What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?

(Last Updated On: June 13, 2019)

What's the Difference Between Prison and Jail?

In casual conversation, you’ve probably heard the terms “prison” and “jail” used interchangeably. But are they really the same thing? It turns out, there are some pretty big differences between prison and jail. We’ll break them all down in this post.

Prison vs. Jail – What’s the Difference?

Differentiating between prison and jail on a political level isn’t actually too difficult. It just requires a simple understanding of levels of government. Basically some things are handled by your city or town, others by your state, and then there’s the really big stuff handled by that White House somewhere in Washington, DC.

With that in mind, jails are often operated by far more local governments, while prisons tend to be headed up by the state.

You might also like: Why Is it Called Washington, DC?

The Operational Difference Between Prison and Jail

Functionally, you wouldn’t be entirely faulted for believing prisons and jails were exactly the same. They’re just compounds people go to when they break the law, right?

Well, there’s actually a pretty stark difference. So much so that many inmates will actually choose prison over jail time if that’s afforded to them. At a base level, jails house inmates for shorter time periods than prisons, and the former is more suited to less major crimes. You’re looking at things like misdemeanors for jails, while prisons will have you staring down actual felonies.

There’s also sentence time to account for, and that’s the core difference between the two. Jails are for shorter sentences while prisons are suited to house inmates for far longer periods of time. Normally, that’s over a year. However, sometimes misdemeanor charges can stack up, so it is possible to spend elongated periods of time in jail as well. But because jails house inmates for less time, oftentimes people are housed in jails while awaiting trial.

Because jails support inmates for less time than prisons, they often have people going in and out frequently. Understandably, there are therefore a lot of reports that jail inhabitants suffer from irregular sleeping and eating schedules due to people constantly being moved in and out. Jails also tend to suffer budgeting issues since they therefore have less money per person, so sometimes inmates eat very poorly. This leads to the occasional accusation of cruel and unusual punishment, but those are often overturned.

Prisons, on the other hand, tend to have more amenities for their inmates. Despite the fact that you’ll be in for longer and more serious crimes, you’ll at least have better food and resource access. Not to mention a reliable eating and sleeping schedule. Bearing that in mind, then, it’s not too much of a stretch to see someone choose prison time with opportunity for probation over jail time.

Think you’d rather be in prison than school? Test yourself here.



About Kyler 728 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.