Talking terminology: jail vs. prison

I’m not a peevish woman, not really. But I do have a few peeves—not pet peeves, exactly; dogs and cats make much nicer pets. But there are a few common errors in terminology, on the nightly news and in novels, that get my dander up.

And one of those is jail vs. prison. Both are secure structures holding more people than they were built for. They are both stark and noisy, warm enough but physically chilly. They are not nice places, nor are they meant to be.

OldMTPrisonHere’s the difference: Jails are, for the most part, facilities housing two kinds of people: those accused of a crime and awaiting trial, or those who have already been convicted of a misdemeanor and are serving their time. They are run by counties or municipalities, although in smaller communities, the towns and cities may have nothing more than a holding tank and contract with the county to house their inmates. When the sheriff of a large Montana county retired and became chief of police in a small town 75 miles away, he could be heard cheering loudly “I don’t have a jail! I don’t have a jail!”

Prisons, in contrast, are state and federal facilities housing persons convicted of felonies, violent or otherwise. A few states have licensed privately-run prisons. Like the federal system, a state may have several levels of prisons, housing maximum security inmates in one location, medium in another, and low risk in yet another. Many states have separate prisons for women.

Two exceptions I’ve seen: A state facing particularly serious over-crowding may contract with a county that has empty beds for temporary housing for low or medium risk inmates. As well, the federal marshal’s system often contracts with counties to house defendants pending trial, or between conviction and transfer to a federal prison.

Check your jurisdiction for particulars, but know the basic differences.

(Photo of Old Montana Prison from the Montana State Archives.)

2 thoughts on “Talking terminology: jail vs. prison

  1. The terminology and uses aren’t quite that simple. In this area of Pennsylvania, they tend to name the county lockups prisons, as the Adams County Prison (I’ve worked there) or the York County prison. Nearby, in Maryland, they tend to call them Detention Centers, as in the Federick County Detention Center, or the Carroll County Adult Detention Center. I’ve worked in both of them, too. To make thing understandable, most people call them “The county lockup.”

    In both areas, the deciding factor on whether you get sent “to the state” after conviction isn’t whether it’s a felony or a misdemeanor, but the length of time to be served. 2 years or less, county lockup. More, state. Sometimes people are sentenced to something like “15 years, all but 18 months suspended” and that will leave them in the county lockup, despite the felony conviction. This is especially likely to happen when someone has a steady job and would lose it if he or she were not permitted to be on work release. Since the county will charge a fairly substantial room & board, it helps the budget. And someone who’s picked up 10 years on a misdemeanor will be sent to the state.

    Some states call their prisons something else, like Correctional Institutions. Maryland’s largest is called the Maryland Correctional Training Center, while it is a real medium security prison, it houses the youthful offender program and has a high school. Anyone 18 or under who has not graduated from high school is required to attend school (and paid $1 a day–it’s their institutional job) or up to 21 if they are special education. Older inmates can take classes & work for a GED when there’s room, although I don’t know how they are handling the new, computer based GED program that took effect in January. (I worked there, too.)

    Sometimes someone will be transferred to a state prison for security reasons (usually gang affiliations) or out of concerns for how they will be treated if, for instance, they have assaulted a correctional officer in the county facility, or killed a local law enforcement officer. They don’t like to do that, since the transportation back for court is a royal pain and very expensive, but it is done.

    And then there are the facilities, mostly county, that rent space to Immigration. They see it as a money-making proposition.

    • Thanks, Kathleen. Writers, note that you should always check the terminology and structure of the system in your story state. Kathleen mentions the term “corrections.” Some states call the agency that manages state prisons “the Department of Corrections,” while others use different terms. I didn’t mention transitional programs, sometimes called half-way houses, or juveniles facilities — two more areas where terminology varies widely.

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