Jail vs. Prison

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A reader asks,

Can the words jail and prison be used interchangeably?

In colloquial usage, the words jail and prison are often used interchangeably in reference to any place where people are locked up for a legal offense.

Jail is the usual choice when speaking of imprisonment in the abstract. For example:

A man like that belongs in jail.

If you ask me, I’d put him in jail and throw away the key.

The connotation of jail is less severe than that of prison.

When the words are used in reference to actual places of legal confinement, there is a distinct difference between a jail and a prison.

In most US states, jails are short-term facilities operated by local authorities, whereas prisons are long-term facilities operated by the state or federal government.

When people are arrested for anything, from drunk driving to murder, they will be temporarily confined in a jail. For lack of more appropriate facilities, mentally ill people are often placed in jail.

Note: So many mentally ill people are jailed or imprisoned in the United States that, according to clinical psychologist Dean Aufderheide, “[T]here is no doubt that our jails and prisons have become America’s major mental health facilities, a purpose for which they were never intended.”

Typically, jail is for:

1. People who are being held pending a plea agreement, trial, or sentencing;

2. People who have been convicted of a misdemeanor criminal offense and are serving a sentence of less than a year;

3. People who have been sentenced to a term longer than a year and are waiting to be transferred to a long-term facility.

Prisons are for convicted felons who have been sentenced to a term of one year or longer.

Here are some quotations that fail to distinguish between jail (short-term) and prison (long-term):

Al Capone was sentenced to 11 years in jail for failure to pay four years’ worth of taxes.—Political blogger.

I hope his sentence is long enough so his jail cell will become his coffin.—Victim of convicted swindler Bernard Madoff, whose sentence is for a term of 150 years.

Man remains in jail 6 years without conviction—Headline, Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Man faces 11 years in jail for ‘punching elderly man’ over free Nutella samples—Headline, The Independent.

Venezuela’s opposition denounced the sentencing of politician Leopoldo Lopez to nearly 14 years in jail.—News article, The Huffington Post.

Most speakers will probably continue to use jail informally to mean “a place of incarceration.” Professional writers, on the other hand, may be expected to observe a distinction between jail and prison in formal contexts.

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6 thoughts on “Jail vs. Prison”

  1. Surely “Man remains in jail 6 years without conviction” emphasises the fact that he has been in short-term lockup for an excessive amount of time?

  2. I think I remember that case and yes, he was actually in the jail for 6 years. More is the point that it was a big screw up. Or, more probably, a “detention center” which is the most commonly used euphemism for jails anymore. Off the top of my head, it’s hard to think of a jail that is actually formally called a jail anymore?? There are some, though.

    Regarding the Note on the incarcerated mentally ill: It also needs to be remembered that while jails and prisons house large numbers of the mentally ill, they are not locked up just because they are mentally ill.They are locked up beause they have committed crimes or are facing criminal charges, just like anyone else. While it is a fair point that there may be better ways of dealing with mentally ill offenders, they are still offenders. I know from experience that quotes like the above often create the impression that mentally ill people are simply being rounded up and incarcerated. That is, importantly, not the case.

  3. Some three decades ago now, I had a job in London serving a firm of solicitors as an outdoor clerk, a kind of legal assistant. I got to know my way around Greater London and visited fascinating places like Crown Courts (e.g., the Old Bailey), barristers’ chambers (e.g., the Middle Temple), jails (e.g., Reading Gaol), prisons (e.g., Pentonville Prison) and government offices (e.g., HM Customs & Excise).

    I learned that when a suspect is arrested he or she is arraigned at a Magistrates’ Court and kept in a jail. If and when that same suspect is taken to trial, this is done at a Crown Court and he or she resides in a prison.

  4. “Prison” is also often used to refer to a place of confinement other than a government run, long-term detainment facility. “Her home had become a prison,” for example. Maybe this should be considered a figurative use, meaning “she had come to feel like her home was like a government-run, long-term detainment facility,” but I’m inclined to think not. On the other hand, I think the term “jail” is so strongly associated with things like iron bars and metal bunks, that if the expression used were “her home had become her jail,” I would think of that usage as metaphoric.

  5. Professional writers, including those that claim the mantle, such as journalists, ought to understand and use the correct word called for, allowing that those writing for the The Independent, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and The Huffington Post, now HuffPost, may not qualify.

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