Jail vs. Prison: What’s the Difference?

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prison building exterior
Jail and prison are often used interchangeably, but there's a difference between these two inmate holding places.
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Disclaimer: The below is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.

When you hear the words “jail” and “prison,” you might think that they are the same thing. While these terms are often used interchangeably to describe a holding place for someone who’s been arrested, there is a difference between the two.

Jail Versus Prison

Jails are typically run by local law enforcement or government agencies. These cells are typically reserved as a temporary holding place for individuals who are awaiting trial or have been arrested for a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor is considered a smaller, less serious crime, such as shoplifting, disorderly conduct, or vandalism. People in jail are often serving short-term sentences of less than a year.

Prisons are operated by state government or the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), and hold inmates who have committed felonies and more serious crimes that require long-term sentences. Felonies include charges such as murder, sexual assault, arson, illegal drug sales, and grand theft.

There are different security levels of prisons (minimum, medium, maximum, or solitary confinement), depending on the severity of an inmate’s crime. Prisons may also offer programs for those nearing the end of their sentence, such as halfway houses or work release.

Conditions and Rights in Jails and Prisons

Because prisons are equipped for long-term incarceration, budgets, facilities, programs, and living conditions are often better there than in jails. Jails, on the other hand, may experience budget shortages and have less-developed facilities since they are designed for short-term and transient populations.

In either facility, the inmate typically has visitation privileges and some basic prisoner rights. These may include the right to be treated humanely without “cruel or unusual punishment” or discrimination, as well as the right of access to the court system and medical care. However, unlike jail inmates, prisoners may lose some civil liberties, such as the right to vote, serve on a jury, or hold public office.

How Do I Find Out If Someone I Know May Have Been Arrested?

If you haven’t heard from a friend or family member in a while, and you have your suspicions that they may have been arrested, there are many ways to find out if they’re in jail or prison. While this likely isn’t the conclusion you’d like to make, it’s important to know if your loved one may be behind bars.

Run a background check.

Your first step in discovering whether a person you know may have a criminal history is running a background check on them. Here you’ll be able to find any existing arrest records associated with that person’s first and last name.

Check county, state, and federal websites for arrest records.

If you find an arrest record matching your loved one’s name, you’ll want to investigate further to confirm it’s really them, and not just someone with the same name. Local county websites tend to regularly update their arrest records, including mugshots. If you can’t find your friend or family member on a county website, you might want to consider searching state and federal sites, as the person you know could be in a prison rather than a jail.

Keep in mind, however, that inmates in prisons rather than jails are typically serving time for more serious crimes. If you can confirm that your friend or family member is indeed in prison, this information may inform your decision about what you may be able to expect and how to best help that person in the future.

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