Penitentiary vs. Prison

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You are part of society, and your safety relies heavily on the nation’s criminal justice system. Through the work of everyone under this system, people who may pose a threat to others are detained and incarcerated by law.

Convicted individuals go to a correctional facility assigned to them by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

The BOP gives convicts no choice in where they should serve their time. Still, the agency ensures inmates get the rehabilitation and correction they need to prepare themselves to rejoin society after serving their prison term.

There are three types of facilities in this country, namely jails, prisons, and penitentiaries. For many people, these terms all mean the same thing, even though they’re different.

How can you tell the difference between a penitentiary, prison, and jail? In what ways are they the same? What is the history behind prisons and penitentiaries, and how did they develop through the ages?

This article will help you get the answers you need to eliminate this confusion. You’ll get information on the different correctional facilities, including prisons and penitentiaries, in the United States.

You’ll also have a quick history lesson about prisons, including when they were first set up and how they developed through the centuries.

If you know the difference between correctional facilities in the United States, you’ll know how to help your loved one behind bars. Each facility has its policies, regulations, and responsibilities to its inmates. It’s best to know these things so you can identify abuses or irregularities when they happen.

You can inquire about the different prisons in the country through You can visit its website to understand the regulations and policies between prisons, jails, and detention centers. has information on more than 7,000 correctional facilities in the United States. You can search its vast database and get information regarding prisons and jails, their history, and their facilities.

What Is a Penitentiary?

In the dictionary, you’ll find that “penitentiary” comes from the Latin word “paenitentia,” meaning repentance.

Today, a penitentiary refers to a prison or confinement place used to hold and detain people convicted of violent crimes or felonies. However, this definition seems vague because many also use the word prison to denote a place of incarceration for felons.

So, is there a difference between prisons and penitentiaries? To know the difference between these two terms, you must know the four types of prisons in the United States.

What Are the 4 Types of Prisons?

The United States has four security levels for prisons and one administrative level. The four types are the following:

  1. Minimum security prison: This type of facility is also known as a federal prison camp or FPC and has the following characteristics:
    1. A low staff-to-inmate ratio
    2. Limited or no perimeter fencing
    3. Dormitory type of housing units
    4. Work- and program-oriented facilities
  1. Low-security prison: This facility, also known as a federal correctional institution or FCI, has the following characteristics:
    1. A higher staff-to-inmate ratio than in FPCs
    2. Cubicle or dormitory-type of housing units
    3. Double-fenced perimeters
    4. Substantial work and program component
  1. Medium-security prison: This facility houses medium-security inmates and is known as medium-security FCI. This type of prison has the following characteristics:
    1. A higher staff-to-inmate ratio compared to FCIs
    2. Strengthened perimeters like double fences with electronic detection systems
    3. Cell-type housing units
    4. A wide variety of treatment and work programs
  1. High-security prison: High-security institutions, also known as United States Penitentiaries or USPs

Aside from housing the most violent and dangerous offenders, USPs have the following characteristics:

  1. The highest staff-to-inmate ratio compared to all prison types
  2. Highly-secured perimeters (walls or reinforced fences)
  3. Multiple- and single-occupant cell housing units
  4. Close control of prisoner movement

Aside from these four types of prisons, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has administrative security and prison complex levels.

  1. Federal correctional complex or FCC: This type of prison combines different security-level prisons in one area.

This setup enables efficient sharing of services, enhanced emergency response and preparedness, and close access to additional resources.

  1. Administrative facilities: These special facilities have special missions, including:
    1. Treatment of inmates with chronic medical problems
    2. Containment of extremely dangerous and prone-to-escape inmates

Here are the different types of administrative facilities are:

  • Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC)
  • Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC)
  • Federal Detention Center (FDC)
  • Federal Medical Center (FMC)
  • Federal Transfer Center (FTC)
  • Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (MCFP)
  • Administrative-Maximum Security Penitentiary (ADX)

What’s the Difference Between Jail, Prison, and Penitentiary?

