The terms Jail and Prison are often used incorrectly and interchangeably by the public and media however, they are very different.  So, what are the major differentiators between the two? For starters, a Jail is a facility used to hold or detain individuals that have been arrested and are being held pending bail, plea agreement, trial or sentencing.  Those convicted of less serious or misdemeanor offenses are typically sentenced to a period of less than one year to serve their sentence in the Jail. However, in some jurisdictions, as in Pennsylvania, a convicted individual can serve time of less than two years.  This is why, in Pennsylvania, some county facilities are referred to as a County Jail while others use the term County Prison.

Another differentiating factor is that Jails or Detention Facilities are operated by County or City Governments.  Lockups are temporary holding facilities where arrested individuals can be held  for a short period of time and are processed, released, or transferred to a County Jail or Detention Facility. Upon transfer, some may stay for less than one day or a few days and are then released pending the outcome of the adjudication.  States such as Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Vermont do not have County or City Detention Facilities but operate integrated statewide systems.  While the great majority of Jails or Detention Facilities are operated by County or City Governments, the U.S.  Government, through its Federal Bureau of Prisons, also operates several Detention Centers in major cities to hold individuals who have been arrested, have been denied bail, or are awaiting trial.  These inmates are held pending transfer to their assigned Federal Prison.

Though a Jail or Detention Facility often houses individuals convicted of lesser offenses, it is important to know that they also house those accused of the most serious crimes while going through the judicial process.  Depending on the state, Prisons house inmates based on the crime that they have been convicted of or classification while Jails or Detention Facilities hold all classifications until sentencing.

Because Prisons are designed for long-term incarceration, they are typically better equipped with facilities and staff to provide for the treatment and vocational training needs of their inmate population. Conversely, Jails have a more transient population and given the costs associated, provide less availability of programs and treatment, though this is changing.

The most basic way to distinguish between what constitutes a Jail is that its function is to confine people awaiting trial or sentencing while Prisons are confinement facilities for those who have been convicted of crimes.  Prisons are typically run by states or the Federal Bureau of Prisons while others are operated by private companies under contract with state or federal governments.

By: Csaba Balazs, AIA
Director of Design – Corrections
L.R. Kimball