Criminal Law

Is There any Difference Between Being Sent to Jail and Prison?

By Janet Portman, Attorney
Jail and prison very different kinds of incarceration.

There’s a big difference, in terms of time spent and living conditions (and the nature of your fellow inmates). Here are some specifics:

  • Who is the landlord? Jails are operated by local governments, whereas a prison is part of a state-wide system.
  • Who are the inmates? Jails house people who are awaiting trial and have not posted bail. They also house people convicted of misdemeanors, and sometimes felons who have been given a short stay in the local jail and a period of probation.
  • How long do the inmates stay? In most states, jail inmates who have been convicted of misdemeanors stay no more than a year (Iowa is a noted exception; misdemeanants can receive up to two years’ jail time). By contrast, state prisons accommodate sentences of up to life in prison.
  • How do jail and prison differ in inmate experience? Jails are full of relatively short-term residents, with a constantly changing roster of inmates, whereas a prison consists of a more stable population. The stresses associated with each are accordingly different: Some jail residents have never been incarcerated and are bewildered and confused; prison inmates who are inside for a number of years are at least used to their surroundings.
Go to Sentencing, Parole, and Probation FAQ.

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