What Does It Mean to "Do Time"?

Maggie Worth

The phrase "do time" is an idiomatic expression used to indicate a term of incarceration, usually in a jail or other penal institution. For example, someone who is convicted of a felony might do time. The phrase appears to have originated in the US sometime in the early 20th century, but the precise origins are unknown.

San Quentin State Prison in California.
San Quentin State Prison in California.

In most cases, someone is said to do time in a jail or prison as punishment for a criminal act. The phrase might also be used to describe a term of incarceration in a juvenile detention facility. In some cases, it might be used to refer to any situation that occurs for a fixed period and from which someone wishes to escape. For example, someone who is eagerly anticipating an impending retirement may say that he is "doing his time," or "putting in his time."

The expression "done time" is used to describe someone who has served time in prison.
The expression "done time" is used to describe someone who has served time in prison.

This particular saying can change tenses based on the period referenced. Someone who has not yet been imprisoned might "do time," while someone currently in jail is "doing time." Someone who was imprisoned, but is not currently in jail might say that he "did time" or be asked if he has "done time."

The word "time" in this expression refers to the fact that prisoners are sentenced to a specific amount of incarceration time. The phrase may be altered to include the actual amount of time. For example, a former prisoner might say that he "did three years in state," meaning that he spent three years in a state penitentiary.

Several other common slang phrases are associated with jail time. Someone who is incarcerated might be said to be in the "clink," "pokey," "joint" or "big house." Someone who is sent to jail might be said to have been "sent up the river" or "thrown in the slammer." A prisoner might be called a "jailbird" or a "con," short for "convict."

Other associated phrases refer to the amount of time someone did, will do or is doing. A person who "did a dime" was incarcerated for ten years. Similarly, someone who "did a nickel" was imprisoned for five years. "Doing life" refers to someone who has been sentenced to life, usually without the possibility of parole.

The phrase "do time" should not be confused with the phrase "due time," which actually means something quite different. "Due time" refers to a moment or point in time in which something becomes appropriate or necessary. For example, the resolution to a problem may be implemented "in due time."

Someone who is convicted of a felony might do time.
Someone who is convicted of a felony might do time.

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Discussion Comments


I've always heard the expression "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time". I think some sentences are way too long for the crime in question, like simple drug possession, but other sentences aren't long enough, like child molestation. I think a jail sentence should be long enough to get the person to realize he or she made a huge mistake, but not so long that he or she becomes used to the prison system.

I've worked with some people who did time in state prisons and then got released after 10 years or more. Some of them are completely lost in the outside world, since their lives were so controlled and regulated in prison. Doing things like earning a paycheck and renting an apartment can be very confusing, and a few of them wind up committing more crimes just so they can get back into the structured environment of a prison. It's sad when you think about it.


I had a friend who got caught up in a get-rich-quick silver investment scam and bilked a handful of investors for thousands of dollars. He agreed to testify against the main suspect in exchange for a lesser sentence. He said he didn't want to do time in prison when he could be a more productive person in the outside world. He was found guilty of fraud by deception and had to pay restitution, but he didn't have to spend any time in prison.

I guess doing time behind bars does give some people time to reflect on their mistakes, but I think other people just become better criminals when they are released. A neighbor of mine did a nickel after stealing jewelry from his grandmother's house, and he spent that time getting sober and better educated. He came out a truly changed man.

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