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In everyday speech, the terms jail and prison are used interchangeably in many situations. However, my understanding is that, at least in the US, they actually refer to slightly different things. For instance, it appears to me that it would be rather unusual for an American to use the expression federal jail. He'd most probably say federal prison instead.

Am I right? What is the correct usage of jail vs prison? Are there any (historical or legal) differences between the US and the Commonwealth?

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I'm not a native English speaker but I have a feeling that prisons are big sercured facilities while jails are much smaller in size and capacity. Here in Australia, we have prisons, correctional and remand centres. never heard of federal jail or federal prison, even though we have federal police here. – Hamid Aug 19 '10 at 11:49
Oh, I forgot about Gaols. Don't know the difference though! – Hamid Aug 19 '10 at 11:57
most Americans would say Federal Penitentiary in all likelihood – mfg Aug 19 '10 at 18:10
@Hamid Gaol is the original English term for the American English "Jail"; That said, "Jail" is itself more common in the English language today. The terms come from the Medieval French "jaiole" and Old Norther French "gaiole". – Adam FG Nov 9 '10 at 15:14
As in all linguistic scenarios, this is an interesting confluence of ancient and modern thought. – ScotM Dec 27 '14 at 16:55

12 Answers 12

I consider "jail" to mean a temporary, local facility where suspects are held until and during trial. In general, you can get out of jail by paying a bail bond. "Prison" is where convicted felons are sent to serve their sentence.

Thus, there aren't a lot of federal jails--there's not much point to the local and federal governments having two jails in the same city--the feds just pay the locals for use of their jails.

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If that were true would the sentence "I went to jail for 12 years for armed aggravated assault" make sense? – mfg Aug 19 '10 at 15:25
@mfg -- Colloquially, there's no difference between jail and prison. Technically, that statement would mean that it was 12 years before the person was either convicted or released. – Ben Doom Aug 19 '10 at 17:31
@ben The "Technically" here, based not on my answer, but on the answers below seems to be anachronistic. Even if the denotation jail should mean temporary, it appears this word's etymology has branched. Here I would refer to what i mention below with respect to names like "Juvenile Hall", "Corrections Facility" and mention that for the purposes of clarity, denotation is not an apropos measure of the two words. – mfg Aug 19 '10 at 18:08
I would argue that the difference isn't archaic. Let's just say I've known a few people who have been to both jail and prison, and the people in them DEFINITELY know the difference. (See "pull the chain") – JohnFx Aug 19 '10 at 21:06
@mickeyf - They might not be English majors, but they know the jargon for incarceration. Trust me, even the most uneducated person in either place for any length of time knows the difference. – JohnFx Apr 16 '11 at 14:54

In the United States, jails are operated by cities and counties (or equivalent). Prisons are operated by states and the federal government. Jails are generally thought of as for short-term incarceration, such as before or during trial, or for minor crimes that result in a sentence of incarceration, usually of less than one year. Prisons are for long-term incarceration for major crimes.

However, even though there is a technical distinction in that every one of these institutions will have a name which is usually one or the other, jail is a generic term that can refer to prisons or any type of “correctional facility”.

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+1 for pointing out that jail can be a generic term that subsumes the meaning of prison. – Ilmari Karonen Apr 30 '13 at 19:56
As examples of @nohat♦'s answer: (1) I know many people who have "spent the night in jail" but I don't know any who has "spent the night in prison." (2) You can bail people out of jail, but you can't bail them out of prison (in the US). – miltonaut Dec 30 '14 at 11:48
@LittleEva thank you for your comments. Your point about administer vs. operate is well-taken, as is your point about prison vs. jail; though I would only respond that for any thing, it is always the case that distinctions are more important to people who deal directly with things than to people for whom they are often just abstract ideas. – nohat Jan 15 at 21:50

Jail is a municipal level, prison is on a state/federal/provincial/territory level.

You will not serve life in a jail, but you will in a prison, which is more for serious crimes.

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That seems like a real perception to the common man. Where does it come from? – ScotM Dec 27 '14 at 16:50

Jail is used much less commonly in the U.K. (in my experience at least), Prison is almost always used in its place.

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I wonder why that is the case... – ScotM Dec 27 '14 at 16:50

user5142 is correct that they are synonyms in British English use. I'll add that the same is true of Irish English use.

