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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A prison (from Old French prisoun)[1] is a place in which people are physically confined and, usually, deprived of a range of personal freedoms. Other terms are penitentiary, correctional facility, and jail (or gaol), although in the United States "jail" and "prison" refer to different subtypes of correctional facility. Prisons are conventionally institutions which form part of the criminal justice system of a country, such that imprisonment or incarceration is a legal penalty that may be imposed by the state for the commission of a crime.

A criminal suspect who has been charged with or is likely to be charged with criminal offense may be held on remand in prison if he is denied or unable to meet conditions of bail, or is unable or unwilling to post bail. A criminal defendant may also be held in prison while awaiting trial or a trial verdict. If found guilty, a defendant will be convicted and may receive a custodial sentence requiring imprisonment.

As well as convicted or suspected criminals, prisons may be used for internment of those not charged with a crime. Prisons may also be used as a tool of political repression to detain political prisoners, prisoners of conscience, and "enemies of the state", particularly by authoritarian regimes. In times of war or conflict, prisoners of war may also be detained in prisons. A prison system is the organizational arrangement of the provision and operation of prisons, and depending on their nature, may invoke a corrections system. Although people have been imprisoned throughout history, they have also regularly been able to perform prison escapes.



For most of history, imprisoning has not been a punishment in itself, but rather a way to confine criminals until corporal or capital punishment was administered. There were prisons used for detention in Jerusalem in Old Testament times.[2] Dungeons were used to hold prisoners; those who were not killed or left to die there often became galley slaves or faced penal transportations. In other cases debtors were often thrown into debtor's prisons, until they paid their jailers enough money in exchange for a limited degree of freedom.

Only in the 19th century, beginning in Britain, did prisons as we know them today become commonplace. The modern prisons system was born in London, as a result of the views of Jeremy Bentham. The notion of prisoners being incarcerated as part of their punishment, and not simply as a holding state till trial or hanging, was at the time revolutionary.

Britain practiced penal transportation of convicted criminals to penal colony in the British colonies in the Americas, from the 1610s through the American Revolution in the 1770s, and to penal colonies in Australia between 1788 and 1868. France sent criminals to tropical penal colonies including Louisiana in the early eighteenth century.[3] Penal colonies in French Guiana operated until 1951 (in particular, infamous Île du Diable (Devil's Island)). Katorga prisons were established in the 17th century in Tsardom of Russia in underpopulated areas of Siberia and the Russian Far East that had few towns or food sources. Since these times, Siberia gained its fearful connotation of punishment.

The first "modern" prisons of the early 19th Century were sometimes known by the term "penitentiary" (a term still used by some prisons in the USA today or the Dutch "Penitentiare Inrichting/Institution): as the name suggests, the goal of these facilities was that of penance by the prisoners, through a regimen of strict disciplines, silent reflections, and perhaps forced and deliberately pointless labor on treadwheels and the like. This "Auburn system" of prisoner management was often reinforced by elaborate prison architectures, such as the separate system and the panopticon. It was not until the late 19th Century that rehabilitation through education and skilled labor became the standard goal of prisons.

Design and facilities

The main entrance to the Utah State Prison.
A modern jail cell.

Male and female prisoners are typically kept in separate locations or separate prisons altogether.[4] Prison accommodation, especially modern prisons in the developed world, are often divided into wings. A building holding more than one wing is known as a "hall". Many prisons are divided into two sections, one containing prisoners before trial and the other containing convicted prisoners.

Amongst the facilities that prisons may have are:

  • A main entrance, which may be known as the 'gatelodge' or 'sally port' (stemming from old castle nomenclature)
  • A religious facility, which will often house chaplaincy offices and facilities for counselling of individuals or groups
  • An 'education facility', often including a library, providing adult education or continuing education opportunities
  • A gym or an exercise yard, a fenced, usually open-air-area which prisoners may use for recreational and exercise purposes
  • A healthcare facility or hospital
  • A segregation unit (also called a 'block' or 'isolation cell'), used to separate unruly, dangerous, or vulnerable prisoners from the general population, also sometimes used as punishment (see solitary confinement)
  • A section of vulnerable prisoners (VPs), or protective custody (PC) units, used to accommodate prisoners classified as vulnerable, such as sex offenders, former police officers, informants, and those that have gotten into debt or trouble with other prisoners
  • A section of safe cells, used to keep prisoners under constant visual observation, for example when considered at risk of suicide
  • A visiting area, where prisoners may be allowed restricted contact with relatives, friends, lawyers, or other people
  • A death row in some prisons, a section for criminals awaiting execution
  • A staff accommodation area, where staff and corrections officers live in the prison, typical of historical prisons
  • A service/facilities area housing support facilities like kitchens
  • Industrial or agricultural plants operated with convict labour
  • A recreational area containing a TV and pool table
A corrections officer in Finland

