The Martin Pollins Blog

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A Brief History of  Prisons from Antiquity  to Modern Times


The history of prisons dates back thousands of years, with evidence of their use in ancient civilisations such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In ancient times, prisons were used primarily as a means of detention for people awaiting trial or punishment and were often small, cramped, and unsanitary.

Prisons have been a feature of human society since ancient times. They have served various purposes throughout history, including punishment, rehabilitation, and social control. Despite their long history, however, prisons have always been controversial. While some people argue that they are necessary for maintaining law and order, others see them as inhumane and ineffective. In this paper, I will explore the history of prisons worldwide, examining their evolution over time and considering the various ways they have been used and viewed.

You might have several questions. What were the earliest forms of imprisonment, and how did they differ from modern prisons? How have prisons been used to punish criminals, and how have these forms changed over time? What have been the goals of imprisonment, and how have these goals varied across different societies and historical periods? These are just a few questions that I will explore as I delve into the fascinating history of prisons worldwide.

Prisoners picking oakum at Coldbath Fields Prison in London, c. 1864 [Cropped/Recoloured]. Attribution: Google scan of 1864 book by Henry Mayhew & John Binny, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons   
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Oakum is loose fibre obtained by untwisting old rope, used especially in caulking wooden ships.

Throughout history, prisons have been located in various settings. In ancient times, they were often found in public buildings or fortifications. During the Middle Ages, many prisons were located in castles or similar structures, whereas in modern times, they are often found in remote areas or on the outskirts of cities.

Prisons across the Ages

Ancient Civilisations
In ancient times, prisons were often used to punish criminals and detain people accused of crimes before trial.

  • The earliest known prisons date back to the first millennia BC and were located in ancient civilisations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt. These early prisons were typically used to hold debtors and political prisoners and were often found in temples or other religious buildings. In Mesopotamia, for example, the Code of Hammurabi included laws governing debtors and creditors, and debtors who could not repay their debts were often imprisoned.
  • In ancient China, prisons were typically underground pits or caves where prisoners were held in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Prisoners were often chained together, and many died from disease, starvation, or exposure to the elements. In some cases, prisoners were subjected to forced labour, such as digging canals or building walls.
  • Prisons in ancient Greece were typically located in public buildings such as courthouses or marketplaces and were often small, cramped, infested with rats and other vermin and lacking in basic amenities. Prisoners were usually held in a single room with no ventilation and often had to rely on their family or friends to provide food and other necessities.
  • In ancient Rome, the Mamertine Prison, also known as the Tullianum, was one of the most infamous prisons. It was located near the Roman Forum and held political prisoners and others accused of serious crimes. The prison was a small, cramped underground cell with no windows or ventilation, and prisoners were lowered into the cell through a hole in the ceiling. The conditions in the prison were harsh, and prisoners were often subjected to torture and abuse.

The first Roman prison was built by Ancus Marcius and enlarged by Servius Tullius. Another prison was built by Agrippa on the Campus Martius – it was called the Porticus Argonautarum. There were other prisons in Rome, the only one of which there are considerable ruins, is a prison built by Augustus and named after Octavia. The prison in Alba Fucens is described as dark, underground, and small.[2] Ancient tablets describe a prison called the Ergastulum.[3]

  • In ancient Egypt, prisons were used to hold prisoners of war and other political prisoners, as well as those accused of crimes such as theft or murder. The earliest form of prison was a pit in the ground where prisoners were held until they were brought to trial.

A depiction of the imprisonment of Charles, Duke of Orléans, in the Tower of London from a 15th-century manuscript.

The White Tower is visible, St Thomas’ Tower (also known as Traitor’s Gate) is in front of it, and in the foreground is the River Thames.[4]

Attribution: The author of the poems is Charles, Duke of Orléans, illustrated is unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
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Prisons in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, prisons became more common throughout Europe as feudal lords and monarchs sought to exert greater control over their subjects. Many of these prisons were little more than dungeons, with dark, damp cells and no access to basic amenities such as food, water, or medical care.

  • During the Middle Ages, prisons were often located in castles or other fortifications and were used to hold people accused of crimes such as theft, murder, or treason.
  • One of the most famous prisons of the Middle Ages was the Tower of London, which was used to hold prisoners ranging from common criminals to high-ranking nobles. The Tower held prisoners accused of treason, heresy, and other political crimes. Many famous prisoners were incarcerated there, including Anne Boleyn, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Guy Fawkes.
  • Other older prisons include the Mamertine Prison in Rome, which was used to hold political prisoners.

Early Modern Prisons
During the French Revolution in the late 18th century, the government established a network of prisons to hold political dissidents and enemies of the state. One of the most infamous was the Conciergerie in Paris, where many prisoners, including Marie Antoinette, were held before being executed by guillotine.

Al Capone’s cell, as it exists today at Eastern State Penitentiary.
Attribution: Thesab, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

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This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

In the United States, the first state penitentiary was established in Pennsylvania in 1790. This was followed by the Auburn Prison in New York, which introduced the concept of the congregate system, where prisoners were forced to work together in silence.

In the 19th century, the concept of the modern prison emerged in earnest, intending to use imprisonment to reform criminals rather than simply punish them. One of the most famous examples of this new approach was the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, built in 1829 and designed to be a model of rehabilitation and reform through isolation and hard labour.

