As of 2023, there are over 3,100 local jails and 1,500 state prisons in the United States. Depending on the offense, these places usually hold people for days, months, or years.

brown wooden judge gavel resting on a sound block of the same color Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

You might also hear people use the term "jail" more frequently than they use "prison."

"Jail" and "prison" may be go-to terms when talking about crime, but they're not the same thing. They're both forms of incarceration for people suspected and convicted of committing crimes, but they have different purposes.

What is a jail?

Two rows of empty jail cells with closed barred doors, stacked on top of each other.

Jails are used to hold people as they serve their time for a crime. They can also be used as temporary places for those awaiting sentencing for higher-level crimes.

Jails are usually run on the local level by law enforcement or the government.

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Duration of Stay

  • Up to a year following the conviction of a low-level crime

  • Short-term while awaiting trial

  • Short-term after sentencing while awaiting prison transfer

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Type of Crimes

  • Misdemeanors such as vandalism, trespassing, petty theft, resisting arrest, cybercrimes, etc.

  • Minor crimes

  • Low-level nonviolent crimes

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  • Can offer work release programs, boot camps, and services to assist with life improvement measures

  • Lower budgets with less attention to livability comfort

  • A constant flow of individuals coming and going so the resources aren't sizeable

What is a prison?

Pprison cells with numbers Photo by Chris Ruch on Unsplash

Prison sentencing comes after people have been held in jail for various periods of time. They are intended to hold people for longer periods, usually for those who have already been convicted of and sentenced for a crime.

Prisons are usually run above the local level by the state or federal government.

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Duration of Stay

  • Multiple years post-trial and sentencing, depending on the severity of the offense committed

  • Long-term, can go up to life sentences

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Type of Crimes

  • Felonies such as murder, robbery, assault, etc.

  • High-level and violent crimes

  • Federal offenses involve incarceration at specific federal prisons

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  • Prisons are intended for longer-term stays and are built with living needs in mind

  • State prisons sometimes operate halfway houses, work release centers, and community restitution centers

  • Depending on the level of the prison, different recreational activities and resources are available for inmates

More facts about prisons

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The term penitentiary describes long-term holdings after sentencing. Individuals with life sentences or death sentences are typically held in penitentiaries.

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Correctional centers or correctional institutions are prisons that have a greater focus on providing rehabilitation services to their inmates.

Detention centers aren't prisons but also serve the purpose of offering rehab to incarcerated individuals.

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Prisons vary in security levels from low security to maximum security. The security level corresponds with the inmate's level of assumed risk and threat to the general public. The higher the security, the more severe the crime committed.

Knowledge Check

Andrew has been convicted of a nonviolent misdemeanor-level crime.

After his hearing, the judge sentenced him to 3 months of confinement.

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Based on the duration of Andrew's sentencing, where will he likely be held?

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Learn more about the justice system by exploring the following resources.


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