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

Sep 18th, 2018 | By | Category: Featured Articles

You’re watching the news, and the reporter solemnly states, “William Larcenous will be spending the rest of his life in jail.”  Or describes Mary Doe languishing in prison waiting for trial.*

That’s not going to happen! Why?

 “Jails” and “prisons” are not the same thing. We use the terms interchangeably—and incorrectly. JAILS are run locally and most of the people held there are not yet convicted. The length of time people stay in jails varies from 1 day to many months. PRISONS confine people who are convicted and sentenced to a certain amount of time, usually at least a year.*

Using these terms accurately will improve public awareness of the large percentage of people still innocent—in pretrial detention—in their local jails. It will also increase understanding of how the criminal justice system works. To ensure higher quality media coverage, reporters and commentators need to make the distinction plain. 

*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 count and its sheriff. People stay there until their case is over, so most of the people in the local jails are not yet convicted—innocent. A few people there are serving a short sentence for a minor charge.

  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 are operated by a county or city government. Jails are also known as detention or correctional facilities. (In Texas, to confuse matters, the legislature saw fit to create a special type of prison called state jails, but they are actually prisons.)

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. 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, are released to a pretrial services caseload, are placed under supervision by a probation agency, or are released on their own recognizance with an agreement 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 a felony criminal offense 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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