Jail vs Prison – What’s The Difference?

By Prison Insight Staff

Updated: April 15, 2020

Ever since I was incarcerated for nearly four years for a marijuana charge, one of my biggest pet peeves is when people conflate the words “jail” and “prison.” Yes, they are both legal confinement facilities, but there is a big difference between a jail and a prison.

I’m not sure why using the two words interchangeably grinds my gears, but I guess that it probably has something to do with the lack of knowledge that American citizens have about our criminal justice system.

The funny thing is, when I was first sentenced and waiting in the county jail for my transfer to prison, I had no idea what the difference was between the two. However, other inmates told me that being in prison was “way better” than being in jail. That didn’t make sense to me at the time, but I quickly figured out what they meant.

Because this topic is such a big deal to me, this blog post is my attempt to clear up the confusion about the differences between jail and prison. That leads us to today’s topic: Jail vs Prison – What’s the difference?

In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • What are the features of a jail in the United States?
  • What are the features of a prison in the United States?
  • What do prisons and jails have in common?

What are the features of a jail in the United States?

As a rule, jails are local short-term confinement facilities for people who are waiting for trial or sentencing. They’re usually run by local law enforcement in a county or city and they maintain only one level of security. An inmate’s stay in jail is usually a lot shorter than their time in prison. However, because of the slow court system, an inmate can sit in a jail for years without being convicted of a crime.

Jails are smaller facilities that keep the inmates in traditional cells. Depending on the configuration, inmates in jails might be in their cells for as long as 23 hours per day. In the county jail I was in, we were allowed to spend time in the dayroom outside of our cells for a few hours each day.

Jails are where the police take people who have been arrested for any crime – from minor traffic violations to murder. The facility usually has holding cells to put someone in when they are first arrested that is separate from the rest of the inmates being held, but if the person can’t make bail they are put into the general population until they can or until they go to trial.

This means that a jail’s population features transient inmates, and the constant flow of people in and out of the facility makes it loud and chaotic. It’s difficult to sleep in jail, the food is terrible, and it is insanely boring.

Jails don’t usually offer programming for inmates, like education or treatment, and the inmates are usually left to fend for themselves in a “pod” with the other inmates. Officers are rarely inside the pods, and instead, they monitor inmate activity via video. A really good look at life inside a jail is the A&E series 60 Days In. There is also no exercise or activity of any kind, and the inmates rarely (if ever) are allowed out in the fresh air because jails don’t have yards.

The living conditions in jail are usually a lot worse than in prison. The walls are covered in mold, nothing works properly, and the cells are tiny and rarely cleaned.

People who are sentenced for misdemeanors or have sentences of less than a year are usually housed in a jail.

What are the features of a prison in the United States?

Prisons are facilities under the jurisdiction of the state or federal government where convicted inmates who have committed felonies serve longer sentences. People who have been found guilty of breaking a state law are usually sent to a state prison, while those who have been found guilty of breaking federal laws are sent to a federal prison that is located somewhere in the United States. 

Prisons are designed for long-term incarceration, so they often have a campus where the inmates live, work, and go to school. Essentially, a prison is it’s own little community inside the walls, and the inmates work to make it operate.

Of course, all of this depends on the facility’s security level. Supermax and maximum-security prisons are much more strict and the inmates are usually locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day with limited movement in the camp.

However, in the lower security levels, inmates are allowed out of their cells for the majority of the day and they can move between buildings for school, work, chow hall, medical, recreation, and programming activities. Many of these facilities have dormitory style housing instead of traditional prison cells.

The prison guards are everywhere, both inside the housing units, outside on the yard, and in every building on camp. Inmates are searched everywhere they go, but it is much easier to have a “regular life” when you are in prison compared to jail.

Being incarcerated is the worst, but if you have the choice between jail and prison, prison is usually a much better place to be.

What do prisons and jails have in common?

Inmates in both prison and jail have the right to visitation from family and friends. They also have basic prisoner rights, including the right to humane treatment, no cruel or unusual punishment, and the right to be free from sexual crimes. 

Both jail and prison inmates have the right to access the courts and a law library to fight their case, and they also have a right to basic medical care. However, the medical care inmates get is minimal, and it varies by location.

Are you surprised that jail is worse than prison? Let us know in the comments below.


The Real Difference Between Jail and Prison


What is the difference between jail and prison?

  • This was a great article! I thought I knew from a criminal justice degree (never used) from 15 years ago that one of the main differences was that jail was for misdemeanors and was for people who were awaiting sentencing sp? Jail was for those incarcerated for up to one year. And those over went to prison. That sounds really simplified and not accurate now. Also, a 30 year sentence for pot is horrendous! So glad the author didn’t serve that. Sad she got the time that she did specially since many states have it legal. Anyway, thanks for the information. Using it for research.

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