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Jails vs. Prisons

Updated on November 27, 2012

Private Prisons 1

Private Prisons 2

by Amber Maccione

A Side by Side Look at Jails and Prisons

When I was in high school, they still had that scared straight field trip that all tenth graders went on when they took their Life Skills class. Tenth grade was the first time that I got to get an understanding of the difference between what a jail was and what a prison was. In my county, the jail was right next to the prison. The main difference between the two that was explained to us was the length of time an inmate was there and the way they were housed. Through reading Corrections: An Introduction by Seiter, I have learned that there is much more than that that separates a jail from a prison such as security, funding, and the set up of the facility.

The purpose of both a jail and a prison is to help individuals reenter the world as productive citizens leaving the life of crime in their past (Hall). The difference though that Hall does well to explain is like comparing the emergency room to the nursing home. A jail is much like the emergency room where you have various people from various walks of life coming in with various problems. It is your job to gather as much information about that individual in regards to physical and mental health so that you can not only protect yourself but also the lives of others that are in the facility. That is what jail is. It is critical the first few hours as you process everyone that comes through booking. There is more drama and various unknown variables that jail personnel have to deal with in a rather quick way. Jails have to be innovative and flexible as they deal with a higher volume of people and have a greater turnover rate of inmates (Hall).

Prisons on the other hand are much like nursing homes. They take in individuals that have been convicted and gone through one processing already. Therefore, intake doesn’t have to be so quick because they have information on the inmate already and the inmates are already in stable conditions (Hall). Inmates in prison serve their sentence there and stay a lot longer than those in jail. The turnover is less than that of a jail. For example, if a prison has 1,000 beds they turn over only 750 of those beds in a year giving them an average of 1,750 inmates in a year; whereas if a jail has 1,000 beds, they turn all their beds over at least 36 times before the year is out giving them an average of 36,000 inmates in a year (Hall).

Jails house inmates that are awaiting trial or have been sentenced to a year or less (Seiter 2011 p. 73). Prisons on the other hand house convicted felons who have been sentenced to over a year (Seiter 2011 p. 138). The average stay in a jail is 15 to 20 days where as in a prison it is three years (Seiter 2011 p. 78).

Because of the quick turnover in jails, they offer limited programs. Normal routines in a jail consist of hanging out in the common areas where they eat, watch T.V., and play cards (Seiter 2011 p. 80). Inmates can also work if they choose, but it is volunteer based instead of mandatory as in a prison (Seiter 2011 p. 80). Prisons on the other hand have to be structured and keep the inmates busy so that they can maintain control (Seiter 2011 p. 140). Prisons normally keep the inmates in their cells for eight hours (unless inmates are in maximum security where they are kept for 23 hours with an hour in the rec. yard, usually in a cage). With the other 16 hours, inmates go to work, participate in programs like vocational and educational, exercise in the rec. yard, and go to treatment programs after dinner (Seiter 2011 p. 141).

As stated in my previous paragraph, inmates in a maximum security prison or maximum area of the prison, they are kept behind bars a lot longer than those that aren’t a security risk. Prisons are made to be secure and to have different levels of security. When admitted into a prison, inmates are interviewed and paperwork is looked at to decide their risk and what type of security is needed. Prisons are labeled by their type of security such as minimum, medium, high, maximum, or multiple. The higher the risk the individual is the more security is needed (Seiter 2011 p. 151, 157-159, 228-229). Jails on the other hand house inmates based of the information gathered about the inmates’ criminal history and personal characteristics. Unfortunately, due to the high turnover rate, this process suffers and you sometimes have low risk inmates sharing a cell with high risk inmates (Seiter 2011 p. 81-82).

Most jails are operated and funded through the county government. Depending on the area they serve, depends on the size of the facility. Some are rather large because they serve in a metropolitan area serving the city and the county. Others are small because they are in rural areas and serve a town (Seiter 2011 p. 74). Because of the economy and government budget cuts, regional jails have popped up. These jails serve multiple counties or cities and share the cost to build and run them (Seiter 2011 p. 74). Prisons on the other hand are now facing a difficult decision because of the increase of offenders being sentenced to them. Some prisons are run by the government and others are contracted through the government by having private corporations run them in order to save on cost (PBS Private Prisons 1 & 2 2009).

As you can see, jails and prisons have the same purpose in that they are holding offenders of the law and providing opportunities for the offenders to rehabilitate themselves. But you can also see that the function in very different ways in order to fill a need at different ends of the spectrum within our criminal justice field. As Hall put it, remember it as jails are to emergency rooms as prisons are to nursing homes. Understanding it that way, helps to understand the way each is run and why each needs to be run differently.


(2009, June 19). PBS on private prisons 1 [Video file]. Retrieved from

(2009, June 19). PBS on private prisons 2 [Video file]. Retrieved from

Hall, D. “Jails v. Prisons.” Retrieved from

Seiter, R. (2011). Corrections: An introduction (3rd ed.). Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Copyright © 2012


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