What is Incarceration?

In many U.S. jurisdictions, sentences that exceed certain timeframes are served in prison rather than jail.
San Quentin State Prison in California.
In many underdeveloped countries, prisoners are often denied their basic human rights.
Incarceration refers to instances where a person is detained in a jail or prison.
Most developed countries treat prisoners humanely, allowing them certain rights.
Under pretrial detention, individuals are incarcerated, usually in jails, although not convicted of any crime.
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  • Written By: Felicia Dye
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2015
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Incarceration refers to instances where a person is denied the normal liberty of movement. Although this term could technically refer to any instance where a person is detained in a place, it generally refers to detention by enforcement authorities, such as police or military. That a person is incarcerated does not necessarily mean that he is guilty of a crime.

In the legal sense, incarceration generally refers to instances when a person is detained in a jail or prison. A person may be detained before he is charged with a crime. This is generally referred to as temporary detention, but it can be a form of incarceration when the person is detained in a correctional facility. Laws often prohibit authorities from keeping a person incarcerated under these circumstances for long periods of time without bringing charges.

A person may also be incarcerated while he is waiting for his trial. Judges and juries are generally prohibited from considering pre-trial incarceration as a determining factor of guilt. In some instances, a person remains incarcerated before his trial because he has been denied bail. In other instances, however, he may simply be unable to pay or to secure sufficient resources to meet bail requirements.


When a person has completed his trial and been found guilty, he may be ordered to further incarceration. This order is generally referred to as his sentence. In many legal systems, orders of incarceration that exceed certain periods must be carried out in prison. These people may, however, be detained in jails until they are transferred to prisons. If a person receives a sentence but was incarcerated before his sentencing, this time is often deducted from the time that he is ordered to serve.

Where a person is incarcerated depends on the arresting authorities and the laws that have been violated. If a person breaks a state law in a city, he may be detained in the city’s jail. If, however, he has been convicted of a federal offense, he may be sent to a federal prison.

Most governments recognize that it is a human right to be treated humanely while incarcerated. This means that people should not be held for long periods without trial. While they are in government custody, they should have access to necessities such as clothing, food, and water. Individuals who are incarcerated also should not be abused.

Developed countries often treat incarcerated people much better than undeveloped countries. In poorer countries, incarceration often occurs in facilities that are in substandard condition. People are also commonly denied many of their human rights.


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