The Pathos of Politics – Punishment


The whole idea of punishment is a childish daydream. ~ English novelist George Orwell

The recorded use of prisons dates to the 2nd millennium BCE. Incarceration was one of many punishments, all of which embraced punitive requital.

Americans distinguish between jail and prison, if not in facility or duration of stay, at least in intent. Whereas jail is detention before trial, prison is the confinement of convicted offenders.

Ancient Egypt

Records of Egyptian prisons date from the period of the Middle Kingdom (2050–1786 bce). Adhering to the principle of Maat, pharaohs had a sacred duty to preserve public order. They and their servants could be neither capricious nor cruel.

Middle Kingdom pharaohs preferred public beatings and imprisonment to the death penalty. Ancient Egyptian prisons alternately resembled fortresses with cells and dungeons or labor camps. Prisoners were expected to work during their confinement; a practice not unique to Egypt. When Samson was imprisoned by the Philistines, he was put to work grinding corn.

Jail and prison were one and the same in ancient Egypt. Nor was there any differentiation of prisoners according to their offense.

Each prison had a warden and staff of guards and scribes. Meticulous records were kept. Prisons economically housed the criminal courts that tried the incarcerated.

Escape from prison was an additional, serious crime.


Contemporaneous civilizations in the Near East had similar practices to Middle Kingdom Egypt. The Babylonian code of Hammurabi provided for several kinds of punishment, including a variety of executions and lesser retributions, including mutilation. The early laws had little mention of prisons, but they were used for debt, theft, and bribery, and for rebellious slaves and foreign captives, as was the practice in Egypt.

The Assyrian empire in 8th century bce imprisoned smugglers, thieves, deserters, and tax evaders. Like its predecessors in the region, foreign captives were a large part of the prison population. Forced labor was an integral part of the Assyrian prisons, which were located close to, or even inside, granaries. The Persian empire that succeeded Assyria had a similar approach to punishment.

Ancient Israel

Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of a judge or priest who represents God must be put to death. Such evil must be purged from Israel. ~ Deuteronomy 17:12, The Bible

The Hebrews had a different take on crime and punishment. They were a people with a covenant with God. Crime was a contract violation.

The 1st supposed offense in Jewish history was Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God, which was punished by exile; so too Cain’s killing of Abel. Both crimes were punished by God himself. In Cain’s case, God branded him with a mark of shame.

The principal punishments by the early Hebrews were exile and death. Both removed the offender from the community. The death penalty was employed to eliminate those whose offense disrupted public order and purity, and thereby threatened to bring down the wrath of God.

You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. ~ Deuteronomy 19:19, The Bible

The main means of execution were lapidation (stoning to death), forcing the mouth open and pouring molten lead down the throat, decapitation, and strangulation. Bodily punishments included beating and mutilation. Compensation, fines, and compulsory sacrifices might be ordered.

Deuteronomic laws said nothing of prison. The few early references to confinement were for custody before sentence was carried out.

The Book of Ezra was written ~400 ce, when the Jewish community had reestablished itself in Palestine after Babylonian captivity. Persian king Artaxerxes II retained political control of the territory. In Ezra are the first Hebrew mentions of prison and confiscation.

Anyone who does not obey God’s law or the law of the king must be punished without pity. Depending upon the crime, an offender must be executed, exiled, property confiscated, or imprisoned. ~ Ezra 7:26, The Bible

Ancient Greece

The city-state of Athens provides the best evidence of ancient Greek punishment practices (8th–5th centuries bce), and reflects other societies in classical times.

Athenian law decreed different punishments for capital crimes, depending on an evil act’s nature. A criminal may be thrown off a cliff, stoned to death, or bound to a stake so that he suffered a slow death and public abuse while dying – the latter being an early form of crucifixion.

Besides corporeal abuse, ancient Greeks employed patrimonial punishments, including fines and confiscation of property.

Athenian statesman Demosthenes (384–322 bce) observed that a free citizen was usually punished in his property, the slave in his body; but this distinction was not categorical. A range of retributions might be applied regardless of station.

Athens and other ancient societies also employed moral punishments, including public shaming, denunciation, and/or exposition of an offender.

Like the Hebrews, the ancient Greeks had little use for extended imprisonment: better to be rid of evil than confine it. Condemned men were held until their execution was carried out.


The only good is knowledge, and the only evil is ignorance. ~ Socrates

Socrates is illustrative of the Athenian sense of justice. He was charged in 339 bce with impiety: in Socrates’ case, of corrupting youthful minds by insistently questioning the wisdom of the authorities, and by espousing belief in gods other than those sanctioned by the city.

Socrates was tried in one day before a jury of 500 citizens. His defense was the speech attributed to him in Plato’s dialogue Apology.

Found guilty by a slim margin of 30 jurors, Socrates had the right to propose his penalty, as did the prosecution. He rejected prison and exile, offering to pay a fine.

The jury rejected Socrates’ suggestion and condemned him to death. Because of a delay imposed by the Athenian religious calendar, Socrates was confined in prison, from which his friends urged him to escape – something he could have accomplished.

Instead, the stoic Socrates drank hemlock. Drinking poison as a form of self-execution (compulsory suicide) was another ascribed Athenian penalty.

