Jail or Prison? What’s the Difference? by Stephen Newman

Many people erroneously use the words “jail” and “prison” interchangeably. I’ve even seen The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and CNN get it mixed up. The truth is, the differences are about as stark as those of a swimming pool and an ocean.

The main rule of thumb: if you’re sentenced to one year or less, you spend it in county jail. Over a year, it’s state prison. People convicted of misdemeanors will do their time in jail, while felons typically serve their sentence in prison. Of course, there are always some exceptions.

Here’s how the system works. Everyone begins their journey in county jail. When you’re arrested, you’re taken to jail in that county, where you get fingerprinted, strip searched, asked by a rookie nurse if you feel suicidal, then issued a jumpsuit and an orientation pamphlet and booked into the jail.

Each jail is different, but most have open dorms, commonly called pods, with 60 or so bunkbeds in a large open room. There’s typically a dayroom with a shared TV. Rec is usually a cement cage, slightly larger than a racquetball court, with a chain link ceiling, so you can see the clouds, the sky, feel a little fresh air, and if you’re lucky, maybe even see an airplane.

Jails are co-ed. Even though men and women dont live in the same unit, you will pass members of the opposite sex in the hallways, or during visiting. It’s a nice perk which prison doesn’t offer. While in jail, you’ll be with some inmates who are awaiting their trial or sentencing and will soon be heading off to prison. A bus comes once a week to shuttle the latest batch of inmates to prison. Others in jail with you will be serving a few months for a misdemeanor. Burglary, DUI, domestic violence, disorderly conduct…that sort of thing. Jail is quite the mash up. You could have a 19 year old college kid who shoplifted from WalMart, sharing a bunk with a soon-to-be-convicted serial killer. It’s a true melting pot.

You’ll often hear experienced inmates in jail saying, “I can’t wait to get to prison,” or, “the judge wanted to give me 6 months but I asked for a year and a day.” In general, prison is substantially easier time than jail is. You can purchase your own TV, buy your own clothes. (In jail, you wear a jumpsuit and someone else’s underwear). In prison you can buy your own mp3 player, you have email access, you can take a lot more classes. The food is better, often a lot better. Instead of a tiny box for recreation, there’s a huge grassy yard with trees, a walking track, a basketball court, weights, horseshoes, and a gym with pool and handball and ping pong. Instead of a box of 10 or 20 books, prisons have actual libraries with almost every book imaginable. Visitors get to hug and kiss you in prison, hold hands, share a cheeseburger, play scrabble with you. In jail, all visits are either behind glass or on a computer screen. The rule of thumb is that one year in jail feels like the equivalent of four years in prison. Or 28 years, if you’re a dog. That’s another perk in prison: the dog program. In one area, dogs actually share a cell with inmates.

So while it seems like an unusual wish, “I can’t wait to get to prison” makes perfect sense for an inmate already in jail. Now, when you see a headline on CNN such as “Subway spokesperson sentenced to 15 years in jail,” you’ll know better.

Stephen Newman
DOC #90843


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