What Are Inmates?

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Did you know that the inmate population of the United States is bigger than that of 84 countries’?

According to the latest data, a staggering 1.9 million people are directly under the jurisdiction of the United States prison system.

Almost two million people live their lives behind bars, and they’re called “Convicts,” “Prisoners,” and “Inmates.” What are “Inmates,” and why are people behind bars called such?

This article will paint the picture of an inmate. It’ll show them not as statistics but as people living behind bars. You’ll understand concepts such as prisoner classification and see how inmates are housed according to their security level.

Furthermore, this article will provide the rationale for incarceration and how it became a correction method for individuals who have violated the law.

People behind bars while serving their sentences are still allowed to receive visits from friends and family members. Even if they’re inmates, they still need the support and care of people dear to them.

Visiting inmates is not simple. You need to coordinate with different people in charge and conform to policies observed inside a correctional facility. You can check out LookUpInmate.org and use its inmate and facility locator to keep updated on your loved one’s current location.

Use the LookUpInmate.org resource and learn the policies you must follow when visiting people in prison.

Why Are Prisoners Called “Inmates?”

When you look up the word “Inmate,” you’ll see that it originally meant a person allowed to live inside the rented house of another person.

The word combines the prefix “In,” meaning inside, and “Mate,” or companion. Only in the 1800s did the word “Inmate” gradually mean someone incarcerated in a prison or jail.

What Is the Difference Between “Prisoners” and “Inmates?”

You may have used “Prisoners” and “Inmates” interchangeably to describe a person behind bars. However, “Prisoner” is the legal term for a person behind bars in a prison facility.

Moreover, a “Prisoner” is a person who serves their sentence in prison because they have been convicted of a crime. The term also refers to a person arrested and placed in custody, awaiting trial, regardless of whether they are in prison or not.

Are “Incarcerated” and “Jail” the Same?

According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), “Incarceration” is the long-term confinement of a convicted offender. Prisoners with long sentences are usually held inside prisons.

On the other hand, law enforcement places individuals with short-term sentences (one year or less) and those in pretrial (awaiting trial) in jails. Regardless of the type of facility they’re in, people held inside jails or prisons are called “Prisoners.”

Local Jail Inmates

Jails are detention and confinement facilities operated by the county, city, or state’s local government. Inmates detained in jails usually have short sentences of up to one year. Inmates inside jails are often one of the following:

  • Inmates awaiting their arraignment, trial, conviction, or sentencing
  • Inmates re-admitted for probation or parole violations
  • Juveniles under temporary detainment
  • People with mental health issues who are scheduled for a transfer to a corresponding facility
  • Military personnel under protective custody or other individuals held for contempt
  • Inmates for transfer to state, federal, or other BOP facilities
  • Prisoners nearing release to the community or under processing for release
  • Inmates in need of temporary housing due to prison overcrowding

State and Federal Prisoners

Inmates in prison facilities are either state or federal prisoners. Inmates incarcerated in state prison facilities tend to have committed more violent crimes than federal prisoners. Federal prisons also usually have higher security than state prison facilities.

Jail Facilities

The total number of inmates in local jails is estimated to be over 500,000, most of whom are not yet convicted. Jail inmates are usually pretrial prisoners or prisoners awaiting sentencing.

Prison Facilities

There are two main types of prison facilities: state prisons and federal correctional facilities. There are an estimated 1,047,000 state prisoners and 209,000 federal prisoners.

What Is a Prison?

A prison is a facility or building that provides housing units for inmates. Aside from housing inmates, prisons are more sophisticated than jails because of different facilities like clinics that offer medical care and treatment programs for incarcerated individuals.

State Prisons

Correctional facilities run by the state are called state prisons. These institutions provide services like programs aimed at rehabilitating inmates and reducing recidivism or the tendency to relapse to one’s past criminal ways.

One problem state prisons encounter is overcrowding. A solution to this is implementing a good behavior program, wherein inmates who pass the program get their sentence terms reduced.

Federal Prisons

The United States has 122 federal prisons or institutions with 159,116 inmates as of June 2023. The BOP describes federal prisons as having security barriers, detection devices, internal security, and towers. Also, federal prisons are categorized into various security levels to house different inmate classifications.