In official usage, both countries now tend to use prison.

Gaol and jail are both found, one is not a misspelling of the other, but both are close-cousins who came into English in the Middle English period from Norman and central French respectively. Jail has been increasingly in popularity over gaol in all forms of English for centuries, and is now far more often found.

The terms may be found in the names of given prisons though, in which case it is normally kept as it is in the name. Hence usually "Stirling Old Town Jail", very rarely "Stirling Old Town Gaol", and usually "Kilmainham Gaol", very rarely "Kilmainham Jail".

Official name changes may have an effect, so while we might speak proleptically of Oscar Wilde having been in HM Prison Reading, we are more likely to talk of his having been in Reading Gaol, as it was called at the time. (And of course, we'd only use that in terms of the famous poem). For a similar Irish example, Mountjoy Prison was once Mountjoy Gaol.

The modern official names are the form "HM Prison X" for British prisons, and most Irish prisons have the form "X Prison", but some don't have any such word in them. None in current use have Jail or Gaol in their names.

In colloquial use, some in Britain and Ireland will use jail for remand or short-term detention, and prison for those serving sentences, but this use is not universal, so each term can be found for each condition. Some will even use jail for police/garda custody, or the holding cells one would be in when in such custody, which does not match any official terms.

Historically, the distinction was not made as can be seen from the names of different places holding the same category of prisoner containing Jail in some cases, Gaol in others and Prison in yet others. This includes debtor's prisons/jails/gaols; a category of prison that no longer exists.

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The NOAD reports the following definitions:

jail /dʒeɪl/ ( British also gaol)
a place for the confinement of people accused or convicted of a crime: he spent 15 years in jail | [as adjective] a jail sentence.
- confinement in a jail: she was sentenced to three months' jail.

prison /ˈprɪzən/
a building (or vessel) to which people are legally committed as a punishment for crimes they have committed or while awaiting trial: he died in prison | both men were sent to prison.
- confinement in such a building: prison saves one man and hardens another.

From the description, I would understand that jail is a place for temporary confinement; from the given examples, it seems there isn't much difference in using one word or the other.

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it's odd how the dictionary would be inconsistent on the examples – mfg Aug 19 '10 at 15:24
@mfg: dictionaries do not capture what natives know and use consistently. – Mitch Apr 15 '11 at 0:29
I'm not sure the dictionary is inconsistent. In this case, it seems to capture the essence of the common man's usage. – ScotM Dec 27 '14 at 16:53

The terms are synonymous in British English.

I work in a prison where part of my training was in jail craft (Learning the sneaky ways prisoners will manipulate you).

The distinction between the US term jail and prison is made by referring to some prisons as local prisons — as opposed to longterm or training prisons.

And incidentally, the term inmate for prisoner is officially deprecated in the UK. Though it still gets used a lot in conversation.

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The terms are synonymous in American English. In British English jail is a common phonetic misspelling of gaol. – Keith Jan 15 '12 at 23:15
@Keith it's not a misspelling, the two forms came into Middle English at about the same time from the Normal gaiole and the French jaole. The pronunciation merged, but neither is a misspelling of the other. – Jon Hanna Jan 20 '13 at 16:19
The words share a lot of semantic ground. – ScotM Dec 27 '14 at 16:47

I would suggest theres only a contextual difference, but no inherent difference between the words in usage.

In common usage, "He went to jail" | "He went to prison" would carry the same meaning, stigma, weight. To suss out the sense I would bring up that with "jail term" | "prison term", the only way to make them interchangeable is to qualify them; as in 'i was put in jail last night.'

as a facility there are too many other words (ie correctional facility, rehabilitation center, etc) for there to be a clear cut difference between choosing just jail and prison. also, i would note that although there seems to be a difference in @robert 's answer, it hinges on the examples being qualified.

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There is flexibility in the use of words! – ScotM Dec 27 '14 at 16:46

Merriam Webster draws a strict contrast between the terms, specifically jail is for less serious crimes and prison for more serious crimes. The words also have lots of shared meaning, but insofar as you want to draw a distinction this is the distinction that can be drawn.

