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Jail vs. Prison: know the difference

Many people often use the terms “jail” and “prison” interchangeably. It is a common misconception that the two words mean precisely the same thing. In reality, jails and prisons serve similar purposes, but are different facilities.

Jails refer to local facilities within city and town jurisdictions. Jail sentences are usually short, lasting less than a year. Jails act as short-term holding facilities used for new arrests and those awaiting trial. Arrested citizens who cannot afford bail, spend time in jail until after a trial. Because of their transient nature, jails have a higher inflow and outflow of offenders. Most jailed offenders spend most of their time in cells. Jails are also often co-ed, with men and women housed in cells next to one another.

Time spent in jail leading to a conviction counts towards the total prison time. For example, if an offender who spent a year in jail waiting trial is convicted to a three-year prison sentence, he is required to serve two years in prison with credit for the year he spent in jail.

Prisons are under state or federal jurisdiction. People who have been convicted of breaking a state law are sent to a state prison. People who have been convicted of breaking a federal law, including capital murder, are sentenced to a federal prison. Prisons are segregated by gender and they often provide opportunities for education and recreation, activities that aren’t provided in jails. These activities allow inmates to pursue obtaining a GEDs, workout, take college and extracurricular classes, and, at some facilities hold jobs.

Both jails and prisons allow family visitation. These visitations are found to be critical to the mental health and wellbeing of both the offender and their families.


Erin Leonard is a writer in the North Carolina Community Action Association’s Communications Fellows Program. NCCAA Communications Fellows are students or recent graduates pursuing a career in communications, graphic design, IT, public policy or a related field. They receive a stipend for their participation in the program. For more information on the NCCAA Communications Fellows Program, please contact Yvette Ruffin,, director of the NCCAA Communications Fellows Program.

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