Jail vs Prison
What is the difference between jail and prison? The words ‘jail’ and ‘prison’ are sometimes used interchangeably between English speakers, for example you might hear: “Harry was just released from prison last week. I had no idea he was in jail!” However, there is a difference in the usage of the words ‘jail’ and ‘prison’ and to be better understood it is important to use them correctly.
The key to knowing which word to use is short-term versus long-term. Jails are most often run by local authorities, such as a sheriff of a town or county government. The purpose of a jail is to hold someone for a short period of time while they await their trial date or transportation to a prison once they are convicted. ‘Convicted’ means found guilty of a crime, and the time set by the court that a convicted person is to spend in jail or prison is a ‘sentence’.
A prison is run by a state, as in the U.S.A., or the main federal government. The word ‘penitentiary’ also can be used to refer to a federal prison. A person is sent to prison for their sentence of time after appearing in a court of law and being convicted of a serious crime. A serious crime might be something like stealing or murder. A person in prison is called a ‘prisoner’, but the word ‘inmate’ also may be used for a person in either a jail or prison.
There are some exceptions to convicted criminals being sent to a prison, such as for a short sentence. For example, in the state of Florida, U.S.A., a convicted person will serve their sentence in a jail if it is 364 days or less. In countries other than the U.S.A., the system may be different. For example in the U.K., jails are not normally used at all and in Canada, the jail system is run by the provincial governments.
Prisons and jails may also operate programs such as boot camps, substance abuse counseling and work release programs designed to help rehabilitate inmates. The goal is to prevent management difficulties while serving a sentence and address problems that may have contributed to the inmate committing a crime in the first place. Many times a person goes into these programs once they are near the end of their sentence to better prepare them to re-enter society. A prison inmate also may be put on parole, or given permission to leave prison before their sentence is over because they behaved well while in prison. This early release comes with conditions, such as staying in a certain area or checking in with a police officer frequently to be sure good behavior continues.
So in using the words, ‘jail’ or ‘prison’ be sure to understand the situation of the inmate. It is correct to say: “The police took the robber to jail and he will stay there until he is convicted of the crime.” And “The robber is now in prison serving his sentence of 10 years, but he may get out early on parole after 8 years.”