Prisons are normally surrounded by fencing, walls, earthworks, geographical features, or other barriers to prevent escape. Multiple barriers, concertina wire, electrified fencing, secured and defensible main gates, armed guard towers, lighting, motion sensors, dogs, and roving patrols may all also be present depending on the level of security. Remotely controlled doors, CCTV monitoring, alarms, cages, restraints, nonlethal and lethal weapons, riot-control gear and physical segregation of units and prisoners may all also be present within a prison to monitor and control the movement and activity of prisoners within the facility.

Modern prison designs have sought to increasingly restrict and control the movement of prisoners throughout the facility while permitting a maximal degree of direct monitoring by a smaller corrections staff. As compared to traditional large landing-cellblock designs which were inherited from the 19th century and which permitted only intermittent observation of prisoners, many newer prisons are designed in a decentralized "podular" layout. Smaller, separate and self-contained housing units known as "pods" or "modules" are designed to hold between sixteen and fifty prisoners each, and are arranged around exercise yards or support facilities in a decentralized "campus" pattern. A small number of corrections officers, sometimes a single officer, is assigned to supervise each pod. The pods contain tiers of cells arranged around a central control station or desk from which a single officer can monitor all of the cells and the entire pod, control cell doors, and communicate with the rest of the prison. Pods may be designed for high-security "indirect-supervision", in which officers in segregated and sealed control booths monitor smaller numbers of prisoners confined to their cells. An alternative is "direct-supervision", in which officers work within the pod and directly interact with and supervise prisoners, who may spend the day outside their cells in a central "dayroom" on the floor of the pod. Movement in or out of the pod to and from exercise yards, work assignments or medical appointments can be restricted to individual pods at designated times, and is generally centrally controlled. Goods and services, such as meals, laundry, commissary, educational materials, religious services and medical care can increasingly be brought to individual pods or cells as well. Despite these design innovations, overcrowding at many prisons, particularly in the U.S., has resulted in a contrary trend, as many prisons are forced to house large numbers of prisoners, often hundreds at a time, in gymnasiums or other large buildings that have been converted into massive open dormitories.

Lower-security prisons are often designed with less restrictive features, confining prisoners at night in smaller locked dormitories or even cottage or cabin-like housing while permitting them freer movement around the grounds to work or activities during the day.

Security levels

Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick, Canada, part of Corrections Canada. Opened in 1880 as a maximum security prison, it now functions as a medium security facility.

SuperMax. As the name implies, the custody level goes beyond Maximum by segregating the "worst of the worst" criminals and terrorists who pose a threat to national security. These inmates have individual cells and are kept in lockdown for 23 hours per day. Meals are served through "chuck holes" in the cell door, and each inmate is permitted out of their cell for one hour of exercise per day, alone. They are permitted no contact with other inmates and are under constant surveillance via closed-circuit television cameras.

Maximum. A custody level in which both design and construction as well as inmate classification reflect the need to provide maximum external and internal control and supervision of inmates primarily through the use of high security perimeters and extensive use of internal physical barriers and check points. Inmates accorded this status present serious escape risks or pose serious threats to themselves, to other inmates, to staff, or the orderly running of the institution. Supervision of inmates is direct and constant.

Medium. A custody level in which design and construction as well as inmate classification reflect the need to provide secure external and internal control and supervision of inmates. Inmates accorded to this status may present a moderate escape risk or may pose a threat to other inmates, staff, or the orderly running of the institution. Supervision remains constant and direct. Through an inmate's willingness to comply with institutional rules and regulations, increased job and program opportunities exist.

Minimum. A custody level in which both the design and construction as well as inmate classification reflect the goal of returning to the inmate a greater sense of personal responsibility and autonomy while still providing for supervision and monitoring of behavior and activity. Inmates within this security level are not considered a serious risk to the safety of staff, inmates or to the public. Program participation is mandated and geared toward their potential reintegration into the community. Additional access to the community is limited and under constant direct staff supervision.

