Major Difference Between Jail and Prison

Should you say jail or prison? That’s a great question. While both jail and prison are a form of incarceration, that’s where the commonalities between the two end. Both jail and prison have their own distinct meanings in terms of length of incarceration, seriousness of the crime, and who runs them. Explore the fundamental difference between jail and prison by looking at each term individually.

difference between jail and prison difference between jail and prison

What Is Jail?

Jail is the less serious of the two types of confinement. While it’s not fun, jail is designed for short-term offenders who are waiting for trial or who have committed lesser crimes such as a misdemeanor. For example, someone caught drunk driving goes to jail. Drunk driving is still a criminal act; however, it often falls under the classification of a misdemeanor. Therefore, many people convicted of driving under the influence go to jail. No matter what your crime might be, if you go to jail, expect your stay to be a year or less.

Run by Local Government

In addition to having inmates convicted of lower-class crimes, jails are also run by local, county, or district government. Therefore, local police authorities work in the jail in addition to working within the community. Since these facilities are run by local agencies, they are smaller in size.

Rehabilitation Programs

Another unique feature of a jail is that inmates might get out and into the community to work through rehabilitation programs. Additionally, the jail might offer vocational or education programs to inmates. An inmate incarcerated for drugs might take part in a substance abuse program to help ensure they don’t return to jail. Inmates in jail with jobs might take part in work release programs to maintain their employment.

What Is Prison?

Prison is no joke. A person incarcerated in person has been convicted of a major criminal offense called a felony. Felonies include major crimes like murder or grand larceny. However, not all prisons are created equal. Prisons come in different levels of security according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

  • Minimum security prisons - lowest risk prisoners; lower officer to inmate ratio and dorm-style housing
  • Low security prisons - additional officers and perimeter fence
  • Medium security prisons - cells, more staff, fenced and guarded perimeters, and internal controls on prisoners
  • High security prisons - control inmate movement (i.e. exercise, eating, conversing), fences and walls, multiple cells; designed for high-risk prisoners

Run by Federal Government or Corporations

While jails are run by the local government, prisons are on a higher level. They are either run by the state or federal governments. However, they can also be privately-owned prison systems that are contracted by the states but run by large corporations. Since these facilities are state, federal, or privately run, they are larger in scale with more inmates than a typical jail.

Prison Rehabilitation Programs

Prisons do offer work and rehabilitation programs; however, these are only designed for criminals of non-violent crimes or at the end of their sentence. Not all inmates are eligible for these programs depending on the severity of their crimes or sentence.

Quick Chart for Prison vs. Jail

To summarize, here’s a quick chart to show the differences clearly.



Less severe crimes (misdemeanor) or awaiting trial

More severe crimes (felony)

1 year or less

1 year or more

Run by local government

Run by state or federal government

Examples of Jail vs. Prison in a Sentence

With a firm understanding of the difference between a prison vs. jail, explore how these two words are used in sentences.

  • The murderer received 10 years in prison.
  • He was thrown in jail for a DUI.
  • The arsonist was released from jail.
  • The bailiff took the woman to her jail cell.
  • A riot broke out in the prison.
  • The federal government runs the prison.
  • The local officer walked into the jail.
  • She received a sentence of three months in jail.
  • The criminal received 60 years to life in prison.
  • The inmate escaped from prison.

Difference Between Prison and Jail

While the terms jail and prison might be used interchangeably in conversation, the words have clear distinctions. The major difference between jail and prison is the length of time a person is incarcerated. Now that you’ve discovered the difference between jail and prison, explore the difference between do vs. due.