Jail vs. Prison

I have something to admit: until recently, I used the terms “jail” and “prison” interchangeably. After all, that’s the place where you go when you commit a crime until you pay your debt to society.

These days, it’s much less ambiguous, especially with the bad girl trio of Paris, Nicole and Lindsay having faced/currently facing JAIL time.

Jail is where you go when you’re only in custody for a short time for a misdemeanor or other small offense. Prison is where you serve a much longer sentence for a much more serious crime.

According to the AP:

Prison is a generic term that may be applied to the maximum security institutions or reformatories. All such facilities confine people serving sentences for felonies.

A jail is a facility normally used to confine people serving sentences for misdemeanors, persons awaiting trial or sentencing on either felony or misdemeanor charges, and persons confined for civil matters such as failure to pay alimony and other types of contempt of court.

There you have it.

To think that all along I thought that Paris had been in PRISON! Not so.

Ah, a girl can dream.


4 responses to “Jail vs. Prison

  1. This side of the pond we have alternative to jail. 😉

  2. Did you see this definition?

    Online Etymology Dictionary
    see jail, you tea-sodden football hooligan.

    Too funny!


  3. Just pretend you’re a few thousand miles east, Kate. As far as we on this side of the pond are concerned, the two terms are essentially synonymous.

    jail (Brit. also gaol)
    • noun a place for the confinement of people accused or convicted of a crime.

    • noun a building for the confinement of criminals or those awaiting trial.

    [Compact Oxford English Dictionary]


  4. The two terms are synonymous in normal English language usage in the US as well. Indeed, newspapers use the word “jail” in headlines when according to the definition given above they should use Prison.

    I understand this difference, and I’ve heard it a number of times, and increasingly more and more people are correcting each other on this. The distinction may be emerging as part of the language, but in common parlance it is not there yet. This is still in the domain of the pedants and mavens, I think.

    I could be wrong. But at least, no one is going to send me to prison for that. Jail maybe, but not prison.

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