The Difference Between Jail and Prison


I have spent the last month conducting research for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that seeks to improve our systems of democracy and justice, investigating the different types of fees that jails are permitted to levy on inmates. Even though I felt well versed enough in our criminal justice system to take on the role of a research intern, I was slightly embarrassed about the first question I had: What is the difference between a jail and a prison?

Pretty soon it became evident that I was not the only person unclear about this distinction. As I continued my research, I found that even top-tier news organizations from Time to NBC used the terms “prison” and “jail” interchangeably. Not only was this concerning to me, but it occasionally impeded my access to important information specifically regarding jails.

So, after a little bit of Google-ing and a whole lot of reading, I happened upon the clearest definition provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a branch of the United States Department of Justice: “Jails are locally-operated short term facilities that hold both inmates awaiting trial or sentencing or both, and those sentenced to a term of less than 1 year, typically misdemeanants. Prisons are longer-term facilities run by the state or the federal government typically holding felons and persons with sentences of more than one year.” In short, an individual can be held in jail without being convicted of a crime, whereas a prison only holds convicted felons.

Now for the million-dollar question: Why should you care?

Besides becoming more knowledgeable about the daily workings of our criminal justice system, there are a few important reasons why you might want to familiarize yourself with the distinctions between jails and prisons. Currently, 39 states have legislation that allows jails to levy fees on inmates. These fees are often steep and leave jail inmates with piles of debt.

To put things further into perspective, a jail in Riverside County, California has a pay-to-stay program that charges $142.42 per day; just fifteen minutes down the road, a one-night stay at a Hampton Inn hotel costs $92. Further north in Klamath, Oregon a night in the county jail costs $60 in room-and-board fees. Awaiting trial can take months, but even if incarcerated for only a week, an inmate at Klamath County Jail could be paying upwards of $400. This sum does not even begin to cover other extraneous charges, which range from basic hygiene provisions to telephone usage. And all of this can happen before a person has even been convicted of the crime.

The exorbitant fees that jail inmates are saddled with perpetuate recidivism and create barriers to reentering society. In order to begin resolving this issue, state legislatures must consider the negative impact that these fees can have. The truth of the matter is that these debts are not only being forced upon inmates, but also upon the inmates’ innocent families and friends. Here are some statistics that might surprise you about jail incarceration:

  • 15 states permit daily room-and-board fees in jails.
  • 73% of jail inmates have been previously sentenced to parole or incarcerated.
  • Criminal justice experts estimate that at least 80% of individuals in jail are indigent.
  • Nine million jail inmates account for approximately 12 million admissions and releases each year.

The logic that most sheriffs and county and state officials follow when imposing fees is that tax-paying, law-abiding citizens should not be paying for those who commit crimes. Not only is this the rationale of policy makers, it has also become a prominent platform for local politicians’ election campaigns. In reality, however, county jails almost always spend more money on hiring collection agencies than they ever get back from former or current inmates; meaning, the taxpayers’ money is really going to waste.

For example, an American Civil Liberties Union report shows that in Fairfield County, Ohio the jail was charging inmates anywhere from $5 to $60 per day depending on the individual’s income. If the fees remained unpaid for 90 days or longer after an inmate’s release, they were turned over to a collection agency. The program, which was implemented in 2003, was so ineffective that it was eventually suspended altogether in 2012. That same ACLU report shows that only about 15% of pay-to-stay fees were collected from 2008-2011, and that the program actually caused a $39 per month decrease in revenue. This result is consistent with the majority of other findings about county jails with pay-to-stay policies.

Pat Nolan, a lawyer and former California State Assembly member, perhaps puts it best when it comes to the issue: “Inmates must earn real wages in order to have income worth tapping for fees. You can’t get blood from a turnip, and extracting fees from inmates who earn a few cents an hour is unproductive.”

Although a presumption of innocence is legally required in the United States, it seems to be ignored in our criminal justice system today from a monetary viewpoint; state legislatures do not seem to be too concerned when it comes to putting a dent in the wallets of these so-called innocent-until-proven-guilty inmates.

“There are people who have the means and who get into trouble with the law. Why should the citizens of this county with other struggles be forced to pay for that? The Lindsay Lohans of the world can certainly pay for it themselves,” said Jeff Stone, a Riverside County, CA Supervisor. What Mr. Stone fails to note is that those who can afford bail often dodge these jail fees, inevitably leaving behind an incredibly poor population of jail inmates, not the “Lindsay Lohans of the world.”

For inmates that are affected by legislation permitting jail fees, the repercussions extend long past their time spent behind bars. Not only do these types of fines limit economic mobility, they force those who find trouble with employment post-release, which happens frequently, to potentially turn to illegal measures simply to put food on the table. Thus, a never-ending cycle of poverty and criminal behavior forms. Emphasis must be placed on the fact that those held in jail are not necessarily guilty and these policies generally target the poor and potentially innocent population.

In the age of mass incarceration, and in the attempt to restore true justice to our criminal justice system, this issue must become popularized to increase awareness about the unfair policies currently in place. Recognizing the difference between jails and prisons is just one step forward we can take as a society in furthering the rights of the underprivileged and the unprotected.