Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Jail or Prison? Here’s the Difference

Some people think it’s okay to use jail or prison interchangeably, but there’s a big difference between them and the people they house.

One of the early things you learn when you write about crime is that it matters whether you say someone’s in jail or prison. The two seem like they’d be the same thing.

But they aren’t. Here’s the difference between the two.


A jail is a place that’s typically run by a local municipality, whether it’s a town, city or even a county.

Jails house people accused of crimes who haven’t yet been through a trial and haven’t been convicted.

Jails also, in certain cases, house people who have been convicted of a crime but who have been sentenced to short terms behind bars. Those sentences are generally less than a year in length and involve less serious crimes.

County jails are sometimes referred to detention centers and are generally run by the sheriff’s office.

People who are awaiting trial even on state or federal charges may be held temporarily in a jail before or during the trial.

You’ll also hear about a “lockup,” which is a smaller jail that might serve as a holding cell while someone waits to face a local bond court judge or where someone is held before they’re booked into a jail or county detention center.


A prison, like a jail, has inmates and bars and everything you’ve seen in the movies.

But prisons house criminals who have been convicted of crimes and have been sentenced to longer terms — generally more than a year in length.

Some prisons are run by the state while others are run by the federal government. (People convicted of breaking serious state laws wind up in a state prison while people convicted of serious federal crimes are sent to a federal prison.)

Prisons are sometimes known as penitentiaries.

Regardless, neither is a place you’d generally want to visit.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.