Skip to Main Content Skip to bottom Skip to Chat, Email, Text

Different types of incarceration: Jail vs. prison vs. detention center explained 

At a glance

  • Factors such as the duration, severity and function of a crime determine the type of incarceration that a convicted person experiences.
  • Jails are typically used to detain people awaiting trial or sentencing, while prisons are generally house people who have been convicted of a crime.
  • Local law enforcement departments usually administer jails, and states or the federal government generally run prisons.
  • Interested in learning sought-after skills within the field of criminal justice? Learn more about online criminal justice degree programs at University of Phoenix. 

What are the types of incarceration?

There are several types of incarceration — each with its own set of penalties and restrictions. Depending on the situation, offenders may be required to attend mandatory counseling or treatment programs, placed on probation or parole, or sent to jail or prison. 

Generally, the type of incarceration offenders receive depends on the severity of their crime, their criminal history, and the laws of the jurisdiction they are tried in. Each type of incarceration has its purpose and is tailored to an offender’s specific offense.  

Various professionals are involved in the criminal justice system, such as law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and corrections officers. No matter what job they have, criminal justice professionals play a vital role in keeping communities safe and ensuring that offenders are held accountable for their crimes. Before pursuing a criminal justice degree or committing to a specific career path, it’s crucial to learn more about different kinds of incarceration, including the specific purpose each one serves.

Jail vs. prison

While jail and prison are sometimes used interchangeably, they are two different types of incarceration. 

Jails are typically used to detain people awaiting trial or sentencing, and prisons house people who have been convicted of a crime. The main difference between jail and prison is the length of time an offender is incarcerated. 

Other key differences between jails and prisons include:

  • A local law enforcement agency, such as a sheriff’s office or local corrections department, usually runs jails, and states or the federal government operates prisons.  
  • Prisons house larger populations of inmates; jails tend to be smaller.
  • Jails often house those who are awaiting trial; prisons often house those inmates who have been sentenced.
  • For those who have been sentenced, jail sentences are usually less than one year, and prison sentences are typically more than one year.  

The duration, function and severity of a crime are crucial factors in determining the appropriate sentence. A crime committed over an extended period (such as embezzlement) is typically more serious than a crime committed in a single act (such as shoplifting). Similarly, a crime that results in serious harm (such as assault) is considered more serious than a crime that does not (such as trespassing). These factors affect the type and length of incarceration that a convicted person experiences.

Offenders who are sentenced to prison are typically required to serve their sentence at a federal or state prison. Offenders who are sentenced to jail usually serve their sentence at a local jail.

State prisons

In the U.S., state prisons are operated by individual states rather than the federal government. Each state has its own legislation regarding the prison system. Many states have adopted a system of sentencing guidelines that provide judges with recommendations for penalties based on the severity of the offense and an offender's criminal history.  

Furthermore, various offenses resulting in incarceration at the state level often have mandatory minimum sentences. Some of the most common include:  

  • Homicide: Murder and manslaughter are classified as homicide. These offenses can result in a prison sentence of 25 years or more.  
  • Robbery: This offense involves taking property from another person by force or threat of force and can result in a prison sentence of five years or more.  
  • Assault: Assault is defined as an act of violence against another person and can result in a prison sentence of five years or more in severe cases.  
  • Burglary: This offense involves entering a property with the intent to commit a crime and can result in a prison sentence of five years or more.  
  • Sexual assault: This offense involves any non-consensual sexual contact and can result in a prison sentence of 10 years or more.  

While these offenses are not confined to the state, federal crimes are regarded as more serious than state crimes since they concern a national or federal interest. 

Federal prisons

There are various types of federal prisons, each with its own security level and purpose. 

The following is a brief overview of federal prison facilities:  

  • Prison: A facility that holds convicted criminals.  
  • Federal prison camp: A low-security facility that holds nonviolent offenders.  
  • Penitentiary: Designed for long-term incarceration and typically holds offenders with life sentences or death sentences.  
  • Correctional institution: A prison focused on rehabilitation.

While each type has a different purpose, all federal prisons are overseen by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and have varying degrees of security depending on factors including the severity of the crime.

Minimum security/federal prison camps

Minimum security federal prison camps are like regular prisons in many ways, but there are significant differences. Inmates in federal prison camps are typically nonviolent offenders with no history of escape attempts.  

