The term “prison” refers to the institution where individuals convicted of crimes spend a definite amount of time, having lost their freedom until their sentences are over. For example, prison is where people go who have committed crimes like murder or drug trafficking.

While jail is more of a temporary holding cell until individuals post bail, or await trial, prison is where individuals go to serve out their sentences. To explore this concept, consider the following prison definition.

Definition of Prison


  1. The facility to which individuals go to serve out the sentences handed down to them by the court.


Before 1150 A.D.           Middle English  (prison, earlier prisun)

What is Prison Meaning?

Many folks believe the terms “jail” and “prison” to be interchangeable, but they are actually two different things. Jail is the place where people go temporarily, while prison is more of a long-term accommodation. For example, prison (also referred to as a “penitentiary”) is where people go once the court has handed down a sentence which includes months to years in custody. In most jurisdictions, a prison sentence is a minimum of one year (12 months). This is “imprisonment.” Individuals sentenced to shorter terms serve their time in the jail.

Jail, on the other hand, is where people go to sober up after the police arrest them for a DUI, or while they are waiting to post bail. In either of these cases, they are free to leave the next morning, though they may need to return to court for future appearances while awaiting the ultimate decision in their case.

Inmates who are either denied bail, or unable to pay it, are held in jail while they await further hearings, or their trial. If the court decides a sentence of imprisonment is in order, the defendant will go to the penitentiary after he has already been in jail. This is where “time served” may come in – as in, the court may reduce a defendant’s sentence by deducting the time he has already spent in jail, awaiting a verdict.

Differences Between Prison and Jail

Aside from the prison term, there are several other differences between prison and jail. For example, the penitentiary offers more programs and facilities to its inmates, as opposed to the comings-and-goings of jail.

Some of the programs penitentiaries offer include working at various tasks within the institution, earning a very miniscule salary of just cents per hour. Penitentiaries also offer educational opportunities. In fact, penitentiaries in some states require each inmate to have a high school diploma, and be able to read at a specified minimum level. If an inmate does not meet these requirements, he or she must attend education, rather than working.

In fact, the differences between prison and jail lead some repeat offenders to request prison over jail while they await trial because they know prison offers them more than jail does.

The reason for such differences between prison and jail is that those who designed the prison system understand that people will be living there for a while. These programs are part of the inmates’ rehabilitation. As such, there is more of a regular schedule in place with regard to eating, sleeping, and living one’s life, as opposed to jail, where the inmates come and go by the hour.

History of Prisons

As far as the history of prisons goes, the concept is relatively new, with imprisonment only gaining in popularity shortly before the American Revolution. Prior to that, people convicted of serious crimes were either exiled or executed. The history of prisons is multi-layered, with U.S. prison building happening in three major steps:

  • The first step resulted in imprisonment and rehabilitative labor as the main penalties for most crimes in most states by the time the American Civil War began.
  • The second step started after the war and brought about new concepts, like parole, probation, and indeterminate sentencing.
  • The third step involved less innovative punishment methods and more expansion, with what is now, on average, about 7 million people in the correctional system in the U.S. during any given year.

The history of prisons in general involves major changes to the structuring of penitentiaries over the years, as well as the ways in which administrators and supervisors have monitored them.

Examples of Prison Types

Prison may seem like a cut-and-dry idea, but there are actually several prison examples out there. For one thing, the security of the institution itself changes by location. There are minimum security, medium security, and maximum security penitentiaries.

Minimum security prisons are those that house inmates who have committed white-collar crimes. They do not need monitoring the same way those in maximum security prisons do because those in minimum security prisons are not typically violent, so they typically have more freedoms than those in maximum security.

Here are some other prison examples:

  • Juvenile Prison – Juvenile prison is for offenders under the age of 18 years old.
  • Psychiatric Prison – Like a mental hospital, those whom the court deems mentally unfit the court sends to psychiatric prison in an attempt to get them the help they need.
  • Military Prison – Each branch of the military has its own prison, and they use it to imprison either soldiers who have committed crimes or prisoners of war (POWs).

Federal vs. State Prison

Other prison examples include federal and state penitentiaries. State prisons usually handle those convicted of state crimes. These might include both violent crimes or minor offenses. Most state prisons offer a system of “good time,” which allows the early release of inmates who behave themselves during incarceration.

State Prison Example

As an example, California state prisons have what they call “half time.” Here, for each day an inmate spends doing his job (or attending school), and not getting into trouble, he receives credit for one additional day. This means that a person sentenced to spend five years in prison might be eligible for release after only two and a half years.

