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.