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A History of Why Societies Created Prisons

by Francine Dash

When a loved one is harmed, or God-forbid, killed, we want justice for them, and for us. We sing about it. We march for it; and we want a system that provides it to us — immediately!

When justice comes, for those who have been wronged, at the end of that road sits a prison awaiting the guilty party ready to close in around a person for life, if necessary. For prison is one of the fruits of justice, in our society, and in a way, knowing this makes those who have been wronged feel whole and safe, again, as a community, even though the crime cannot be undone.

For some, prison symbolizes equality. If a police officer or a rich person is charged in a crime and is sent to prison, that makes us feel that no one is above the law. And in this way, we feel equitable, at least for a time.

In both situations, victims and their families can never really be made whole, only seen and recognized as people who have been wronged and the state and or the government, rights such wrongs punitively; thus, our modern prison system. But, how and when did prisons actually come about; and what was the impetus for their creation?

The history of prisons is a long and complex one, with the concept of incarceration for punishment dating back thousands of years. The first known prison, as we know it today, was established in Egypt around 2500 BC. It was used to detain people who were accused of crimes or who were unable to pay their debts.

There were two types of crimes in ancient Egypt, community crime, such as murder, adultery, theft of personal property, and crimes committed against the state such as bribery, treason, theft of public property, and any kind of crimes committed against recognized religious institutions of the time.

But the prison did not only seek to punish these crimes. In fact, that was not its primary purpose. (Ancient Egypt seemed to favor fines over prison for many crimes.) The prison system in ancient Egypt was designed to maintain the social hierarchy, and secondarily, maintain social order and control, by way of enforcing the laws of the state.

People imprisoned at that time in Egypt, were often held in cells or dungeons within the actual walls of temples, palaces, or other government buildings. These “cells” were often small, dark, and poorly ventilated, and prisoners were often subjected to harsh conditions and severe punishment.

During the Pharaonic period, prisoners were often used as a source of cheap labor, and they were often forced to work on construction projects or other labor-intensive tasks. In some cases, prisoners were also used as a source of entertainment, and some were forced to participate in mock battles or other forms of public spectacle, similar to our professional sports team of today.

In ancient Greece and Rome, which adopted some Egyptian laws and practices, prisons were used as a means of detaining individuals who were accused of crimes or who were perceived as a threat to social order.

In much the same way, in ancient Greece, prisoners were often held in “cells” formed inside the walls of temples or government buildings; or in dungeons of palaces or public buildings.

In ancient Rome, like the ancient Egyptians, the Romans also used prisoners as a source of cheap labor, and they were often forced to work on construction projects.

During the Middle Ages, prisons were used primarily as a means of holding people who were awaiting trial or other forms of final punishment (judgements), such as death. They were often overcrowded, unsanitary, and lacking in basic necessities, such as food and even water. In many cases, these early prisons were neglected spaces, where people, were left to rot, with no regard for their human rights or well-being.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the concept of imprisonment as a form of punishment began to gain traction. This led to the development of penitentiaries, which were designed to reform and rehabilitate offenders. This was revolutionary for the time, because it humanized prisoners, and made them seem redeemable, and thus reformed and fit for society. While there were some who believed that social order dictated ones propensity to commit crime, there were some who believed that if properly educated, prisoners would not choose to commit future crimes.

Therefore, this movement sought to change the prison system by emphasizing rehabilitation and education as a means of reducing recidivism. As a result, prisons began to focus more on providing prisoners with the skills and knowledge they needed to reintegrate into society upon release.

In the United States, the first penitentiary was established in York, Maine in 1720, then Philadelphia in 1790. Newgate State Prison in Greenwich Village was built in 1796. New Jersey added its prison facility in 1797, and Virginia and Kentucky in 1800.

These early penitentiaries were based on the Quaker belief in the rehabilitative power of solitude and hard work. This created more of a "workhouse" environment, focusing more on productive work, and quiet reflection, than punishment. This meant that inmates were incarcerated in cells alone, ate alone, and could only see approved visitors.

In the late 20th and 21st centuries, the prison system underwent significant reform, similar to what we saw in the 18th and 19th centuries, with a shift back towards rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders into society. This has led to the development of programs such as education and job training, which, again, aim to reduce recidivism and help prisoners reintegrate into society upon release.

Today, in the United States, challenges still remain, including mainstays from past corruptions, such as Black codes, current overcrowding and mass incarceration, inadequate conditions and healthcare leading to poor health and death, and issues with the fairness of the criminal justice system.

And as of November of 2022, about 2.2 million people are imprisoned in the United States. More than double that amount, (about 7 million) are under some form of supervision in the correctional system, including parole and probation.

The United States government and other groups continue to seek to ways to reform how we treat crime and people who commit crimes, such as alternative sentencing options for non violent offenders, and updated rehabilitation programs. Despite these efforts, the modern prison system remains a controversial and often-criticized aspect of society. Some question if the American system, like ancient Egypt has played a role in maintaining a certain social hierarchy, where minority and poor (marginalized) communities were and are punished more severely than others, for the same crimes.

In all, the modern prison system continues to play a role in the criminal justice system as an advocate for public safety and social order, while serving as a place of punishment for those who have committed crimes and rehabilitation for those who want a life away from the path that led them there.