Jail and Prisons Comparison


Although usually confused by most people, there is a big difference between jails and prisons. After being arrested, jail is mainly the first place that criminals are taken to by law enforcement officers. The aim of this paper is to discuss the difference between jails and prisons by highlighting their similar and different roles in the society.


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A Description of Jail’s Place in Corrections and Its Role throughout History

After law enforcement officers apprehend a criminal, the first place the criminal is taken is jail. The jails are mainly used to protecting the public and innocent citizens of criminals who may be roaming in our streets by housing them. According to Seiter (2011), jails are correctional facilities that are used in detaining criminals before they can be judged in a court of law (as the suspect awaits verdict).  Jails are therefore used to house the suspects/criminals for less than 1 year as they await judgment of their cases. Therefore, jails are used for short sentences, less than 1 year. Prisons are used for the same purpose but usually for criminals who have been incarcerated for longer period of time. Seiter (2011), states that the average stay in US jails is about 15-20 days. Jails deal with such cases like drug ingestion before the suspect enters into jail, people with mental cases, exposure to highly communicable diseases like tuberculosis, and people with high risk of suicide. Because of the short stints in jails, jails release offenders back to the community unlike prisons where inmates stay for longer periods and may get counseled before release.

A Summary of the History of State and Federal Prisons

Correction facilities have been there for hundreds of years. Colonial America used different forms of punishment for offenders including subjecting them to torture, public humiliation, or corporal punishment. Most of the offenders in the US are held in the country’s state prisons. The state prisons are smaller prisons than the federal prisons and are used to incarcerate habitual offenders, drug users, sex offenders, and other criminals in the same category.

The history of a federal prison dates back to the 1890s and in 1930, the then President Hoover signed a bill that established a federal prison system (Hall, n.d.). Seiter (2011) adds that since then, the federal system relied on the local government in housing criminals/prisoners. With time, the laws have been changed to accommodate a growing prison population of prisoners as well as rehabilitate and not just imprison the prisoners. Federal prisons were at first large facilities that confined inmates with different security needs. This has however changed as prisons were doubled to 44 from 24 and confine smaller number of prisoners with the same security needs. Some of the crimes that fall under federal laws include bank robbery, insurance fraud, and drug dealers. Seiter further states that the federal prisons are used to incarcerate inmates for a longer period of time.

Due to harsh conditions that prisoners were subjected to, a reform era began in 1876 to try and humanize prison life. This was the start of rehabilitation and prisons focused on vocational training and education. A punitive era started in 1938 in which society wanted longer jail terms for offenders. By 1967, incarceration was very cruel and policy makers were focused to rehabilitate inmates as a new justice model was being formed. Currently, prisons are focused on three philosophies; deterrence, incapacitation and retribution.


A Comparison of the Similarities and Differences between Security Levels in Jails, State Prisons, and Federal Prisons

State prisons have a 4 security level for correctional purposes and this include maximum security, high security, medium security and low level security. Low security state prisons are used by first time low risk offenders or inmates who are about to get out of prison. The low security prisons are Boot Camps and Work Farms and are usually double-fenced perimeters. They are usually made of cubicle housing or a dormitory. Minimum security level is also known as Federal Prison Camps and is used for inmates who committed less severe crimes or inmates who are almost finishing their time in prison. The facilities have a dormitory housing, limited or no perimeter fencing and trusted inmates here can work as a form of trustee with low staff. The minimum security level institutions usually have their work programs located on previous military bases where inmates serve the military base or needs of a bigger institution.

For medium security prisons, there is a reinforced perimeter wall that is laced with electronic detection system. Majority of the inmates here live in a cell-type cube. The inmates have a larger number of staff with also a large variation of work treatment. For maximum security level, inmates are usually locked for seven days a week although they are allowed to get out of their cubes for one hour. This is because the inmates are some of the most feared violent criminals. The inmates here have no freedom and this kind of security in the US is referred to as penitentiaries. The penitentiaries have a highly secured and monitored security wall with the highest prison staff in the country. This is because of the high risk if dealing with high-risk criminals (Seiter, 2011).


An Explanation of Factors Influencing Growth in Jails, State Prisons, and Federal Prisons

There are several factors that have influenced the growth of jails, state and federal prisons throughout the US. First, it is the society’s interpretation of crime. As the society changes, so do crime and the laws governing the specific crimes and how to deal with criminals. Secondly, it is as a result of releasing un-rehabilitated or poorly rehabilitated prisoners to the society who end up in prison again. Another big factor is recidivism. This is whereby prisoners are only used to crime and will violate the law because that is what they understand better. Unless the criminal justice system in the country does a review of court procedures and the country’s correctional system, the number of jails and prisoners will continue growing to accommodate a growing number of criminals. However, to reduce the recidivism rate, more rehabilitation programs for psychotic behavior, anger problems, and drug abuse facilities need to be put up.


The difference of jails from prisons is that while jails were the foundation of how criminals in the society were punished, prisons grew out of the jails to help in housing the criminals. With time, prisons were used to rehabilitate the criminals and correct their behaviors. The two facilities are meant to keep innocent citizens safe from the hands of criminals.




Hall, D. (n.d.). Jail vs. Prisons. Retrieved on June 9, 2013 from http://aca.org/fileupload/177/prasannak/1_1_1_Commentary_web.pdf

Seiter, R. (2011). Corrections an introduction (3rd edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall. Print