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What’s the difference between jail, prison, and penitentiary?

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The Answer

A jail is a holding place for those awaiting trial.

Prisons and penitentiaries are basically the same – places where a convict is confined for the duration of their sentence.

In our ongoing quest to reveal the differences between apparent synonyms, this week we look at the difference between a jail, a prison, and a penitentiary.

Here at Wisdom Biscuits hope that you never end up at any of these institutions, but just in case, it’s worth knowing which is which.

So let’s check with our friends Mirriam and Webster.

jail \ ˈjāl \ noun

: a place of confinement for persons held in lawful custody

specifically : such a place under the jurisdiction of a local government (such as a county) for the confinement of persons awaiting trial or those convicted of minor crimes

Jail | Definition of Jail by Merriam-Webster

pris​on | \ ˈpri-zᵊn \ noun

: a place of confinement especially for lawbreakers

specifically : an institution (such as one under state jurisdiction) for confinement of persons convicted of serious crimes

Prison | Definition of Prison by Merriam-Webster

pen​i​ten​tia​ry| \ ˌpe-nə-ˈten(t)-sh(ə-)rē \

: a public institution in which offenders against the law are confined for detention or punishment

specifically : a state or federal prison in the U.S.

Penitentiary | Definition of Penitentiary by Merriam-Webster

We can take from this that prison and penitentiary are basically synonyms, but jail is a different kind of institution.

What are some fun names for places of detention?

Courtesy of some folks on Quora, here’s a fun list of nicknames. Someday I may explore the origins of some of these because I’m very curious where names like hoosgow and calaboose come from.

“hoosegow, mainline joint, skinner joint, Stoney lonesome, con college, glasshouse, bucket, club fed, grey bar hotel, big house, slammer, calaboose, castle, cooler, country club, crowbar hotel, digger, farm, guardhouse, hole, joint, jug, juvie, pen, pokey, rock, sneezer, stockade, the clink”

Okay, I couldn’t resist, Hoosegow comes from a Spanish word  juzgado meaning a “panel of judges, courtroom.” In the American west jails often shared the same location with courthouses. Calaboose comes from the Spanish word calabozo, meaning “dungeon.”

How is jail spelled in Britain?

Most Brits spell it jail the way we do in North America. However, the older spelling – gaol – is still used in some instances, but it is typically found only in historical references or in the names of older jails (gaols). The two words have the same Latin roots.

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