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What Is a Typical Day in Jail?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

Many inmates who have spent time in jail will describe it as exceptionally boring, and for good reason: activities are minimal, and most of the day is spent sitting around doing nothing. In many parts of the world, jail is a different level of incarceration than prison, so a typical day in jail will be different in many ways from that of a day in prison. Jails often hold prisoners for short stays, very often at the local or county level, while prisons hold inmates for longer periods of time — years, decades, or even lifetimes — and criminals who are to be prosecuted at the federal level.

A typical day in jail can begin with a new prisoner turning himself in to police or otherwise being detained. He or she will be booked, and all of the prisoner's belongings will be confiscated; they will be returned upon release. He or she will then be put into a holding area while processing is completed, and the prisoner may then be given a medical check to ensure he or she is healthy enough to be held in a jail with other prisoners. Once all the preliminary registration is complete, the prisoner may or may not be issued prison clothing.

Activities are minimal in jail.
Activities are minimal in jail.

A prisoner will be assigned to a specific pod, or holding area, in which several jail cells may be located. The jail cell will contain a bed, toilet, and sink; otherwise, the cell will be very bare. A common area is often located in the center of the pod, with the cells lining the perimeter of the pod. The common area will feature tables and chairs, which are almost always bolted to the floor to avoid violent behavior and injuries. Many common areas will have a television set up for prisoners to watch, though the television will be controlled by the guard on duty. This common area is where a prisoner will spent most of his day.

Jails are meant to hold people for short periods of time, so activites are scarce.
Jails are meant to hold people for short periods of time, so activites are scarce.

Stints in jails are usually limited to about 45 days, though many inmates will spend far less time than that in the jail. He or she may be locked up for only a few hours, or he or she may spend the entire 45 days in the facility. Either way, the time spent in jails is quite boring, since there is little to do but watch television, talk to other inmates, sleep, and otherwise bide one's time until his or her sentence is completed.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does an average day in jail involve?

In some U.S. jurisdictions, people serving one year or less are housed in jail rather than prison.
In some U.S. jurisdictions, people serving one year or less are housed in jail rather than prison.

A normal day in jail begins with the serving of food early in the morning. The prisoners then have time for exercise and personal cleanliness, followed by a variety of organized activities such as job programs, educational classes, and counseling sessions. Meals are served at predetermined intervals, and the day concludes with a predetermined lights-out period.

What kind of job do prisoners perform in jail during the day?

Inmates may be allocated to a variety of work programs, including kitchen duty, cleaning, laundry, and maintenance work. These programs act as a type of rehabilitation and can assist prisoners in acquiring skills that will be useful upon their release.

Are there educational possibilities for inmates while they are incarcerated?

Certainly, numerous jails provide educational possibilities like GED classes, vocational training, and college-level courses. These programs aim to increase inmates' employment opportunities and reduce their chance of recidivism.

What is the policy for visiting jail inmates?

In general, relatives and friends may visit convicts during authorized visiting hours, but visitation restrictions differ by facility. Typically, visitors must adhere to particular restrictions and regulations, such as dress standards and prohibited objects.

Do prisoners receive personal time or privacy during their incarceration?

Inmates have restricted personal time and privacy while incarcerated. They may have access to specific recreation areas or time alone in their cells, but they are normally under constant surveillance. Their personal things and living spaces may be searched at any moment.

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Discussion Comments


Can an inmate take reading materials into the jail or are there any books/magazines available to read? Can they have any personal items like pictures?


Well I'm facing with a minimum one year jail sentence two days from now. I have been accused of a crime I didn't commit, and even with all my family and friends behind me, all backing up everything I'm trying to defend, my lawyer still tells me there's no way a judge is going to look my way.

I've been waiting nine months for my trial, and every day has been stress and worry for me. And now being two days away, I'm going insane. There's still a chance I'll win, but my lawyer thinks it's very unlikely. Not looking forward to this at all.

What scares me the most is being in a space, that I can never leave. The thought of being trapped drives me almost suicidal, and I'm not sure if I can handle it, and I'm scared it's going to turn me into a person that I'm not.

I've done overnights in holding cells at a station as a teenager a few times. Silly mischief charges, or drug/alcohol scraps. But I've been clean for four years now, and would never go back.

But anyway, we'll see what happens. If I win my trial this coming up day, than I'll come back and post.


@manykitties2: Check yourself. First and foremost, mandatory schooling? If someone does not want to learn you will certainly have a difficult time forcing them to do so.

Second, work for the state making little things cheaply? Most of the people in jail likely worked for very little on the outside, and the state, by locking them up, has taken that job from them, likely their children, and, if they were in debt, their credit. The state ought not be able to profit from ruining a life so completely.

Besides that, do you really want someone who is ticked off and forced to work making something you rely upon or purchase? It's like asking for a tattoo on your back and punching the artist in the face before he or she starts.


I'll be going to jail for 45 days soon (DUI) and have mixed emotions about it. "It is what it is," so I am not too worked up about it. I'd rather stamp license plates, pickup trash or transmute the time to community service, rather than watch Oprah all day. I don't even watch TV now. Perhaps I can help people with English or math or something else while I am in there. Anyway, you've got to walk the path you're on.


Not all people who end up in jail are hardcore criminals lacking in productivity. Those inmates who show interest in doing something while incarcerated, other than sleeping and watching tv should be given the opportunity to read, work on crossword puzzles and even Sudoku.

I have no doubt that a lot of the guards who work in those jail have a dismissive and blatant disregard for the inmates. I have been to visit a friend in jail and if they can treat the families and friends of the inmates like second class citizens, what does that tell you about how they treat those inmates? Again, not all inmates are hardcore.


