At MyLawQuestions, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.

Learn more...

What Is a Typical Day in Jail?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

Incarceration can be a monotonous experience, with a staggering 80% of inmates reporting boredom in jail, according to a study by the Vera Institute of Justice. What happens in jail often involves long hours of idleness, as activities are scarce and most of the day is spent in confinement. 

Unlike prisons, which are designed for long-term sentences and housing inmates convicted of federal crimes, jails typically serve as short-term holding facilities for local or county detainees, individuals awaiting trial, or those serving sentences of less than one year. 

Understanding the daily routine in jail is crucial for recognizing the challenges faced by those within the criminal justice system and the potential impact on their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

FAQ on Jail

What is the daily routine like for an inmate in jail?

A typical day in jail starts early with a wake-up call, followed by headcount and breakfast. Inmates then engage in scheduled activities such as work assignments, education programs, or counseling sessions. Lunch is served midday, and the afternoon may continue with similar structured activities. Dinner occurs in the evening, followed by another headcount, and inmates usually have some free time before lights out. The routine is strict and designed to maintain order and security within the facility.

How do inmates spend their free time in jail?

Inmates often spend their free time in jail by reading, writing letters, exercising, or participating in recreational activities provided by the facility, such as playing cards or board games. Some jails offer library access, and inmates may be able to watch television during designated times. Religious services and volunteer-led programs may also be available, depending on the institution's resources and policies.

What kind of work assignments might an inmate have in jail?

Work assignments in jail can vary widely but typically include tasks such as kitchen duty, laundry services, janitorial work, or facility maintenance. Some inmates may work in jail industries, producing goods or providing services. These assignments are not only meant to keep inmates occupied but also to teach them skills that could be useful upon release. Participation in work programs can sometimes lead to reduced sentences or privileges within the jail.

Are educational programs and counseling available in all jails?

Not all jails offer educational programs and counseling, as resources and policies differ from one facility to another. However, many jails recognize the benefits of such programs in reducing recidivism and aim to provide at least basic educational opportunities and substance abuse counseling. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, educational programs in correctional facilities can significantly improve post-release outcomes for inmates.

What measures are in place to ensure safety and security in jails?

Jails implement a variety of measures to ensure safety and security, including constant surveillance, controlled access to different areas, regular headcounts, and searches of inmates and cells for contraband. Correctional officers are trained to handle emergencies and conflicts, and there are strict protocols for responding to incidents. Additionally, jails often segregate inmates based on risk factors to minimize violence and maintain order.

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.

Post your comments
Forgot password?
    • 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.