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What's the Difference Between Jail and Prison?

By Deanne Katz, Esq. | Last updated on

The terms are often used interchangeably, but there's a difference between jail and prison.

It's not just a case of semantics. Whether a criminal is being held in jail or prison says something about the crime committed and the stage in the process. The way inmates are treated also differs between the two.

Despite the differences, people confuse the terms all the time because they don't realize what each one means. Do you know how to tell them apart?

The major difference between whether a convict stays in jail or prison is the length of the sentence.

A jail is a temporary holding facility. It's used to hold people who have been recently arrested or people who are charged with a crime and unable to pay bond or bail. It can also house people who are given short sentences, generally one year or less.

By contrast a prison is designed for long-term confinement. The majority of convicted criminals serve their sentences in a prison.

Another important difference is who runs the facility. Jails are generally run by a county sheriff's department, unlike prisons which are run by state or federal governments.

People who break federal laws go to federal prisons, and people who break state laws go to state prisons. That part at least is intuitive.

Because they're meant to house inmates over months and years, prison facilities are better developed than jail facilities. Many prisons have services for substance abuse, work release programs, an on-site cafeteria and an infirmary.

Even though jails often house people who've been accused or convicted of lesser offenses, they aren't given the same kinds of programs and opportunities as people in prison. Most jails simply lack the infrastructure to provide similar programs.

Knowing the difference between jail and prison makes it easier to understand the seriousness of a crime. It will also help you understand what to expect if someone you love is being held or convicted.

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