Legal Studies 3080

Section 4 - After the Trial

Lesson 3: The Prison System



Jails, Prisons, and Penitentiaries

"Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.00." If those words are familiar to you, you have played Monopoly; but even if you have never played Monopoly, you are likely familiar with the idea that criminals go to jail. Incarceration is still the most common penalty for those who commit criminal offences, and Canada has one of the world's highest incarceration rates.


But what exactly is a jail? Is it different from a prison or a penitentiary? What about places like remand centres, detention centres, community corrections centres, and other sorts of correctional facilities that you hear about on the news? How do these places differ, and how is it decided who goes where?

People often use terms like jails and prisons as if they mean exactly the same thing, but technically there are differences. The discussion that follows will make this clear. Note, however, that while these terms do have different meanings when used technically, frequently in this course the words prison and jail are used in their everyday, non-technical sense.


A useful generic term for a place where a criminal is incarcerated is correctional institution. In Canada, there are three types of correctional institutions: jails, prisons, and penitentiaries:


  • Jails are technically places of temporary detention. Operated by the province's Correctional Services, jails include police "lock-ups" where people who have been arrested are held for a very brief time and detention centres (or remand centres ) where people who have been sentenced to a term of 30 days or less are kept.
  • Prisons are also institutions operated by the province. Those sentenced to terms of more than 30 days and up to two years are placed in prison.
  • Penitentiaries, unlike jails and prisons, are run by the federal government and operated by the Correctional Service of Canada. People sentenced to serve terms of more than two years are sent to a federal penitentiary.


Federal institutions are divided into four types depending on the level of security they offer:

  • Maximum-security institutions are for inmates considered dangerous to the public.
  • Medium-security institutions house inmates who are not considered dangerous but would likely try to escape if given the chance.
  • Minimum-security institutions are penitentiaries for inmates who are not considered likely to try to escape. Relatively few federal prisoners are in minimum-security institutions.
  • Community Corrections Centres have the lowest degree of security of all federal institutions.


After sentencing, inmates assigned to federal penitentiaries are assessed and placed in the type of institution deemed appropriate. Each inmate is provided with a group of people who will be responsible for his or her physical, medical, emotional, and psychological welfare. They are there to assess the prisoner's situation and ensure that any necessary rehabilitation programs are provided. The inmate's life will be very structured, with specific times for wake-up, meals, study, and so on.