Prison History

Prison is a concept that most people rarely give much thought.  Throughout history, imprisonment or incarceration was not used as punishment.  Instead, prison was simply a place to confine and hold criminals until corporal or capital punishment could be administered.  The Bible mentions prisons in Jerusalem.  Even the story of Joseph, who most people associate with a “coat of many colors,” relates a tale of imprisonment in Egypt.

The contemporary idea of prison began in Britain, during the 19th century.  The city of London gave birth to the first modern prison system.  Jeremy Bentham originated the panopticon, a principle of observation and control that is still utilized in prison construction.  It was during this period that employing incarceration as a form of punishment commenced.  It was a radical adaptation.  Once incarceration became accepted as punishment, the concept of rehabilitation entered the equation.

Prior to the 19th century, the terms ‘captive’ and ‘prisoner’ were interchangeable.  Great Britain and Spain sent convicts to colonize North America.  At the same time, they began taking captives to be used as slaves.  As early as the 16th century, Portugal, along with other major European powers, viewed slavery as a healthy financial investment.  Men, women, and children were taken captive in Africa, and then shipped to the Caribbean and the American colonies, where they served as slaves. 

Beginning in the early 17th century, Great Britain engaged in international prisoner trade.  As early as 1650, most emigrants to the American colonies were prisoners that Great Britain was eager to get rid of.  Some were kidnapped or arrested and transported to America against their will.  Others were hoodwinked and then imprisoned until they could be transported.  Still others voluntarily became indentured servants because they had no option.  “Spirits” (illicit human traffickers) lured many weak and helpless people to sign on as servants.  More often than not, these draftees were confined in jails until they were shipped to America, where they worked for affluent landowners.  The confinement kept them from changing their minds.  By 1680, ten thousand people per year were spirited to the colonies. 

During the early 17th century, Great Britain began a systematic transportation of convicts to America.  In 1717, Parliament empowered the high courts to sentence noncapital offenders to seven years imprisonment in the colonies.  As soon as judgment was pronounced, the offender was taken directly to a prison ship, which shortly set sail.  Any convict who tried to go back to Great Britain before the seven year sentence was up would be hanged.