issued two pairs of underpants (remember the diarrhea), two tops, two parts of pants, two sets of sleep clothing, one pair of shoes and two pair of socks. All of these had been worn many times by several people. Since they are required to wear the prison uniform, there is no alternative unless you are lucky enough to have money to buy the items you need from the "canteen", the prison store which sells many items.

Orders for clothing may be placed once every three months. Prisoners must buy their own soap, their own toilet paper, and pay $5 per medical visit at the prison facilities. If a person has no money, they will allow them to charge a toilet paper and medical visits. Then if anyone sends them money, it is used to pay their accumulated debt. There is no A/C except in the medical unit.

Medical care: For each $5 visit, you may only address one issue, even if you have several problems. Medications are very difficult to obtain. My cousin has restless leg syndrome as a result of the diabetic neuropathy and is unable to sleep at night as a result. Her average sleep time is about three hours, and only when she is thoroughly exhausted. Her main physician turned in a request to the central referral center in Tallahassee for medication (neurontin - it costs approximately $8 per month) for the restless legs syndrome for which my cousin had been taking that medicine for six years from her family physician prior to incarceration. It was denied. Her physician then referred her to the mental health doctor, hoping that the restless legs syndrome and resulting depression might stand a better chance of getting medicine. Not so. My cousin was told to go back to her bed, lie down at night and visualize a beach, imagining that the restless legs would stop. Unfortunately, this is a real physical disorder that requires medication to help and even then there is not complete success with some people.

She is growing more depressed and desperate every day. I agree that people should "do the time if they do the crime." However, just losing your freedom and not having the normal life that others have should be enough. Some people whose behavior while incarcerated is dangerous may need further measures. But at least provide basic human needs such as plain, but nourishing food: beans and rice, etc. Something that people commonly accept within their diet. Keep them warm in the winter, reasonably cool in the summer, even if it is only fans that are provided. And if they are sick, try to help them get well or cope with their condition.

Enough said for tonight.

By anon165697 — On Apr 05, 2011

Prison or Correctional center only accept remands or convicted persons, bases on a warrant from the Court, magistrate, or judges, as opposed to jail where a suspect is placed in a holding cell while police attempt to complete all administrative requirements.

By anon139303 — On Jan 04, 2011

I hope to god that you never have someone or yourself in jail or prison. If money is the only issue you can talk about in regards to someone in prison. Than the state or federal government should take a look at what the judges are sending to jail or prison.

My daughter, who has a gambling addiction, bounced checks for under $400 which were paid back before her sentence. She was sentenced to two years in a county jail. She is a single mother of three and was getting the counseling for her addiction a year before she was sentenced. There is not help for her addiction in jail.

If she had a drug addiction or a drinking problem, she would have gotten boot camp and be back on the street. So why did the judge put her in a place where there is no help -- nothing. She was already doing everything to help herself so why would the judge put the burden on the taxpayers? County jail is a dreadful place. They have no rights and are treated like animals. They are turning my kind-hearted and loving daughter into a mean and uncaring person.

If you haven't walked the walk, you shouldn't talk the talk. Not everyone in jail or prison is there because they deserve to be. You should be looking into the system that put them there.

By anon137141 — On Dec 26, 2010

Sounds to me like the prisoners get to much for doing something bad, while others who did nothing wrong, but are there because they were at the scene trying to save someone, and they got to go to jail where all they do is eat, sleep, drink, and talk, while prisoners eat, sleep, talk, eat, buy drugs, exercise, and get the education they should have got years ago! It's not fair! Those poor (jailers.)

By anon135495 — On Dec 19, 2010

I'm wondering. If a prison houses prisoners, what do jails house? They can't be called prisoners also, because jails aren't prisons. So what do you call them?

By anon134308 — On Dec 14, 2010

I personally think that prisoners should have to labor to provide for the education/benefit of others and should not be enhanced rather by society's labor.

