Jail vs Prison: What’s the difference?

The inside of a dark black and white jail

If you’re like many people, you may use the terms jail and prison interchangeably. However, jail and prison are two very different things.

Let’s quickly discuss the main differences between jail vs prison.

Jail vs Prison: The main differences

Time incarcerated 

Jail is designed for a short-term stay, while prison is designed for a long-term stay. When a person is taken to jail, this often means they are awaiting trial or convicted of a misdemeanor with a year or less of jail time. When a person is taken to prison, this often means they are convicted of a felony and will be introduced into a population that requires various levels of security (from minimum to solitary confinement).


Jail is managed by your local law enforcement and government entities, while prison is managed by state or federal entities.


Both jails and prisons offer various programs that treat substance abuse, offer vocational training, provide educational opportunities, and more. The opportunities available to inmates will vary based on time left on sentence and type of crime.

Living conditions

If you think about short term vs long term (jail vs prison), then it’s easy to imagine the differences in living situations.

Jail is short-term, and there is a variable flow of inmates in and out of the facility on a regular basis. Because of this, inmates will be around different people every day (from low-level offenders jailed for misdemeanors to high-level offenders awaiting trial). Programs and facilities available usually aren’t as well-developed as they are in prisons since they are designed for short-term interactions.

Even though an inmate may be around considerably more dangerous felons in a prison, this still may be a more ideal situation for them if they’re facing 6 months or more of jail time. This is because they may have more of an opportunity to get on a schedule, eat and sleep better, and benefit from all-around better programs. 

Visitation rights

With both prison and jail, inmates have a right to visitation from loved ones, friends, and legal representation. On top of this, they are also guaranteed basic human rights such as free speech and medical care.

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