Today’s Prisons
In the 20th century, many countries built large, centralised prisons to house large numbers of inmates, such as Alcatraz in the United States and Robben Island in South Africa. In South Africa during apartheid, the government established prisons to hold political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison before being released and becoming the country’s first black president.

Despite efforts to improve prison conditions and reform criminal behaviour, many prisons remained overcrowded, unsanitary, and violent throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In the United States, for example, the prison system was plagued by corruption, abuse, and discrimination against minority groups.

In modern-day China, the government has been accused of using re-education camps to imprison and brainwash Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities.

In North Korea, the government operates a network of prison camps where political prisoners and their families are subjected to forced labour, torture, and starvation.

Many countries have moved away from large, centralised prisons in favour of smaller, more community-based facilities. In Norway, for example, prisons are designed to resemble small communities, emphasising rehabilitation and education rather than punishment. These prisons have been credited with having some of the lowest recidivism rates in the world.

Despite the challenges facing modern prisons, there have been some examples of innovative and successful approaches to reforming the system. One example is the Halden Prison in Norway, which emphasises rehabilitation and education rather than punishment.

Prisons continue to be a controversial topic, with some advocates calling for greater emphasis on rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration while others argue for stricter sentencing and harsher punishments. Many countries have also been grappling with the challenges posed by COVID-19 in their prison systems, as overcrowding and poor sanitation have made it difficult to contain the spread of the virus.

Early Prisons and Imprisonment in Britain[5]
In the 18th century, more than 200 offences were considered serious enough to be punishable by death. Serious offenders who were not hanged were shipped to the colonies, an alternative form of punishment introduced by an Act of Parliament in 1718.

Even after all the hanging and shipping of convicts to the colonies, prisons were still bursting at the seams. There were those awaiting trial or non-custodial punishment, those already sentenced to imprisonment, and those who had not discharged their debts (called ‘debtors’). Debtors were by far the largest element in the 18th century prison population, often innocent tradespeople who had fallen on hard times. Legal action taken against them by creditors kept them in prison until they, or someone on their behalf, paid their debts.

The overcrowding of local prisons with debtors was dealt with every few years by Parliament, which would pass an insolvency Act to discharge them on certain conditions. There were 32 such Acts between 1700 and 1800.

The beached convict ship HMS Discovery at Deptford served as a convict hulk between 1818 and 1834.
Attribution: See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Types of prison
Places of incarceration ranged from small village lock-ups in rural areas to the cellars of castle-keeps in towns. The largest prisons were in London, the most important being Newgate which had about 300 prisoners.

The loss of the American colonies resulted in a crisis in finding places of confinement for prisoners. Old, decommissioned ships moored at London docks – known as prison or convict hulks – were used to house prisoners who would normally have been transported to the colonies, such as Australia.

Prisons as Punishment
Punishment can take many forms, as discussed below. The difference between the different forms of punishment lies in their methods and goals. Corporal punishment and capital punishment involve physical harm or death as a means of punishment, while penal labour involves forced work as a means of punishment. Reform and rehabilitation, on the other hand, focuses on education, treatment, and other forms of support as a means of preventing future criminal behaviour and reintegrating individuals into society.

In terms of impact, studies have shown that corporal punishment and capital punishment have little to no effect on reducing crime rates or preventing recidivism. Penal labour can contribute to a cycle of poverty and exploitation and may not be effective in reducing recidivism. Reform and rehabilitation programs, however, are effective in reducing recidivism rates and helping individuals overcome addiction, mental health issues, and other factors that may contribute to criminal behaviour.

Corporal Punishment
Corporal punishment is a form of physical punishment that involves the deliberate infliction of pain on a person’s body as a form of punishment for a crime or wrongdoing. It can take include whipping, caning, or other forms of physical discipline. The practice has been used throughout history in various societies and legal systems, but it is now widely recognised as a violation of human rights and is banned in many countries.

In practice, corporal punishment has been found to have little to no effect on reducing crime rates or preventing recidivism. It can also lead to physical and emotional harm and may contribute to a cycle of violence and abuse.

Capital Punishment
Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is a legal process by which a person is put to death by the state as a punishment for a crime. It is the ultimate form of punishment reserved for the most serious crimes, such as murder, treason, or espionage. The practice has been used throughout history in various societies and legal systems, but it remains a highly controversial issue.

In practice, capital punishment has been found to have little to no effect on reducing crime rates or preventing recidivism. It also raises ethical and moral concerns, such as the risk of executing innocent people, the possibility of arbitrary or discriminatory application, and the potential for cruel and inhumane treatment.

Penal Labour
Penal labour, also known as prison labour, is a system of forced labour in which prisoners are compelled to work as a form of punishment for a crime. This can include manufacturing, agriculture, construction, or other forms of manual work in some countries today.

In practice, penal labour can be a source of cheap labour for private companies or the state, but it can also contribute to a cycle of poverty and exploitation. It can also lead to physical and emotional harm, and may contribute to a culture of violence and abuse within prisons.

