Difference between Jail and Prison

Updated on February 23, 2018

Both the terms jail and prison are without doubt used for a place where people are apprehended and held. Nevertheless, in the U.S. both areas of imprisonment hold significant differences from one another when it comes to the ways and reasons they detain people. Also, the duration of detention varies to a large extent. The level of crime committed by a person is a major factor that decides whether they would go to a jail or prison.



In a jail, people are kept physically and have to face numerous kinds of restrictions on their freedom. The authorities imprison people who are waiting for a trial or hearing sometime in the future, or are hoping to find their captivity is temporary. Jail is often compared to an animal cage, the reason being the limitation on freedom applies to everything, be it commodities or the space provided to the prisoners or access to the outside world.

Unlike jails, prisons that are run by state governments as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) keep those people that are accused of some serious crime. The punishment for these crimes may even exceed a year. A prison is sometimes also termed as a penitentiary.

Jail vs Prison

A major difference between jail and prison is that a jail detainee may or may not be charged or found guilty and is awaiting a hearing or trial, whereas a prison only detains people who are charged and/or convicted with committing a crime. A jail is either run by a county, city, state or federal government authority, while a prison follows the guidelines and laws defined by the state or federal government.

In the U.S. a jail can keep the accused for a minimum period of two days up to a maximum of one year. And this is what basically differentiates a prison from a jail – the period for which inmates stay. The short stay is often termed as a misdemeanour sentence. On the other hand, a prison holds the alleged criminal for one year or for as long as the law demands. Any person convicted of a felony is sent to a prison.

Both systems, however, allow visitation to the prisoners along with certain basic rights such as that of being treated kindly, being free from any kind of sexual harassment or crime, as well as having the right to medical care, and the right to be treated equally.

Comparison Chart

It is run by federal or city/county government.It is operated by state/federal government.
Holds those awaiting a trial or hearing.Keeps those accused of a felony.
Short term conviction.Long term conviction.
Countless numbers of people enter jail daily.The number of people coming to prisons regularly is far less than that of jail.
People high on drinking or drugs or thieves may be jailed.A first degree murder or rape case will likely send a person to prison.
Jails have limited facilities for detainees such as work release programs to fight substance abuse and provide vocational training.Prisons have varied facilities like work release programs, vocational training programs, and recreation activities for prisoners.
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