In some English-speaking countries, there is a difference between the words prison and jail, jail being where you are placed prior to a conviction, prison being where you are held afterwards. In German, the word Gefängnis seems to be used interchangeably as does the more slang word Knast (at least Google translate and my dictionary both suggest this).

So my question is, is there a more specific word like jail in German?

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    "jail being where you are placed prior to a conviction" That would be Untersuchungsgefängnis in German. Aug 4, 2019 at 3:52
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    This should be an answer, not a comment Aug 4, 2019 at 6:14
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    The difference in meaning between the words “jail” and “prison” that you describe is, as far as I know, only in North American usage.
    – Carsten S
    Aug 4, 2019 at 8:57
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    "jail being where you are placed prior to a conviction, prison being where you are held afterwards" – That is not an accurate description of the difference. You can also be placed in jail after a conviction. In particular, sentences for misdemeanors up to one year will be served in jail, sentences for felonies more than one year will be served in prison. Also, you will be placed in jail after being sentenced before being transported to a prison. Aug 4, 2019 at 11:18
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    @CarstenS Even in North America, "jail" and "prison" are considered synonymous by most people. I doubt you'd find one in five people outside the legal system who'd be familiar with the distinction.
    – jmbpiano
    Aug 4, 2019 at 19:18

1 Answer 1


The building is the same in both cases. It is called »Gefängnis« as you already know. But the kind of residence has different names:

  • Untersuchungshaft or U-Haft
    imprisonment on remand
    When you are under suspicion, but not yet convicted
    (verb "untersuchen" = "to investigate")
  • Strafhaft
    imprisonment for sentence
    When you are validly convicted
    (verb "strafen" = to punish)

In both cases you are a »Häftling« (prisoner, inmate). If you are in Untersuchungshaft, you are a »Untersuchungshäftling« or »U-Häftling«. If you are convinced, you are a »Strafhäftling« or »Sträfling«.

There are Gefängnisse where both kinds of Häftlinge are locked-in. Only a few buildings are only for long-time inmates, i.e. only for Sträflinge. But the majority of Gefängnisse are mixed.

There are also »Hafträume« (also: »Zellen«) (cells) in police stations, but inmates may only stay there for one day before they will be transported to a Gefängnis. Those buildings are not called Gefängnis, but Polizeistation or Wachstube. Their main purpose is to be a police station, i.e. a place where police officers have their offices.

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    I also thought that the difference in German more relates to the kind of "Haft", than the specific kind of building (that's why I didn't wrote an answer). There are more though. Gewahrsam, Abschiebehaft, etc. Aug 4, 2019 at 6:54
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    For completeness you could also mention "Ausnüchterungszelle" Aug 4, 2019 at 9:15
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    @Janka: I think "Gewahrsam" is more like "lockup" or a "holding cell" than "jail". The main differences between jail and prison are basically that a) jails are run by the city or county whereas prisons are run by the state or federal government, b) jail has a higher turnover (more inmates leaving and arriving), c) jail has shorter stays (sentences for misdemeanors up to one year are served in jail, sentences for felonies longer than year are served in prison). This distinction doesn't really exist in Germany, AFAIK, there are no special facilities for someone convicted of a "Vergehen". Aug 4, 2019 at 11:23
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    looks like we need to specify the jurisdiction here. Because for U-Haft you need (in Germany) strong reasons like "danger of flight" => detention, simple Gewahrsam (can be custody) is made by police for simple stuff like short fist fight and refuse to stop. Aug 4, 2019 at 19:15
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    You can also be imprisoned if you won't pay a Bussgeld for an Ordnungswidrigkeit; it's called Erzwingungshaft. If you do not bear witness in a court case you can be taken in Beugehaft. In both cases you are not charged with any criminal offense (Ordnungswidrigkeit is not a criminal offense); nevertheless you'll likely be held in the same facility as the murderers. Aug 5, 2019 at 6:05

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