The most fundamental difference between jail and prison is based on the length of time the inmates are serving in each. Jail is generally for inmates serving short term sentences or awaiting trial, while prison is for inmates serving longer sentences.


Jails are usually local facilities under the jurisdiction of a city, parish, district, county, etc. Unlike prisons, there are no jails operated by the federal government. For the most part, inmates in jail are awaiting trial or serving short sentences, usually under a year. Jails often offer work release, educational, vocational, life skills, and substance abuse programs. While many of these programs are designed to help the inmates change their lives so they stand a better chance of not returning, they also have the added benefit of keeping the inmates occupied and decreasing tension.

There are currently over 3,500 jails in the U.S.


Prisons, also called penitentiaries, are generally operated by either a state government or the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Criminals found guilty of breaking a state law are usually sent to state prison while criminals found guilty of violating federal law are typically sent to federal prison. Inmates serving time in federal prisons may or may not be housed in a prison in the state where they committed their crime.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary

The now-closed infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.

Prisons are designed to house inmates serving time for serious crimes, usually felonies. The disposition of the inmate and the severity of the crime committed will determine what type of prison an inmate will serve his time in. Prisons range from minimum security to maximum security. Prisoners in minimum and medium-security prisons usually have more privileges and programs available to them than those in maximum security prisons.

Because prisons are designed for long-term incarceration, they are generally better developed for the living needs of their populations than jails are. Day to day life and the inmate population is usually more constant in prison than it is in jail. As a result, most inmates prefer serving time in prison rather than jail if given a choice.

As of 2017, there are around 2,000 prisons in the U.S.—more than any other country in the world.

  1. There are over 2.3 million Americans currently in prison, more than any other country in the world.
  2. The U.S. houses nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population.
  3. Nearly 50% of released prisoners will return to prison within one year.
  4. Louisiana is “the prison capital of the world.” Nearly one in 86 adults living in Louisiana is currently imprisoned.

  1. – What is the Difference Between Jail and Prison?
  2. – What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
  3. – 10 staggering statistics about the US prison system

Categorized in: