Difference Between Prisoner and Inmate

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: April 30, 2023


Difference Between Prisoner and Inmate

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“It is important to know your rights!”....said every parent and reporter ever. While studying the whole of law can often be a tedious task, a little research always proves to be helpful and it is safe to say that there are often misconceptions around the smallest of terms. Most terms can seem almost synonymous but differ in certain contexts. One of such interchangeably used word sets is: Prisoner and Inmate.

Prisoner v/s Inmate

The main difference between a prisoner and an inmate lies in their definitions. A prisoner is someone who is held in jail for being convicted, either for the period they’re on trial or serving a sentence whereas an inmate is a person who is being confined to a specific location could be as a prison or a hospital.

Difference Between Prisoner and Inmate in Tabular Form

Parameters of Comparison Prisoner Inmate
Definition A prisoner is someone who’s confined in a jail or a prison for being convicted of something. This is done either while they’re still on trial or when serving their sentence. An inmate is someone who is confined to a specific location. This location does not need to be a prison and can also refer to a patient at a hospital.
Imposition Generally, people who are still or on trial before the judgment is passed are referred to as prisoners. Generally, people who are convicted and serving their sentence are called inmates, when talking in the context of law and crime.
Area Prisoners are those who are held captive in federal or state-level prisons. Inmates are those who are usually held in local jails or county jails, and sometimes in detention centers.
Observations Prisoners usually might try and break out of prison to escape their sentence. Inmates are usually said to accord to the rules of the institution they’re placed in and cooperate better with the staff when compared to a prisoner.
Scope All prisoners are considered inmates. All inmates are not necessarily prisoners.

What is Prisoner?

A prisoner, when explained in terms of law and crime, is someone who is held confined, captive, or under restraints for being convicted. This could mean that he is being held in prison either while-

  • His case is still on trial and the judgment has not yet passed or
  • When the case is concluded, judgment is passed and the convicted is serving his sentence.

The earliest evidence of any civilization following the system of punishment for committing wrongful acts dates back to 8000 B.C. Discovered through prehistoric graves, it was inferred that people from Libya would hold tribal folks captive.

Generally speaking, there are many ways to how justice is achieved and most of them involve various forms of punishment directed toward the prisoner. However, there exist certain types of responses to a crime that do not directly involve punishment but discussion about the elements of the case to avoid intense punishment through compensation, mostly monetary.

  • Restorative justice: This type of response mostly involves discussions and meetings between the accused and the victim, chaperoned by higher authorities or representatives of a bigger community. The objective of these discussions is to try and perceive why the offender committed the crime to understand their perspective and motive better. These kinds of initiatives allow a chance for the offender to redeem themselves, to try and lessen a load of their punishment. It concentrates on teaching the offenders accountability by holding them responsible for their actions, making an effort to mend their ways psychologically. This would reduce any chances of the offenders causing any further harm.
  • Participatory justice: This kind of response not only involves the victims in the discussions based on the case but also offers them direct participation in the decision-making process while deciding the judgments and punishments. The victims usually wind up feeling helpless in most cases. However, this option allows them to reduce any such feelings of helplessness and often make them feel better about the situation.
  • Retributive justice: While most modern forms of justice practices involve the enhancement of the prisoner as well, as a step towards their rehabilitation, ancient or traditional justice systems popularly used the retributive form of justice. A pretty self-explanatory term, this type of response demands equal retribution from the offender in the form of punishment. This means, the punishment must be equally proportionate to the offense committed. However, this must not be confused with sadism or revenge, where pleasure is derived through punishments and hardships of others. It is to be viewed as more of an operation to promote social solidarity by upkeep of civil responsibilities among the people.

However, these forms of punishment would vary greatly across countries when the question of ‘How much is the right amount?’ arises. Thus, most modern systems do not view this form of justice to be completely fair. Another element is that this response does not focus on the rehabilitation of the offenders, providing lesser space for second chances or reformation.

And now, we move on to the most psychologically-affecting practice of justice that finds its origins back in the 19th century-

  • Solitary confinement: Solitary confinement means to confine someone to a single cell or a room where the person is assigned to stay restricted in. When imposed solitary confinement, a prisoner is to have no real means of contact with any other prisoners. This is also accompanied by higher security measures and equipment.

A solitary confinement is imposed for several reasons. This can be due to-

  • high level of threats from other prisoners or sources.
  • The prisoner, who’s being imposed on solitary confinement, is a threat to other prisoners or staff.
  • The case of a prisoner is suspected to smuggle illegal stuff or being involved in illegal activities.

What is an Inmate?

The term inmate refers to someone who is being confined to a specific location such as a room or an institution. This does not always need to point toward the context of a criminal. It can also refer to a patient who is confined to a hospital, more specifically used in the context of a mental hospital or other psychiatric institutions.

