Key Terms

Whether you are familiar with the Criminal Justice System, or are experiencing the incarceration of a loved one for the first time, jail or prison can be hard to navigate.

For Children, finding language to describe where their parent is can be difficult. It can be hurtful to hear others refer to their parent using dehumanizing language such as “convict”, “prisoner”, or “inmate”. If you are speaking to a child about their parent, consider using words that refer to their mother or father in humanizing terms. I.e. “Incarcerated mother / father” or “Incarcerated parent” or simply, “mother / father / parent”. Below is a list of other terms to be familiar with in understanding incarceration.


ACI - Adult Correctional Institution
DOC - Department of Corrections
DCYF - Rhode Island's Department of Children, Youth & Families


The supervision of people who have committed crimes in the resident population, as opposed to confining people in secure correctional facilities. The two main types of community corrections supervision are probation and parole. Community corrections is also referred to as community supervision.


To have custody of an incarcerated person, a state or the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) must physically hold that person in one of its facilities. A locality, state, or the BOP may hold people over whom a different government maintains jurisdiction.


Death row refers to incarcerated persons who have been sentenced to death and are awaiting execution (as in "inmates on death row"). Historically, death row was a slang term which referred to the area of a prison in which prisoners who were under a sentence of death were housed. Usage of the term continues despite the fact that many states do not maintain a separate unit or facility for condemned people.


Prison facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Prisoners housed in these facilities are under the legal authority of the federal government. This excludes private facilities under exclusive contract with BOP.


Any serious crime for which the possible maximum sentence is more than one year in prison. (Probation can be an alternative to prison in some felony crimes.)


ICE holds persons for immigration violations in federal, state, and locally operated prisons and jails, as well as in privately-operated facilities under exclusive contract and ICE-operated facilities. Persons serving time in a local jail or in state or federal prison for either a criminal or immigration offense may be turned over to ICE after completing their sentence.


A person convicted of a felony crime. Preferred term of refference: "incarcerated person/individual"





Days subtracted from a person's sentence for good behavior and/or completing programs and classes.


Institutional corrections refers to persons housed in secure correctional facilities. There are many different types of correctional facilities, operated by different government entities. Local jails are operated by county or municipal authorities, and typically hold offenders for short periods ranging from a single day to a year. Prisons serve as long-term confinement facilities and are only run by the 50 state governments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Private correctional facilities also operate under contracts for a wide variety of local, state, and federal agencies. Other correctional facilities are operated by special jurisdictions, including the U.S. Armed Forces, U.S. territories, and federal agencies, such as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).


Short-term facilities that are usually administered by a local law enforcement agency and that are intended for adults but sometimes hold juveniles before or after adjudication (sentencing). People in jail usually have a sentence of less than 1 year or are being held pending a trial, awaiting sentencing, or awaiting transfer to other facilities after a conviction.


Compared to jail facilities, prisons are longer-term facilities owned by a state or by the Federal Government. Prisons typically hold people convicted of a felony and persons with sentences of more than a year; however, the sentence length may vary by state. Six states (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, Alaska, and Hawaii) have an integrated correctional system that combines jails and prisons. There are a small number of private prisons, facilities that are run by private prison corporations whose services and beds are contracted out by state or federal governments.


A crime less serious than a felony for which the maximum sentence is usually not more than one year in a county jail. A sentence usually involves probation, jail time, a fine, or a combination of any or all of these three. Except in certain specific instances, persons convicted of a misdemeanor cannot be sentenced to prison.


Parole refers to a conditional release from prison to serve the remaining portion of a sentence in the community. Incarcerated individuals may be released to parole by a parole board decision, according to provisions of a statute, through other types of post-custody conditional supervision, or as the result of a sentence to a term of supervised release. Parolees can have a number of different supervision requirements, including regular reports to a parole authority in person, by mail, or by telephone, regular in person drug testing, restitution payments, curfews, GPS monitoring (ankle bracelet) and inability to travel outside the city or state. Failure to comply with any of the conditions can result in a return to incarceration.


Prisoners are people confined in long-term facilities run by the state or federal government or private agencies. They are typically people with felony convictions who have received a sentence of incarceration of 1 year or more. (Sentence length may vary by state because a few states have one integrated prison system in which both prison and jail inmates are confined in the same types of facilities.)


Prison facilities run by private prison corporations whose services and beds are contracted out by state governments or the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).


Probation refers to community supervision through a probation agency, generally in lieu of incarceration. However, some jurisdictions do sentence probationers to a combined short-term incarceration sentence immediately followed by probation, which is referred to as a split sentence. Probationers can have a number of different supervision statuses - active supervision could include required regular reports to a probation officer in person, by mail, or by telephone, random drug testing, GPS monitoring (ankle bracelet), and curfew. Some probationers may be on an inactive supervision, which means they are excluded from regularly reporting, and that could be due to a number of reasons. For instance, some probationers may be placed on inactive status immediately because the severity of the offense was minimal or some may receive a reduction in supervision and therefore may be moved from an active to inactive status. Other supervision statuses include probationers who only have financial conditions remaining, have absconded, or who have active warrants. In many instances, while on probation, people are required to fulfill certain conditions of their supervision (e.g., payment of fines, fees or court costs, participation in treatment programs) and adhere to specific rules of conduct while in the community. Failure to comply with any conditions can result in incarceration.


aka: Segregation, Seg, "The Shoe", "The Hole" 

A form of imprisonment in which a person is isolated from any human contact, often with the exception of members of prison staff, for 22-24 hours a day, with a sentence ranging from days to decades. It is mostly employed as a form of punishment for violating prison regulations for those already incarcerated. It is also sometimes used as an additional measure of protection for vulnerable inmates. In the case of incarcerated people at high risk of suicide, it can be used to prevent access to items that could allow the person to self-harm. 

The effects of solitary confinement can be highly detrimental to human beings, especially for juveniles. The isolation of solitary confinement can cause anguish, provoke serious mental and physical health problems, and work against rehabilitation. Because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on incarcerated juveniles' chances to rehabilitate and grow. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch created a report that incorporated the testimony of some juveniles in prison. Many interviews described how their placement in solitary confinement exacerbated the stresses of being in jail or prison. Many spoke of harming themselves with staples or razors, having hallucinations, losing touch with reality, and having thoughts of or attempting suicide – all this while having very limited access to health care.


Prison facilities run by state correctional authorities. Prisoners housed in these facilities are under the legal authority of the state government and generally serving a term of more than 1 year.