By anon119654 — On Oct 19, 2010

Most states require a mandate that includes inmate health care, nutrition and facility standards. These things are very expensive and most jails never recover but a fraction in jail fees. Tax payers flip the bill.

I've found that inmates respond to a healthier, saner environment with healthier, saner behavior. Our most effective tools are giving and taking privileges, not pepper spray and tasers. A television and a firm, fair and respectful attitude from staff are cheap.

We extract the trouble makers and give the others a chance to do it right and our results are fewer problems and less cost to you as a tax payer.

Remember, many of these inmates are the parents of that rising generation and they're bringing home what they got in jail.

By anon113867 — On Sep 26, 2010

Prisons and jails may limit the comfort of the offender (or suspect), but then, I can see how some would view them in comparison to hotels.

The reason jails and prisons have tv's and newspapers is to satisfy the right of the individuals to obtain knowledge of modern news events. Some may even argue that sitcoms are necessary in order for inmates to keep in touch with modern societal trends. The jail I work at no longer allows weights for exercise. Instead, inmates are offered an exercise regimen that they can execute within his cell. As for the shared toilet, it serves its purpose.

By anon89905 — On Jun 13, 2010

I have been studying criminal justice for quite some time. I have found that jails and prisons are much different from one another. However, we must keep in mind that the fact is we are all "human beings."

But, yes we taxpayers are paying for the offenders to have a better life while in prison. I do think that if a criminal killed or raped or kidnapped a child or adult, then they should be limited as to what they get to have while serving their sentence.

By anon85951 — On May 23, 2010

everyone who is incarcerated are not always guilty, and no matter whether they are or not, has nothing to do with someone being treated in an inhumane way.

I don't think anyone is asking for them to be given a T-bone and T.V. for their room, but at the least, feed them enough to get full. There are at least 12 hours in between your last meal of the day and your first meal of the next day.

A bologna sandwich, some graham crackers, and a six ounce cup of tea would not even fill my six year old up for 12 hours.

Also, they already have everything stripped from them as far as their rights, and are being held for their crimes. Do they deserve to be treated like dogs? That's why the violence in prison is so high.

By anon76461 — On Apr 10, 2010

In regards to post #14, that sounds an awful lot like boot camp, except you have free time in prison. Prison isn't supposed to be a pleasure cruise. You broke a law, you deserve to live with a severely lowered quality of life for the duration of your sentence. That sheriff who runs that tent city prison out in the desert has the right idea.

By anon70437 — On Mar 14, 2010

Hey, guess what? t's not supposed to resemble a "hotel" on any level. Quit whining about not having amenities in jail/prison, "you're not supposed to"! You're in there for a reason, and it should be as unpleasant as possible (without violating your human rights). Food, water, bed and toilet should be all you get. Your victims, in many cases don't even have that!

By anon60032 — On Jan 11, 2010

I am a former inmate of both county jails and state prisons.

First, neither is a hotel! Whether it be jail or prison you are treated below a human being. county jails are the worst. Everything is limited to barely being able to survive. Some of these "precautionary" measures were made to protect the guards and people working in those facilities. Not taking into consideration that we as humans have rights and needs as people.

Many of those confined to county jails have not been found guilty and many people win those cases that they are incarcerated for! state prisons are fundamentally better than county jails. Better food, treatment by the people working in the establishment, overall life is manageable in those type of establishments. Those who are in state prisons have been found guilty, yet they get treated much better than those awaiting trial! completely unfair and unethical.

By anon59289 — On Jan 07, 2010

Neither jails nor prisons are akin to a "hotel" as suggested by the author. The conditions of many prisons and most jails are deplorable; the food has nutritional value, but isn't palatable.

There is a lack of privacy for toileting, so you are in full view of the cellmate and the CO. Your time is not your own; you are told what to do, when to eat, when to bathe, what possessions you may have, when you can have church services, and if there is a TV, you can only watch what the jail or prison staff tells you.

Don't worry about channel surfing, that doesn't exist because you do not control the remote. In prison, everyone dresses exactly the same; in jails, the color of your jumpsuit tells everyone what level of security you are.