An inmate is, however, said to be much more amicable and cooperative than other types of prisoners as they align well with the rules imposed by the institutions. This might be because of the prisoner’s desire to take a step towards redemption and in rare cases, an acute case of Stockholm syndrome. Stockholm syndrome occurs when someone held captive starts bonding with the confiner, developing feelings for them. This is said to be the confinee’s trauma response to being held captive. The feelings need not be romantic and can be anything positive or negative depending upon the context. Such positive feelings might drive an inmate to be amiable to the staff, earning trust and a good reputation.

Many types of inmates have been categorized based on the observations made in the past decades. A higher authority needs to know their ways around the convicts to handle them and maintain the institution. Most reports have broadly categorized them into 4 different groups of personalities.

  • The Bully: Abusive and dangerous, the personality of a bully is something that need not be explained. Most of the bullies bear high physical strength or have ties with people who can easily beat up others. Through this show of strength, they try to dominate other inmates through intimidation. Much like in schools and colleges, the bullies try and rag on other inmates that they know will not oppose them or fight back. Either done with an objective or for mere sadistic pleasure, bullies often enjoy exhibiting violence over inmates and possibly even the guards/ staff that work in the institution.

Handling a bully is not an easy task. Fighting back or showing any signs that do not indicate defeat will only power them to throw more violence around. This is mostly done to look superior in front of everyone and not lose any respect. It is quite an enduring and very obviously dangerous mission to handle a bully appropriately, much rather encourage him to mend his ways.

  • The Tails/ sheep: These are mainly the type of inmates that are submissive and desire to join a group more than anything. People who have to struggle with loneliness and strive for the validation of others, end up losing sight of life. They forget to zoom out and look at the situation from a fresh perspective. In case of situations where one might feel intense surges of such feelings, they go blind to the factor of morality. This is also some of the rare cases where this personality drives them to end up in prison.

Not to mention, such people can go to insane lengths to find ‘friends’ or other such companies. And just like a teenager, there is a high chance they’ll end up with the wrong type of company that might eventually destroy any chances of redemption for the inmate. The tails are usually the ones that tag along with the bully on his sides, trying to instigate fights and hold their boss’s superior image in front of everyone. While they can prove to be the most dangerous branches in the most unexpected of times, a tail can easily be pulled out of his wrong ways by driving him to self-realization.

  • Entitled /High-horse: While most bullies have their physical strength to portray superiority, the entitled inmate will do so without any means of a weapon. Needless to say, the inmates that possess this type of personality can be extremely narcissistic and self-centered. They will reason to anything accused with a debate that says they ‘needed’ it. Typically, they possess zero sense of morality as they expect society to take care of them instead of making a living.

Most of these personalities always end up agreeing to commit the crime. While it can be hard to reason with an inmate so troubling, any fights or disagreements rarely end up being physical. They are mostly verbal arguments, much safer than handling a bully. However, reforming such a personality can be a task equalling the effort of crossing the seven seas. They have already made up their mind about how a system is supposed to work and will never see the wrong in their actions. Even self-realization and teaching accountability will seem far-fetched.

  • Self-righteous: “I did it for the greater good!” - While most movies depict these scenes to show why a psychopath committed the unspeakable acts he did, there are many real cases in the world we live in, where the convinced was said to hear similar reasons. While they may not be as intense as shown in reel life, it is taxing to deal with such dense personalities, who not only have constructed a small bubble around them with their own set of rules like the entitled personalities but also are extremely problematic when it comes to taking the blame. While some commit their crimes and even fewer put effort into reasoning, most might even play the blame game. It will not matter that the convicted is the prime involvement in the offense. They will almost always claim that their deeds were for the benefit of society and try to push the blame off their case.

Most of these crimes may seem like children’s quarrels. However, it is important to note that unauthorized behavior in the breeding stages of life can prove to be the one last straw for bad choices.

Main Differences Between Prisoner and Inmate In Points

  • Prisoner specifically refers to someone who is held captive for his crimes in prison whereas an inmate refers to someone who is held captive, regardless of his location. However, this term is generally used for patients at a hospital or inmates at a prison.
  • Prisoners are usually the ones held captive at a state or federal level whereas an inmate is usually held captive at a county or a local level.
  • An inmate is said to be more amicable and cooperative than a prisoner.
  • A prisoner always needs to be an inmate first but an inmate need not be a prisoner.


It is observed from the above descriptions that both of them involve a person being held against their will. Thus it is easy to confuse the two. Let us summarize by stating that prisoners specifically denote those who serve their sentences for the crime committed whereas inmate represents a broader category and can be described as an umbrella term.


  • https://www.unodc.org/pdf/criminal_justice/UN_Standard_Minimum_Rules_for_the_Treatment_of_Prisoners.pdf
  • https://ncrb.gov.in/sites/default/files/psi_table_and_chapter_report/CHAPTER-3_2006.pdf


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"Difference Between Prisoner and Inmate." Diffzy.com, 2024. Mon. 26 Feb. 2024. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-prisoner-and-inmate-159>.

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