Incarceration The Difference Between Prison and Jail

This article will explain to you the difference between prison and jail, which on the surface seem like two words that mean mostly the same thing. But in the eyes of the law, prison and jail are two very different places even though both deprive a person of their liberty.

Jail is Short in Duration for Suspicion and Lesser Crimes

One basic difference between jail and prison is with regard to the time period an individual is expected to be incarcerated and deprived of their liberty. A jail is used generally by local jurisdictions, such as counties and cities, for short term stays of no more than one year in length. You might find a jail inside a police station or at the county sheriff, also known as a "lock up." Those who are convicted of a crime or are expected to spend more than just a nominal time behind bars are taken to a larger jail that is dedicated to holding people suspected or convicted of a crime. People placed in jail are typically those who are arrested and awaiting a hearing, detainees, under suspicion of a crime, involved in a short trial, convicted for a short sentence or people or kept for a limited time period (e.g. overnight until they "sober up" by morning.)

As would be expected, the facilities in a jail are not sophisticated, typically having provisions for food, toiletries and basic necessities for a smaller number of people. There may be some vocational training and work release programs available as well as "boot camps" which are classified as jail. There are approximately 3,800 jails in the United States as of 2011 but the difference in the size of each state or county jail can be large. Los Angeles County Jail in California, the New York City jail system and Cook County Jail in Chicago are three of the largest jails in the United States, each housing over 10,000 inmates.

List of Differences Between Jail and Prison


  • temporary holding for defendants for arraignment or trial or until freed by a bail payment
  • temporary holding for defendants during a criminal case if the defendant is unable to make or is refused bail
  • holds defendants convicted of misdemeanor crimes or sentenced to less than one year of incarceration
  • holds those arrested for violating probation or parole terms
  • temporarily holds inmates in the process of being transferred to another jurisdiction


  • holds convicted felons, usually with sentences of one year or greater in duration

Prison is Longer in Duration, Housing Convicted Felons

A prison is usually administered by the state or federal government and Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and involves a much longer stay for conviction of serious crimes. Criminals convicted of murder, arson, rape, kidnapping and other serious crimes and federal offenses are given a prison sentence. Also unlike jail, prisons generally have different areas or "wings" that are dedicated to housing people convicted of different crimes. It has a much higher and tighter level of security and usually there is a warden or governor who runs the entire prison.

The are much fewer prisons than there are jails but prisons are usually much larger. The location of a prison is typically far away from the general population and in a facility dedicated for long term stays. In addition to the basic necessities including food, there are usually exercise and recreational facilities, common areas for socializing and educational facilities such as a library and other training courses designed to help a person reintegrate themselves back into a changing society. Accordingly, prisons may also have work release and community restitution centers. In 2008, an unofficial estimate of the number of prison inmates in the United States was just under 1.5 million people.
Criminal Law & Procedure
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Michael Wechsler
Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.


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Michael Wechsler
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