In this system, inmates who engage in further criminal activity, or who get into serious trouble while in the penitentiary have a portion of the half time taken away. This system of punishment serves to keep many inmates in line. All inmates who receive early release serve a supervised parole for a specified period of time. Violating the conditions of parole will see the inmate returned to prison to serve out his or her sentence.

Federal Prison

Federal prisons incarcerate those who have received convictions for federal crimes. While federal inmates may receive “good time,” there is no federal system of parole. This means that those the court has sentenced to federal prison typically serve longer sentences than those in state prison.

Prison Example Involving California Prisons

An example of prison being the subject of a lawsuit occurred in the matter of Plata v. Brown, which the U.S. Supreme Court heard in 2011.  Here, the Prison Law Office located in Berkeley, California filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court alleging that state penitentiaries were violating their prisoners’ rights under the Eighth Amendment. Specifically, the Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” They filed the lawsuit on behalf of several prisoners, including Marciano Plata.

Violations the penitentiaries were allegedly committing surrounded mostly around healthcare, from not properly screening incoming prisoners to delaying or outright failing to provide them with medical care at all. The prisons allegedly kept incomplete medical records and did not have enough protocols in place to properly deal with chronic illnesses. As a result, the claims alleged, 34 inmates died from receiving inadequate medical care.


Following the trial, the court held that California’s penitentiary system did, in fact, violate their prisoners’ rights under the Eighth Amendment, and that the primary reason for this was overcrowding. The court ordered the prisons to release inmates until the prison population reached a certain percentage of the prison’s total capacities. All told, this meant that the prisons were to release between 38,000 and 46,000 inmates.

U.S. Supreme Court

On appeal, the case made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, who had to decide whether the court-ordered act of requiring California to reduce its prison population violated the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The Prison Litigation Reform Act dissuades inmates from filing federal lawsuits so as to not waste the court’s scarce judicial resources.

Ultimately, the Court decided that no, such an order was not a violation of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and that a reduction in the number of inmates was necessary to improve the treatment California inmates received. Said the Court:

“This case is unlike cases where courts have impermissibly reached out to control the treatment of persons or institutions beyond the scope of the violation. (Citation omitted.). Even prisoners with no present physical or mental illness may become afflicted, and all prisoners in California are at risk so long as the State continues to provide inadequate care. Prisoners in the general population will become sick, and will become members of the plaintiff classes, with routine frequency; and overcrowding may prevent the timely diagnosis and care necessary to provide effective treatment and to prevent further spread of disease.

Relief targeted only at present members of the plaintiff classes may therefore fail to adequately protect future class members who will develop serious physical or mental illness. Prisoners who are not sick or mentally ill do not yet have a claim that they have been subjected to care that violates the Eighth Amendment, but in no sense are they remote bystanders in California’s medical care system. They are that system’s next potential victims.

A release order limited to prisoners within the plaintiff classes would, if anything, unduly limit the ability of State officials to determine which prisoners should be released. As the State acknowledges in its brief, “release of seriously mentally ill inmates [would be] likely to create special dangers because of their recidivism rates.” (Citation omitted.)

The order of the three-judge court gives the State substantial flexibility to determine who should be released. If the State truly believes that a release order limited to sick and mentally ill inmates would be preferable to the order entered by the three-judge court, the State can move the three-judge court for modification of the order on that basis. The State has not requested this relief from this Court.”


Thereafter, the parties negotiated an agreement regarding injunctive relief, and the court approved it. Included in the agreement was that the defendants would provide to inmates the minimum level of medical care allowed under the Eighth Amendment. Three years later, the court conducted a follow-up hearing, only to learn that the defendants were still failing to provide adequate medical care, and the conditions their inmates were living in were abysmal.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Bail – The temporary release of an individual accused of a crime and awaiting trial, sometimes on the condition that he first pays a fee as a way to guarantee his appearance at future court dates.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a person has filed a lawsuit in civil court, or who stands accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Hearing – A proceeding in which the court hears an issue of fact or law by hearing evidence and testimony presented, and then makes a decision.
  • Indeterminate Sentencing – A term of imprisonment specified as a range, rather than as a period of time or release date (e.g. “two-to-five years”).
  • Injunctive Relief – A court-ordered act or prohibition against an act or condition.
  • Parole – The temporary release of an inmate on the promise of good behavior, including his return for his next court date.
  • Probation – The release of an inmate from a jail sentence on the promise of good behavior.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to rule in a civil matter.
  • Verdict – The decision made by a judge or a jury in a criminal case.