Difference between a Prison and a Penitentiary

By: | Updated: Feb-7, 2018

Police terms vary in context and meaning. However, there is no marked difference between a prison and a penitentiary and they can be used interchangeably.


A photo of the Eastern State Penitentiary

A prison is a highly secured facility for those who have been convicted of a criminal offense. By definition, it is a place where inmates are forcefully confined as a form of punishment rendered by the state. Inside a prison, the freedom of inmates is curtailed, along with their sense of control and privacy.

A prison is operated by either the federal government or a state government. Also known as penitentiary, it houses inmates that need to be incarcerated.

Unlike detention centers and jails, a prison is a secured institution that houses convicted criminal offenders serving a longer sentence. Since this is the case, prisons were built and designed with facilities suited for longer confinement.

In an event of a criminal offense, people who are waiting for their pending trial or plea are sent to a jail. Once proven guilty of a felony criminal offense, inmates are transferred to a prison to serve the duration of their sentence. Those who were given a shorter sentence for a misdemeanor criminal offense, on the other hand, are typically confined in a jail.

Prisons are used to lock dangerous people away from the society. Since they are incarcerated, convicted criminal offenders cannot commit violent crimes and cause harm to others. In some instances, prisons serve to rehabilitate offenders so they can develop new knowledge and skills. This way, they can successfully return to their society once their sentence ends.

In the United States, prisons are categorized into three types: minimum, maximum and medium security levels. Bearing resemblance to a college campus, minimum security facilities house  less violent offenders that have a cleaner police record, along with those who were transferred from a higher security prison due to their good conduct and behavior.

Meanwhile, a medium security prison constraints the freedom of housemates more than a minimum security prison does. Still, these facilities usually do not use cells to confine inmates. Instead, they use dormitories.

Maximum security prisons are the ultimate prison cell as these facilities are surrounded by high, defensive walls with razor wires. They are guarded by highly armed officers because they house the most violent law offenders.


Since the word “prison” is synonymous to “penitentiary,” there is no difference between the two.

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