The Difference Between Jail and Prison

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While you may hear someone say ‘I’m going to jail’ or ‘I’m going to prison’, while they might think that they mean the same place they don’t. One would likely mean a short stay or a transitional stay while the other would likely lead to a more permanent residency. There are many differences between prisons and jails, however. Both incarcerate and hold people and both are used by the judiciary system as a means for detaining criminals and potential criminals, but beyond that they serve different purposes and even belong to different domains.


A jail is designed to hold people accused of a crime or who have committed a crime, but only for short or transitory periods of time. These are local holding cells staffed by local officials, though they can hold felons for periods of time. Here are some specifics about jails:

• Run by local governments and officials
• Transitory for felons and criminals who will be incarcerated in prisons
• Offer local programs like boot camps and drug abuse assistance services
• Officers serve warrants and make localized arrests


Prisons are run by the federal government or fall under state jurisdiction. These are long term incarceration facilities, generally under heavy or maximum security. They are designed to hold and keep prisoners, sometimes for life. Here are some specifics about prisons:

• Federal or state controlled with a Warden or Commander who specifically oversees guard and prisoner welfare
• Long term facility designed to hold and keep prisoners
• Offer halfway house programs for transitioning back to society, as well as work release and work detail programs
• Tend to have tiers that separate inmates by crimes committed and/or danger level

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