Minimum Security

Another name for a minimum security institution is a federal prison camp (FPC). This prison level has dormitory housing, limited to no-perimeter fencing, and a relatively low staff-to-inmate ratio. Most efforts are work- and program-oriented.

Low Security

Federal correctional institutions (FCIs) are low-security prisons with double-fenced perimeters, cubicle housing, or dormitories. They prioritize work programs. There is a higher staff-to-inmate ratio compared to minimum-security facilities.

Medium Security

Medium-security FCIs have added securities compared to lower security levels. These prison facilities have strengthened perimeters, cell-type housing, higher staff-to-inmate ratio, and even greater internal controls. There are also many work and treatment programs in medium-security facilities.

High Security

Another term for high-security prisons is U.S. penitentiaries (USPs). These facilities have high-security perimeters utilizing reinforced fences or walls. Alongside this are multiple-occupant and single-occupant cell housing and close control of inmate movements. USPs have the highest staff-to-inmate ratio.


The BOP also provides facilities or institutions with special missions like the detention of pretrial violators. Administrative prisons also house extremely dangerous criminals and violent or escape-prone inmates. Administrative facilities include the following:

  • Metropolitan Correctional Centers (MCCs)
  • Metropolitan Detention Centers (MDCs)
  • Federal Detention Centers (FDCs)
  • Federal Medical Centers (FMCs)
  • Federal Transfer Center (FTC)
  • Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (MCFP)
  • Administrative-Maximum Security Penitentiary (ADX)

Types of Prisons

Prisons have evolved throughout history, and they’ve been part of different communities and cultures. In the United States, prisons have always been a place to incarcerate individuals who have violated the law.

U.S. prisons have three components that should work cohesively to ensure inmates are reprimanded and punished for their crimes while protecting their human rights. These elements include the following:


Prisons should provide reasonable surveillance and supervision to avoid institutionalizing inmates. Excessive surveillance can harm an inmate’s chance for recovery and reintegration into society.

Order and Discipline

Prison safety is assured by maintaining order and discipline among inmates and correctional officers. Prison authorities must make each prisoner understand their obligations, responsibilities, and restrictions while incarcerated. Furthermore, the punishment must be proportional to the crime committed.


It’s crucial to have third-party oversight monitoring prison activities in the United States. The presence of oversight bodies in prisons should help prevent staff misconduct and identify troubling practices early.

The country’s main agencies that handle prisons are the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the Department of Corrections.

The Development of the Prison System

The concept of a prison system has been present in human culture since the dawn of civilization. According to the oldest available records, the first record of prisons was in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the 1st Millenium B.C.E. (before the common era).

Prisons evolved through the ages, and systems were developed around these institutions. In 16th-century Europe, “houses of corrections” were built to “correct” minor offenders and vagrants through strict discipline and hard labor.

In time, prisons became an acceptable means of punishment for criminals. In the last 100 years, hygiene, sanitation, and human rights for incarcerated individuals were adopted until the current criminal justice system was developed.

The Emergence of the Penitentiary

As you deepen your research into the history of prisons, you’ll encounter two 18th-century personages: the English jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham and English prison reformer John Howard.

These two people advocated the creation of penitentiaries while raising corruption prison system issues in their time. They desired to make prisons a place of punishment not for punishment’s sake but for reform.

In the United States, this type of correctional institution emerged in the 19th century in states like Pennsylvania and New York.

Private Correctional Institutions

Because of the growing prison population, the local, state, and federal governments have struck contracts with private groups to operate prisons. Currently, 7% of the total inmate population is in privately operated correctional institutions.

Juvenile Detention Centers

Offenders below 18 years can be sentenced to juvenile detention. A youth can commit offenses leading to detention, including property crimes, drug-related offenses, truancy, and violence.

Juvenile detention facilities aim to educate and rehabilitate youth offenders and have them rejoin the community.

What’s the Difference Between Jails and Prisons?

From what you’ve read, the differences between jails and prisons can be summarized into the following points:

  • Prisons house inmates with sentence terms of more than one year
  • Prisons house individuals convicted of felonies or violent crimes
  • Prisons house prisoners convicted of federal offenses
  • Jails house inmates with minor crimes and misdemeanors
  • Jails house prisoners with sentence terms of one year or less
  • Jails house detainees who are awaiting trial, sentencing, or prison transfer

Prison Conditions

When you look at the condition of prisons in the country, it is one of the pressing problems in correctional facilities. The state of Connecticut listed the reasons that caused overcrowding in its prisons.