@JessicaLynn - I think your idea about the animals is really good one. Taking care of another living thing can definitely have a rehabilitative affect.

I know a lady that used to have a horse farm. She participated in a program where she worked with youthful offenders. They came out a few times a week and were responsible for taking care of the horses. She said the changes she saw in the kids were amazing!

They bonded with the animals and really felt a sense of accomplishment in taking care of them. She told me a lot of the kids ended up being productive and normal members of society as adults.


A friend of mine spend 6 weeks in a county jail when he was much younger. He mentioned it to me once in passing and I was like "whoa" but he said it wasn't actually that bad.

The way he described it, he spent about 6 weeks laying around and playing cards with the other inmates.

I agree with the other person who posted and said that people in jail should be doing something productive. I don't mean manual labor, either. I know part of the prison system is meant to punish, but it's supposed to be rehabilitating, too.

How is laying around bored all day rehabilitating someone? Maybe they could incorporate some animal shelters in jails and have some of the non-violent offenders take care of the animals. It seems like it would be a win-win.


I agree that it would be beneficial to people that are in jail for more than a week to get involved in productive activities. This could boost their mood and help them stay focused on doing good for others.

I think one reason that jails may not implement productive activities is that this may increase the prisoner's mood and confidence. This could make them feel okay and maybe even happy while they are in jail, and thus they wouldn't think so badly of jail and may be more likely to return in the future.


I have known someone who went to jail for a night, something minor, public intoxication to be exact.

She said since she was intoxicated, she only began becoming aware of where she was while she was in the holding process. She did not know how she had got there, or why. So on top of being horrified, she was very confused too!

She said it was horrible. She spent most of the night crying and worrying. Luckily, there were some other nice women there who consoled her and reassured her.

She said the food they served in the morning looked awful, no one was daring enough to try it. She also mentioned how embarrassing it was to have to use the bathroom in front of a bunch of people and on camera.

Also, she said that there was this very tiny window at the top of one of the walls in the room her and about ten other women occupied. She said it was kind of more depressing to have the small window than not to have one. The window reminded her of her freedom and the beauty and glory on the other side of that wall!

She definitely learned her lesson, and has not been in trouble with the law since. I think an average person who has lived a decent life will find many things about going to jail punishment and troubling enough.


I was watching a documentary the other day about a program that was created to help at risk kids make better choices. The documentary showed teenagers what is was like to actually spend time in prison. They were treated like a regular prisoner and they took the jail pictures or mug shots and had them locked up for a few hours.

At the end of the program most of these kids were so scared that I doubt many of them will commit any crimes in the future. I think that some kids really need a dose of reality like this, and I think that there should be more programs like this all over the country.

If these teens get to see who’s in jail and how the jail records will affect their future then maybe they will think twice about committing a crime. I think that young people live for today too much and often forget about the long term consequences of making the wrong choices.


@MrMoody - Actually, I have a sad story to tell about what being in jail is like.

It happened to my friend, who was an undocumented worker, along with his family. Immigration services eventually found out and hauled him to prison for 60 days.

That was bad enough, and we paid him a few visits during this time. What made it awful however was that they also dragged his daughter to prison as well, and they were kept in different prison cells where they never saw each other.

He had to stay there, knowing his actions had caused his teenage daughter to be incarcerated as well; it was heartbreaking. Finally they were both released, fortunately, and deported, as a family. Deportation is bad, but it’s not as bad as being in jail with your family from what I've seen.


@Mammmood - So based on this article, then, I guess we can throw out all those stories we’ve heard about jails turning into country club environments?

I don’t recall if those were certain types of prisons for high profile, white collar criminals. In that sense, then, I guess it would depend on who's in jail.

I do remember watching a few news stories about these prisons with recreational areas and stuff like that, making a jail booking look like a walk in the park for the average detainee.

Of course I would hope that this is not true; personally, it would not be a vacation for me either way, regardless of the amenities. Once you’re in jail, you have a mark on your record that will affect you for the rest of your life.


@drtroubles - It’s the bare and somewhat humiliating nature of the jail cell that would get to me.

I am a very private person and to have to use a toilet in the middle of the jail cell would be a horrifying experience. I guess I understand that as a prisoner you lose all rights to privacy; the guards need to be able to know what you’re doing, even if it’s bathroom business.

I also don’t like the idea of possibly being holed up with another prisoner. I’ve heard of atrocious cases of inmate violence and I would find it hard to sleep at night, with those thoughts lurking at the top of my mind.


@manykitties2 - I have never experienced a typical day in jail, but I think the monotony of it is quite a fair punishment. If you are the sort that always like to be doing something productive, I think that being forced to sit in a box for days on end would be downright torturous.

What I think would bother me the most about being locked up would be the jail search. I am a very private person and the idea of people rummaging through my space, or taking all my things away is horrifying. Plus, with all the other prisoners always around, you can forget about time to be alone.


It seems to me that a typical day in jail doesn't sound like punishment enough. What is really so tough about laying about and watching TV?

While I understand the limits to your freedom would be mentally taxing, sitting in the county jail sounds like how most college kids spend their downtime. I think that inmates in jail should be put to work for the state right away. We always need more people to help make simple items cheaply. Or if jail labor offends people, while not additional mandatory schooling? Help the individuals in jail pass their time doing something worthwhile, whether it be for 1 day or 45 days.

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    • Activities are minimal in jail.
      By: Tracy King
      Activities are minimal in jail.
    • Jails are meant to hold people for short periods of time, so activites are scarce.
      By: BortN66
      Jails are meant to hold people for short periods of time, so activites are scarce.
    • In some U.S. jurisdictions, people serving one year or less are housed in jail rather than prison.
      By: Sascha Burkard
      In some U.S. jurisdictions, people serving one year or less are housed in jail rather than prison.