Pre-release. A custody level in which both design and construction as well as inmate classification reflect the goal of restoring to the inmate maximum responsibility and control of their own behavior and actions prior to their release. Direct supervision of these inmates is not required, but intermittent observation may be appropriate under certain conditions. Inmates within this level may be permitted to access the community unescorted to participate in programming to include, but not limited to, work release or educational release.



Prisons for juveniles (people under 17 or 18, depending on the jurisdiction) are known as young offender institutes or similar designation and hold minors who have been remanded into custody or serving sentence. Many countries have their own age of criminal responsibility in which children are deemed legally responsible for their actions for a crime. Countries such as Canada may try and sentence a juvenile as an adult, but have them serve their sentence in a juvenile facility until they reach the age of majority, at which time they would be transferred to an adult facility.


Prisons form part of military systems, and are used variously to house prisoners of war, unlawful combatants, those whose freedom is deemed a national security risk by military or civilian authorities, and members of the military found guilty of a serious crime.


Certain countries maintain or have in the past had a system of political prisons; arguably the gulags associated with Stalinism are best known.


Some psychiatric facilities have characteristics of prisons, especially when confining patients who have committed a crime and are considered dangerous. In addition, many prisons have psychiatric units dedicated to housing offenders diagnosed with a wide variety of mental disorders.


Meta-analysis of previous studies shows that prison sentences do not reduce future offenses, when compared to non-residential sanctions.[5] This meta-analysis of one hundred separate studies found that post-release offenses were around 7% higher after imprisonment compared with non-residential sanctions, at statistically significant levels. Another meta-analysis of 101 separate tests of the impact of prison on crime found a 3% increase in offending after imprisonment.[6] Longer periods of time in prison make outcomes worse, not better; offending increases by around 3% as prison sentences increase in length.[5]

Effective rehabilitation programs reduce the likelihood of re-offense and recidivism.[6] Effective programs are characterised by three things: first, they provide more hours for people with known offense risk factors (the Risk Principle); secondly, they address problems and needs that have a proven causal link to offending (the Needs Principle); and thirdly, they use cognitive-behavioural approaches to behaviour modification (the Responsivity Principle). Providing rehabilitation to people at lower risk of reoffending results in a 3% reduction in reoffending, while providing rehabilitation to people with a high risk of reoffending is three times as effective, resulting in a 10% reduction in subsequent offending.[6] Risk factors for reoffending are: age at first offense, number of prior offenses, level of family and personal problems in childhood and other historical factors, along with level of current needs related to offending. Those individuals who had many personal and family problems in childhood (particularly 19 or more), started offending before puberty, and have committed multiple priors are more likely to reoffend in future, according to longitudinal studies internationally.[7]

In support of the Needs Principle, programs that specifically target criminogenic needs (causal needs and problems), see a 19% reduction in reoffending.[6] In support of the Responsivity Principle, there is a 23% reduction in reoffending after participating in programs that use cognitive-behavioural methods to bring about changes in behaviour, thinking, and relationships.[6] When all three principles are effectively applied, the impact on offending is a 26–32% reduction,[6][8] compared to a 3–7% increase in offending found with imprisonment alone.

Residential approaches—whether in prison or some other live-in option—tend to be less effective than non-residential approaches.[6] These researchers found that effective programs delivered in the community were followed by a 35% reduction in reoffending, whereas effective programs delivered in residential settings (such as prisons and halfway houses) were followed by a 17% reduction in reoffending. One very likely reason for this is that for teens and adults, mixing with antisocial peers increases the risk of offending. In prison or residences inmates spend a great deal of time with other people immersed in criminal pursuits and beliefs, whereas in community-based programs there is more opportunity to mix with people involved in constructive, law-abiding activities. Antisocial peers in prisons and residences can form a very powerful pressure group, subtly and not so subtly influencing the behavior of other inmates.


Resocialization is a sociological concept dealing with the process of mentally and emotionally "re-training" a person so that he or she can operate in an environment other than that which he or she is accustomed to. Resocialization into a total institution involves a complete change of personality. Key examples include the process of resocializing new recruits into the military so that they can operate as soldiers (or, in other words, as members of a cohesive unit) and the reverse process, in which those who have become accustomed to such roles return to society after military.

Population statistics

World map showing number of prisoners per 100,000 citizens

As of 2006, it is estimated that at least 9.25 million people are currently imprisoned worldwide.[9] It is believed that this number is likely to be much higher, in view of general under-reporting and a lack of data from various countries, especially authoritarian regimes.

