The Difference Between Jail and Prison

Oftentimes, the words “jail” and “prison” are thrown around interchangeably among those with no direct experience in either. Even if you’ve never been incarcerated or had firsthand experience with the criminal justice system, making the distinction between these two types of facilities helps to better understand how crime is punished and what flaws remain in that system.

Generally, the main difference between jail and prison is how long the inmates stay there. Jail is where an incarcerated individual is sent for a short-term sentence, while prison is reserved for those who are in for an extended stay behind bars.

Prison often sounds like the more severe of the two entities because it’s the more serious offenses that lead to longer sentences. However, longer sentences shouldn’t be confused with a harsher experience.

Jails: Shorter Stays, Lower Budgets

A big reason why it’s so common that prisons soar above jails when it comes to the inmates’ quality of life is the fact that they’re almost always staying there for a much longer period of time. Since the prison staff knows that the majority of people are going to have an extended stay in their facility, it’s all the more important for them to see to the inmates’ needs as they arise, such as health concerns or psychological issues. If these needs are neglected over the course of months or years that a prisoner is being held, there’s a much greater chance of them building up into a more serious issue.

On the other hand, the shorter sentences that jail time generally entails make it easier for these systemic issues to be left unresolved. Even if there are serious problems with the way guards or other staff members are treating the inmates, they’re more likely to be swept under the rug since there’s not enough buildup for them to come to a head.

In part, these administrative oversights are sometimes due to the limited budgets that jails are expected to work with. Since people are held there temporarily, often while they’re awaiting a trial, they tend to receive minimal funding. Because of the fact that they’re mostly run by local government and law enforcement agencies, jails have to make do with the funds that are available.

Jail cells are usually less developed than prison cells in longer-term facilities. For inmates, their cell is obviously the place where they spend the majority of their time. Anything that might seem like a minor flaw in a sleeping quarter’s design will quickly turn into a major annoyance when you’re forced to spend hours and hours there, even for short sentences.

In addition to the disparity in cells or sleeping quarters, there’s oftentimes a stark disparity between the food and necessities at jails versus prisons. Everything from the quality of soap to recreational material to toilet paper is impacted by the funds that a facility has to work with.

Due to the tighter budgets, jails commonly have the cheapest food possible, which doesn’t lend itself to the most mouth-watering options. While eating an unappetizing meal may seem like a minor gripe for someone who has committed a crime, inadequate nutrition may lead to serious health problems that are especially dangerous for those who are already at risk.

In some cases, the conditions at a jail are so bad that inmates make claims of their rights being violated. At a certain point, poor conditions become inhumane and are enough to be considered cruel and unusual punishment. Unfortunately, these claims rarely ever lead to relocation to another facility, and the inmate is forced to continue out their sentence in the same environment.