Jail vs. Prison: Histories of the Words

In common speech, terms like jail, prison, and penitentiary are used more or less interchangeably, but these words actually have varied histories. In the world of modern corrections, the distinction breaks down like this:

  • Jail: Short-term holding, typically in anticipation of trail or sentencing or for serving short sentences. These are usually operated by local governments.
  • Prison, Penitentiary, etc.: Long-term holding after sentencing. These are usually operated by state agencies or the Federal Bureau of Prisons.


In the legal documents of some European countries, jail is still spelled gaol, which is closer to its Latin root caveola, or “cage,” but the current pronunciation and spelling have been common since the mid-eighteenth century. Until recently, jail simply referred to a place where prisoners were interned, but in North America, it has come to mean a place where people who have been accused, but not convicted, of a crime are placed. Due to the transitory nature of their inmates, jails tend to be lower security, and they have also been used to house low-risk offenders serving short sentences.

Prisons, Penitentiaries, and the Rest

Like jail, prison began as a word for a place of confinement, after prisonne, the Anglo-Norman word for the act of taking a prisoner. Penitentiary, however, was a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church charged with the imposition of harsh religious sentences, or “penances,” in cases of heinous sin, and accordingly, the place where people, or “the penitent,” could be held for offenses against the Church was also dubbed a penitentiary. Today, however, these terms have been rolled together as general descriptions of places where prisoners serve long-term sentences. They tend to have higher security, and this category includes super-maximum security facilities, or supermaxes, where the highest-risk convicts are placed.

New Terms

As the focus of these institutions has shifted from punishment to rehabilitation, many facilities are experimenting with new terms that reflect their changing role in corrections. “Treatment Facility” and “Rehabilitation Center” have become more and more common, and many prisons have a network of lower-security buildings and halfway houses that they use to help parolees adjust to life after incarceration. As understanding of recidivism’s causes grows, only time will next what the next evolution of criminal confinement will look like.