In absolute terms, the United States currently has the largest inmate population in the world, with more than 2½ million[10] or more than one in a hundred adults[11] in prison and jails. Although the United States represents less than 5% of the world's population, over 25% of the people incarcerated around the world are housed in the American prison system. Pulitzer Prize winning author Joseph T. Hallinan wrote in his book Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation, "so common is the prison experience that the federal government predicts one in eleven men will be incarcerated in his lifetime, one in four if he is black." In 2002, both Russia and China also had prison populations in excess of 1 million.[12] By October 2006, the Russian prison population declined to 869,814 which translated into 611 prisoners per 100,000 population.

As a percentage of total population, the United States also has the largest imprisoned population, with 739 people per 100,000 serving time, awaiting trial or otherwise detained.[13]

In March 2007, the United Kingdom had 80,000 inmates (up from 73,000 in 2003 and 44,000 in 1985) in its facilities, one of the highest rates among the western members of the European Union (EU) (a record formerly held by Portugal). The highest imprisonment rates among the larger EU members include that of Poland, which in August 2007 had about 90,000 inmates, i.e. 234 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants,[14] while the highest rates are in the Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with estimated rates of 240, 292 and 333 respectively in 2006.[13]

The high proportion of prisoners in some developed countries is from various causes, but the attitude toward drug-taking plays a considerable part. In undeveloped countries, rates of incarceration are often lower, though this is not a rule. In general, such societies have less goods to steal and a more community based social system, with less judicial law-enforcement. Also their economies may not support the high cost of incarceration.

Prison population per 100,000 inhabitants[9]
United States
of America
Netherlands Australia Canada Italy South Korea Germany Turkey France Sweden Denmark Japan Iceland India
756[15] 611 186 148 128 157 107 104 104 95 91 85 82 77 62 40 22


The main cell block of Fremantle Prison, Western Australia.

Asia and Oceania


Many prisons in Australia were built by convict labour in the 1800s. During the 1990s, various state governments in Australia engaged private sector correctional corporations to build and operate prisons whilst several older government run institutions were decommissioned. Operation of Federal detention centres was also privatised at a time when a large influx of illegal immigrants began to arrive in Australia.

New Zealand
Mount Eden Prison is a 19th century brick stockade located just south of the Auckland CBD, a very populous (and affluent) neighbourhood of Mt Eden in Auckland, New Zealand.

New Zealand currently maintains 19 prisons around the country. The Department of Corrections has an annual budget of NZD$748 million and assets worth over NZD$1.7 billion. Official statistics show (as of June 30, 2007) that there are currently 7,605 prisoners within the New Zealand correctional system. (5,490 Sentenced Prisoners and 1,552 Remanded Prisoners) + 5,795 staff. Breakouts are only at 0.15 per 100 prisoners and there is a rate of only 15% positive drug results during random drug testing in NZ prisons.[16]



France has 194 prisons in mainland and the overseas territories. As of 1 January 2009, statistics showed approximately 52,000 available places, with around 58,000 "hosted" prisoners.[17] France is home to Fleury-Mérogis Prison, Europe's largest correctional facility.


Germany has 194 prisons (of which 19 are open institutions). Official statistics showed 80,214 places on March 31, 2007. On the same day, there were 75,719 prisoners (of which 13,168 pre-trial; 60,619 serving sentences; 1,932 others, i.e. mainly civil prisoners; 4,068 were female). This is less than the highest value of 81,176 prisoners on March 31, 2003.[18][19]


Most jails in the Republic of Ireland were built in the 19th century, including Kilmainham Gaol (no longer in use), Mountjoy Prison and Portlaoise Prison. A new €30m prison is planned at Thornton Hall to replace Mountjoy.


As of the end of August 2007, Poland officially declared 90,199 prisoners (13,374 pre-trial; 76,434 serving sentences; 391 others; 2,743 prisoners were female), giving an imprisonment rate per 100,000 inhabitants of about 234. The overpopulation rate (number of prisoners held compared to number of places for prisoners) was estimated by the official prison service as 119%.[14]

The growth rate of imprisonment in Poland during 2006–2007 was approximately 4% annually, based on the August 2007 estimate of 90,199 prisoners and the June 2005 estimate of 82,572 prisoners.[20]


Prisons in Turkey are classified as closed, semi-open and open prisons. Closed prisons are separated into different kinds according to its structure and the number of prisoners held. Examples are A type, B type, E type and F type. F types are high security prisons, known in the USA as Supermax.

