The Difference Between Jail and Prison


It does not matter if you are in jail or prison, incarceration is meant to be an unpleasant experience. However, the policies, rights, and daily life of an inmate can be different between a prison and jail. At the basic level, the main difference between jail and prison is how long an inmate will stay.


Jails are typically ran by local law enforcement and/or local government agencies. They are meant to hold inmates that are waiting for their trial or who are serving a short sentence. A “short” sentence would be considered a misdemeanor conviction versus a felony. Therefore, if misdemeanor sentences are run consecutively, an individual could spend more than one year in jail. Jails often conduct work release programs and boot camps. Some even offer educational, substance abuse, and vocational programs. These types of programs are created to help inmates change their lives and improve themselves so they have a greater chance of not returning. They also help keep the inmate busy and less likely to cause problems while in jail. On the downside, jails often suffer from budget shortages which can lead to lower quality or inadequate food. These problems can lead to claims of violations of the inmate’s right against cruel and unusual punishment. These claims, however, are rare and hardly successful.


Prisons are usually run by either the state government or the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Prisons are meant to hold those who are convicted of multiple serious crimes, usually a felony. They provide different programs to the inmates depending on their level of custody. For example, minimum, medium, or maximum security, solitary confinement, etc. Programs for minimum and medium security include halfway houses, work release programs, and community restitution centers. Normally, inmates who are eligible for these programs are almost done with their prison terms.

Since prisons are built for inmates who have long-term sentences, they are developed for the living needs of their population. Jails have more temporary inmates and therefore have less well-developed facilities. Due to the more well-developed facilities that prisons provide, inmates prefer their stays there because it provides a more regular life and a greater availability of programs. In fact, it is not rare for repeat offenders to ask for prison time rather than jail time followed by probation if they are given the opportunity. Due to the constant change of inmates in a jail, some inmates complain that it interferes with their sleep, eating on a regular schedule, the chance to participate in exercise.

What’s the Same?

In both the jail and prison system, inmates have the right to visitation and the basic rights of any prisoner. These rights include being treated humanely, not suffer from cruel and unusual punishment, be free from sexual crimes or harassment, a right of access to the courts, a right to medical care, and a right to not be discriminated against. Inmates do, however, have limited rights to free speech, possession of property, and other basic human rights.

It is important to speak with an attorney if you find yourself or someone you love behind bars. A lawyer might be able to help you avoid jail or prison altogether. They can also help shorten the time spent in jail or prison if a conviction is unavoidable. Hiring a bail bondsman is another way to get you or a loved one out of jail until the trial date. If this is an interest of yours, call Mercy Bail Bonds at (727) 856-7775. We are available 24/7 and are happy to help answer any questions you may have.