The 18th Century Prison Reform Movement[6]
The English philanthropist, John Howard FRS, was one of the most notable early prison reformers, although some authors have pointed out that many historical treatments overemphasise Howard’s work and that there were many other individuals (including local prison administrators) who also played a significant role in the development of modern prisons.[7]

After visiting several hundred prisons across Great Britain and Europe, Howard, as high sheriff of Bedfordshire, published The State of the Prisons in 1777.[8] He was particularly appalled to discover prisoners who had been acquitted but were still confined because they could not pay the jailer’s fees. He proposed wide-ranging reforms to the system, including housing each prisoner in a separate cell and the requirements that staff should be professional and paid by the government, that inspection of prisons should be imposed, and that prisoners should be provided with a healthy diet and reasonable living conditions. The prison reform charity, the Howard League for Penal Reform, was established in 1866 by his admirers.[9]

Following Howard’s agitation, the Penitentiary Act was passed in 1779, introducing solitary confinement, religious instruction, and a labour regime. It also proposed two state prisons (one for men and one for women). However, these were never built due to disagreements in the committee and pressures from Britain’s wars with France, and jails remained a local responsibility. But other measures passed in the next few years gave magistrates the power to implement many of these reforms.

The 1815 Gaols Act (also known as the Prison Act) abolished fees for the upkeep of prisoners and transferred responsibility for maintaining prisoners from the prisoners themselves to the government. The Act also set up a system of government inspection of prisons and provided for the appointment of paid prison chaplains. The abolition of jail fees was a significant reform that made imprisonment more accessible to the poor, who had previously been unable to pay for their own incarceration.

Quakers were prominent in campaigning against and publicising the dire state of the prisons at the time. The English prison and social reformer, philanthropist and Quaker Elizabeth Fry documented the conditions at London’s Newgate prison, where the section for ladies was overcrowded with women and children, some of whom had not received a trial. The inmates cooked and washed in the small cells where they slept on straw. In 1816, Fry founded a prison school for the children who were imprisoned with their parents. She also began a system of supervision and required the women to sew and also read the Bible. In 1817, she helped to found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate.

Reform and rehabilitation is a philosophy of corrections that focuses on the idea that individuals who commit crimes can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. It emphasises the importance of education, counselling, and other forms of treatment as a means of reducing recidivism and preventing future criminal behaviour.

In practice, reform and rehabilitation programs can be effective in reducing recidivism rates and helping individuals overcome addiction, mental health issues, and other factors that may contribute to criminal behaviour. However, they can also be expensive and resource-intensive and may not be effective for everyone.

Goals of Imprisonment
The goals of imprisonment can be broadly categorised into three main areas: retribution and deterrence, rehabilitation and education, and social control and segregation.

Retribution and Deterrence
The goal of retribution is to punish offenders for their crimes, to provide a sense of justice for victims and society, and to deter others from committing similar crimes. This goal is based on the belief that punishment is necessary to balance the scales of justice and to send a message to potential offenders that there are consequences for criminal behaviour. Retribution can take many forms, from fines and community service to imprisonment or even capital punishment.

Deterrence, on the other hand, is the idea that punishment can deter others from committing crimes in the first place. This can take two forms: specific deterrence, which seeks to discourage the individual offender from committing further crimes, and general deterrence, which aims to deter other members of society from committing similar crimes. The effectiveness of deterrence as a goal of imprisonment is a matter of ongoing debate among criminologists.

Rehabilitation and Education
The goal of rehabilitation and education is to provide offenders with the skills, education, and support they need to become productive members of society upon release. This goal is based on the belief that many offenders engage in criminal behaviour due to a lack of education or job skills, substance abuse, or other issues that can be addressed through treatment and counselling.

Rehabilitation programs can include educational and vocational training, mental health and substance abuse treatment, anger management and other counselling programs, and other forms of support.

These programs aim to help offenders address the root causes of their criminal behaviour and to prepare them for successful re-entry into society.

Social Control and Segregation
The goal of social control and segregation is to protect society from dangerous or disruptive individuals by removing them from the general population. This goal is based on the belief that some offenders are simply too dangerous or disruptive to be released into society and that their continued confinement is necessary to protect the safety and well-being of others. Segregation can take many forms, from solitary confinement to specialised housing units for high-risk offenders. The effectiveness of social control and segregation as a goal of imprisonment is also a matter of ongoing debate among criminologists, as there are concerns about the negative effects of long-term confinement on offenders’ mental health and well-being and the potential for abuse and mistreatment in correctional facilities.

Prisons in Different Societies
Prisons have existed in different societies around the world for centuries, and their development and use have been shaped by local cultural, political, and economic factors. Here is a brief overview of some of the characteristics and differences of prisons in different regions:

European Prisons
European prisons have a long history, dating back to the Middle Ages when castles and fortifications were often used as prisons. Today, many European countries have modern prison systems designed to focus on rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders back into society.

European prisons are often less punitive and focus more on social reintegration than punishment. Prisoners are often provided with educational and vocational training programs to help them develop skills and prepare for life outside of prison.

Prisons in the Americas
Prisons in the Americas vary widely depending on the country and region. In North America, prisons are typically well-funded and well-staffed, and are designed to provide basic necessities and services to prisoners.

In some South American countries, however, prisons are often overcrowded and poorly maintained, and prisoners may face poor living conditions and limited access to healthcare and other services. In some countries, such as Brazil, there have been reports of extreme violence and abuse in prisons.

