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A Brief History of Prisons

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Prior to the 15th Century, incarceration itself was not considered a punishment, but rather a way of holding those who were in debt or awaiting trial. As well as common criminals, prisons at this time were also used to detain political prisoners, prisoners of war, slaves and those convicted of treason. Particularly in the case of the traitor, the prison provided a venue to exhibit the prisoner prior to his punishment.

Many of these early prisons were built partially underground with minimal light. The first examples of cells were built into the ground and accessed by a trapdoor, from which the prisoners were dropped. In the 13th Century, prisons began to separate offenders by offence, however men and women were rarely separated. There is not a lot of evidence on the design of early examples of prisons, however much more can be studied from the prisons built in castles and fortresses between the 12th and 17th centuries as many of them are still standing.

These prisons were typically built of wood inside of stone castles. Generally, the type of prisoners inside of these were political prisoners that were detained as a result of disputes with the rulers, as well as common criminals. These small prisons, or dungeons, were typically built several stories above the ground. Despite the variation in castle architecture during this period, example?, the prisons were usually similar in their design. Tiny slit windows typically sat seven feet or above the floor level. Due to the thickness of the walls, these windows proved ineffective in lighting the space and providing sufficient ventilation. In terms of plumbing, the cells usually featured a hole in the floor that led the sewage into the moat surrounding the castle or fortress.

Aside from these standard cells, some castles features different levels of incarceration, with the most serious offenders being held in the deepest parts of the prison. This level was commonly referred to as “the pits”. Similarly to how earlier prisons exhibited the more serious offenders, usually those who acted against the state, some castles during this period would suspend prisoners in iron cages from the ceiling. These cages were often used for those prisoners of low social status for petty crimes.

These examples of early prisons were, as previously stated, used for holding prisoners whilst they waited for their sentences of death, mutilation or exile. It was only towards the end of the 18th century that authorities had begun to use imprisonment itself as a punishment, having been influenced by the Catholic Church. The Church believed that this was an opportunity for the reform of prisoners, as once they have been led to see the effect and wrongness of their crimes, they could then change their behaviour and be released back into society. Quote?

Physical punishment such as hard labour, solitary confinement and beatings were methods of control within the prisons and used as both a deterrent and an example to other prisoners. These prisons soon became overcrowded due to the extended sentences of the offenders and resulted in a large number of prisoner deaths due to the lack of water, ventilation and basic plumbing systems.

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As a result of this overcrowding, prison building increased to accommodate the rising prison population. “Although prison building increased to accommodate the influx of those charged with crimes, prison architecture remained trapped in the past, supporting the idea of confinement and physical punishment rather than inmate reform”. Woodruff supports her argument that designing for punishment was a negative method of incarceration, using the example of Name/Date? in Warwick, UK. This prison was built as an underground prison below a county jail. The prison was designed as octagonal in form, dug six meters into the ground and six and a half meters in diameter.

“It was accessed by several doors and a long staircase, with a grate in the ceiling. In the centre of the dungeon is a small open drain for sewage, which drops down to a spring. Around this pit were eight posts, to which heavy chains were attached. Prisoners were chained by the leg to these posts in circular fashion”.

Most likely as a result of these harsher conditions and treatments, the prisoners began to grow more violent and committed more hardened crimes. During the late 1770s, over half of the prisoners in English prisons were people in debt, with the absolute minority of offenders convicted of more serious crimes. One hundred years later, in the 1870s, only 3 percent of offenders in English prisons were those in debt. It was then that the majority of offenders were of more serious cases such as murder, robbery, rape and arson.

As the prisoners and their offences started to get out of hand during the 18th and 19th centuries, a new prison movement began. The roles of the prison setting itself started to change, with focus on reform rather than only punishing the incarcerated. The High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, John Howard Dates?, after being exposed to the terrible conditions of his local prison, advocated for improvements in prisons and for better treatment of the offenders. What?

Howard, along with Jeremy Bentham, who was the leader of the prison reformers during that period, advocated a new approach to prison building. The prison building was originally built upon incarceration and punishment alone, whereas, after the influence of Howard and Bentham, began to focus on the rehabilitation and basic needs of the prisoners. “Prison designs began to accommodate religious instruction, education and the health of the prisoners. ” These basic needs included food and clothes to be provided without charge, individual cells for the prisoners and the reduction of shared cells. They proposed hiring salaried staff such as doctors and chaplains, as well as the guards. Finally, segregation by age, sex and type and severity of offence. These changes aimed to stop the extortion of the prisoners, whilst providing safe spaces for the prisoners. This was an attempt to bring order to English prisons and a way of controlling the violence that was becoming more common between prisoners. “Of course, these standards could not be effectively implemented in prisons designed to be dungeons of punishment. Prison architecture had to change as well”.

Howard and Bentham focused particularly on surveillance and inspection of the prisoners, as the lack of had resulted in violent conditions and further crimes committed within the prisons. Bentham believed that constant surveillance was the answer to reduce the dangerous activity that was taking over the prison, whilst at the same time preventing this.

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A Brief History of Prisons. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-brief-history-of-prisons/
“A Brief History of Prisons.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/a-brief-history-of-prisons/
A Brief History of Prisons. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-brief-history-of-prisons/> [Accessed 8 Dec. 2022].
A Brief History of Prisons [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2022 Dec 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-brief-history-of-prisons/
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