You’ve no doubt heard the terms “jail” and “prison”, and unless you have some familiarity with the criminal justice system, you probably use them interchangeably, understanding them to be simply different words for the same thing. They are, in fact, quite distinct elements of our system of detention and punishment, and getting to know the difference between them may help you navigate any experience you (unfortunately) have with that system after an arrest.
Time makes all the difference
At the most basic level, the difference between jail and prison is how long inmates typically spend there. Jail is a short-term detention facility and prison a long-term facility. But it is that key difference (one for short stays, and one for long) that actually leads to the other differences between the two types of facility.
There’s a couple of reasons why someone would need to be detained for a short period of time, perhaps from several hours to a few months. It may be for someone who has been given a short sentence (less than a year), but more commonly, short-term jail is used to hold individuals while they are being booked, processed, and who are awaiting trial but have not been granted release.
Chaos and uncertainty
Of course, this means that jails can be a chaotic, and for first time arrestees, intimidating experience. This is because there can be a highly variable mix of new arrestees and short-term detainees, and those that are being held ahead of court proceedings are those that, by definition, were not able to secure their release, perhaps because of a violent history or the nature of the charges against them.
Jails are most often run by local law enforcement or local (county / municipal) government agencies. They can vary quite remarkably from facility to facility. Depending on the size and available resources of the associated court and law enforcement system, some jails offer work release programs, educational, substance abuse programs as well as boot camps and vocational training. The purpose of these programs may be to break up the monotony of detention, which may help reduce recidivism, or to provide opportunities for personal growth and self improvement, which can contribute to shorter stays and fewer problems for correctional staff.
In contrast, prisons are almost always operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) or a state government. They are designed with long-term detention in mind, and generally house inmates convicted of serious crimes, mostly felonies. Prisons run programs that depend on the inmate’s level of custody which may be minimum, medium or maximum security, and the lower the security level, the more opportunities there are for inmates to participate in work release programs, stay in halfway houses as their sentence comes to a close or visit community restitution centers. There are some prisons that are operated under contract to BOP by private sector corporations. These contract prisons are secure institutions in which a majority of inmates are sentenced criminal aliens who may be deported upon completion of their sentence.
The difference in experiences between jail and prison is distinct. Populations in prison facilities are far more consistent and steady, while a jail population can have a highly fluctuating and transient population. For this reason, there are some, for whom both options are a possibility, that prefer a prison stay to incarceration in a jail facility, and some repeat offenders have been known to request this.
They can’t take away your rights (though they can limit them)
In both systems there are opportunities for visitation from friends and family, and all detainees, regardless of their location and length of incarceration, retain the basic rights of any prisoner, including the right to be treated humanely, protection from cruel and unusual punishment, free from undue harassment and assault, access to legal counsel, courts and medical care, and the right not to be subject to racial discrimination.