Asian Prisons
Asian prisons vary widely depending on the country and region. In some countries, such as Japan and South Korea, prisons are known for their strict discipline and focus on rehabilitation. In other countries, such as China and North Korea, prisons are often criticised for their harsh conditions and lack of basic human rights. In many Asian countries, prisons are overcrowded, and prisoners may face poor living conditions and limited access to healthcare and other services.

African Prisons
African prisons face many challenges, including overcrowding, poor living conditions, and limited resources. In many countries, prisons are underfunded and understaffed, and prisoners may face poor living conditions and limited access to healthcare and other services. In some countries, such as South Africa, there have been reports of violence and abuse in prisons.

Prisons in the Middle East
Prisons in the Middle East vary widely depending on the country and region. In some countries, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, prisons are known for their strict discipline and focus on security. In other countries, such as Iran and Syria, prisons are often criticised for their harsh conditions and lack of basic human rights.

In many Middle Eastern countries, prisons are overcrowded, and prisoners may face poor living conditions and limited access to healthcare and other services.

Overall, prisons in different societies vary widely in their design, focus, and effectiveness. While some countries have modern prison systems that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration, others still face significant challenges in providing basic necessities and services to prisoners.

Russian Prisons
Certainly! Russian prisons have a long and complex history, influenced by the country’s political, social, and economic developments over the centuries. Here are some key points to note:

The modern Russian prison system can be traced back to the reign of Peter the Great in the early 18th century. Under Peter’s rule, a network of state-run prisons was established to house criminals and political prisoners.

During the Soviet era, the Russian prison system underwent significant changes. Prisons were used as a tool of political repression, with dissidents, intellectuals, and other perceived enemies of the state being imprisoned in large numbers. The infamous Gulag system, a network of forced labour camps, was also established during this time.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian prison system faced significant challenges. Major issues were overcrowding, corruption, and a lack of resources and funding. Efforts have been made to reform the system in recent years, but progress has been slow and uneven.

The Russian prison system has been criticised for its harsh conditions, mistreatment of prisoners, and lack of transparency. Reports of torture, abuse, and inhumane conditions are not uncommon.

Like many other countries, Russia has also faced challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports have emerged of COVID outbreaks in prisons, as well as concerns about the inadequate healthcare provided to prisoners.

The Russian prison system is complex and evolving. While there have been efforts to reform the system in recent years, many challenges remain, including overcrowding, mistreatment of prisoners, and lack of transparency.

War Prisons
War prisons have existed throughout history and have been used by various civilisations and empires to hold prisoners of war (POWs) and other military captives.

In ancient times, POWs were often sold into slavery or executed, but some were held as prisoners of war in camps or fortresses. For example, during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece, prisoners were often held in temporary camps until a ransom was paid for their release.

During the medieval period, prisoners of war were often held in castles or fortresses, and were typically subjected to harsh conditions and mistreatment. In some cases, they were held for ransom or forced to work as labourers or soldiers.

In modern times, the treatment of POWs is governed by the Geneva Conventions, a series of international agreements that establish the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment in war. These agreements require that POWs be treated humanely and not subjected to torture or other forms of mistreatment.

Despite these agreements, there have been numerous instances throughout history where POWs have been mistreated or abused. For example, during World War II, both the Allies and the Axis powers were accused of mistreating POWs. In Germany, POWs were often held in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and were subjected to forced labour and other forms of mistreatment. In Japan, POWs were subjected to brutal treatment, including torture, execution, and medical experiments.

In more recent conflicts, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been numerous reports of mistreatment and abuse of POWs, including the infamous Abu Ghraib prison scandal, where US soldiers were found to have engaged in physical abuse, sexual humiliation, and other forms of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners.

War prisons have played an important role in military conflicts throughout history but have also been the site of some of the most egregious human rights abuses in times of war. The treatment of POWs remains an important issue in modern warfare, and efforts continue to ensure that they are treated humanely and in accordance with the rule of international law.

Prisons for Specific Offenders
Prisons for specific offenders are institutions designed to hold certain types of offenders or offenders with specific needs. These types of prisons can vary widely depending on the jurisdiction and the particular needs of the offender.

One example of a prison for specific offenders is a juvenile detention centre, also known as a youth detention centre. These institutions, designed to hold offenders under 18, typically focus on rehabilitation and education rather than punishment. Juvenile detention centres may offer academic and vocational programs and counselling and therapy services to help young offenders address the underlying issues that may have led to their offending behaviour.

In some jurisdictions, some prisons are specifically designed to hold female offenders. These prisons may be designed with different security features and offer different programs and services than male prisons, as women may have different needs when it comes to issues like healthcare, family support, and rehabilitation.

Some prisons are designed to hold offenders with mental health issues or disabilities. These facilities may offer specialised treatment programs and mental health services, as well as accommodations to ensure that the physical environment of the prison is accessible to all inmates.

In recent years, there has also been increasing attention paid to the issue of LGBTQ prisoners, who may face unique challenges and risks while incarcerated. Some jurisdictions have established specialised units within prisons to house LGBTQ inmates and provide them with tailored support and services.

