Differences Between Prisoners and Inmates

face of a prisoner

In the U.S. prior to 1970, the number of persons confined in mental hospitals was significantly greater than the number of persons in prisons. When considering the relationship between incarceration and other social macro-phenomenon, one might aggregate prisoners (persons confined by the justice system) with persons confined in mental hospitals.^ More generally, confinement and institutionalization are concepts relevant not just to prisons, but also to mental hospitals, the armed forces, nursing homes, and perhaps even academia. Nonetheless, within the political administration of their lives and within public deliberation, prisoners have a distinctive communicative position relative to other institutionalized and non-institutionalized persons.

In the U.S., the term “prisoner” typically is used for persons confined in federal and state prisons. The term “inmate” is typically used for persons confined in local and county jails or detention centers. Inmate is sometimes used for persons confined in prisons. Inmate is now rarely used for persons residing in non-penal institutions. Despite the difference in usage of the terms prisoner and inmate, the distinction between prisons and jails is not well-defined within the U.S., nor in other countries. To simplify terminology and to highlight a distinctive communicative position, in this work we use “prisoner” to refer to all persons authoritatively confined for violation of public law.

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