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What is the Difference between Jail and Prison

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Sometimes you might hear someone say they are going to "jail" when they mean that they're going to prison, or vice versa. The difference between jail and prison can be confusing for some people, so in this blog post, we will go over what each one means and how each one works!

Jails are meant for short-term confinement, while prisons can be used to house inmates for years or decades. In this blog post, we will discuss the difference between Jail and Prison as well as how they compare in terms of size and security level.

What is a Jail?

police station jail
A Police Station Jail

A jail is a short-term prison. They are meant to detain inmates for periods that are less, and there's no limit on how much time an inmate can spend in jail. In general, though, you might think of a Jail as being a temporary place for inmates.

Jails are more often used between trials or before an inmate is found guilty of a crime. For example, if someone is arrested and charged with DUI, but hasn't been convicted yet, they will probably spend some time in jail while waiting for their trial date to come up.

What is Prison?

A Prison in Europe

Prisons are designed to be used for long-term confinement, usually for longer sentences. This includes state and federal prisons, which are the two main types of prison in America today.

A prison can be used as either a long-term or lifelong sentence (or both), depending on the state's law that governs it and what crimes inmates have committed. If someone has already been sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) then they might end up spending their entire lives behind bars!

In general, though, prisons serve two purposes: punishment and rehabilitation. People who go there must work hard labor all day so that when they get out they'll be able to find a job and be able to support themselves.

Most people spend at least part of their sentence in either local jails (for shorter sentences) or state/federal correctional facilities (for longer ones). Unlike what you see on TV though, most inmates don't get "shipped off" to these places right away. They typically wait while they work through the court system first!

Differences Between Jail And Prison

Size Difference & capacity

Jails are smaller than prisons because they typically hold fewer people. In general, prisons are bigger than jails because of all the extra space needed for cells, staff, recreation areas/facilities, etc. States use both local jails and state prisons to detain people who have been convicted or awaiting trial on felony charges. Local officials usually run county jails that hold inmates before sentencing. Whereas states operate most state correctional institutions which house convicts serving longer time.

The difference in security level

Prisons are more secure places to be, while jails are less secure facilities. Prisoners have much stricter rules and regulations that must be followed when inside prison walls compared to the ones found in jails. Jails lack high fences and armed guards. Prisons have increased security measures such as high fences, razor wire, and gun towers not found in jails. Prisons can sometimes even require you to wear electronic monitoring devices when released so officials will know where you are at all times!

Difference behind bars

Inmate life in prison tends to differ from jail because there are much stricter rules and regulations set in place for prisoners. The whole point of incarcerating convicted criminals is that they serve some type of sentence for their crimes. Inmates can be given multiple sentences that add up to a total length of time behind bars, but typically they serve one term at a time until it's completed.

Comparison Chart: Jail Vs Prison

Short term sentenceYesNo
Used for people on trialsYesNo
Used for notorious criminalsNoYes
Overall facility sizeLessMore
RulesLess strictMore strict

Similarities between Jail & Prison

A jail term can end up taking much less time than expected if an inmate gets released early with good behavior; conversely, it could even end up taking longer if a person gets in trouble while incarcerated. Inmates can also get released from prison early for good behavior before they have reached their full sentence length—although this is not very common and typically only happens after several years.

Another big similarity is the fact that both are a sort of correctional facility that keeps people in who have been convicted of a crime or are still awaiting trial. Prison is used for much longer sentences though and typically contains more dangerous individuals since the crimes they've committed were far worse!

Inmates from either jail or prison can also expect to get through many security measures before being able to leave their facility. And even then they will always be under some sort of supervision (either probation/parole officers or by electronic monitoring devices).


Which is more secure?

Prisons are more secure than jails. Jails also do not have high fences or escape-proof barriers around them, while state correctional institutions need these physical safeguards due to their size and location.

Which has stricter rules?

Prisons tend to have stricter rules than jails because they house some of the most dangerous criminals. Jails tend to be more lenient with inmates and allow them to wear civilian clothing for instance, while state facilities only let the prisoners wear uniforms (usually orange outfits).

Who runs them?

States run most state correctional institutions, while local officials usually run county jails. Who runs the jail/prison is also different depending on where you're at geographically.


A Jail is shorter in duration than Prisons because they often detain individuals with lesser crimes. The main difference between jail and prison comes down to their location (jails inside cities/counties; prisons located out in rural areas), size (not very large compared to prisons), and security levels (less strict rules for inmates, especially when it comes to following rules).


Feel free to comment and discuss about the article in the comment space below if you have any information or remarks to add. If you think we made a mistake, you can also report it there.
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About the Author: Nicolas Seignette

Nicolas Seignette, who holds a scientific baccalaureate, began his studies in mathematics and computer science applied to human and social sciences (MIASHS). He then continued his university studies with a DEUST WMI (Webmaster and Internet professions) at the University of Limoges before finishing his course with a professional license specialized in the IT professions. On 10Differences, he is in charge of the research and the writing of the articles concerning technology, sciences and mathematics.
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