Children convicted of crimes are typically held in juvenile detention centres rather than adult prisons. However, in some cases, children may be tried as adults and sent to adult prisons. This is typically reserved for more serious offences or repeat offenders.

Regardless of the specific type of prison, the ultimate goal is typically to ensure the safety of society while also working to rehabilitate offenders and help them successfully reintegrate into the community upon release.

Gender-Specific Prisons
Same-sex prisons are prisons that are specifically designed to house inmates of the same gender. This type of prison is common in many countries and is intended to address issues such as safety and security, as well as to accommodate the cultural and religious beliefs of some inmates.

In many countries, same-sex prisons are the standard, with men and women housed in separate facilities. These prisons are typically designed to provide the same basic amenities as mixed-gender prisons, including cells, communal areas, and access to medical care and education. However, they may also have additional security measures, such as separate exercise yards or more extensive monitoring.

Prisons for LGBT+ Inmates
Some countries have separate prisons specifically for LGBT+ inmates as a way of protecting them from harassment and violence that they may face in mixed-gender prisons. These prisons may provide additional resources, such as counselling or support groups, to help LGBT+ inmates navigate the challenges of incarceration.

The conditions in same-sex prisons can vary widely depending on the country and the specific facility. In some cases, same-sex prisons may be overcrowded or lack basic amenities, while in other cases, they may be more comfortable and well-maintained than mixed-gender prisons.

In recent years, there has been increased attention to the issue of transgender inmates and their treatment in prisons. In some cases, transgender inmates may be housed in same-sex prisons that do not align with their gender identity, leading to harassment, abuse, and other problems. Some countries have responded by establishing separate facilities for transgender inmates or by allowing them to choose the gender of the facility they are housed in.

Overall, same-sex prisons are a common and important feature of correctional systems around the world, designed to provide a safe and secure environment for inmates. However, the conditions and treatment of inmates in these facilities can vary widely, and there is an ongoing debate about how best to address issues such as overcrowding, violence, and discrimination.

Foreign Destinations for British Prisoners
From the late 18th until the mid-19th centuries, Australia was a destination for British convicts. The prisoners were sent to penal colonies such as Port Arthur in Tasmania and Fremantle Prison in Western Australia, where they were put to work building infrastructure for the colony.

In 1788, the first British penal colony in Australia was established in what is now Sydney under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip. The colony was established as a place to send British convicts, who were overcrowding British prisons at the time. Over the next few decades, thousands of convicts were transported to Australia, and many were sent to work in the growing settlements in and around Sydney.

Women in Plymouth, England (Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll) mourning their lovers who are soon to be transported to Botany Bay (1792)
Attribution: Sayer, Robert, 1725–1794, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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As the number of convicts grew and the need for labour in other parts of Australia increased, new penal colonies were established in places like Tasmania and Western Australia. These colonies were often located in remote areas, where convicts were put to work building infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, and extracting natural resources, such as timber and coal.

Convicts in Australia were used as a source of cheap labour and were put to work building roads, bridges, and other public infrastructure. They were also used to work on farms and in other industries and were often subjected to harsh conditions and mistreatment.

Australia was not the only country used as a prison colony. Other British colonies, such as Bermuda and the Falkland Islands, were also used to house convicts. France used French Guiana in South America as a penal colony, while the Dutch used the island of Bonaire in the Caribbean for the same purpose. In the United States, the British used the colony of Georgia as a place to transport convicts.

Today, the use of prison colonies has largely fallen out of favour, with most countries opting for more traditional prison systems. However, there are still a few countries, such as North Korea and Myanmar, that are believed to use forced labour camps as a means of punishing political dissidents and other undesirables.

In Times of War
During times of war, various forms of imprisonment have been used to detain and punish individuals deemed undesirable or threatening to the state. Perhaps the most infamous examples of this are the concentration and extermination camps established by the Nazis during World War II to imprison and kill Jews, Romani people, homosexuals, and others.

Less well-known is the use of Alderney Island in the Channel Islands as a prison by Nazi Germany. Known as “Prison Island,” Alderney held British prisoners of war and civilian workers (as well as Jews from Europe) who were forced to construct fortifications and other military infrastructure. Conditions in the prison were harsh, with many prisoners subjected to forced labour and abuse until the island was liberated by British forces in 1945.

In the early 21st century, the US government established a prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to hold suspected terrorists captured during the War on Terror. The prisoners there have been subjected to controversial interrogation techniques and held for years without trial.

Attribution: Photo by Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy (see the story behind the image)This version, obtained from Vanity Fair, is digitally edited, following the photo credit at the source by Ron Sachs/CNP/Corbis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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Detail: Captives at Camp X-RayGuantanamo Bay, Cuba, a United States military prison where people are being indefinitely detained in solitary confinement as part of the “War on Terror” (January 2002). The prisoners are forced to wear goggles and headphones for sensory deprivation and to prevent them from communicating with other prisoners.

The use of islands as prison locations is not a new concept. The Channel Islands also housed Sark Island, which was used during the 16th and 17th centuries to hold prisoners from France, England, and other countries. Similarly, Devil’s Island in French Guiana was used in the 19th and early 20th centuries to hold political prisoners, and Robben Island in South Africa was used during apartheid to hold political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela.

