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He was not in prison, he was only in ____________.

What is it called when someone is kept in a cell by the police only for a night (after being in a bar fight or stuff like that)?

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  • I think "jail" might be the word you're looking for? You're held in a jail before a trial, then you're sentenced to prison.
    – Griffin
    Jul 14, 2021 at 18:25
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    Throw someone in the drunk tank?
    – Void
    Jul 14, 2021 at 18:26
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    Slang: "in lock-up" Jul 14, 2021 at 18:30
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    If it's in a police station I'd call it a "holding cell". Someone might have "a night in the cells". Gaol/jail or prison would be an actual building just for holding prosoners. Jul 14, 2021 at 19:04
  • 'In police custody'? Jul 14, 2021 at 20:14

4 Answers 4

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Even though they are used interchangeably in colloquial English, a jail is a place where you're held pending a trial or if you haven't committed a major crime. Prisons are for people who have been sentenced, and the sentences are usually longer.

Another term I have heard used is "in [police] custody," which I interpret to mean detention in a police station for a certain period of time.

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    In UK English, 'jail' is just another word for the more formal 'prison'. They are the same thing. Jul 14, 2021 at 18:44
  • Same with Canadian English. I don't believe this answers the OP's question
    – gotube
    Jul 14, 2021 at 19:56
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If someone is held by police overnight specifically because they were dangerously drunk and had to be removed from society until they sobered up, that's the drunk tank.

If the same thing happens for any similar reason, like being in a fight when they weren't necessarily drunk, it's called lock-up.

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The answer probably depends on which country you are in. Most countries have official names for these places. For example, Australia has 'remand centres' ("A remand prisoner is someone held in custody while waiting for their trial or sentencing") so your sentence would be 'He was not in prison, he was in a remand centre (or just 'in remand'). (This word may not be used or known in other countries, though.)

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If a person has not yet been charged, they are detained.

custody could also be used, but usually means that the person has been charged and is awaiting trial.

Given the circumstances that you outlined, I think that the best way to say it would be "he was held overnight". Here is an example:

He was held overnight at Beau Vallon Police Station and released without charges the following morning. - Country reports on human rights practices, 2008

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