United Kingdom
England and Wales
Northern Ireland

North America


The 52 penitentiaries in Canada are operated by the federal government, and are for those who have been sentenced to serve more than 2 years of custody. The boundary of two years separating provincial and federal custody underlies the sentencing of some offenders to "two years less a day", so they can serve their sentences in provincial correctional institutions.


Jails in the United States

In the United States penal system, a jail is a correctional institution used to detain persons who are in the lawful custody of the state, including accused persons awaiting trial and those who have been convicted of a crime and are serving a sentence of less than one year.[21][22] Jails are generally small penitentiaries run by individual counties and cities,[22] though some jails in larger communities may be as large and hold as many inmates as regular prisons. As with prisons, some jails have different wings for certain types of offenders, and have work programs for inmates who demonstrate good behavior.

Jails are typically operated by city or county governments, and house prisoners who are being detained before trial or serving sentences less than one year.[23] Approximately half of the U.S. jail population consists of pretrial detainees who have not been convicted or sentenced. Prisoners serving terms longer than one year are typically housed in correctional facilities operated by state governments. Unlike most state prisons, a jail usually houses both men and women in separate portions of the same facility. Some jails lease space to house inmates from the federal government, state prisons or from other counties for profit.

In 2005, a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 62 percent of people in jails have not been convicted, meaning many of them are awaiting trial.[24] As of 2005, local jails held or supervised 819,434 individuals. Nine percent of these individuals were in programs such as community service, work release, weekend reporting, electronic monitoring, and other alternative programs.[22]

In the United States, as compared to regular 'mainline' state and federal prisons, in which prisoners have already been investigated and classified by corrections personnel before being assigned to a level of security, in which many of the prisoners are committed for longer periods of time, and in which the population is on average older, jails usually house prisoners who are on average younger and have varying or unknown histories and propensities for violence or disciplinary problems. As a result, many jails operate their booking and receiving units at a relatively high level of correctional security, and also witness a disproportionately large amount of violence and disciplinary problems as compared to mainline facilities.


There are three main management styles common in most U. S. jails. The first and oldest style is Intermittent Surveillance. Intermittent Surveillance involves rows of cells along security corridors. These corridors are patrolled by staff providing periodic observation. Most problems occur between these intermittent patrols. The second supervisory style is Remote Surveillance. Remote Surveillance involves cells and their corresponding dayrooms divided into "pods" which are under constant supervision by jail staff from a central control room. Staff in the central control room commonly observe three to four "pods" at one time. The third and most recently conceived supervisory style is Direct Supervision.[25] Direct Supervision involves a dayroom with numerous cells under constant and direct supervision by staff who are stationed inside the housing unit. Staff are constantly interacting with inmates and controlling inmate behavior. The success of Direct Supervision relies on the staff's ability to control this behavior and for facility management to create detention environments that facilitate the staff's effectiveness. This style is also the most cost effective of the three.[25]

See also


  1. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary, retrieved on 2009-10-12.
  2. ^  "Prisons". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  3. ^ Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. Penguin: London(2001).
  4. ^ International Profile of Women’s Prisons (144p), International Centre for Prison Studies, April 2008
  5. ^ a b Smith et al., 2002.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Andrews and Bonta, 2003.
  7. ^ e.g., Moffit T E, Caspi A, Harrington H and Milne B J (2002) Males on the life-course persistent and adolescence-limited pathways: Follow-up at age 26, Development and Psychopathology, 14: 179–207.
  8. ^ Andrews et al., 1990.
  9. ^ a b Walmsley, Roy (October 2006). "World Prison Population List (Seventh Edition)" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-12-15. 
  10. ^ Harrison, Paige M., Allen J. Beck (June 2006). "Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2005". Bureau of Justice Statistics. 
  11. ^ "One in100: Behind Bars in America 2008" (PDF). Pew Charitable Trusts. 2008-02-28. Retrieved 2008-02-29. 
  12. ^ "Prison population statistics". Retrieved 2007-10-04. 
  13. ^ a b "World Prison Population List (Seventh Edition)" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-07-22. 
  14. ^ a b "Statistics - August 2007" (in Polish) (pdf). Prison Service, Poland (Służba Więzienna). August 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-07. 
  15. ^ This value includes 501 prisoners per 100,000 in prisons ("US Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisons". 2005. Retrieved 2007-12-15. ) and 256 prisoners per 100,000 in jails ("US Bureau of Justice Statistics, Jails". June 2006. Retrieved 2007-12-15. ).
  16. ^ Corrections Department NZ - Facts and statistics.
  17. ^ "Les Chiffres Clés de l’Administration Pénitentiaire" (in French) (pdf). Ministère de la Justice. 2009-06-02. Retrieved 2009-11-24. 
  18. ^ Official Prison Statistics of Germany (from the German statistics office).
  19. ^ Prison Archive (from the University of Bremen).
  20. ^ "Statistics June 2006" (in Polish) (pdf). Prison Service, Poland (Służba Więzienna). June 2006. Retrieved 2007-10-07. 
  21. ^ "Glossary of Terms Commonly Used in Court". The Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia. 2003-12-16. Retrieved 2007-04-21. 
  22. ^ a b c "Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2005". Bureau of Justice Statistics. 
  23. ^ Doris J. James, Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002, 2 (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2002) available online.
  24. ^ Number of US Inmates Rises Two Percent, By Elizabeth White, The Associated Press, Monday 22 May 2006
  25. ^ a b Stephen I. Saunders, III, Direct Supervision Jails: A Management Model for the 21st Century, 1990.

