The Difference in Prisons and Jails

The Difference in Prisons and Jails


Our criminal justice system is made up of a variety of correctional and detention facilities but is centered on America’s 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons and 3,134 local jails.  

While both jails and prisons are used for incarceration, there are important distinctions between the two, both administrative and subjective. David Rodriguez, a case manager in Fortune’s Prepare for Release department, pulls from his direct experience of being incarcerated and now going into New York City jails as part of his job, to illustrate that difference.

“[In jails] people are just waiting to see what is going to happen with their case, so there is a lot going on with them mentally because they don’t know what to expect,” said David. “Whereas upstate [in prison], they are already sentenced and have already kind of accepted the time. They’re in school, some are in college, are doing different programs. They know when they are going to be going home.”

The turnover in prisons and jails also contributes to the environment of each space: 10.6 million people go to jail each year and can be detained for a variety of reasons. Some have been convicted of a misdemeanor offense, while many have yet to be convicted and are awaiting their trial. Many remain in jail only because they do not have the means to supply their bail – all factors culminating in a high turnover rate.  

David shares that the temporary nature of jails can result in untreated mental health issues and sparse access to transformative programming and resources.  

Fortune’s Prepare for Release program notices the volatile nature of jail and the emotional toll for those serving shorter-term sentences. Thus, the program’s jail-based services allow Fortune’s staff to create a safe space and build a sense of trust with participants. 

“It is really nice to be able to go inside and build that connection with people prior to them being released,” said Director of Community Services Jordan Perry. “And then they know faces that are going to be in their community. As soon as they walk out, they can say ‘I know this person, they told me they were going to be there and they’re here and that makes them that much less stressed.’”

In contrast, although services and programs differ state to state, and prison to prison, there are more opportunities in prisons, like receiving a high school equivalency diploma, participating in parenting classes, or taking college courses, as the majority of people incarcerated in prisons are staying for longer terms.  

There are nearly 1.4 million people in state and federal prisons in a given year, with over 600,000 entering annually. People transitioning out of prisons have different needs than those coming home from jail, too, largely because prisons are reserved for those who have already been convicted and are serving longer sentences.   

Jordan notes that these needs can include skills we may take for granted such as figuring out how to use a smartphone or send an email before even being able to look for meaningful employment. Fortune is always looking for specific ways to provide for these needs, and Jordan and her team are currently discussing and planning for workshops that would prepare people transitioning from jail to prison, and those leaving prison for home.  

Beyond hard skills, there are also emotional transitions related to coming home from prison, and Jordan has seen these difficult adjustments firsthand:

“I have had interns [at Fortune] who have been incarcerated for, like, 30 years. You are adjusting not only to being out of confined walls but learning how to trust people again. When you are in a state of constantly being in a potentially violent space, it is a huge adjustment to just go into a workplace setting where you are told you have to trust people you don’t know.”

Jordan shares that part of what makes Fortune so powerful is the appreciation for and understanding of what justice-involved individuals have experienced while incarcerated.

“We allow them this grace period to meet the people they are working with. [The people here] are willing to give you grace, and see the value in you, even if you are struggling. That is a special component of Fortune.”

Share this Event
Learn how Fortune Society can help you