2. A Brief History of Prisons

black Image of scales on white background with the words, "calibrate the scales" overlaid. As with any set of scales, the scales of justice must, from time to time, be recalibrated. Total balance is never achieved, but all in the criminal justice and legal systems must strive for it as much as possible.

By C J Oakes

In a very real sense of the word, prisons date to the earliest civilizations of humanity. It is likely that the first prison was established in ancient Sumer, or Babylon but many civilizations continued the practice including ancient Rome, the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, old England, and others.

The Code of Hammurabi

The Code of Hammurabi, the earliest known set of codified law, provided for imprisonment as a means of settling debt. Dating to roughly 1754 BCE, this ancient Babylonian law states,

“115. If any one have a claim for corn or money upon another and imprison him; if the prisoner die in prison a natural death, the case shall go no further” (King, 2015).

However, the Code of Hammurabi went further by stipulating that prisoners were not to be mistreated.

“116. If the prisoner die in prison from blows or maltreatment, the master of the prisoner shall convict the merchant before the judge. If he was a free-born man, the son of the merchant shall be put to death; if it was a slave, he shall pay one-third of a mina of gold, and all that the master of the prisoner gave he shall forfeit” (King, 2015).

Although most of Hammurabi’s Code listed either death or repayment for wrongs committed, imprisonment was provided in cases wherein repayment could not be made and execution was considered too extreme. Thus, the founders of Western Civilization demonstrated an understanding that there should be a variety of penalties to suit the crime, including prison. However, through the centuries, the use of prisons as a means of handling law-breakers have varied considerably.

Prisons in Ancient Rome

Code of laws of Hammurabi
Code of laws of Hammurabi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Moving 15 centuries forward, the Ancient Roman Empire had a unique way of handling criminals and prisons were a part of the equation. However, prisons at that time were very different from what we imagine or often see in films and television.

Roman prisons were generally dungeons with chains and shackles on the walls where those convicted of crimes were held until execution. This holding was done so that executions could be performed en masse and in public; occasionally in the arenas against wild beasts and gladiators. Some who were convicted of crimes may not be taken into immediate custody but instead provided the opportunity to go into exile. Others, if wealthy, would be ordered to house arrest (UNRV.com, 2015).

Medieval Prisons

Stepping ahead in time yet another 15 centuries give or take, prisons in medieval times were much like Roman prisons in that most were dungeons placed in the underbelly of castles. Geltner (2006) notes that the common view is that “throughout the Middle Ages prisons served as places of pre-trial custody or loci of coercion for defaulting debtors; punitive incarceration, in turn, ‘did not exist or represented, at best, a negligible exception.’’’ However, as he goes on to present, this is not exactly true. He further points out that,

“Prior to the foundation of municipal prisons (with which we are mostly concerned here), incarceration was common to ecclesiastical penal practice. Ideologically opposed to bloodshed, and enabled by its relatively autonomous jurisdiction, the Church inflicted erring clerics and monks with prison sentences (sometimes known as detrusio) at least since the fourth century. Moreover, penitential compilations throughout the Middle Ages advocated the application of penal incarceration against laymen, but it is unclear to what extent these prescriptive texts were put into practice. In any case, many monasteries and episcopal palaces developed basic prison facilities” (Geltner, 2006).

In addition, Geltner describes how local municipalities developed the structures necessary to sustain prison populations including wardens, guards, chaplains, notaries, physicians, and more. These positions were paid out of local taxes and managed by local magistrates. The existence of such positions thus indicates that prisons, as we know them today, did not actually begin in the 18th Century, but developed slowly over time well before that.

Imprisonment in old England

Code_of_Hammurabi.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The infamous Tower of London was, in fact, a prison, though it was not constructed for such use. Still, starting in 1100 CE, Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham was the first to be imprisoned in the Tower after the death of King Rufus. Ranulf was also the first to escape the Tower of London, but he would not be the last on either account. Throughout the ages, the Tower of London was used by various English Monarchs to shutter away political opponents deemed too popular to execute (Wikipedia, 2015).

Clearly, prisons are not as modern a concept as we would like to believe, yet the prison system in the United States has altered the concept quite radically. I recommend reading the following page on this site for further information about the history of prisons in America…

State and Federal Prisons…A History of Growth

Most penitentiaries are now referred to as Correctional Facilities. This reflects the intended purpose of the Criminal Justice system, though perhaps not the reality. To be sure, most Departments of Corrections nationwide indicate in their mission statements, values, and other similar PR releases that their goal is to rehabilitate. Still, the evidence is piling up that these systems are largely failing in this mission. Why this is the case is the focus of the next chapter.