Further reading

  • Carlson, Peter M.; Garrett, Judith Simon, Prison and Jail Administration: Practice and Theory, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 1999.
  • David Denborough, Beyond the Prison: Gathering Dreams of Freedom, Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications 1996.
  • Diiulio, John J., Governing Prisons: A Comparative Study of Correctional Management, Simon and Schuster, 1990. ISBN 0029078830.
  • George Jackson, Soledad brother, ISBN 978-1556522307.
  • Heinz Sobota, Der Minus-Mann. Heyne Verlag 1980, ISBN 345301111.
  • James (Jim) Bruton, Big House: Life Inside a Supermax Security Prison, Voyageur Press (July, 2004), hardcover, 192 pages, ISBN 0-89658-039-3.
  • Marek M. Kaminski (2004) Games Prisoners Play. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11721-7.
  • Mark L. Taylor. The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2001. ISBN 0-8006-3283-4.
  • Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Random House 1975.
  • Paula C. Johnson, Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison, New York University Press 2004.
  • Stover H, "Overview study. An assistance to drug users in European prisons", "EMCDDA", 2001, 305p, ISBN 1 902114 03 5.
  • Ted Conover. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. Knopf, 2001. Trade paperback, 352 pages, ISBN 0-375-72662-4.

External links

Simple English

The term "county jail" is used in the United States for jails maintained to hold prisoners in each of the many county divisions of a U.S. state. People will be moved into a county jail from various city jails, or from being handcuffed to building structures after they are arrested. A county jail is often larger, or more secure, than many city jails (depending on the size of the city). Also, a county jail may include many buildings, or various branches, perhaps miles apart from each other.

Typically, each county jail is maintained by a "sheriff's department" run by the current sheriff and his deputy officers. They form a separate group from the city police, or town police departments, in a county.

In accordance with legal rights, a county jail will have some private cells to hold especially violent or controversial suspects, to protect others from them or them from being targeted by the general population of the jail. Also, a county jail will be subject to medical or health restrictions, such as providing air conditioners or Kosher foods, since many detainees are still presumed innocent and are not yet proven to be "criminals". Some innocent people might wait 2 years in a county jail, awaiting a criminal trial, while unable to bond out by posting a "bail bond" (depending on the nature of the criminal charges against them).

When people are convicted of a felony, then they will be moved from the county jail (perhaps within a few days) to a state prison (or penitentiary) which typically only contains convicted people (and only relatively few of them would be actually innocent by being misjudged as "guilty"). Hence, the U.S. state prisons typically contain mostly "hardened criminals" who have actually committed numerous major crimes, while a county jail might contain many innocent people, or first-time offenders, who do not have a severe criminal mindset.

Because the prisons (or penitentiaries) are for punishment of offenders (convicted felons), the living conditions might be lower, such as lacking air conditioning or heating, or having poor food. Also, some convicts, imprisoned for 1 or more years, might be likely to steal from others, so each person might be allowed to have a padlock to put food in a locker, but there is no guarantee that others would not threaten or trick a person to open the locker to allow items to be taken by force or distraction. In the county jail, people are held for court sessions or punishment of misdemeanors (lesser offenses), so there is less chance of meeting hardened thieves. However, a prison puts many convicts to work, to reduce the labor cost of maintaining the prison, so each convict might have more ability to move around the prison complex, compared to inmates in a county jail, where most of them might not be working but simply waiting to be freed.

For those reasons, a county jail is often very different, as to both structure and occupants, from a prison.

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