At first glance, the terms jail, prison, and penitentiary seem to mean the same thing. However, if you dig deeper into each of their meaning, it’s less ambiguous than it seems.

The common denominator for these terminologies is that these facilities hold, detain, or house people supervised by the U.S. criminal justice system. U.S. correctional facilities involve law enforcement and the county, state, or federal prison system managing its prison population.

Yet, despite the similarities, a subtle difference differentiates these three terminologies.

The Answer

In a nutshell, a jail is a holding area for people awaiting trial or sentencing and inmates with short-term sentences, usually due to misdemeanors. On the other hand, prisons are for inmates convicted of serious crimes and felonies with sentences of more than one year.

Why Are Prisons Called Penitentiaries?

In essence, prisons and penitentiaries have the same meaning. Both facilities are designated to house inmates convicted of serious offenses. This facility is a place for correcting and incarcerating people serving long-term sentences.

Home Sweet Jail

“Jail” or gaol (the pronunciation is similar to jail) comes from a French word for “cage.” In ancient times, people caught doing things against the laws of society were confined to one area or in a cage. This practice of detention and confinement was the precursor for the incarceration system the countries implement today.

Not a Roman Holiday

Ancient Rome is famous for its gladiatorial fights, military prowess, and revolutionary government system at that time. However, Romans were not the absolute model for fair trials, especially those involving the poor.

For poor inmates, justice was swift and usually fatal. Actual prisons served as a holding place for those unfortunate souls condemned to die.

Meanwhile, the wealthy prisoners got special treatment. Even after they are charged with a crime, they can still enjoy the comfort of their home, served by their servants. Under house arrest, they were only expected to “behave” until a trial could take place.

Coming to America and Staying

During the American Colonial period, prisons were among the first buildings erected in villages and towns. However, these detention centers only house high-ranking prisoners or prisoners of war.

Common criminals couldn’t hope to expect such treatment as they were confined to jails or “gaols.”

The Penitentiary Finds Religion

Religious activity is part of many state penitentiaries in the United States.

Chaplains of different religions have reported increased religious switching or conversions of Muslims and Protestant Christians inside prisons.

Religious organizations can provide for a person’s spiritual needs and help them rehabilitate for a better life. Chaplains inside prisons where they work have also noted that religious conversion activities among inmates went up to 51%.

Penitence, Cleanliness, and the Bible

Christianity is a religion based on the Holy Scriptures or the Bible. This religion focuses on repentance and the belief in the power of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ.

In the United States, Bibles are allowed inside prisons. Many prison policies are linked to the Bible’s teachings, like penitence, repentance, and cleanliness.

The Penitentiary Today

A 2022 report from the Prison Policy Initiative showed that the prison population in the United States is almost two million people. These individuals are incarcerated in different correctional facilities, such as jails, prisons, and penitentiaries.

The number of these facilities  is as follows:

  • State prisons: 1,566
  • Federal prisons: 102
  • Local jails: 2,850
  • Juvenile correctional facilities: 1,510
  • Immigration detention facilities: 186
  • Indian country jails: 82

Not included in this list are military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

Federal Prison vs. State Prison: What’s the Difference?

Here now comes the gist of this article: understanding the difference between jails, prisons, and penitentiaries. First on this list is understanding what a prison is and the difference between federal and state-run prisons.

1. What Is a Federal Prison?

A federal prison is a correctional facility that the U.S. federal government directly operates. The Federal Bureau of Prisons oversees the management of these facilities. Inmates incarcerated in these prisons are inmates who violated U.S. federal law.

Examples of offenses committed by inmates incarcerated in federal prisons:

  • Sex offenses, including child pornography
  • Drug trafficking or drug dealing
  • Money laundering
  • Identity theft
  • Racketeering
  • Immigration offenses

2. What Are State Prisons?

A state prison is a correctional facility operated directly by the state government. This type of prison confines and rehabilitates inmates through its operations funded by state taxes. Inmates incarcerated in these facilities have lengthy sentences due to major crimes and felonies.

