The Differences Between Correctional Facilities & Detention Centers

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The United States is home to the largest detention system in the world. The criminal justice system in this country is so complex that it is difficult for anyone to know exactly how many people are detained in the system at a given time, but best estimates say that the number is about 2.3 million people.

While some may refer to these inmates as prisoners, not all of them stay in prisons. This complex system has several types of facilities. Understanding the differences between them can help people better navigate the U.S. criminal justice system.

Understanding Terminology About Incarceration

While many people outside the justice system use the terms detention center and correctional facility, these are not clearly defined phrases. In fact, media organizations often use the terms interchangeably. However, this does not mean that all incarceration facilities are the same.

There are three main types of facilities in the country's criminal justice system:

  • Lockups.
  • Jails.
  • Prisons.

Lockups typically hold people only for a day or so. These cells are typically housed in police or sheriffs' offices. Law enforcement may hold people in these cells if they were found driving under the influence and keep them there until they are sober enough to leave. They also use lockups to detain juvenile offenders until their parents can pick them up.

Jails typically house people who are awaiting trial or sentencing, as well as people who earn sentences of less than one year. Prisons are for convicted people with longer sentences.

Types of Detention Centers

Although the term detention center does not have an official meaning, it is often used to refer to adult jails. This is because the main goal of a jail is to detain people who have not yet been convicted, rather than to correct people with convictions.

People may wait in jails or detention centers if they cannot pay for bail or if the judge does not grant bail. They may also wait there if they have been convicted of a crime but are awaiting sentencing. Jails are typically managed by local municipalities, such as cities and counties.

Incarceration centers that house minors are often called juvenile detention centers. Juvenile offenders in these facilities may be awaiting trial or already have convictions. About 53,000 young people in the United States live in juvenile detention centers.

Immigration Detention Centers

Immigration detention centers are another type of incarceration facility. People in these centers are accused of entering the country illegally. These people go through a different system than do U.S. citizens in jails and prisons. Latest estimates report that there are at least 1,000 immigrant detention centers in the United States.

Types of Correctional Facilities

The term correctional facilities most often refers to prisons or juvenile centers. That's because these facilities are supposed to rehabilitate inmates and change their behaviors, rather than to simply detain them. The Federal Bureau of Prisons identifies six types of prisons:

  • Minimum.
  • Low.
  • Medium.
  • High.
  • Complex.
  • Administrative.

Minimum-security prisons, also called federal prison camps, use dormitory-style housing and limited fencing. This type of prison has the lowest guard-to-inmate ratio and generally houses low-risk offenders. Low-security prisons also use dormitory housing, but have slightly higher security standards.

Medium-security prisons have double fences, electronic detection systems and cell housing. Inmates have access to several rehabilitative programs and have some freedom of movement during the day. United States penitentiaries, or high-security prisons, have the most security and high guard-to-inmate ratios.

Complex prisons have several types of prisons on one property. Administrative correctional facilities house specific populations of inmates. For example, an administrative facility may focus on detaining offenders with serious mental illnesses, those who are known to try to escape or particularly dangerous criminals.


  • The terms correctional facility and detention center do not have legal definitions. However, there are several types of incarceration facilities that house different types of inmates.