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What's the Main Difference Between Prison and Jail?

Difference Prison and Jail

Did you know, close to 1 in 100 Americans are in prison or jail? If you or someone you know has been arrested they may be facing incarceration, this could mean either spending time in jail or in a prison. But what is the difference between prison and jail?

There is more distinction than you probably realize. Continue reading below to learn the difference.

What Is the Difference Between Prison and Jail?

The biggest difference between prison and jail is how long someone will stay.

Type of Crime and Length of Sentence

Jails and prisons house different types of criminals. Jails are usually reserved for individuals with misdemeanor convictions, Immigration and Customs crimes, or probation violations. Jails might also house those awaiting trial, transfer, or bail. Most of these crimes carry a shorter sentence.

Prisons, on the other hand, are for individuals who have felony convictions.

The type of crime and the length of a sentence often go hand-in-hand. Felony convictions carry a longer sentence and prison time. Whereas a misdemeanor will likely carry a shorter sentence, which would be served in jail.

Generally speaking, any sentence shorter than a year will be served in jail—anything longer will end up in prison.

Governing Body

Another difference between prison and jail is who runs the institution. Jails are usually overseen and run by local governments. This could include a town, city, or county.

Sometimes, a few small counties may join together to run a regional jail. Because jails are operated by local governments, they often have smaller budgets.

Prisons are operated by state or federal governments or the Federal Bureau of Prisons or BOP. The BOP houses 131,040 prisoners in its 122 facilities. The BOP has a budget of close to 8 million dollars.

A handful of prisons are run by private companies and house around 10% of the prison population. Private prisons generate billions of dollars by charging the government to house inmates.

Quality of Stay

Jails and prisons also differ in the quality of stay for inmates. Prisons are made for long-term stays and with this in mind, facilities are usually more comfortable and give inmates more of an opportunity to create a routine.

Jails see inmates come and go, which can interfere with sleep, eating, and exercise schedules. Jails are sometimes working with limited budgets which contribute to worsened conditions for inmates.


Jails and prisons offer different programs to inmates as well. Prisons may have a host of programs to occupy inmates. These might include vocational, educational, or substance abuse programs.

Because jails house people on a more temporary basis, they often don't have the need or desire for such programs. Again, jails often suffer from tight budgets, which limit the types of programs available.

Inmate Rights

Inmates of both jails and prisons have the same rights. These include rights to visitation, medical care, access to the courts, and freedom from discrimination, violence, and inhumane treatment.

If someone you know has been incarcerated it can be difficult to get in touch with them. Knowing if they will be in jail or prison is the first step. Finding more information about where your loved one may be doesn't have to be a hassle.

Getting Started

The difference between prison and jail is straightforward. It comes down to the length of stay and type of governing body. For more helpful content like this, check out some of our other posts.

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