What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?

Many people are understandably confused about the differences between being sent to jail or prison. After all, “jail” and “prison” both mean confinement. Even though they share some similarities, prison and jail are different.

Jail or Prison

Would you prefer to be sent to jail or prison? Prisons offer more amenities, but you’re probably going to be there a lot longer than you would prefer. Jail facilities are operated by a county sheriff and are used to confine:

  • Misdemeanor and felony offenders who are awaiting trial
  • Criminal defendants who are unable to obtain release on bond or bail
  • Convicted individuals who must serve less than one year behind bars
  • People who are guilty of contempt of court (insulting a judge, failing to pay child support, etc.)

Prisons, on the other hand, were designed to imprison convicted felons who have received a lengthy prison sentence. Prisons are operated by federal and state authorities such as the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They were designed to house and rehabilitate inmates who have been convicted of serious crimes. The vast majority of criminal sentences are served in a state or federal prison.

A prison facility is far larger and more elaborate than a county jail. In many ways, a prison is a self-contained community designed to meet the medical, vocational, educational and recreational needs of prison inmates. Prison-based services often include rehabilitation classes for alcohol or illegal drug use, a medical dispensary and a full-service cafeteria. Prisoners may also benefit from an onsite law library or work release program.

The Legal Process

Where a prisoner is confined can tell family members a good deal about the severity of a pending criminal charge or the stage of the legal process. When the beginning of a criminal trial is delayed at the request of the prosecution or defense, even an individual who has been charged with a serious crime like capital murder can remain in county jail for many months. Once the trial is over and the sentencing phase has been completed, a convicted criminal may be transferred to a prison to serve their sentence.

The confusion between jail and prison is understandable. The terms are used interchangeably in the news, movies and everyday life. Both terms are readily associated with legal confinement, but criminal defendants and family members are destined to learn more than they would like to know about the differences between jail and prison. Neither option is desirable, but a short stay in a county jail is preferable to spending several years in a state or federal prison.

To learn more about the American prison system, contact The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp at 713-868-6100.

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