Examples of offenses committed by inmates incarcerated in state prisons:

  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Mayhem
  • Bank robbery

3. What Are Some Similarities Between Federal and State Prisons?

Despite the enumerated differences between federal and state prisons, there are some similarities that both prison types share:

  • Both facilities are funded by taxpayers’ money
  • Both have different security levels
  • Both are designed to have separate arrangements for men and women
  • Both are dedicated to rehabilitating inmates

4. What About Jail vs. Prison?

The basic difference between jails and prisons is the sentence terms of their inmates. Jails usually house inmates that have short-term sentences, mostly misdemeanor cases. Also, jails detain people who have been recently arrested and are awaiting trial or awaiting sentencing.

Prisons, on the other hand, prisons house inmates with longer sentences. State prisons are operated by state agencies.

Jail vs. Penitentiary

United States penitentiaries (USP) house extremely violent criminals compared to jails. These facilities have solitary confinement rooms to remove volatile inmates from harassing society.

What Is a Jail?

Jails are facilities that house inmates with short-term sentences, people with misdemeanor charges, and the like. Jails are run and operated by the local government.

Is a Penitentiary Worse Than Jail?

Penitentiaries have more facilities compared to jails. However, both facilities follow policies outlined by the Department of Corrections, the Bureau of Prisons, and the Department of Justice. Jails and penitentiaries strive to become better places of rehabilitation and correction.

Comparison Table Between Jail and Penitentiary

Parameters of comparison Jail Penitentiary
Definition A jail houses inmates for short-term punishment of up to one year. A penitentiary houses inmates whose punishment is for more than one year.
Type of crimes Less severe crimes More severe crimes
Government Local State or federal
Type of criminals Minor crime criminals Major crime criminals
Punishments Minor Major
Environment Mostly crowded Proper (with basic facilities)

Main Differences Between Jail and Penitentiary

The main difference between a jail and a penitentiary is the types of inmates housed in these facilities. Jails house people awaiting trial or sentencing. Inmates in these facilities are those charged with less serious crimes or other unruly behavior that requires detainment.

Penitentiaries, however, house inmates convicted of violent offenses and long-term sentences. Some inmates can be violent, so they must be confined in areas like solitary confinement.

What Are Some Fun Names for Places of Detention?

The American language is full of history, and even the slangs and colloquialisms show the dynamic versatility of the English language.

The following are names people have used to describe a jail or prison. Most of these words have already crept into American literature and mainstream conversation.

Here are some fun names for places of detention:

  • Big house
  • Bucket
  • Calaboose
  • Club fed
  • Con college
  • Cooler
  • Crowbar hotel
  • Digger
  • Glasshouse
  • Greybar hotel
  • Guardhouse
  • Hole
  • Hoosegow
  • Joint
  • Jug
  • Juvie
  • Mainline joint
  • Pen
  • Pokey
  • Skinner joint
  • Slammer
  • Sneezer
  • Stockade
  • Stoney lonesome
  • The clink

Other unique names for prisons are the following:

  • Alcatraz, or “The Rock,” is a defunct island prison in San Francisco Bay. It was open for 29 years and was finally closed in 1963.
  • Angola, or “The Farm,” is a maximum security facility in Louisiana. The “Farm” was a prison farm where inmates worked tirelessly inside the halls. However, it was once dubbed the worst prison in America.
  • Kentucky State Penitentiary, or “Castle on the Cumberland,” was initially made from stone and had a Gothic-style entrance gate to emulate Warwick’s Castle in England.
  • Oklahoma State Penitentiary, or “Big Mac,” is nicknamed for its location in McAlester. It’s called “Big Mac” by inmates and locals.
  • Sing sing, or “The Castle,” is one of the oldest prisons in the United States. It’s located in Ossining, New York.


  1. Penitentiary
  2. About Our Facilities
  3. Jail
  4. 28 CFR § 115.5 – General definitions.
  5. Religion in Prisons – A 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains

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