Jail and Prison

The definitions “jail” and “prison” are often used interchangeably on a common level. However, they are not the same. Jails and Prisons are both the law institutions and serve in the legal system. They are obviously having a number of similarities, but the entities are rather different in purpose. Hall (n.d.) states that “They both serve a significant purpose in maintaining the safety and well-being of a person, but in two very different ways”(n.p.) Jails aim in to serve as an institute of the local jurisdiction, hold facilities and assist transportation for the courts in order to complete procedure in a quick timeframe and bring the criminal to justice.

In 17th century appeared the first jails of temporary imprisonment in the U.S. They were established on an example a prison system of England. Ruddel (2010) states that “Like other elements of American criminal justice systems, the development of jails in the United States closely resembles those established in England. As a result, today’s local corrections systems have been shaped in large part, by decisions and arrangements made several centuries earlier” (p.6).Their purpose was to change the nature of confinement by instilling the principles of humble attitudes, work and isolation upon inmates. Some jails had large open glass-top ceiling spaces with to bring more light and to save money on electricity. In the 20th century the Great Depression became a reason for appearance of agricultural jails with huge territories of farms and plantations where prisoners had work. Later prisoner`s work start to be used in other areas, such as clearing forests, construction of bridges, public roads, etc. First jails included guard towers, high walls, cell blocks stacked in tiers, and massive steel and concrete buildings to ensure maximum security.

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The emergence of state prison system is dated by the early 18th century from Sing Sing state prison. Today it is one of the oldest state prisons in the U.S., and it is still functioning. The state prison system is a network of small penitentiaries. In 1930 president Hoover established a federal prison system. That date is considered to be the start point for actual federal facilities emergence. From the beginning it had been relying on the local and state levels of law and government. As the U.S. population continued to rise it caused the growth of the federal prison system. Today the political criminals and drug sellers are the main type of prisoners in the federal penitentiaries.

Jails and Prisons both are institutions of the law and offer similar services such as freedom restriction, rehabilitation programs and medical treatment. However, these correctional facilities are rather different in budget and some other aspects. Various types of penitentiary institutions have different levels of security like minimum, medium and high security level. Jails have the lowest level. According to McMahon (2013) “Individuals who are being housed in a jail have access to bathrooms and are provided with food and water, and in a low security jail, they may be able to socialize in common areas during certain periods of the day” (n.p.). The state prisons have the highest level of security. Jail is a detention institution for persons suspected or convicted of a crime. Prison is an institution for offenders accused in serious crimes such as bank robbery, racketeering of terrorism for their long-term imprisonment. Thus, the main difference between these institutions is that jail inmates are awaiting trial or transport to the state prison while prison inmates have been already tried and convicted of crimes. Jails are under the jurisdiction of the county or city laws while the prisons are under federal or state laws. Jail limits freedom for a period from two days up to one year. In prison it lasts from a year and further. Green (2012) states that “Prisons are state-run facilities administered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). They’re generally intended to house more serious and violent offenders whose sentences are generally over a year” (n.p.). The data applies to the territory of the U.S only. In most cases jails are ruled by local governments or sheriffs. Federal Prisons are governing by BOP (Federal Bureau of Prisons). Jail system includes boot camps, work release programs and other specialized services. Their aim is to manage inmate behavior by substance abuse needs, address educational needs, and vocational needs. State prison system includes work release centers, halfway houses and community restitution centers for medium or maximum period of custody.

The growth in jails, state prisons, and federal prisons are caused by such factors:

  • Poverty increases prison population. Demographic groups with high poverty rate are more inclined in commission of crimes. In addition, in case if a person has been jailed once, he/she is defined as third class citizens by most employers. This fact limits an opportunity to stop the cycle of poverty after releasing. It applies more on African-Americans that other racial groups.
  • Juvenile justice became a reason that young people being tried as adults for most types of crimes. In order to youth offenders got harshly punishment the majority of laws has been changed. That event altered the structure of sentencing and accordingly increased population in prisons due to the fact that more young people got into the penitentiary for minor crimes.
  • Women incarceration. Another factor is female being imprisoned or jailed. Female imprisonment increased almost 10 times more in the timeframe between 1977 and 2004. Most widespread woman traits are mental problems such as depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and anger or a primarily drug addiction.
  • The drug problem. During the last decade the total number of persons admitted for drug offenses in state prisons has exceeded the number of people imprisoned for property or violent crimes.
  • Other commonly known factors including violence on television and in the movies, truth-in-sentencing laws, and a general reduce of morality in the society. Thus, the nation has become more punitive and cruel in general.

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To summarize all above the jail and state prison system and the federal prison system have the same purpose which is keeping people who are convicted and accused by law of the U.S. incarcerated and away from the society. The main difference between jail and prison is in security level and governance. If a jail is a place for temporary detentions for minor crimes, the prison is for the people who are convicted in serious offences and violent crimes. Since the very beginning of a federal penitentiary system the growth of the prison population has been a constantly rising issue. The main reasons for this are high poverty rate, women imprisonment, the implementation of juvenile justice and total reduce of morality and moral values in the society. The states have to spend millions of dollars to provide food, staff, salaries and other items for the prison system. Jail and prison total population are now about 3 millions of men and women. Nowadays, due to the situation of rising crime rate in the U.S. we can claim that there would be further growth of federal prison system.


Green, M. (2012, August 17). Realignment Explained (including the difference between prison and jail). In The Lowdown. Retrieved November 14, 2013
Hall, D. (n.d.). Jails vs. Prisons. In American Correctional Association. Retrieved November 14, 2013
McMahon, M. (2013, November 7). What is the Difference Between a Jail and a Prison? In Wisegeek. Retrieved November 14, 2013
Ruddell, R. (Ed.). (2010). American Jails: A Retrospective Examination. Richmond, Kentucky: Newgate Press.

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