Old prison cells near Mootwingee County, NSW. 1976
Old prison cells near Mootwingee County, NSW. 1976
A contemporary prison cell in Germany
A contemporary prison cell in Germany

A prison cell (also known as a jail cell) is a small room in a prison or police station where a prisoner is held. Cells greatly vary by their furnishings, hygienic services, and cleanliness, both across countries and based on the level of punishment to which the person being held has been sentenced. Cells can be occupied by one or multiple people depending on factors that include, but are not limited to, inmate population, facility size, resources, or inmate behavior.


The International Committee of the Red Cross recommends that cells be at least 5.4 m2 (58 sq ft) in size for a single cell accommodation (one person in the cell). However, in shared or dormitory accommodations, it recommends a minimum of 3.4 m2 (37 sq ft) per person, including in cells where bunk beds are used.[1]

19th century prison cell in Pawiak, Warsaw
19th century prison cell in Pawiak, Warsaw

Prison cells vary in size internationally from 2 m2 (22 sq ft) in Guinea, 3 m2 (32 sq ft) in Poland, 9 m2 (97 sq ft) in Germany[2] to 10 m2 (110 sq ft) in Norway and 12 m2 (130 sq ft) in Switzerland.[3]

Council of Europe (Strasbourg, 15 December 2015) call for a minimum standard for personal living space in prison establishments is 6m² of living space for a single-occupancy cell or 4 m2 (43 sq ft) of living space per prisoner in a multiple-occupancy cell for the prevention of torture and inhuman treatment.

A March 1991 federal government study of U.S. prisons reported that:

"Until recently, the Federal Bureau of Prisons based its determination of rated capacity in existing facilities on a single-bunking standard, which currently calls for providing each inmate with at least 35 square feet of unencumbered space in a single cell. This essentially translates to a cell size of roughly 65 sq ft (6.0 m2).*

*(65 sq ft (6.0 m2), minus 35 sq ft (3.3 m2) of "unencumbered space" leaves 30 sq ft (2.8 m2) of "encumbered" space, which would likely contain bed, toilet and sink - for a single inmate in a single cell)

"In practice, however, BOP has accommodated inmate population increases by double-bunking inmates in virtually all its facilities and in cells... of varying sizes, but generally in the 50 to 70 square foot range."[4]

In the United States old prison cells are usually about 6 by 8 feet (1.8 by 2.4 m) in dimension which is 48 sq ft (4.5 m2)[citation needed], (moreover, however, American Correctional Association standards call for a minimum of 70 sq ft (6.5 m2), with steel or brick walls and one solid or barred door that locks from the outside.[citation needed] Many modern prison cells are pre-cast.[5] Solid doors typically have a window that allows the prisoner to be observed from the outside.[citation needed]

Furnishings and fixtures inside the cell are constructed so that they cannot be easily broken, and are anchored to the walls or floor. Stainless steel lavatories and commodes are also used. This prevents vandalism or the making of weapons.[citation needed]

There are a number of prison and prison cell configurations, from simple police-station holding cells to massive cell blocks in larger correctional facilities. The practice of assigning only one inmate to each cell in a prison is called single-celling[6] or "single-bunking"[4] (as in "bunk bed"). The practice of putting two persons to a cell is referred to as "double-bunking."[4]

In many countries, the cells are dirty and have very few facilities. Other countries may house many offenders in prisons, making the cells crowded.[7][8]

Prison cells in the UK

In the United Kingdom, cells in a police station are the responsibility of the custody sergeant, who also logs each detainee and allocates him or her an available cell. Custody sergeants also ensure cells are clean and as germ-free as possible, in accordance with the Human Rights Act of 1998.[9]

Prison cells in the US

Typical cell at ADX Florence
Typical cell at ADX Florence

In the United States, the standard cell is equipped with either a ledge or a steel bedstead that holds a mattress. A one-piece sink/toilet constructed of welded, putatively stainless steel is also provided. Bars typify older jails, while newer ones have doors that typically feature a small safety glass window and, often, a metal flap that can be opened to serve meals.

A limited number of United States prisons offer upgrades. Costing around $100 a night, these cells are considered cleaner and quieter, and some of them offer extra facilities.[10][11][12]

High-security cells

See also: Prison § Control units, and Solitary confinement

Often, different standards for cells exist in a single country and even in a single jail. Some of those cells are reserved for "isolation", where a convict is kept alone in a cell as punishment method. Some isolation cells contain no furnishing and no services at all.[13]


  1. ^ "Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Habitat in Prisons – Supplementary Guidance", April 2012, International Committee of the Red Cross, retrieved December 31, 2020
  2. ^ "Haftraum – Größe und Unterbringung".
  3. ^ Theo Deutinger (October 2017). Handbook of Tyranny. Lars Muller Publishers. p. 105. ISBN 978-3-03778-534-8.
  4. ^ a b c Report to Congressional Requesters: "FEDERAL PRISONS: Revised Design Standards Could Save Expansion Funds," March 1991, GAO/GGD-91-54, General Accounting Office, retrieved December 31, 2020
  5. ^ "5-Sided Precast Prison Cell". OldcastlePrecast.com. Archived from the original on May 30, 2009. Retrieved 1 January 2016.
  6. ^ Michael Sherman; Gordon J. Hawkins (1983). Imprisonment in America: Choosing the Future. University of Chicago Press. pp. 32–33. ISBN 0-226-75280-1.
  7. ^ ABC.net.au
  8. ^ Smh.com.au
  9. ^ "Human Rights Acts of 1998" (PDF). justice.org.uk. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 March 2002. Retrieved 1 January 2016.
  10. ^ "Upgrade Your Jail Cell For 80 Bucks A Day?". Digitaljournal.com. 2007-04-29. Archived from the original on 2013-03-26. Retrieved 2012-10-26.
  11. ^ "What Isn't for Sale? - Michael J. Sandel". The Atlantic. 2012-02-27. Retrieved 2012-10-26.
  12. ^ "Legal articles, cases and court decisions". Prison Legal News. Archived from the original on October 29, 2013. Retrieved 2012-10-26.
  13. ^ Giunti, Arianna (2014). La cella liscia. Storie di ordinaria repressione nelle carceri Italiane (in Italian). Italy: Inform-ant. ISBN 9788898194193.