is there a difference between prison and jail ?

I seams to remember reading somewhere that prison is for more serious crimes while jail is for minor crimes

is this correct?

In Wisconsin jails are run by the county, the County Sheriff being the authority. Prisons are run by the state, the Dept of Corrections being the authority. Jails are for misdemeanors (Sentences a year or less), Prisons are for felonies (Sentences over a year). Just a fun fact to know and forget, if for some reason a sheriff were to be incarcerated in his own jail, the keeperof the jail becomes…drum roll please, not the Chief deputy, but the Coroner. Go figure. I am sure other states vary quite a bit.

There’s no difference between the two in Britain. In official contexts, they’re all prisons, run by the HM Prison Service. In normal parlance, the two words are synonymous.

In the U.S., jails tend to be holding facilities while prisons are for serving out sentences after conviction. For instance, if someone gets arrested for attempted murder, they will be taken to the town or county jail until they can post bail. If they are found guilty at trial, they will be sent to prison to serve out a sentence. Many jails are small and located in police stations. They don’t have the services to hold someone for a long amount of time. I am sure someone will be along to post exceptions to all of this.

Quite the oppositie Shagnasty, not here to contradict you, but to thank you for pointing out jails are also holding cells for those awaiting trial. A point I forgot to address in my previous reply.

I agree, although I’m sure there are exceptions. It’s generally true throughout the U.S. that, like Wisconsin, jails are run by the city or county while prisons are institutions of state government.


As with so many things, Texas is a little different. Here we have city and county jails, run by local police departments or the sheriff’s office. We also have prisons, which are for folks convicted of felonies.

But in between the two, we have “state jail” facilities. In Texas, there is a class of offense between the Class A Misdemeanor (up to 1 year in jail) and the third degree felony (two to ten years in prison), which is called a “state jail felony”. State jail felonies are punished by between six months and two years in a state jail facility. And, state jail felonies have their own enhancement scheme for subsequent offenses.

Normally, jails house misdemeanor convicts and arrestees awaiting trial. Additionally, when state prisoners are brought in for hearings or appeals, they can be housed in a county jail so as to be near the courthouse. Additionally, I think you can be arrested and held as a material witness, even though you are not being accused or suspected of the crime, in order to ensure your appearance at trial.

California’s penal code says, or used to say, that these various types of detainees should be kept segregated, but I don’t know if that’s actually the case.

Actually, Shagnasty is not so much wrong as guilty of improper generalizing. What he says is true for some states, where the jail is merely for accused/arrested but not yet convicted persons, either held without bail or not (or not yet) able to post bail. In other states, it serves both that purpose and the place where persons guilty of lesser crimes (or at least with lesser sentences) serve them out. North Carolina falls in the first group, New York in the second.

The key point in New York is that a sentence to jail must be for a year or less, and sentences served consecutively must be for no more than two years less a day in total, that period being the longest any person can be incarcerated in a county (or regional) jail without a break in sentence.

I neglected to mention that in New York at least, it is the form of sentence and not the severity of charged offense that determines the result. If someone is convicted of a class E felony, with a potential three or four year sentence, but is sentenced only to a year in jail, that is a year in jail, not a year in prison.

One other note. In jail, you still have people who have not actually been convicted of a crime (at least in Wisconsin, it is so, usually). That’s why people in jail still must be allowed to vote if they are just being held prior to trial.

In prison however, everyone there should technically have been found guilty by a court of law.

Prisons also have programs for rehabilitation, anger management, alcohol and drug treatment, psychiatric caire, and other things that try to address the underlying criminality. Jails in my area generally don’t have these things.

Here’s my understanding:

Local Town Police Station = Lock-up
County Holding Facility = Jail (can stay for up to one year)
State or Federal Facility = Prison

By the way, being a “good” inmate in a prison system generally results in a much more pleasant lifestyle than being a “good” inmate in a jail.
I believe there are statutes related to what you have to be provided by the authorities that apply to prisons that DO NOT apply to jails.

As far as I know Mr. Slant you are quite correct, two different systems, different sets of rules.