Today, Sark is a popular tourist destination and its prison history remains a notable part of its heritage. Using islands for imprisonment may have fallen out of favour, but the legacy of such practices continues to shape our understanding of punishment and justice.

Private Prisons
Private prisons, also known as for-profit prisons, are correctional facilities owned and operated by private companies rather than the government or state. The use of private prisons has become increasingly common in many countries in recent decades, particularly in the United States.

The main argument favouring private prisons is that they can be more cost-effective than government-run prisons, as private companies can often run prisons more efficiently and at a lower cost. Private prisons may also be able to provide better facilities and services, as they are incentivised to provide good conditions to attract more inmates and contracts.

However, critics argue that private prisons prioritise profits over rehabilitation and safety which can lead to increased incarceration rates and not reduce recidivism. Private prisons may have a financial incentive to keep inmates incarcerated for longer periods, as this increases their profits. Additionally, there have been reports of mistreatment and abuse of inmates in some private prisons, as well as concerns over the quality of care and services provided.

Bridewells were a type of prison that originated in England in the 16th century. They were named after Bridewell Palace in London, which was converted into a prison in the 16th century.

Bridewells were designed to hold petty criminals and vagrants and were often used as workhouses where prisoners were forced to perform labour such as spinning or weaving. They were typically run by local authorities and were intended to be less harsh than other types of prisons.

Children’s Prisons
Children’s prisons, also known as juvenile detention centres, have a relatively recent history. The first juvenile detention centre was established in New York City in the mid-19th century, and similar institutions soon followed in other parts of the United States and Europe. These institutions were designed to provide a more rehabilitative approach to juvenile offenders, to help them to reform and reintegrate into society.

The Borstal System (UK)
In the United Kingdom, the Borstal system was introduced in the early 20th century as a way of dealing with young offenders. Borstals were designed to provide a more structured and disciplined environment than traditional prisons and included education and vocational training programs to help young offenders.

The Borstal system was a type of juvenile justice system that originated in the United Kingdom in the early 20th century. The system was named after Borstal Prison, a youth detention centre in Kent that was converted from a military prison in 1902 to hold young offenders. The word “borstal” comes from the village of Borstal in Kent, England. The first Borstal institution was opened in Borstal in 1902, and the name became associated with the reformatory system that was developed for young offenders in the early 20th century.

The Borstal system was designed to provide a more structured and disciplined environment than traditional prisons, with the goal of rehabilitating young offenders and preparing them for reintegration into society. The system was based on a military-style regimen, with strict rules and regulations, and included education and vocational training programs to help young offenders develop skills and prepare for employment after release.

The Borstal system emphasised discipline, hard work, and personal responsibility and was seen as a more progressive approach to juvenile justice than the punitive approaches that were common at the time. The system was widely adopted in the UK and other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, and became a model for juvenile justice systems around the world.

The Borstal system had a significant impact on the treatment of young offenders and was credited with reducing recidivism rates and improving outcomes for youth who had been in trouble with the law. However, the system also had its critics, who argued that it was too harsh and punitive and did not do enough to address the underlying social and economic factors that contributed to youth offending.

Over time, the Borstal system fell out of favour in many countries as new approaches to juvenile justice emerged. However, many of the principles and practices of the Borstal system continue to influence juvenile justice systems around the world, and the system remains an important historical model for addressing youth offending.

Crime-Specific Prisons
Crime-specific prisons, including maximum-security facilities and prisons for mentally ill offenders, have become more common in modern times. Maximum-security prisons are typically used to hold violent or dangerous criminals who pose a threat to other inmates or to society at large.

These facilities are designed with high levels of security, including armed guards and surveillance equipment, and are often located in remote areas. Prisons for mentally ill offenders, such as Broadmoor in the UK, are designed to provide specialised care and treatment for inmates with mental health issues. These facilities often include mental health professionals, specialised treatment programs, and security measures to protect inmates and staff.

Prisons for mentally ill offenders have a long history, dating back to the early modern period when mentally ill individuals were often housed in workhouses or prisons alongside other prisoners. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, efforts were made to separate mentally ill prisoners from the general prison population and provide them with specialised care.

In the United States, the first mental institution for prisoners, the Eastern State Hospital for the Insane, was established in Virginia in 1773. Similar institutions were soon established in other parts of the country, and by the mid-19th century, many states had separate mental institutions for prisoners. In the 20th century, many of these institutions were closed due to concerns about inhumane treatment and overcrowding, and mentally ill prisoners were often housed in regular prisons.

In the United Kingdom, Broadmoor Hospital was established in the mid-19th century as a high-security psychiatric hospital for mentally ill offenders. The hospital was designed to provide specialised care and treatment for inmates with mental health issues – it is one of three high-security psychiatric hospitals in the UK.

Similar institutions exist in other countries as well. In Australia, for example, the Forensic Hospital in New South Wales is a high-security psychiatric hospital for mentally ill offenders, while in Canada, the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatchewan provides specialised care for inmates with mental health issues. Many other countries have similar facilities, which are designed to provide specialised care for mentally ill offenders while also ensuring public safety.

