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What is a Furlough?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Furlough comes to English from the Dutch word verlof. Ver means for, and lof translates to permission. We might translate lof as leave, as in leave of absence. Generally a furlough can be defined as just that, a leave of absence, which often requires permission. The word can also be used as noun or verb. A furlough refers to the temporary leave of absence, or a permission slip granting the leave, but a person can also be furloughed, or placed on leave.

Common types of the furlough include short leaves of absence from the military, or even from prison. A third type, the work furlough, generally refers to someone who has been laid off, and is almost euphemistic in expression. Most times no one wants this type of leave since it typically means the eventual loss of his or her job.

Missionaries may refer to visits back to their home as furloughs. They take a defined break from their work to see family, settle affairs, or to reenergize for a new trip. What most usages of the word include is an idea that you can’t just leave without permission. To simply take off from an army base or a prison is to do so without anyone’s permission. This is strictly illegal. For the military official it may earn reductions in rank or other punishments, and the prisoner on an unsanctioned furlough adds to his/her prison time when he is recaptured.

Some people wonder why prison furloughs exist, and argue that allowing people “outside” who have not finished their “time” in prison poses a threat to the community. This is not always the case. Many times temporary leave is granted to nonviolent prisoners, possibly to attend a funeral or appear in court. Other times, a prisoner is nearing the end of his/her term and the prison is making efforts to help the prisoner reintegrate into society under careful watch. During the Civil War, the South placed numerous prisoners on furlough so they could fight in the war. Though this was technically a temporary leave, not many returned to prison at the end of the war.

In both military and prison furloughs, a person typically carries documentation with them proving their right to be off base or out of prison. Soldiers may need to present paperwork granting leave when they leave a base. Some prisoners may be on a type of furlough called house arrest, or may need to be accompanied by a person who stands surety for their returning to prison, like a person’s lawyer.

Furloughs for missionaries do not usually require a person to present paperwork that they have a right to visit home, though many dedicated missionaries go through an extensive process of asking permission from the head of their mission in order to obtain leave. A mission is of course not a legal obligation, and a missionary can choose to leave a position if he or she wants. This may incur repercussions from the missionary’s religious organization, but a person is bound only by their word, not by legalities to serve in such a position.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By lmchambers73 — On Aug 01, 2014

If an inmate is granted furlough until the end of his sentence, will he still be considered as an inmate incarcerated at the prison he was at? I checked the website for an inmate who swears he's on furlough but the website says he's still incarcerated at that prison.

By anon125561 — On Nov 09, 2010

if you were released on a furlough to a halfway house and were returned do you still get out on your out date?

By cupcake15 — On Aug 06, 2010

Cafe41- Prisoners also are offered furloughs as well. If they meet the state’s criteria of needing urgent medical care, they can also be granted a medical furlough.

They can also be offered a furlough if they are terminally ill and need extensive medical care.

By cafe41 — On Aug 06, 2010

Icecream17- You know, I also remember that an airline furlough was also instituted for some of the airlines.

Many of the airlines were suffering severe losses and they asked some of their employees to work for free a few days a month. So I guess this happens in private companies as well.

By icecream17 — On Aug 06, 2010

A furlough day is a day off that is mandated usually to offset budget deficits. For example, a state furlough might include a furlough Friday.

This means that certain employees would be off on Friday so that everyone can keep their job.

A federal furlough is usually offered during severe budget shortfalls and this is a way to balance the state budget without imposing more taxes.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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