Understanding the Differences

Jail or Prison Ministry?

While people tend to lump both jail ministry and prison ministry together, in reality there are significant differences. These differences are largely due to the differences between the purposes of jail facilities and prison facilities. 

Jails are places where people are detained while awaiting adjudication of their criminal charges. Prisons are places where people are sent to serve time after being convicted of a crime.

Jail or Prison Ministry? 1

The worst prison
would be a closed heart.

- Pope John Paul II -


Jails are places where men and women are detained while awaiting adjudication of their criminal charges. After arrest, if they are not able to find money for bail and are not release on their “own recognizance” they have to remain in detention until their trial. Jail residents are “detainees” not “prisoners.”

Detainees are people who are have not yet been found guilty of a crime. Detainees are often people caught up in our immigration and detention system. They may have been charged with a crime, or they may just be awaiting action from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), a part of the Department of Homeland Security.

For detainees there are often more urgent issues confronting them – they have been quickly removed from their daily lives- they may have child care and custody concerns, job and property concerns, even pet care. They may be detoxing and sick from active addiction. There is often a level of desperation in jail detainees that challenges the volunteer or chaplain because the needs are so immediate, demanding and plentiful. The experience of being in jail is akin to being in the emergency room of a hospital awaiting triage. Detainees are living in a state of crisis, even shock. They are not sure how long they will be in jail or perhaps beyond that in prison.

Crimes for which people are held in detention range from cases of drug possession, prostitution, burglary to assault and murder. People in jail are often there for the first time, though the majority of urban jail detainees are men and women who have chronic problems of drug addiction and/or mental illness and have done time in jails or prisons already. People with a wide range of personal problems and a wide range of criminal charges are thrown together into a chaotic environment. Streetwise detainees are mixed with people who have never been in trouble before. Fear and anxiety are ever present realities.

Jails are therefore somewhat more unpredictable and unstable environments. The amount of services offered to detainees in terms of mental health, education and religious programming can vary considerably from one county jail to another. Each county is generally a separate entity under the administration of a sheriff who is usually an elected official. Since the primary mission of a jail is to safely house detainees awaiting trial, the focus of the mission is not necessarily going to be on rehabilitation.

The crisis environment and the lack of stability can be an asset for Jail Chaplains. Often men and women who find themselves in jail are in crisis and seek out any guidance and help. Chaplains in these environments must have the basic skills to listen and counsel men and women in crisis. Because there is a fairly rapid turnover in the population and the stays in jails are generally much shorter than for those serving time in prisons, the Jail chaplains may only meet with detainees a few times before they are sentenced, released or moved.

Jail Officers have a somewhat different perspective than Correctional Officers in prisons. This affects how religious programming is offered in Jails. The kinds of services Jail chaplains and volunteers can offer are more limited than they may be in a state prison system. Most modern jails lack chapel space so volunteers must improvise and use whatever spaces are permitted.


After conviction, people who were detainees are now considered prisoners (the word convict comes from the idea that they have been convicted of a crime.) They normally are brought directly to prison from the courthouse. For people going to prison for the first time, it is particularly frightening and traumatic experience. But even for men and women who have done time, the experience of being re-imprisoned is traumatic, depressing and evokes feelings of shame and grief and loss.

While prison ministry is similar to working with detainees, there are significant differences. In prison you are likely to have continuous contact over months and years with the same people. It is possible to get to know them very well and to mentor and help them over time.

There are also greater boundary concerns with longer-term prisoners. People seeking to begin ministry in prison should always be mentored by more experienced chaplains and volunteers. Prison conditions vary widely from state to state. Prisons are usually accredited by the American Correctional Association. They have humane and stringent guidelines for the operation of prisons. Prison systems vary in the degree to which they meet ACA standards.

Jail or Prison Ministry? 1

We forget that we are all sinners and often, without being aware of it. We, too, are prisoners.

- Pope Francis -