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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
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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
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@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
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9 Answers

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
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@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
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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
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@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
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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
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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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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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The NOAD reports the following definitions:

jail /dʒeɪl/ ( British also gaol)
noun
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/
noun
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
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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
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@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
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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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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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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
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I don't understand what this answer is trying to say. –  Matt Эллен Aug 22 '12 at 8:54
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