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Prison vs. Jail: What’s the Difference? 

 June 1, 2022

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Did you know that people go to jail over 10 million times each year? In contrast, people go to prison 600,000 times each year. But what’s the difference between prison and jail anyway?

If you’ve always thought they were the same thing, you’re not alone. Many people use the two words independently.

Let’s talk about the difference between prison vs jail so you can stay informed. Read on to learn more.

What Is Jail?

While many people use “going to jail” to mean “going to prison,” this isn’t the case. While colloquially, people will understand what you mean, jail is far less “serious” than prison in most cases.

Jail is a short-term holding facility. It’s where people go after they’re arrested. If someone goes to jail, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re guilty of a crime. Most people in jail haven’t yet been to court.

You can get out of jail if you’re only there for holding purposes. While it’s uncommon for someone to visit jail just to see someone, it is common for someone to visit jail to post bail.

Bail is what allows someone to get out of jail on the promise that they will return for their court date. Again, this doesn’t mean that the person is guilty of a crime.

If someone is unable to post bail, they may be in jail until their court date. 

In some uncommon cases, people remain in jail for up to a year. This is only if they’re identified as guilty. Sentences below a year are still considered short-term and not worthy of legitimate prison time. 

What Is Prison?

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Prisons are state or federal facilities. If someone is in prison, it means that they’ve been found guilty of a crime and received sentencing. People who break state laws tend to go to state prisons, while people who break federal laws tend to go to federal prisons, though this isn’t always the case and may vary depending on the severity of the crime. 

Many states have privately-owned prisons, which often come under scrutiny. The state has very little control over how these prisons are run and they may be guilty of unfair or cruel practices (and all inmates have the right against these things, but unfortunately many are able to get proper representation to change their situations). 

Prisons tend to have more stability and more available programs for prisoners. They may offer education programs, leisure activities, and exercise options, though not all inmates will have access to these things. 

Friends and family members are able to look up inmate information if they’re unsure where their loved one is being held.

Prison vs Jail: They’re Not the Same

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The differences between prison vs jail are larger than you’d think! 

Remember: jail tends to be for people who haven’t yet been convicted of a crime or for people who have been sentenced to less than a year of imprisonment. 

Prison is for longer-term sentences for people who have been ruled guilty of a crime.

For more helpful answers to your most asked questions, visit the rest of the site. 

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