  • M-W Prison: a place of confinement especially for lawbreakers; specifically : an institution (as one under state jurisdiction) for confinement of persons convicted of serious crimes — compare jail

  • M-W Jail: a place of confinement for persons held in lawful custody; specifically : such a place under the jurisdiction of a local government (as a county) for the confinement of persons awaiting trial or those convicted of minor crimes — compare prison

Emphasis is added by me to draw out the point.)

I suspect though that these terms are pretty culturally dependent, and so you should really expect this to capture the American usage of the terms, given that that is the focus of M-W.

This distinction is also seen in Wiktionary:

  • Wiktionary: Prison: A place of long-term confinement for those convicted of serious crimes, or otherwise considered undesirable by the government.

  • Wiktionary: Jail: A place for the confinement of persons held in lawful custody or detention, especially for minor offenses or with reference to some future judicial proceeding.

(Note in both cases the emphasis is added by me to draw out the distinction.)

So insofar as they are not synonymous, the distinction, in the USA anyway, is with respect to the seriousness of the crime for which sentence is being served.

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The comparative notion of "jail" as a temporary, local facility with "Prison" as permanent distant facility seems to be a subtle implication developing toward a definitive distinction.

Short-term or long-term?

Most of the answers indicated that regardless of the institution's location, the length of expected stay influences the usage--jail for short-term, and prison for long term, but the OED does not necessarily support that distinction



A place for the confinement of people accused or convicted of a crime:

he spent 15 years in jail



A building to which people are legally committed as a punishment for a crime or while awaiting trial:

he died in prison

But there is a subtle distinction between the definitions of jail and prison: jail is defined as a place, while prison is defined as a building.

This distinction in the definition may arise from the etymology of the words.


late 13c., gayhol, from Old North French gaiole and Old French jaole, both meaning "a cage, prison," from Medieval Latin gabiola, from Late Latin caveola, diminutive of Latin cavea "cage, enclosure, stall, coop" (see cave (n.)). Both forms carried into Middle English; now pronounced "jail" however it is spelled. Persistence of Norman-derived gaol (preferred in Britain) is "chiefly due to statutory and official tradition" [OED].


early 12c., from Old French prisoun "captivity, imprisonment; prison; prisoner, captive" (11c., Modern French prison), altered (by influence of pris "taken;" see prize (n.2)) from earlier preson, from Vulgar Latin *presionem, from Latin prensionem (nominative prensio), shortening of prehensionem (nominative *prehensio) "a taking," noun of action from past participle stem of prehendere "to take" (see prehensile). "Captivity," hence by extension "a place for captives," the main modern sense.

If the meaning of cage and the word picture of cave prevail, jail would imply a smaller place, and by extension a less permanent place. Jail evokes the popular image of the barred cell in the sheriff's office in almost every western US town during the expansion of the 19th century. People may have spent short amounts of time in these jails for minor offenses, but if hardened criminals weren't executed on the spot, they were commonly remanded to state (and later federal) authorities for permanent punishment. The implication of this practice seems to prevail in the word jail.

"He spent the night in jail."

By contrast, the word prison is associated with fortified French prisons like the Bastille. The 20th century brought urbanization with increasing crime in the US, requiring more and stronger buildings that resembled the Bastille, and these buildings are called prisons regardless of their location. Federal and and state institutions are predominantly large fortified buildings and so prison dominates the expression at that level.

Local or Distant?

In general, prison is used about twice as frequently as jail in the US Ngram General, but a federal institution is rarely referred to as a federal jail It is called a federal prison or penitentiary, and the distinction has become more pronounced over time. In the federal context, prison is 44 times more common than jail, and jail is never an official designation. Ngram Federal

Likewise, for a state institution, state prison is 30 times more common than state jail Ngram State, and jail is rarely an official designation. Conversely a county institution is 30 times more likely to be called county jail than county prison. Ngram County Moving to local institutions, local jail is three times more common than local prison Ngram Local, with similar results for city and town institutions. The fact that the county level seems to buck this local-distant distinction, deserves some deeper investigation.

The local-distat distinction is pronounced, consistent over a century, and trending toward a tipping point for the definitions, but there is still sufficient overlap to recognize it as a matter of subtle inference or connotation. At the federal and state levels, prison has always dominated usage. At the county level jail has always dominated the usage. For local institutions (local, city, town), the usage curve of prison and jail tracked together until the turn of the 20th century, when the federal prison system was expanded significantly.