Debtor’s Prisons
Debtor’s prisons were institutions that were established in many countries during the 18th and 19th centuries to hold people who were unable to pay their debts. These institutions were typically used to punish debtors and to pressure them into paying their debts and were often characterised by harsh conditions and mistreatment.

In many cases, debtors were imprisoned without trial or due process and were often held in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. They were typically responsible for their own food, clothing, and bedding and were often forced to rely on family members or charitable organisations for support.

The conditions in debtor’s prisons were often brutal, with prisoners subjected to physical abuse, extortion, and extortion by other inmates or guards. Many prisoners died from disease, starvation, or exposure to the elements, and those who were able to secure their release often faced significant financial and social difficulties.

Marshalsea Prison: Plaque on the remaining wall
Attribution: Russell Kenny, CC BY 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

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This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Debtor’s prisons began to decline in popularity during the 19th century as countries began to adopt more progressive bankruptcy laws and debt relief programs. In the United States, for example, the Bankruptcy Act of 1800 provided for the discharge of certain debts, while in the United Kingdom, the Debtors Act of 1869 abolished imprisonment for debt. However, debtor’s prisons continued to exist in some countries well into the 20th century and, in some cases, are still used in certain parts of the world today.

Debtor’s prisons were a harsh and often brutal form of punishment used to pressure debtors into paying their debts. While they have largely been abolished in most parts of the world, they remain a powerful symbol of the inequities of the legal and financial systems of the past.


  • 4000 BC – Evidence of prisons exists in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
  • 4000 BC – The Code of Ur-Nammu, one of the oldest known legal codes, includes provisions for imprisonment as a form of punishment in ancient Mesopotamia.
  • 3000 BC – Ancient Egypt used underground pits and rooms as prisons.
  • 1700 BC – Ancient China used bamboo cages to hold prisoners.
  • 600 BC – Ancient Rome’s Carcere Mamertino is the oldest known prison, originally designed as a cistern for water.
  • 550 BC – The Greeks used prisons to hold individuals awaiting trial and execution.
  • 400 BC – The first prison in Rome was the Carcer Tullianum, a stone cell beneath the city’s Capitoline Hill.
  • 200 AD – One of the oldest prisons outside the Roman Empire in Tiberias was discovered, showing that prisons existed in ancient times beyond the Roman Empire.
  • 1166 – The first prison was commissioned by English king Henry II in 1166, marking the beginning of the use of prisons as a form of punishment in medieval Europe. It also marked the development of the concept of the jury trial in the legal system, which significantly impacted the justice system in Europe and beyond.
  • 1215 – The Magna Carta was signed, stating that no free man can be imprisoned without a lawful judgement.
  • 1550 – King Henry VIII of England orders the construction of the first state prison, the Tower of London.
  • 1644 – The Qing dynasty in China established the first modern prison system.
  • 1773 – The first penitentiary in Europe, Maison de Force, is established in Ghent, Belgium.
  • 1779 – The Penitentiary Act is passed in England, introducing the concept of rehabilitation for prisoners.
  • 1787 – The first penitentiary, the Penitentiary House, was opened in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
  • 1790 – The Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia became the first penitentiary in the United States, with the goal of rehabilitating prisoners through solitary confinement.
  • 1816 – British prison reformer Elizabeth Fry visited Newgate Prison in London and began advocating for improved conditions for female prisoners.
  • 1816 – Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer, proposed the concept of a panopticon, a prison design where inmates are constantly monitored.
  • 1817 – The Separate System was introduced in British prisons, which involved prisoners being kept in solitary confinement and performing hard labour.
  • 1824 – The Auburn System was introduced in New York, which involved prisoners working together in silence and sleeping in individual cells at night.
  • 1835 – The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, began enforcing solitary confinement to rehabilitate prisoners.
  • 1839 – The Mount Pleasant Female Prison in Ossining, New York, opened in 1839 as the first separate women’s correctional facility in the United States, with a nursery for the children of incarcerated women.
  • 1865 – The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution is ratified, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.
  • 1876 – The British government passed the Habitual Criminals Act, which allowed for indefinite incarceration for individuals with a history of criminal behaviour.
  • 1876 – The Elmira Reformatory in New York is established as a rehabilitation centre for young offenders.
  • 1887 – The Punishment and Detention Code was enacted in Russia, which abolished corporal punishment and allowed for the separate confinement of prisoners.
  • 1898 – The Wolston Park Hospital, the first mental hospital for prisoners, was opened in Queensland, Australia.
  • 1900s – Private prisons began to emerge in the United States, with the first private prison company founded in 1983.
  • 1908 – The first modern prison in China, the Fuchou Prison, was opened.
  • 1919 – The first open prison in the world, Bastøy Prison in Norway, was opened.
  • 1920 – The Geneva Convention established rules for treating prisoners of war.
  • 1929 – The Soviet Union began to use gulags as a means of punishment and forced labour.
  • 1930 – The Bureau of Prisons was established in the United States.
  • 1948 – UK Criminal Justice Act created a model of all modern prisons.
  • 1949 – The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which included the right to be free from arbitrary arrest and detention.
  • 1950s – The use of psychiatric hospitals to incarcerate people with mental illness became increasingly common in the United States.
  • 1955 – The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also called the Mandela Rules, were adopted.
  • 1961 – The Ruffin v. Commonwealth Supreme Court decision in the United States affirmed the principle that prisoners do not have the same rights as free citizens.
  • 1970s – The number of people incarcerated in the United States began to increase rapidly, leading to the era of mass incarceration.
  • 1975 – The first supermax prison in the United States, the United States Penitentiary, Marion, was opened in Illinois.
  • 1980s – The War on Drugs led to a significant increase in the number of people incarcerated for drug offences in the United States.
  • 1983 – This year marked the first occurrence of “permanent lockdown” mode in US prisons (23-hour long periods of cell isolation, with communal yard time for all inmates, work, educational programs and meals in cafeteria).
  • 1987 – The Brazilian government established the National Penitentiary Department to oversee the country’s prison system.
  • 1989 – Pelican Bay prison in California was built for the sole purpose of holding inmates in isolation, thus becoming the first supermax facility in the USA.
  • 1990 – The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was established to monitor conditions in European prisons.
  • 1990s – The concept of restorative justice gains popularity, emphasising rehabilitation and reparation (repairing the harm caused by crime).
  • 1991 – In the UK, the Criminal Justice Act introduced the concept of “Probation Service” for all prisoners who served a sentence longer than 12 months.
  • 1991 – The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures were adopted.
  • 1993 – Modern UK Prison Service was formed.
  • 1997 – The International Centre for Prison Studies was established to research and promote humane prison practices around the world.
  • 2000s – The United States began to shift away from mandatory minimum sentences and the three-strikes law.
  • 2002 – The administration of US president George W. Bush formed the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, which held many war suspects from the war in Afghanistan, Iraq and 9/11 terrorist incident.
  • 2005 – America held over 40 supermax facilities, which all enforced constant 23-hour periods of isolation.
  • 2006 – The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was adopted, allowing for the establishment of independent monitoring bodies to inspect places of detention.

