Jail vs. Prison: What’s The Difference?

Handcuffed hands interlocked around prison bars.

Throughout history, the words’ prison’ and ‘jail’ have often been used interchangeably to refer to a place of incarceration. Today they are, in fact, very different, but not many people realize that these two words don’t actually have the same meaning. In short, jail is where a misdemeanor offender serves their short sentence and where all detainees go when they are awaiting trial. On the other hand, prison is where a serious criminal offender serves a longer sentence. While it is true they are both considered to be correctional facilities; it can be confusing as to when to use which term, jail vs. prison. In this article, we will learn a bit more about the differences between a jail and a prison.


Jail vs. Prison: What’s The Difference?

Prisons, also called penitentiaries, are much larger than jails, and that is because they hold a lot more inmates who are serving much longer prison sentences. Prisons are run by the state or federal government, and the inmates there have been convicted. This means they are of legal age and have been found guilty of committing a felony, or felonies, under state or federal law, and they have already been sentenced to prison by a judge. Felonies are serious crimes, such as robbery, aggravated assault, or murder, to name a few, and have much longer sentences. Federal and state prisons are correctional facilities in that they are designed to punish the offender for committing the crime. However, they can also seek to rehabilitate the offender during the time they are serving out their prison sentence. The only way for an inmate to get out of federal or state prison is by serving until the end of their sentence or seeking early release from the parole board.

However, the criminal justice system can sometimes take a while. Let’s say someone has been arrested on felony charges; where do they go while they are awaiting trial? Or, if they plead guilty, where do they wait to be sentenced? The answer is jail. Those offenders that are waiting for their day in court and who can’t get out by paying their bail wait in the local jail. Then, once they are sentenced, they go to federal or state prison to serve their prison sentence.

So, in contrast, jails are much smaller than prisons, and they have a much higher turnover rate, as they are only meant for short stays. They are run by local governments, typically the local law enforcement of a city or county of a state. However, they are not only used for the short-term holdings for those awaiting trial. There are also two other types of jail inmates.

When someone who is of legal age is convicted and sentenced for a minor crime, or misdemeanor, they serve their sentence in jail. Misdemeanors include crimes like DUIs, trespassing, and petty theft. Someone convinced of a misdemeanor will not serve more than one year, so they are sent to a city or county jail instead of a state prison to serve their short-term jail sentence. It is in that way that jails are also considered correctional facilities.

Finally, imagine a felon who was in state prison but was able to get out on parole or someone who was given probation as their sentence. Then imagine that person violates the rules or their parole/probation, such as by committing another crime or leaving the state. Where do they go while they wait to see the judge about their parole or probation violation or while they are waiting to be transferred back to their state? Again, jail is the answer. The third type of inmate found in a city or county jail is those awaiting transfer or who are there on a parole or probation hold. 


Frequently Asked Questions


How bad is prison?

It depends. There are many variables to consider when determining how bad prison is. For one, different states have different levels of funding dedicated to their state prisons, and funding has a significant effect on the quality of state prison facilities, staff, and services, such as food, uniforms, bedding, and other essential items.

Another factor is overcrowding, and in many state prisons, the general population of the prison is exceeding the limit. This strains resources for the state prison, such as access to medical care, educational resources, phone calls, and staff supervision, creating worse conditions for the inmates.

The final factor is the level of security. In a maximum-security prison, where inmates are deemed to be of the highest risk, mobility and liberty are extremely restricted. Inmates are typically confined for 23-hours a day and have minimal contact with staff or other inmates. Whereas in a minimum-security prison, inmates have more liberty and better access to rehabilitation programs, such as substance abuse treatment and work release programs.

Federal prisons are often considered to be better than state prisons because they have more funding, fewer prisoners, and better security.  


How long can you stay in jail?

The maximum is one year for misdemeanor convictions. Jails are only meant to be short-term correctional facilities. A jail inmate who is serving their sentence for a misdemeanor crime can only be sentenced by a judge to serve up to one year by law.  

Alternatively, an inmate in a city or county jail who has been charged with a crime but has not been convicted yet, and is still awaiting trial, could stay in jail a lot longer. Even though their time in jail is meant to be short, the criminal justice system is, unfortunately, a very slow process. In especially heavily populated areas, high caseloads and low funding, staffing, and resources can lead courts to become backlogged. If the inmate cannot make bail, then they could be in jail for as long as it takes for their case to be resolved, which theoretically could take longer than a year. However, the amount of time an inmate spends in jail awaiting trial is factored into and almost always deducted from their prison time at sentencing.

Finally, each state has a minimum amount of set time for how long a detainee can wait in jail with charges. Jails typically cannot hold them for longer than 24-72 hours without formal charges being brought by the prosecutor. In some states, if the arrest is for probation or parole violations, the time a detainee can be held can be longer, up to one week.  


Is county jail the same as jail or prison?

Yes and no. Jails are run by the local government, meaning the city or county. Therefore, county jail is a jail run by local law enforcement, typically the county sheriff’s department. County jails are the same as jails in every other way, meaning they only hold inmates who are awaiting trial, those who are serving a short jail sentence for a misdemeanor offense, and those who are waiting for transfer or are on a parole or probation hold.  

On the other hand, county jail is not the same as a prison. Prisons are run by the federal or state government. So, federal prisons are run by the federal bureau of prisons, and state prisons are run by the state correctional authorities. Convicted felons serve longer sentences in federal and state prisons.

Finally, there are private jails and private prisons, which are run by a third-party company that is contracted by the local, state, or federal government. Even if they are not run by the government, they still operate in the same way as public jails and prisons.