What is the difference between jail and prison?
The difference between jail and prison is that in jail, inmates are usually only allowed to stay for a short period of time and are not serving any long-term sentences. Prisons are known to house prisoners who are awaiting trial or those who have been sentenced for very short periods of time, usually less than a year. People sentenced to serve an amount of time (less than a year) may be housed in the local jail for the duration of their sentence.
In prisons, inmates serve sentences for a longer period of time and are usually classified by their behavior and/or their crimes. Prisons are institutions under the jurisdiction of the state or federal government where convicted felons serve longer sentences. People who have broken federal laws are usually sent to federal prison.
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Is it ‘jail’ or ‘prison’?
There are many words in English with multiple meanings; with many of them, the intended meaning of a multisense word can be easily inferred from the context in which it is used. A good example of this is the word penitentiary, which can mean among other things either “a public institution in which lawbreakers are confined for detention or punishment” or “an officer in some Roman Catholic dioceses vested with the power of the bishop to deal with cases of nature is normally handled only by the bishop.” See if you can tell which one you mean in the two examples below.
although it can be fairly straightforward to know in what penitentiary sense it is being used which is made easier by the fact that religion is now very rare, other words have shades of meaning that are not always obviously discernible through context. prison and jail are excellent examples of this. Each word has a general and specific use, and it is not always easy to know which one is used.
‘Prison’ vs. ‘Jail’
we define prison as “a place of confinement, especially for lawbreakers”, and jail as “a place of confinement for legally detained persons”. Many people feel that there are specific uses for each of these words and that they should never be used interchangeably.
Those in favor of the semantic accuracy of these words will be happy to know that we include specific uses for each word. prison is “an institution such as a state jurisdiction for the confinement of persons convicted of serious crimes” and jail is “a place under the jurisdiction of a local government such as a county for the confinement of persons awaiting trial or convicted of misdemeanors”. If you are serving a sentence for a misdemeanor like stealing something of small value, or if you are awaiting trial, you will probably be in jail. If you are serving a sentence for a serious crime like murder, it will probably be in prison.
However, both jail and prison are very old words, both in use for over 700 years, and this distinction has not always been observed. In modern usage, the words are used interchangeably often enough that it’s hard to define either as always meaning a certain thing.
As evidence of this lack of distinctiveness, The New York Times, in a 1964 story, used jail in the headline and then used prison in the first sentence of the story.