Prisoner Rights: Jails vs. Prisons

Jails vs. Prisons
By Aaron Jophlin

As most people are aware, prisoners have rights as stipulated by the U.S. Constitution. However, we have found that many prisoners and their families are often confused about the differences between jails and prisons. Some assume they mean the same thing. Others are unclear as to what their rights are regarding jails or prisons. My goal is to clarify these differences and discuss some of the rights common to both.

Jail: short-term incarceration

Jails are generally for short-term use, in particular, for holding individuals awaiting trial, or serving a short sentence (less than one year). Jails are most often run by the local authorities, such as the sheriff or county government. The purpose of a jail is, by nature, temporary—to detain someone as they await a trial date or transportation to a prison once they’re convicted.

Prison: long-term incarceration

Prisons—which are run by either State or Federal government—house individuals who have been tried, convicted, and sentenced by a court of law for the following crimes: murder, rape, robbery, drug trafficking, mass crime, immigration violation, violent crimes, and more. Depending on the type of crime, a convicted individual will serve his or her time in either a State or Federal prison.

Did you know?

There are roughly 3,600 jails in the U.S. and some 100 federal prisons and correctional institutions.

Do inmates in jail and prison have the same rights?

In short, yes. However there are certain institutional distinctions between the two that a seasoned lawyer can address specifically. One of the major problems with both is overcrowding. Far too many individuals are incarcerated in both jails and prisons and that compromise each inmate’s health, safety, and human dignity. The potential abuses are many: often inmates are held in solitary confinement for too long, or subjected to medical and mental neglect, or inferior health care services,


The United States is the only democracy in the world that has no independent authority to monitor prison conditions and enforce minimal standards of health and safety.

Inmate Health Care Rights

Declining health, both mental and physical, is rampant in jails and prisons. Individuals, regardless of age or sex or race, suffer from inadequate health care that can have dire effects. Chronic illnesses and emergencies can result in permanent harm or death if not treated properly and consistently. The Constitution clearly stipulates that all inmates have the right to needed and accessible health care. Not providing either amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in the eyes of the court.

Inmate Civil Liberties

Whether in jail awaiting trial or in prison having been convicted of Federal crime, inmates have basic rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, including the right to free speech, the right to practice freedom of religion, and the right to access legal counsel and the court system. Nevertheless, both jails and prisons frequently deny these civil liberties either through neglect, accident, or willful intent. Quite often inmates are isolated and prevented from outside communication with family or legal counsel.

Have your rights, or those of a family member, been compromised?

Most prison negligence cases go unreported. Either through lack of understanding or lack or awareness, families of inmates are victims of a system that largely ignores the rights of prisoners. That’s why it is important for you to speak up and seek legal counsel if you have any questions whatsoever, or if you suspect negligence of any kind. Both jails and prisons are obligated by law to operate according to certain standards in order to provide adequate care to prisoners. The problem, however, is that these facilities often lack the financial resources or staff necessary to provide appropriate care. Please let us know if we can be of help to you or a loved one. Make sure your rights are protected.

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