Many people use the terms prison and jail interchangeably in everyday life. This probably stems from crime shows such as Law and Order and NCIS that do the same thing. These terms refer to similar things, which is another reason why people will oftentimes confuse them. However, jail and prison actually refer to different places. You could go to these places based on different crimes that you might commit. If you are charged with a misdemeanor, you might be sentenced to do time in one. On the other hand, more serious crimes lead to incarceration in the other. To learn more about this distinction, and how it applies to your case, read on.
The biggest difference between a jail sentence and a prison sentence is the amount of time spent in each. One deals primarily with short-term sentences and the other with long-term ones. Jails are the places that you will go if you are serving a short-term sentence. Local government agencies or sheriffs oftentimes run jails. If you are awaiting your bail hearing, or if you could not post bail and are waiting for your trial, you will be held in a jail. If you are serving a short sentence, most times a year or shorter, you could serve the sentence in a jail. Jails offer specialized services such as boot camps and work release programs. The educational, behavioral, substance abuse, and vocational problems that jail inmates have are addressed in jails.
On the other hand, there are prisons. Prisons are meant to hold inmates who have committed more serious crimes. Usually, these people have been sentenced for longer periods of time. Unlike jails, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and other government agencies operate prisons. Because they incarcerate people who have committed serious crimes, prisons are generally more rigid than jails are. However, there are medium or minimum custody options for some inmates who are approaching the end of their sentences in prisons. For example, these inmates can partake in work release centers, halfway houses, or community restitution centers that are operated by the prisons.
While jails and prisons are similar in their basic concepts – detaining prisoners – they are different in many ways. Some of the main differences, as outlined here, are the level of security and the time that the prisoner will serve. For short-term sentences or when people are being held in jail for short periods of time (awaiting trial, awaiting bail hearing, etc.), that person will be held in a jail. For sentences lasting for more than one year, the person serving the sentence will do so in a prison. If you are still unsure where you might serve time, or if you are looking for more information about the criminal process, you can contact an attorney.