How did prisons develop?

Figure 1. For the most part, prisons were not purpose built facilities in the Medieval period. One famous example from this period is the Tower of London.

Prisons have developed as part of society since urbanism began by about 5000 years ago. The concept of punishment has shaped how prisons have been used by society, at times acting more like a holding area for criminals before punishment, while at other times they have been used to reform criminals. The use of prisons has shifted as societies have shifted their perception of justice over the centuries, where prisons were often the most clear physical manifestation of these philosophical shifts.

Ancient Origin

The first recorded prisons occurred in southern Mesopotamia during the time of Ur-Nammu, who was a king of the Ur III state at around 2000 BCE. The king was attributed with a law code, which spelled out the types of crimes people were put in prison for. This included kidnapping and extortion. At this time, prisons were presented as part of punishment, where people would be placed in these facilities for some period. It is not evident that prisons were intended to reform or change the behavior of the person incarcerated. In effect, prisons were an end point for punishment, but they could also be temporary before a different punishment could be given (e.g., such as enslavement). In ancient Egypt, prisons seem to be very unpleasant places that were purposely made uncomfortable, suggesting that prisons served as part of punishment and deterrent of crime, but not for any reform.[1]

In ancient China, the so-called Legalism teachings were influential, where punishment was a focus and often applied harsh penalties even for petty crime. Prison use as deterrent for behavior appears to be the focus. One difference, however, is that there is evidence by the Tang Dynasty, in the 1st millennium CE, prisons were also located near Buddhist monasteries, suggesting that by that period the idea of using religious teaching to reform prisoners may have taken hold. In effect, this could represent that prisons served more than just punishment, but religious reform, and by extension behavior, could have been a key focus as part of prisoner change.[2]

In ancient Greece, prisons and punishment were also harsh, where punishment often included various means of torture, stoning, burning, and other treatments. However, from Plato, it is evident that some philosophers began to see that prisons and punishment should be used to reform individuals. Plato noted that punishment mostly made someone suffer, while it provided relatively little benefit to anyone. Plato discusses the idea that reform or rehabilitating a prisoner could be a focus of punishment.[3]

For the Romans, it seems most prisons were temporary places where people were kept before the final punishment was delivered. For instance, hard labor was a form of Roman punishment, but keeping someone in prison, unlike Mesopotamia, was not often a final sentence. Wealthy or high status individuals could be incarcerated, but they were often kept in a form of house arrest. In effect, another wealthy person or citizen may be in charge of a wealthy or well known person. The best known Roman prison was the Tullianum, where people believe Christians, including Apostles, were kept there before they were given their final punishment, in many cases being death.[4]

Medieval and Early Modern Prisons

Medieval prisons often were ad hoc facilities that simply utilised existing buildings such as basements of buildings or castle keeps (Figure 1). However, cities, such as York in England, began to develop specialized facilities, where the Mayor and Sheriff of the city had responsibility in placing prisoners within. At this time, the authority to jail often varied from the king to local officials. Detentions were at times used as part of the punishment, although torture and other harsh punishments were commonly conducted in prisons as the main punishment. Hard labor was also a common form of punishment. For much of Europe, having been influenced by ancient Rome, imprisonment was a temporary measure before the punishment was administered, often being harsh labor or death.[5]

Things did begin to change by 1601, after the Poor Law (1601) in England was passed. This law stipulated the establishment of houses of correction, which were facilities that provided jobs and work for those who had been convicted of petty crime or those who refused to work. In effect, it was the first law that focused on putting some form of reform on petty criminal behavior rather than use prisons as holding centers or strictly for punishment. Eventually, these correction houses were placed as part or within prisons, beginning the process of using both prisons and facilities to work in for prisoners as part of the same institution. The correction houses in the 1700s began to expand to other forms of crime, except usually severe crime such as murder. These correction houses also served as a pretrial places to put prisoners, often making them work, while they waited to be heard by a judge. The correction houses were soon established in the American colonies, particularly Massachusetts, where correction facilities and prisons soon become synonymous with jails, influencing how we use the terms today. Maryland, similarly, placed their correction houses as part of prisons, leading to similar association of the two places as part of the same establishment.[6]

Modern Development

Figure 2. Millbank Prison was influential in its design and administration of prisoners.

By the 18th century, there was greater pressure to reform the idea of prisons and punishment. Soon, more crimes did not result in execution or severe punishment, but ideas of banishment to the colonies in particular became a major way Britain dealt with prisoners. With the loss of the colonies in the American Revolution, however, Britain had to find a way to place or punish many of its more petty criminals. This began the expansion of the prisons program, including greater use of correction houses, in the 18th century. The Enlightenment influenced many thinkers at this time, including how they saw prisons. The concept of rehabilitation became to be seen as one goal of prisons, where they can bring people back to "moral" behavior. This influenced the idea that prisons should be created to more adequately house people, providing better facilities for sleeping, eating, and day-to-day functions, including work in the correction houses.[7]

