What is a Prison Cell?

Dan Cavallari

A prison cell is a small, secure room in which an incarcerated person in a prison is housed. Prisons feature a large number of prison cell units, allowing for housing of hundreds or even thousands of prisoners at once. A jail cell and a prison cell are essentially the same things, but jail cells are in county or local jails rather than federal prisons or state prisons; jails are often short-term incarceration facilities, while prisons are set up for long-term incarceration. The construction of prison cells is such that the room is impenetrable to prevent inmate escapes and other issues.

Alcatraz, a prison on an island in San Francisco Bay that has been closed since 1963.
Alcatraz, a prison on an island in San Francisco Bay that has been closed since 1963.

Traditionally, a prison cell has been constructed of brick, stone, or concrete, and iron or steel bars are used to lock the prisoner in the prison cell. These iron bars allow guards to see into the cell at any time, and they allow air to flow freely into and out of the cell for better ventilation. Modern prisons often feature cells that are closed within heavy metal doors rather than bars; the cells are then fitted with surveillance cameras as well as viewing windows to ensure guards can see into the prison cell at any time. The doors can be locked quickly and in some cases automatically should an issue arise with a prisoner or many prisoners.

Prison cells are typically constructed of cement walls and steel bars.
Prison cells are typically constructed of cement walls and steel bars.

Prison cells are sparsely furnished and very plain. They usually contain a bed, toilet, and sink; some cells feature a desk and chair, all of which is commonly bolted to the ground to prevent the prisoner from using any of the objects as a weapon. Some prisoners may be allowed a television in the cell, but this is not a regular practice in many prisons. It is rare for a prison cell to feature any windows or views of the outdoors. Many prison cells are laid out around a common area where prisoners can sit during certain periods of the day, though some high- and medium-security prisons do not allow this.

The cells are usually made with materials that cannot be easily made into weapons. Sinks and toilets are usually made of stainless steel, and desks and chairs, if available, are made of materials that cannot be broken easily or turned into dangerous weapons. In the past, prison cells may not have featured any furniture at all, and the living conditions within the cells was very poor. Certain human rights acts have prevented this from occurring in modern-day prisons in many parts of the world, though some prisons throughout the world still feature holding cells that can be considered inhumane.

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

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Discussion Comments


What I find most striking about inmate cells is how small they are. Some of the two-person cells I have seen were not wide enough for two people to walk pass one another without touching.

Also high on my list of hard to believe aspects of a prison cell block is the lack of privacy.


I have never been in a prison, other than Alcatraz in San Francisco, CA, and since that was a tour that doesn't really count. However, I have spoken with people who have been in jail cells and prison cells.

The one thing all of these people talk about is the sound of the cell doors closing. They say you never get used to the sound and the first time you hear that door close, it is the scariest and loneliest sound a person could ever imagine.

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