Closing Words
In conclusion, the history of prisons worldwide is a complex and multifaceted story. Prisons have served various purposes and have undergone numerous transformations from ancient times to the present day.

Prisons in ancient times were often harsh and lacked basic amenities. They were typically used to punish rather than rehabilitate, and prisoners were often subjected to abuse and mistreatment. While some people see them as a necessary tool for maintaining social order, others argue that they are inhumane and ineffective.

As we continue to grapple with issues of crime and punishment in the 21st century, it is clear that the story of prisons is far from over. But by examining the past, we can better understand the present and work towards creating a more just and humane society and work towards creating a future in which justice, equality, and compassion are at the forefront of our collective consciousness.

In the end, it is clear that the history of prisons is closely intertwined with the history of human civilisation itself. Prisons have reflected the values and beliefs of the societies that have created them, and they have played a key role in shaping the course of human history. From the earliest forms of imprisonment to the modern-day prison industrial complex, prisons have been both a source of controversy and a place where people have fought for their rights and a more just and fair society.

“Fear Can Hold You Prisoner, Hope Can Set You Free”

Picture: “Shawshank Redemption, The” by Hutson H is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Sources and Further Reading


Films Featuring Prison Life:

Go to IMDB for details and Amazon for Purchase:

  • Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), starring Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Telly Savalas, Neville Brand and Betty Field
  • The Great Escape (1963), starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence and James Coburn
  • Cool Hand Luke (1967), starring Paul Newman and George Kennedy
  • Papillon (1973), starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman
  • Escape from Alcatraz (1979), starring Clint Eastwood, Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau
  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994), starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman
  • Murder in the First (1995), starring Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Embeth Davidtz, Brad Dourif, William H. Macy and R. Lee Ermey
  • The Green Mile (1999), starring Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, Sam Rockwell, James Cromwell, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Pepper and Gary Sinise

CAUTION: This paper is compiled from the sources stated but has not been externally reviewed. Parts of this paper include information provided via artificial intelligence which, although checked by the author, is not always accurate or reliable. Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action nor exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.

End Notes and Explanations

  1. Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: [chat] and
  2. Source: Wansink, Craig S. (1996-01- C1). Chained in Christ: The Experience and Rhetoric of Paul’s Imprisonments. A&C Black. ISBN 978-1-85075-605-7. Cited at:
  3. Sources: (a) Ripley, George; Dana, Charles Anderson (1883). The American Cyclopaedia: A Popular Dictionary for General Knowledge. D. Appleton and Company, and (b) Wansink, Craig S. (1996-01-01). Chained in Christ: The Experience and Rhetoric of Paul’s Imprisonments. A&C Black. ISBN 978-1-85075-605-7 Cited at:
  4. Source: Impey, Edward; Parnell, Geoffrey (2000). The Tower of London: The Official Illustrated History. Merrell Publishers in association with Historic Royal PalacesISBN 978-1-85894-106-6. Cited at:
  5. Source: Extracted from, © Crown copyright acknowledged.
  6. Source:
  7. See: See DeLacy, Margaret (1986). “The Eighteenth Century Gaol”Priso n Reform in Lancashire, 1700–1850: A Study in Local Administration. Manchester University Press. ISBN 9780719013416. Cited at: Cited at:
  8. Source: John Howard (1777), The State of the Prisons in England and Wales with an account of some foreign prisons. Cited at:
  9. Source: “What We Do”. The Howard League for Penal Reform (at:

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