In Pennsylvania, the idea of a state prison developed, where prison was seen as a form of repentance that one did for their crimes. Work and time served were seen as part of the punishment, but prison was seen as a way to reform the person. However, the idea of reform was that prisoners were mostly kept by themselves and given a Bible. The idea was to give time to the person to understand their wrongs and reform. Other prisons, such as New York's Newgate prison, developed from this idea.[8]

The publication by John Howard, State of Prisons , influenced the design of prisons in Britain and Europe. The idea of clearly divided cells, paid professional staff working prisons, having separate administration in prisons, and dividing the sexes within prisons began to develop. He also advocated the use of work and other activities as a way to help individuals and that prisons should be inspected to prevent potential for abuse by those in authority. He stated that feeding and care of prisoners should be at a high standard. These reforms continued into the early 19th century, when at this point religious movements, such as the Quakers, began to minister in prisons, where they provided not only religious instruction but also tried to continue improving the treatment of prisoners.[9]

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham advocated the role of prisons to more greatly focus as incarceration facilities that also provided for rehabilitation of prisoners. This proved to be influential in leading to the development of modern prisons. Millbank Prison in London (Figure 2), built in 1816, is often considered the first truly modern prison, where there was a large yard, prisoners had fixed sentences of periods of incarceration, and it served as a national penitentiary that the state used as the form of punishment. While the prison proved to be expensive to run, ultimately diminishing its role, it served as the model that subsequent prisons, such as Pentonville built in 1842, which still exists today, developed. Religious instruction, work, and exercise became the common pattern followed in prison, where this idea now spread, including the building of other prisons throughout Europe and the United States. By the early 19th century, prisons now became the final destination of punishment rather than as a holding area.[10]

By the late 19th century, there was greater attention to the mental state of prisoners. Solitary seclusion was no longer seen as always being an appropriate punishment, where social time was seen as needed. Reform to the mental well being as well as the character of prisoners began to spread as an important ideas into the 20th century. This led to the development also of the idea that separate facilities for the criminal and mentally unstable to be established, as medical science was increasingly understanding people did not always have easy control of their actions and how a person was confined could influence their behavior. [11]


Very few exceptions in ancient history show prisons as being the final part of punishment. At times, it seems people were incarcerated in prisons for the length of their punishment, such as in Mesopotamia. However, prions were generally holding areas until the final punishment could be administered. Philosophical ideas of reform may have influenced some ancient prisons, but this would have been the exception. It was only during the 1600s and later that the idea of prisons being part of a reform system developed. At first, labor within prisons was used, along with religious instruction. This also then led to the idea of purpose built facilities as part of a state's wider penal system, where in the late 18th century and early 19th century we see the development of state prisons and national penitentiary concepts developed. Throughout the 19th century, the establishment of prisons spread in North American and Britain. In Europe and elsewhere, purpose built prisons did not develop as commonly but began to also become more professionally administered by the mid to late 19th century. Today, reform is a big focus for prisons in many countries; however, society still debates how to balance reform with punishment and what the role of prisons should be in society.


  1. For more on ancient prisons in Mesopotamia and early punishment, see: Tetlow, E.M. (2004) Women, crime, and punishment in ancient law and society. New York, Continuum.
  2. For more on criminal punishment in China and philosophy, see: Mühlhahn, K. (2009) Criminal justice in China: a history. Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, pg. 363.
  3. For more on Plato and his philosophy on punishment, see:Ritter, C. (2015) The Essence of Plato’s philosophy. London [u.a., Routledge, pg. 317.
  4. For more on Tullianum and Roman punishment, see: Norval Morris (ed.) (1998) The Oxford history of the prison: the practice of punishment in Western society. Oxford paperbacks. New York, Oxford Univ. Press, pg. 18.
  5. For more on Medieval European prisons, see: Geltner, G. (2013) Medieval prison: a social history. Place of publication not identified, Princeton Univ Press.
  6. For more on the significance of the Poor Law, see: Slack, P. (1995) The English poor law, 1531-1782. New studies in economic and social history. 1st Cambridge University Press ed. Cambridge ; New York, Cambridge University Press.
  7. For more on 18th century's concept of punishment, see: McLynn, F. (1989) Crime and punishment in eighteenth-century England. London ; New York, Routledge.
  8. For more on prisons in the American Colonies and early US history, see: Kann, M.E. (2005) Punishment, prisons, and patriarchy: liberty and power in the early American republic. New York, New York University Press.
  9. For more on the influence of John Howard, see: Howard, J. (2013) The State of the Prisons in England and Wales: With Preliminary Observations and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons. Cambridge Library Collection. Cambridge, UK.
  10. For more on the early modern prisons, see: Yvonne Jewkes, Ben Crewe, & Jamie Bennett (eds.) (2016) Handbook of prisons. Second edition. London ; New York, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, pg. 30.
  11. For more on late 19th and early 20th century prisons and design, see: Phillips III, D.W. (2013) Mental Health Issues in the Criminal Justice System. [Online]. Hoboken, Taylor and Francis.


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