What Are the Differences Between Jail and Prison?

The differences between jails and prisons hinge primarily on the length of stay for detainees.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated December 21, 2020

Many people use the terms "jail" and "prison" interchangeably; however, they are two very different parts of the criminal justice system. For the most part, jails house pretrial detainees and those sentenced to less than a year's incarceration, while prisons house defendants sentenced to more than a years' incarceration. Although some similarities exist, their differences far outweigh their commonalities. Let's delve into the distinctions between these two types of facilities.

Jails: Short-Term Lockups

Jails mainly function as short-term lockup facilities.

Who Operates Jails?

Local governments—municipalities, cities, and counties—operate jails. A small jurisdiction might have only one county facility, while larger metro areas might maintain several jails in the counties and cities within the county. Some counties, like Los Angeles County, run multiple jails within the county borders. In some instances, several small jurisdictions may join together and run a regional jail.

Who's Sitting in Jail? And For How Long?

Jails house more of a mixture of people in various stages of the criminal process than prisons do—from post-arrest to post-incarceration supervision. Nearly 11 million people cycle (or churn) in and out of jails every year.

Those in jail can include:

  • Defendants charged with a crime and awaiting trial but unable to post bail money. (Judges typically set higher bail amounts for those who are a danger to society, flight risks, or repeat offenders.)
  • Defendants convicted but not yet sentenced.
  • Defendants convicted of misdemeanors and sentenced to less than one year of incarceration time.
  • Defendants convicted of felonies and either sentenced to prison but awaiting transfer to prison or serving jail time as part of a felony probation sentence.
  • Defendants put on a probation or parole hold, awaiting a hearing or determination for an alleged violation of their supervision term.
  • Defendants waiting to be transported to federal facilities, another state's facility (extradition), or a different county's jail.
  • Defendants detained on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds.

Defendants sentenced to a year or less of incarceration time will serve that time in jail. However, pretrial offenders might sit in jail much longer, depending on how long it takes their cases to make it through the criminal justice system. Complicated cases with voluminous discovery heading to trial can result in lengthy jail stays for defendants who can't post bail.

Prisons: Long-Term Lockups

The primary purpose of prisons is to house defendants long term.

Who Operates Prisons?

State and federal governments, for the most part, run the prison system, which holds around 1.5 million inmates. A state might operate a handful to several dozen prisons. The federal government operates 122 institutions throughout the country. Additionally, private prisons (run by private companies) hold between 8 and 11% of inmates through contract agreements with a state or the federal government. Finally, military prisons house less than 1,000 service members (from all five branches) convicted of violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

What Types of Prisons Exist?

Different prisons serve different purposes. Some prisons function primarily as intake facilities—every defendant sentenced to prison goes to that facility initially, and then depending on the inmate's sentence and needs, the corrections department will send the inmate to the appropriate facility.

Many states and the federal government design prison facilities based on security-level needs. These might include low- to maximum-security facilities, boot camps, and work prisons. Besides security features, some prisons are classified by the types of services or programs they carry, such as drug treatment programs.

Who's Sitting in Prison? And For How Long?

State prisons house individuals sentenced to more than one years' incarceration up to life imprisonment. Those given life without the possibility of parole or death row inmates will remain incarcerated until their death unless their case is successfully appealed, commuted, or pardoned. Inmates usually include defendants who committed crimes within that state. Additionally, prisons might hold out-of-state inmates who are no longer safe at facilities within the state or region where they committed the crime.

Federal prisons hold pretrial detainees accused of, and sentenced inmates convicted of, federal crimes. In the federal system, an inmate can land in prison anywhere in the country.

Federal vs. State Crimes
Each state has its own criminal code, as does the federal government. A defendant charged with a state crime will sit in a state-run facility, while a defendant charged with a federal crime will go to a federal facility. Examples of state crimes include burglary, resisting arrest, battery, and drunk driving. Violations of federal law include bank robbery, tax fraud, and immigration offenses. Military prisons confine military members who violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Special Populations in Prisons and Jails

Both jails and prisons house special populations. These include juveniles, women, and the elderly or chronically ill.

Juveniles. Most youthful offenders (those under 18 years of age) are housed in juvenile detention centers. One in ten youthful offenders, however, sits in an adult facility. Those youth ending up in adult facilities include juveniles awaiting trial where no juvenile facility exists and those tried and convicted as adults. Federal law adds special protections for youth incarcerated with adults, including the safeguards that young detainees be separated from adults by both sight and sound.

Women. Jails and prisons house women separately from the men, usually in completely different buildings. Women encompass a far smaller percentage of incarcerated individuals but their rate of incarceration is increasing.

Elderly and chronically ill. Those inmates who are elderly or have severe medical conditions will likely be housed in facilities or communities with access to medical personnel and specialized equipment.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you've been charged with a crime and are confused about potential sentences for the offense, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. A knowledgeable attorney will explain the possible penalties and answer any questions you might have regarding whether you are looking at jail versus prison time.

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