The foremost reasons are recidivism, rearrests due to parole or probation revocation, and the war on drugs.

The Purpose of Imprisonment

Prisons or penitentiaries are places of correction and rehabilitation. However, the purpose of incarceration and imprisonment doesn’t end there. Imprisonment should deter individuals from committing crimes, offer an environment for rehabilitation, and provide a place for punishment and personal reform.

Prison Conditions

Despite the continued efforts of government agencies to improve the living experience of people behind bars, prison conditions in the U.S. are not free of problems. Here are some issues that plague prisons in the country:

Escalating Violence

The Constitution requires jails and prisons to protect prisoners from harm and sexual assault. Facilities in the country strive to meet this fundamental duty, despite reports of escalating violence.

Denying Treatment

Prisoners can receive medical or mental treatment while incarcerated, and they should not be denied these treatments. Prisons can provide health services to help with inmates’ well-being, which is part of the entire rehabilitative goals of imprisonment.

Tolerating Abuse

Despite select prisoners being convicted and guilty of felonies, they have the right against unusual punishments. Prisons should also provide safety measures to prevent staff members from abusing their power.

Enriching Corporations

A prison focuses on protecting public safety by incarcerating dangerous criminals from society and, simultaneously, the welfare of imprisoned people. This focus includes preventing private companies from taking advantage of the “free” labor and constrained conditions of prisoners.

Terms and Definitions

You might encounter some terminologies when reading articles or publications about U.S. prisons and the criminal justice system. Here is a short list of terms and their definitions:

Community Corrections

This type of inmate supervision is in a residential population instead of a prison. Examples of this are probation and parole.


“Custody” means physically holding or detaining a person in a state or federal BOP facility. Inmates in prisons and jails are under custody.

Federal Prisons

These are prisons directly run by the federal government. They house prisoners convicted of federal offenses.

Operational Capacity

The operational capacity of a prison depends on whether the current staff, services like educational programs, and health care for prisoners can accommodate the total number of inmates.


The word “Prisoner” is any person detained or incarcerated in a jail, prison, or correctional institution sanctioned by the government.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Should prisons be privatized?

Prison privatization arises from the government’s need to accommodate the growing incarcerated population. State governments partner with private corporations to provide programs and services to reduce recidivism and promote rehabilitation.

2. Where can you find a list of federally recognized tribes in the U.S.?

You can check the list of federally recognized tribes in the U.S. by visiting this federal register released in 2021.

3. What’s the difference between sworn and nonsworn officers?

The main difference between sworn and nonsworn officers is arrest powers. Sworn officers have full arrest powers granted by the local government or state. Nonsworn officers can’t arrest and serve as security officers.

4. Where can you find the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) surveys that specifically relate to corrections?

The BJS provides a data collection section containing helpful links to different surveys made by this agency. Visit the data collections – corrections section of the Bureau of Justice Statistics website to learn more.

5. Where can you find data on HIV among prisoners?

The National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) provides national- and state-level reports that show data on the number of incarcerated state and federal prisoners with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

6. How do atrocious prison conditions make us all less safe?

Atrocious prison conditions may fail to prepare inmates for successful reentry into society. The factors that make prisons atrocious are the following:

  • Overcrowding
  • Lack of eductions and rehabilitation programs
  • Inadequate resources
  • Understaffing
  • Solitary confinement
  • Distance between prison and family members

Understanding these factors lets you know how crucial prisoner welfare programs are to keeping society safe.

If you need a facility locator to get contact information for prison facilities near you, visit LookUpInmate.org.

You’ll have access to an extensive database of more than 7,000 correction facilities in the United States.


1. New report Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023 shows that as the pandemic subsides, criminal legal system returning to “business as usual”
2. Inmate
3. Prisoner
4. Detention and Incarceration
5. Correctional Institutions
6. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023
7. About Our Facilities
8. Types of prisons
9. History of Prisons
10. Penitentiary
11. Major Problems, Issues & Trends Facing Prisons Today
13. Federal Register / Vol. 86, No. 18 / Friday, January 29, 2021 / Notices
14. Corrections

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