The Legal Differences Between Prison And Jail

The terms jail and prison are more often than not used interchangeably, where people use jail to mean prison or prison to mean jail. However, there is a distinction between the two and it is important to acquaint yourself of the meaning of both terms, at least from a legal standpoint. Herein, we will explore the differences between jail and prison, just to clarify the explicit meaning of each of these terms.


One of the main distinguishing characterizations of a jail is the governing body charged running such as facility. Jails are typically run by city or county governments. Therefore, they tend to lock up a few number of people typically on a short-term basis.

Additionally, aside from the operating body, jails are also defined by the offenders they lock up. Typically, jails are used to lock up individuals sentenced to a jail term of less than a year. Such individuals are usually charged for misdemeanors criminal offenses. However, jails are also used to lock up arrested individuals waiting for trial, sentencing, plea agreements, or on transfer to another facility. In this regard, they are known as detention centers.


In using the bodies that the prisons and the sentence period to differentiate between jails and prison, you should note that prisons are usually run at the state level or at the federal level. Prisons are thus secure facilities run by the state or the federal government by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

They are particularly developed for individuals convicted of committing felony offenses. Therefore, more often than not, they are sentenced to jail terms of more than a year, since their crimes are considered by law as serious crimes.

Prisons are also called penitentiaries. In this regard, one should use the term ‘penitentiary’ as a synonym of prison instead of using jail as a synonym for prison.