What is the Difference Between Jail and Prison?


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Incarceration of any kind is designed to be an unpleasant experience. But, the policies, rights, and daily life of an inmate can be very different between these two types of institutions. So, what is the difference between jail and prison.

At the most basic level, the fundamental difference between jail and prison is the length of stay for inmates. Think short-term and long-term. Jails are usually run by local law enforcement and/or local government agencies, and are designed to hold inmates awaiting trial or serving a short sentence. Often “short” is designated as a misdemeanor conviction versus a felony, so in some instances where misdemeanor sentences are run consecutively, one may spend more than a year in jail. Jails often operate work release programs and boot camps, and some offer educational, substance abuse, and vocational programs. While many of these programs are designed to help the inmates change their lives and improve themselves so they stand a better chance of avoiding a return visit, they also have the added benefit of keeping the inmates occupied and less likely to cause problems for jailers.

Prisons, on the other hand, are typically operated by either a state government or the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). These are designed to hold individuals convicted of more serious crimes, typically any felony. Prisons offer different programs to inmates depending on the inmate's level of custody (i.e., minimum, medium, or maximum security, solitary confinement, etc.). Minimum and medium security programs include halfway houses, work release programs, and community restitution centers. Typically those who are eligible for such programs are nearing the end of their prison terms.

Because prisons are designed for long-term incarceration, they are better developed for the living needs of their populations. Jails, on the other hand, tend to have more transient populations and less well-developed facilities. As a result, many inmates prefer their stays in prison given the more regular life, the greater availability of programs, and better facilities. Indeed, many repeat offenders will ask for prison time rather than time in jail followed by probation if given the option. Some inmates complain that jail, given its constant flow of people that can often interfere with an inmate's ability to sleep, eat on a regular schedule, or participate in exercise. Some jails also suffer from budget shortages that lead to lower quality or inadequate food. these issues often lead to claims of violations of the inmate's right against cruel and unusual punishment. However, such claims are rarely, if ever, successful.

In either system, the inmate has a right to visitation. The inmate will also have the basic rights of any prisoner. These include the right to be treated humanely, not suffer cruel and unusual punishment, be free from sexual crimes or harassment, a right of access to the courts, a right to medical care, and a right to not suffer racial discrimination. Although an inmate's rights are abridged compared to other citizens given their status as inmates, they also still have limited rights to free speech, possession of property, and other basic human rights.

If you or someone you know is facing time behind bars, you should speak with an attorney. Not only may a lawyer be able to help you avoid jail or prison time all together, they may be able to help minimize the time spent their if a conviction is unavoidable. You can find a list of attorneys in your area on the Law Firms page of our website at HG.org.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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