By Jed McKeehan

When I speak with individuals who do not work in the legal field (and sometimes even when they do), they will use the terms “jail” and “prison” interchangeably.  The terms “attorney” and “lawyer” mean the same thing, do “jail” and “prison” mean the same thing?  No, they do not.

Jails are usually owned and run by counties, and are generally designed for individuals awaiting trial or serving short periods of time in jail.  Typically, less than one year.  So if someone is sentenced to serve 30 days, 90 days, or even 9 months, more than likely they will be serving that time in jail, and not prison.

Jails have individuals coming in and out all of the time.  When someone is arrested for committing a crime, they are taken to jail, not prison.  Individuals who have just been arrested typically have a few court dates fairly quickly, and the jail is better suited and more familiar with transporting individuals to and from the courthouse for court dates.  Sometimes the courthouse and jail are in the same building (Loudon and Campbell Counties) or right across the street from each other (Sevier and Blount Counties)!

Prison on the other hand is designed for individuals who were either found guilty or who pled guilty and are staying behind bars for a significant period of time.  Prisons are run by the state or the federal bureau of prisons.  The conditions for the individuals in prison are usually better than they are for individuals in jail.  Jails are often overcrowded with individuals sleeping on the floor, and barely having anything to eat.  Prisons, on the other hand, are better funded and are enormous complexes that generally have better programs designed for rehabilitating individuals.  Often, individuals prefer their stay in prison to their time in jail due to these factors.

While every county in Tennessee has a jail, there are only a handful of prisons in the state, the closest one to Knoxville, being outside of Wartburg.


Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties.  He works in many areas, including criminal, personal injury, landlord-tenant, probate, and estate planning. Visit for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.