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Why is it important to differentiate between county jails & state prisons?

Aug 18th, 2020 | Category: Featured Articles

You’re watching the news, and the reporter states, “William Larcenous will be spending the rest of his life in jail.” Or  a professor describes Mary Doe languishing in prison, awaiting trial. But neither is true—because jails and prisons are very different kinds of facilities and the people in them are there for different reasons. Using the word “jail” correctly is especially important for public awareness that the majority of people being held in their local jails are pretrial—not yet convicted.


Using the terms accurately will increase everyone’s understanding of how the criminal justice system works. Reporters, academics and all communicators need to make the distinction between jails* and prisons clear.

*In Texas, the prison system designated certain facilities as “state jails,” just to confuse matters, but these are still prisons where people have been sentenced to a certain length of time and are not related to county jails.

Almost everyone who’s arrested is taken to the local county (or city) jail which is run by your county and its sheriff. People who aren’t bonded out, must stay there until their case is completed, and so most of the people in the local jails are not yet convicted—innocent. (And there are a few people held in jail who are serving a short sentence for a minor charge.)

The Texas county jail typically holds

  1. people who have been arrested and are being held pending a plea agreement, trial, or sentencing;
  2. people who have been convicted of a misdemeanor criminal offense and are serving a sentence of (typically) less than 1 year; and
  3. people who have been sentenced to prison and are about to be transferred to another facility.

Jails, also known as detention or correctional centers, are operated by a county or city government. Lockups are facilities in smaller communities where one to a few arrestees can be held for a short time pending transfer to a nearby jail/detention center. Municipal jails are another short-term facility where people are held until transported to the county jail.

Many new detainees arrive in county jails daily. More than 1 million people are booked into Texas county jails each year! Some may stay less than one day or only for a few days, until they are okayed for release in a court proceeding. Some are released after putting up bail or being released to a pretrial services caseload, or after being placed on probation, or are released on their own recognizance having agreed to appear in court.

A considerable number of people arriving at a jail are actively or recently drunk or high, arrive with injuries from fights/assaults that led to their arrest, and/or are mentally ill with no other place for law enforcement to deliver them. This makes the intake process challenging for the jail’s staff and its medical personnel.

Definition: Prison

A prison is a secure facility that houses people who have been convicted of one or more felony criminal offenses and are serving a sentence of (typically) 1 year or more.

Prisons are operated by a state government or the federal government. “Penitentiary” is a synonym for prison.

The number of sentenced inmates entering prisons each day is far less than the number of people delivered at the door of U.S. jails. People who are going to prison know it in advance. They may be transferred from a jail, taken to prison from court after a conviction, or report to prison on a date set by the court.

Thanks to CLEM Information Strategies for the concept and much of the language. Check out her awesome website: http://cleminfostrategies.com/whats-the-difference-between-prison-and-jail/


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