While inmates in both jails and prisons do have some civil rights, they are very limited in scope. If you decide to sue the facility and/or the staff, you have to pay the court costs after you have followed all the grievance procedures from the facility to the State Department of Corrections; if the problem has not been resolved by then, you may file suit.

If you don't follow the procedures, your suit will be tossed by the judge, period. Prisons have gangs that are connected to the outside world; they can make your life miserable in spite of the efforts of the COs to stop the harassment.

If anyone thinks that jails and prisons are akin to a hotel, you are highly mistaken--and I hope none of you commits a criminal act to become a guest of the state, federal government, or the county. As a former CO, I can tell you for certain, these are very unpleasant places to be.

By anon57151 — On Dec 20, 2009

look if you want to blame someone look to the people who took discipline from the parents and left it to the jails and prisons.

By anon56380 — On Dec 14, 2009

this is stupid

By anon49760 — On Oct 22, 2009

prisons have way too much money! this is freaking retarded all our tax dollars go to helping stupid people.

By anon49644 — On Oct 21, 2009

Maybe its time for the state's attorney's office to stop locking people up for things that are minor and shouldn't require a prison stay.

By anon31994 — On May 14, 2009

Actually, prison is not supposed to be a "punishment." It is supposed to be rehabilitation.

By anon30146 — On Apr 14, 2009

Recidivism is so high due to the fact of lack of skills, education or any guidance whatsoever from their parents.

As a retired correctional officer, I can attest that the cost of house a state individual inmate is approximately $38,000 annually, which includes meals, medical, mental, dental, library and other activities.

And, since they have no job skills or education,

'recidivism' runs very high (currently 77%).

By res0iuj4 — On Jan 31, 2009

What is the different between Jail and Correctional Center? Which is worse? Why is it called Correctional Center, in what way do they deal or correctional is done?

By anon24971 — On Jan 21, 2009

Prison is far from a "hotel" as someone stated. Giving money to schools and prisons is not an issue of one or the other getting money. They both could receive money and be much better off than they are now. (And yes, Prison systems do need more money too. Especially in cases where prisons are releasing prisoners because either a) they're over crowded or b) they have no money to support them)

The educational system in America needs a major overhaul, agreed. Children are the future and in the long term by putting money in to schools you'll save money in the prison system. But still prisons need more funding to run rehabilitation programs, schooling programs, and work programs to help prisoners create productive lives, so that when they do get out of prison they have work and life skills to fall back on so that they are no longer a menace to anyone, and also do not end up back in prisons costing more money.

By anon24565 — On Jan 14, 2009

anon22999: You need to show a little class and learn how to criticize constructively. You sound like an aggravated teenager. "Yo?"...." You need to do some more research before you say stuff like this?"....Different opinions don't necessarily mean that one is right and one is wrong.

I happen to agree with the statement regarding less money to these prisons. There are too many advantages given to these criminals that they do not deserve for their crimes. On the other hand, you are right, both school and prison funding has gone down exceedingly over the past several years. Economy has struggled immensely for the past decade, mostly since the hit on 9/11. Many resources have been limited due to the political ties being damaged between the US and other countries. Slowly but surely, these ties are getting mended, though.

By anon22999 — On Dec 14, 2008

Yo anon12863. I think you are wrong. Prisons don't have more money than schools do. both school and prison budget are decreasing immensely. but the money taken away will go to fixing the economy. But even so school have still more money than prisons do. You need to do some more research before you say stuff like this.

By anon19444 — On Oct 12, 2008

I concur with the first message. If a prison offers amenities and desirable facilities one can understand ( in part ) why recidivism is so high. The sheriff in Arizona has the right ideas.

By anon12863 — On May 14, 2008

Why do prison inmates receive more taxpayer dollars than the youth educational system? I'm sorry, but the rising generation has more potential, and therefore should get more money to come to the fullest of their potential. Besides, prison is supposed to be a punishment, not a "hotel", as the article states it could be.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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