JPay Blog

Comparing and Contrasting Local Jail and State or Federal Prison

People always want to know if there is a difference between jail and prison besides nomenclature. The answer is a definitive yes. They are completely different units, and must be regarded as such, especially in a situation where you or a loved one must go to jail or prison.
Jails are run by the county and serve as locally-operated holding places, usually for brief periods of incarceration or as a detention place before and during trial and other legal matters. For example, someone convicted of a misdemeanor would be jail, if the sentence were less than a year or two. Someone being held in custody for trail, or because they couldn’t afford bail, or because they were just arrested will be held in the county jail, not prison. As such, jails are impermanent residences, and lack many of the amenities and programs that the large prisons have. Jails are usually run by the sheriff or the local government. There are approximately 3,600 jails in the United States.
Prisons, on the other hand, are federally or state-run, and are generally much larger and much more high-security. Inmates convicted of federal felonies go to federal prison, and those convicted of state felonies go to state prison. Prisons often have very elaborate education and vocational training programs, halfway house service, work-release programs, and recreational and entertainment facilities. Many of the men (usually they are men) in prison will be there for the rest of their lives.
In practical terms, there is no way to know which sentence would be ‘better’- some prisons are much more comfortable than a county jail, and some are much worse. But there are also differences in parole rules after incarceration for the two institutions.