How much of this quantum shift is due to state and federal governments manipulating public perceptions? How much of this distinction is an intuitive understanding of our current justice system: distant facilities are bigger and more secure?

Professional Opinions

What do sheriffs have to say about this distinction What's the difference between jail and prison? offers an example:

Think short-term and long-term.

Jails are most often run by sheriffs and/or local governments and are designed to hold individuals awaiting trial or a serving short sentences (in Florida, inmates serving 364 days or less serve their time in jail).

Prisons are operated by state governments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and are designed to hold individuals convicted of crimes.

Jails operate work release programs, boot camps, and other specialized services. They try to address educational needs, substance abuse needs, and vocational needs while managing inmate behavior. Inmate idleness contributes to management problems.

State prison systems operate halfway houses, work release centers and community restitution centers - all considered medium or minimum custody. Inmates assigned to such facilities are usually reaching the end of their sentences.

There are approximately 3,600 jails in the United States. The BSO jail system is the 10th largest local jail system in the United States. It is one of only 3% of the local jails in the United States to have earned accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Corrections.

The Broward Sheriff's Office maintains five jails: the Main Jail, the North Broward Bureau, the Joseph V. Conte Facility, Paul Rein Detention Facility and the Stockade Facility. The number of beds in the entire system is nearly 4,800.

One would assume the Broward County Sheriff knows something about his legal system, and at least one lawyer confers on the Difference between Prison and Jail

Yes, there are definitely many differences between prison and jail. They are entirely different entities. Here are some of the differences that you’ll want to know about if it’s possible that you or a member of your family is facing the prospect of going to jail or to prison: Jails are locally operated places of incarceration — usually the county runs the jail. There are about 3,600 jails in the U.S.

Prisons are operated by the state government, or by the federal government (the federal Bureau of Prisons).

Since jails are within the county where the individual was arrested, the jail isn’t very far away.

A state or federal prison could be very far away from a convicted person’s home and family. There are only about 100 federal prisons, detention centers, and correctional institutions in the U.S.

A person who is being held in custody before a trial/has not yet paid bail/was only recently arrested will be held at a local jail, not in prison.

Jails are also a place for people who have been convicted of relatively minor crimes. A jail sentence rarely exceeds a year or two.


Although the words clearly share a semantic field, there are strong inferences and connotations that impact the perceived meaning of each word. They can be used interchangeably, but the context can easily suggest one meaning over the other.

"*He is going to *prison**," may say nothing about the length of his stay


"He's sitting in jail," may say nothing of the institution where he sits.

In his use of language, the common man frequently rejects professional opinion, but it seems quite clear that state and federal governments in the United States have drawn a real distinction between prison and jail. Eventually, the common man may concede to the brute force of the government's definition.

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Jail entered English in the late 1200s from the Old North French gaiole and Old French jaole, both meaning a cage, prison.

Prison (n.) entered English in the early 1100s from the Old French prisoun meaning captivity, imprisonment; prison; prisoner, captive.

In the USA, in almost all states, jail names a place run by a municipality for temporary lock up after arrests and for jailing as punishment for misdemeanors as misdemeanors carry sentences of up to one year.

Prison name a place run by the executive of a state's legislators as well as a place run by the executive of Congress. Prisons exist to incarcerate (jail, the verb) convicted felons, that is, those who have been convicted of crimes with punishments of at least one year and a day up through the remainder of one's life.

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You go to jail for up to a year, or if you are waiting for trial. You go to prison for over a year.

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In Canada, a jail will take you for for any period up to what is colloquially called "a deuce less" -- two years, less a day. Because of the transient nature of the jail population, there is little incentive for inmates to get along in any way, so people who think they're headed for "a deuce less" will often take the "might as well be hanged for a pound as a penny" approach to bump their sentence up to at least the two-year level. If you're serving "a solid deuce" or more, you get moved into a prison (penitentiary) where your neighbors will be around for a while. – bye Feb 23 '11 at 7:52
I don't understand what this answer is trying to say. – Matt E. Эллен Aug 22 '12 at 8:54

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