The Real Difference Between Jail and Prison

, Staff Writer
Updated June 6, 2022
Man behind bars with Jail and prison Definitions
    Man behind bars with Jail and prison Definitions
    Man: jesadaphorn / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Background: Tolchik / iStock / Getty Images Plus
    Used under Getty Images license

Jail and prison are both forms of incarceration. But while the terms jail and prison may seem interchangeable, that’s not the case. They differ by the length of incarceration, the seriousness of the crime, and the entity that runs them — and those differences really matter when it comes to receiving a jail sentence vs. a prison sentence.

The Differences Between Jail and Prison

You can tell the difference between jail and prison by examining their details:




Severity of Crime

Less severe crimes (misdemeanor) or awaiting trial

More severe crimes (felony)

Length of Incarceration

1 year or less

1 year or more

Run By

Local government

State or federal government

Average Capacity

A few hundred people

Up to 200,000 people


What Is Jail? Shorter Sentence, Minor Offenses

Jail, which is a Middle English word from the Latin cavea, meaning “cage,” is meant for short-term offenders who are waiting for trial or who have committed lesser crimes (known as misdemeanors). Examples of offenses that are sent to jail instead of prison include:

  • driving under the influence (DUI)
  • drug charges
  • assault and battery
  • parole violation

Jails are run by local law enforcement, which can include sheriffs or city officials. Often, people who have been wrongfully convicted but can’t pay their bail must remain in jail until their trial. If they’re found guilty of a felony, they would then receive a prison sentence.

Jail 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? Longer Sentence, Major Offenses

The word prison comes from Old English prisoun, meaning “captivity” or “dungeon.” A person incarcerated in prison has been convicted of a major criminal offense called a felony. Felonies include major crimes such as:

Unlike jails, prisons are run by state or federal governments. 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.

Types of Prisons

Prisons come with 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

Prison Rehabilitation Programs

Prisons do offer work and rehabilitation programs 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.

What About ‘Penitentiary’?

Another word that appears in conversations about incarceration is penitentiary. It comes from the word penitence, meaning “regret for one’s actions” and refers to prisons, not jails. If you get confused about the usage of penitentiary vs. jail, think of one goal of a prison sentence: to feel regret for your actions, to reform, and to re-enter society having served your time.