Correctional Facilities: The Differences Between Jail vs. Prison (2024)

Incarceration is an American scourge. More than 1.4 million Americans lived in prison in 2020.

Yet this number doesn't account for all incarcerated people. Many people spent days or weeks in jail, and most Americans conflate prison with jail. If you or a loved one is facing a prison sentence, you need to know about jail vs. prison.

What is jail, and what is prison? Does the period of incarceration or something else determine where someone goes? How can you stay in touch with an inmate?

Answer these questions and you can maintain your relationship with an incarcerated loved one. Here is your quick guide.

The Basics of Jail

Jails are locations created for the purpose of imprisoning people. Cities, counties, states, and the federal government can run and fund jails.

For the most part, jails hold people who are awaiting trial for crimes. They have not been convicted yet, but they may remain in jail until they make bail or have their cases dismissed.

Jails can also hold people who have been convicted of minor offenses, namely misdemeanors. But some people convicted of non-violent felonies like drug possession may remain in jail. Jails may hold people who normally live in prisons due to prison overpopulation.

Some people refer to the cells at a police station as "jail." Someone may also mention that they will be in jail if they get arrested or convicted, which serves as a shorthand for incarceration in general.

The Essentials of Prison

Prisons are also places where incarcerated people live. Like jails, there are different jurisdictions of prisons, though state and federal prisons are the main two.

Prisons can have different security levels. Minimum security prisons hold people convicted of non-violent offenses and first-time offenders. Maximum security prisons hold people convicted of violent felonies, repeat offenders, and those serving long-term sentences.

In general, people convicted of felonies who are serving sentences longer than one year will go to prison. Prisons have resources to accommodate long sentences like hospitals and libraries, which jails do not normally have. Both jails and prisons allow for family visitation, but prisons may have large rooms to allow family members to meet with each other.

After getting arrested, someone may spend time in a police cell or jail. A judge may factor in this time when they are sentencing a convicted person. Someone may be sentenced to "time served," with their time in jail counting as their sentence.

Some prisons are male or female-only. Other institutions have separate cells for men and women, with minimal contact amongst the inmates to prevent assault.

Other Terms

"Penitentiary" and "correctional facility" are alternate terms for prison. Many state and federal prisons are called penitentiaries just to distinguish themselves from other institutions.

"Detention center" may refer to a prison, but it can refer to other facilities. A facility that holds immigrants who are preparing for deportation hearings may be called a detention center. "Lock-up" may refer to a jail, a detention center, or to the rooms in a police station where suspects remain temporarily.

A halfway house is not a prison or jail, but a facility where people leaving prison can relearn behaviors to return to society. Residents can receive counseling, including for substance abuse, and job training. Some residents pay rent, but they can keep the rest of the money they earned.

A juvenile detention center holds young people who are accused or convicted of criminal offenses. Someone may stay in a detention center and then get moved to jail after they turn 18.

Finding Someone in Jail

Your loved one going to jail may be told in advance what jail they are going to. They can tell you that information directly or ask someone to relay that to you.

If you don't know where someone is, you can use an inmate locator. Start with the city and county they live in, then try searching by state. Make sure you know the person's full name and date of birth, as some people share the same first and last name.

Assume that the person you are looking for is in a city or county jail. Getting moved to a prison under state or federal jurisdiction before being convicted of an offense is very rare.

Prosecutors and judges figure out what prison someone will go to during the sentencing process. You should be able to find out what prison they are going to. If you are an immediate family member, you may be able to petition the court to send them to a prison near you.

Most incarcerated people go to prisons in the same state where they were convicted. But a facility may move someone if the inmate requests a move or committed a high-profile offense.

Prisons and jails have their own policies for writing letters to inmates and family visitations. Most facilities permit visits, but they limit how many visits a person can receive and what family members can give to an incarcerated person. You may be able to send them cards or toiletries, but not money and books.

The Differences Between Jail vs. Prison

Jail vs. prison is a good distinction to make. In general, a jail is a facility for people who are serving quick sentences or remain before trial. A prison holds people who are serving long sentences after conviction.

There are other terms for these facilities, but "jail" and "prison" are the most common. The best way to know where your loved one is is to stay in touch with them during the entire process.

If you lose touch, you should turn to free resources. JailExchange lets you find an inmate for free. Search for an inmate today.

Correctional Facilities: The Differences Between Jail vs. Prison (2024)
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