top of page

Jail and Prison. Are they the same?

Updated: Jan 28, 2023

For anyone facing criminal charges, the possibility of spending time behind bars is a frightening prospect. Depending on the nature and severity of the crime, an individual can lose their freedom for months, years, or even decades..

At any given time, more than 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States. About half of these individuals are incarcerated in state prisons, 30% in local and county jails, and the remaining 20% are held in federal or private prisons. The conditions of incarceration will vary depending on the correctional facility. County jail is much different than state prison, which can also be very different from federal prison.

More recently, some states and municipalities have moved toward restorative justice in managing their prison systems. Restorative justice is focused on rehabilitation and reducing the likelihood of recidivism rather than simply punishing the individual to the greatest extent possible. However, in many other states, jails and prisons are stressful, isolating, and sometimes even violent environments.

The difference between jail and prison

People often use the words jail and prison interchangeably. While they both serve the same purpose of detaining individuals who have violated the law, there are several key differences between these two terms.

A jail is generally a short-term facility used to detain individuals awaiting trial or sentencing, or those who have been sentenced to serve a short period of time. Prisons, on the other hand, are long-term institutions that house individuals who were convicted of a crime and have been sentenced accordingly. Jails can be operated by local governments, while prisons are typically run by state or federal authorities. Jails tend to have fewer security measures in place when compared with prisons.

What is jail?

When someone is arrested, jail is usually the first stop. Jails are typically operated by local or county governments and staffed by local law enforcement, such as a county sheriff's department.

Local jails serve multiple functions. First, they serve as the booking and holding location for anyone who is placed under arrest. Some individuals are only in jail for hours, or possibly even minutes, before being released. Others are eventually released or transferred to another facility.

People accused of minor offenses, such as traffic violations and public intoxication, may be sent to jail rather than prison. In some cases, individuals arrested for more serious crimes may also be held in jail while they await their trial, a hearing or sentencing, or until they are able to post bail.

Generally speaking, violence is not common in jails. As most people are only facing short sentences, they do not want to engage in behavior that will lengthen their stay. However, like any form of incarceration, detention in a local jail can be extremely stressful.

What is prison?

Prisons are long-term facilities for individuals who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced accordingly (typically more than 1 year of confinement). People are sent to prison for committing more serious offenses, such as murder, rape, or fraud. Depending on the severity of the crime, offenders may be sentenced to anywhere from a few months to life in prison. Individuals have less contact with family members and other support networks. In many facilities, visitation may be limited to once or twice per month.

The security measures in place vary greatly depending on whether the prison is a minimum or maximum security facility. Minimum security prisons, also referred to as Federal Prison Camps, are typically staffed by non-uniformed personnel and have fewer restrictions. Individuals are more free to leave their confines, which is typically dormitory housing rather than cells, and enjoy as much outdoor time as they like. Individuals also often provide labor to the main institution or work at off site programs

At the other end of the spectrum are maximum security prisons, which are heavily guarded by uniformed personnel and typically house people who pose a danger to others or have a high escape risk. In a maximum security prison, incarcerated individuals are on a regimented schedule and may only have limited time outside of their cells. Guards are usually armed and prepared to use force if necessary.

Overall, the prison experience can vary greatly based on the type of facility and security measures in place. Prisons provide people with structure, but many, particularly those with higher security levels, also have a number of risks, including the likelihood of violence, isolation, and lack of access to resources that can help people succeed upon release. Incarcerated individuals need to develop strategies to survive in this type of environment while continuing to prepare for life after prison.

Types of prisons

There are several different types of prisons for individuals who have been convicted of serious crimes and face longer sentences. Not all prisons are the same. Below are a few examples.

State Prison

State prisons are facilities operated by state governments, typically detaining individuals who have been convicted of more serious offenses. More than half of all incarcerated people in the United States, over 1 million people, are housed in state prisons.

The conditions in state prisons vary greatly depending on the state. Some states, like North Dakota and Oregon, have been proactive in implementing a system that is based on reform and rehabilitation, much like the system in Norway. Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world, and its prisons are often compared to peaceful dormitories.

Other states have harsher prison systems. For example, Alabama was recently named as having the most violent prisons in the country. A study from the Justice Department found that assaults, rapes, and homicides were widespread in Alabama prisons, with both guards and offenders participating in the violence.

Federal Prison

Federal prisons are operated by the federal government and primarily house people who have been convicted in federal court. These individuals are often convicted of crimes that occur in multiple states or violate federal law. Examples include drug trafficking, financial crimes, terrorism, and espionage.

Federal prisons are classified into five different security levels:

  • Minimum

  • Low

  • Medium

  • Maximum

  • Administrative

Minimum and low security prisons are usually for non-violent offenders who have less than 10 years until their release. There is little violence in these prisons and there are few guards.

Administrative prisons are for those inmates who have special needs, such as medical or mental health conditions. Many of these prisons are actually hospitals with an added layer of security.

Medium and maximum security prisons are for those who have a history of violence, sentences that last more than 10 years, or have been convicted of an extraordinary crime. The most secure federal prison is ADX Florence, in which prisoners spend 23 hours a day isolated in soundproof cells. It houses people like the Unabomber, the Boston Marathon bomber, Mexican kingpin El Chapo, and Russian spy Robert Hanssen.

Private Prisons

Private prisons are run by private companies and tend to be less expensive for governments to operate when compared to public facilities. There are nearly 100,000 inmates in private prisons in the United States.

A private prison is owned by a private company, but it is still part of a state’s prison system. Generally speaking, private prisons are run in accordance with the rules and guidelines of that state’s system. Montana leads the way, using private prisons for nearly half of its incarcerated population. Other states have no private prisons.


Incarceration is a very unpleasant, stressful, and potentially traumatizing experience, whether in a jail or prison. A person’s safety and comfort will largely depend on the type of facility to which they are sent. Those awaiting trial or sentenced to a short period of time will likely head to a county jail. People convicted of more serious crimes and facing longer sentences will generally be sent to either state or federal prison.

10,502 views0 comments


bottom of page