As a result, they’re given more freedom and fewer restrictions than those in other types of prisons. For example, they may be allowed to leave the facility to work or attend school and have more recreation and socialization opportunities.  

read similar articles

What is criminal justice? Careers, education and more

Low security 

Low-security prisons are usually minimum or low-custody institutions with fewer guards and less stringent rules than medium- or high-security prisons. Inmates in low-security prisons are typically nonviolent offenders who have been convicted of relatively minor crimes.  

As a result, they’re considered lower risk and pose a smaller threat to the public. Low-security prisons typically have more lenient policies regarding visitation, phone calls and media access. Inmates are also usually allowed to participate in work programs and other activities outside the prison.  

Medium security

Medium-security prisons can be seen as a compromise between the two extremes of maximum security and minimum security. In a medium-security prison, inmates are typically housed in cells or dormitories rather than open barracks. They’re allowed to have more personal possessions and to participate in a wider range of activities than those in maximum-security prisons.  

Medium-security prisons still have features such as perimeter fences and armed guards. Inmates are typically required to wear uniforms and follow a strict daily schedule.  

Maximum-security prisons/high-security prisons/penitentiaries 

Maximum-security prisons, sometimes called high-security prisons or penitentiaries, are designed for the most dangerous criminals. These facilities are typically highly fortified, with multiple layers of security, including armed guards, electronic fences, and motion sensors. These environments limit the movement and activities of inmates.

Inmates are kept in solitary confinement, or small cells with little contact with the outside world. They are typically kept under close surveillance and may be subject to search and seizure at any time.

Detention centers vs. jails

Detention centers and jails serve different purposes within the criminal justice system. Often, detention centers are used as an umbrella term to encompass facilities that temporarily house and rehabilitate offenders who are under the age of 18 and those who are to be sent outside of the U.S. Jails, on the other hand, are simply used to hold adult citizens awaiting trial or sentencing.  

Detention centers have the primary goal of educating and rehabilitating offenders so they can go on to rejoin society. Jails exist primarily to hold inmates until their case is resolved.

Juvenile detention (“juvie”) 

Juvenile detention centers are facilities that house youths awaiting trial or placement in a long-term program. These facilities are reserved for juveniles who are considered a danger to themselves or the community, and cannot be adequately supervised.  

Detention centers are not jails, and the primary purpose of detention is not punishment. Rather, detention ensures that a juvenile offender appears for their adjudication hearing and protects the community from serious harm. These centers typically provide educational and recreational programming, as well as mental health and medical services. 

Additionally, juvenile courts operate detention centers, and they are subject to strict regulations regarding the care and custody of detainees. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a federal law enforcement agency under the Department of Homeland Security. ICE’s main mission is to promote national security and public safety through criminal and civil federal law. Areas under its responsibility are:

  • Border control
  • Customs
  • Trade
  • Immigration 

ICE detention centers hold people going through the process of being removed from the U.S. or who have been ordered removed and are awaiting transportation. 

ICE facilities are operated by ICE, not state or local governments, and are run by immigration and customs inspectors. In addition, people in ICE custody haven’t been convicted of a crime; they’re detained pending a determination of their immigration status. Lastly, people in ICE custody are held in civil detention, not criminal detention. 

Overall, jails, prisons and detention centers serve different purposes within the criminal justice system, but all three work together to ensure public safety.

Earn a degree in criminal justice

Now that you have an understanding of the types of incarcerations, learn more about whether a career in criminal justice is right for you. If you’re interested in learning more about criminal justice degree programs at University of Phoenix, here are a few options to explore:

  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration This program prepares students with skills necessary for administrative roles in law enforcement, criminal courts and corrections. This can help prepare students for careers as detective sergeants, loss-prevention managers, police shift commanders and more.
  • Bachelor of Science in Correctional Program Support Services Get ready for a career at the intersection of community support, human services and criminal justice. This program equips you with skills to manage cases, facilitate programs and address the needs of people impacted by the criminal justice system.
  • Bachelor of Science in Public Administration From civil leadership to business and governmental law, the topics covered in this degree program are critical for work in public administration and policy. Potential career outcomes include operations manager, program manager and regulatory affairs manager.
  • Master of Science in Administration of Justice and Security If you’re looking to take on advanced work in the field of criminal justice, such as work as a police chief or detective supervisor, this graduate program can help you develop skills you will need.

want to read more like this?

9 Professional Organizations for Criminal Justice Students

Online Degrees

July 27, 2022 • 8 minutes

Comparing Criminology vs. Criminal Justice Degrees

Online Degrees

April 20, 2022 • 6 Minutes