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Prisoner vs. Inmate: What's the Difference?

Edited by Harlon Moss || By Janet White || Published on December 4, 2023
A prisoner is specifically someone detained in prison for legal reasons, while an inmate refers to anyone residing in a custodial or institutional setting, including prisons.

Key Differences

A prisoner is specifically someone who is held in a prison as a result of legal proceedings, typically because of a conviction for a crime. In contrast, an inmate is a broader term that can refer to any person residing in a custodial setting, which includes prisons, but can also extend to other facilities like mental institutions or juvenile centers.
The term prisoner often implies a context of criminal justice and law enforcement, focusing on the aspect of legal punishment and detention. Inmate, however, is a more neutral term that doesn't inherently carry the implication of criminality and can be used to describe anyone in an institutionalized living situation.
All prisoners can be considered inmates (if they are housed in a prison), while not all inmates are necessarily prisoners in the legal sense. For example, a person living in a care home due to age or disability can be described as an inmate but not a prisoner.
The use of "prisoner" often denotes a specific legal status and is tied to the criminal justice system. "Inmate", on the other hand, is used more for administrative purposes and can refer to a wider range of institutional residents.
The connotations of "prisoner" can be more negative, associated with crime and punishment, whereas "inmate" is a more generic term and can be used in less stigmatizing contexts.

Comparison Chart


Someone detained in prison due to legal reasons
Any resident of a custodial or institutional setting


Specifically implies criminality and legal punishment
More neutral, not necessarily criminal

Context of Use

Primarily in criminal justice and law enforcement
Broader institutional contexts

Legal Connotation

Strongly tied to legal status and criminal justice system
Used for administrative categorization

Applicability to Facilities

Limited to prisons
Includes prisons, asylums, care homes, etc.

Prisoner and Inmate Definitions


A person legally confined in prison for a crime.
The prisoner was serving a ten-year sentence.


A general term for anyone confined to an institution.
As an inmate, she participated in various programs.


Someone deprived of liberty following a conviction.
The prisoner's appeal was set for next month.


A resident of any institutional facility, including prisons.
The inmate population in the facility varied.


A detainee in the criminal justice system.
Prisoner rehabilitation programs are essential.


A person under institutional care or supervision.
The facility's inmates receive regular medical check-ups.


An individual incarcerated in a jail or prison.
The prisoner was transferred to a high-security facility.


Someone living in a custodial setting, not necessarily a prison.
He was an inmate at the state mental institution.


Someone held captive due to legal proceedings.
As a prisoner, he awaited his trial date.


An occupant of a long-term residential institution.
Inmates at the nursing home were well cared for.


A person held in custody, captivity, or a condition of forcible restraint, especially while on trial or serving a prison sentence.


A resident of a dwelling that houses a number of occupants, especially a person confined to an institution, such as a prison or hospital.


One deprived of freedom of expression or action
"He was a prisoner of his own personality—of that given set of traits that ... predisposed him to see the world in a certain way, to make certain moves, certain choices" (William H. Hallahan).


A person confined to an institution such as a prison (as a convict) or hospital (as a patient).


A person incarcerated in a prison, while on trial or serving a sentence.


A person who shares a residence (such as a hotel guest, a lodger, or a student living on campus), or other place.


Any person held against their will.


One who lives in the same house or apartment with another; a fellow lodger;
So spake the enemy of mankind, inclos'dIn serpent, inmate bad.


A person who is or feels confined or trapped by a situation or a set of circumstances.
I am no longer a prisoner to fear, for I am a child of God.


Admitted as a dweller; resident; internal.


One who is confined in a prison.


One of several resident of a dwelling (especially someone confined to a prison or hospital)


A person under arrest, or in custody, whether in prison or not; a person held in involuntary restraint; a captive; as, a prisoner at the bar of a court.
Prisoner of Hope thou art, - look up and sing.


A patient who is residing in the hospital where he is being treated


A person who is confined; especially a prisoner of war


A person serving a sentence in a jail or prison


Are all prisoners considered inmates?

Yes, when they are in a prison setting.

What defines a prisoner?

Someone legally confined in a prison for a crime.

Is "prisoner" used outside of criminal contexts?

Rarely, it's primarily used in criminal justice settings.

Can an inmate be someone in a hospital?

Yes, if they are under long-term institutional care.

Is the term "inmate" specific to prisons?

No, it's applicable to various types of institutions.

Do all inmates have criminal backgrounds?

No, "inmate" does not imply criminality by itself.

Does "prisoner" imply a certain duration of confinement?

Not specifically, it varies case by case.

Can an inmate refer to a non-criminal?

Yes, it includes those in various institutional settings.

What is the primary context for using "prisoner"?

In relation to the criminal justice system.

Can "prisoner" be used for someone in detention without conviction?

Yes, it includes those awaiting trial or sentencing.

Can "inmate" refer to someone in a temporary holding facility?

It's less common but can be used in that context.

Can someone be a prisoner without being in prison?

Typically, the term "prisoner" is used when someone is in a prison facility.

Are the terms interchangeable in legal documents?

They can be, but "prisoner" is more specific to criminal detention.

Does "inmate" always imply confinement?

It implies living within an institution, which may involve confinement.

Is "prisoner" a legal term?

Yes, often used in legal and law enforcement contexts.

Does "inmate" have a less negative connotation than "prisoner"?

Generally, yes, due to its broader and more neutral usage.

Is "inmate" used internationally in the same way?

Usage can vary, but it generally refers to institutional residents.

Do the terms have different implications for rehabilitation?

"Inmate" might imply a broader scope of care and rehabilitation.

Can "prisoner" be used for political or war detainees?

Yes, it's also used in these contexts.

Are juvenile detainees called prisoners or inmates?

Usually referred to as inmates, particularly in juvenile facilities.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.

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