Death may be the greatest of all human blessings. ~ Socrates


Now the proper office of all punishment is twofold: he who is rightly punished ought either to become better and profit by it, or he ought to be made an example to his fellows, that they may see what he suffers, and fear to suffer the like, and become better. ~ Plato

Plato’s argument for exemplary deterrence became commonplace in ancient and medieval minds. But his argument for correction – that wrong acts arise from ignorance, and thereby the punishment should be instructive and thereby corrective – remained largely unheeded until the Middle Ages; and then was viewed from a divergent cultural context.

Roman Punishment

Promulgated in 449 BCE, the 12 Tables legislation was the foundation of Roman law. A consequence of class struggle – between honestiores (overclass patricians) and humiliores (underclass plebeians) – the 12 Tables dealt chiefly with private disputes. Even the few offenses against the Roman state mentioned – such as receiving bribes or abetting an enemy of Rome – were prosecuted privately before an assembly of citizens, with magistrates conducting the proceedings.

Conviction sometimes involved compensation, but more frequently delict meant death. Among the forms of capital punishment were burning (for arson), precipitation (thrown from the Tarpeian cliff for perjury), clubbing to death (for composers of scurrilous songs of slander), hanging (for theft, as a sacrifice to the goddess Ceres), and decapitation.

Although unmentioned in the 12 Tables, several other forms of capital punishment were employed in early Rome. The culleus – putting the convicted in a sack with a dog, serpent, or ape, and throwing the sack into the sea – was used for those who killed a close relative. Vestal virgins who violated their vows were immolated.

The powerful nature of these punishments served as legal substitute for private revenge. Leniency might be shown by exile – with citizenship, freedom, and immovable property forfeit. Those so condemned could be killed by any citizen if they returned to Rome.

The only instance of imprisonment mentioned in the 12 Tables was for debt. Debtors who could not, or would not, pay up were held by their creditors for 60 days. Their debts were to be announced on 3 successive market days. On the last such day the debtor was executed or sold into slavery outside the city.

The powers of the male head of Roman households included the right to maintain a domestic prison cell (ergastulum). It might be used as a work cell for recalcitrant or rebellious slaves, or as admonishment for an errant family member.

The 12 Tables were never officially abolished. Significant changes were wrought between the 5th and 2nd century bce. While accusation and prosecution continued to be conducted by individuals, courts (quaestiones perpetuae) were presided over by a magistrate (praetor) who adhered to statute without discretion.

Lower magistrates (tresviri capitales) in Rome did not hold the power of life and death over Roman citizens: the power known as imperium, reserved for only the highest magistrates. Lower jurists could imprison offenders for short durations, or otherwise punish short of death. Little of these Roman prisons is known.

The jurisdiction of Rome differed from the provinces of the empire, where local governors had great latitude in law, including dealing with criminals; so too military courts.

The sphere of criminal law greatly expanded during the classical period. Emperors and their legal advisors added new offenses. Private prosecution gave way to public administration.

The new imperial system ushered into common use several hitherto infrequent practices, most notably torture. Torture had long been employed for the testimony of slaves, who were assumed to have no honor, nor reason to tell the truth sans coercion. The application of torture gradually expanded to defendants of low social status (humiliores), and even to witnesses, especially when the charge was treason; a category of crime engorged by emperors, ever paranoid of their power.

Under imperial rule, punishments grew increasingly severe. Exile became more common, as did forced labor on public works, work in the mines, or coerced gladiatorial combat. These last 2 were in effect death sentences, usually inflicted on humiliores.

Another new punishment was throwing an offender to the beasts in public games; more commonly applied to humiliores than honestiores (those of higher social rank), though some emperors cared not a whit about social status when it came to feeling displeased and being nasty about it.

Being thrown to the beasts, publicly roasted, or suffering crucifixion belonged to the class of spectacular retributions known as summa supplicia (the highest punishments). These were reserved for offenses considered horrendous, and were symptomatic of the pursuit of exemplary deterrence, designed to demonstrate the limitless power of the emperor.

Summa supplicia began under early emperors and reached a peak in the 3rd and early 4th centuries, achieving a ferocity rarely, if ever, equaled in the ancient world. Christian men were a favorite for this deterrent treatment.

These excesses were curbed from the mid-4th century, as emperors reduced both the variety and severity of capital punishment. This process occurred in the context of the last major stage in Roman legal history, with the extensive compilation of legal literature under imperial patronage.

Justinian I called the description of the former punishments as “the terrifying books.” By this time, the forms of execution more closely resembled the late republic than recent imperial history.

Roman prisons typically had several sections. The inner chambers were commonly hellish holds. The more desirable parts of a prison might sometimes be obtained by purchasing passage from jailers. Extortion by jailers was common.

Prisons were legally intended for temporary residence: either until execution could be carried out or the prisoner released. Being imprisoned for decades, as is common in modern practice, was practically impossible. For one, an inmate was unlikely to last that long under the fetid and tortuous conditions that prison presented. Antoninus Pius, who was emperor 138–151, stated his position:

Your statement that a free man has been condemned to imprisonment in chains for life is incredible, for this penalty can scarcely be imposed even upon a person of servile condition.

Antoninus’ predecessor, Hadrian, had issued an edict forbidding provincial governors from imposing life imprisonment. It was not always followed.

Governors are in the habit of condemning men to be kept in prison or in chains, but they ought not to do this, for punishments of this type are forbidden. Prison indeed ought to be employed for confining men, not for punishing them. ~ Roman jurist Ulpian (170–223)

By the 4th century, imperial edicts indicated a general concern that those held in custody before trial not unduly suffer. An edict dated 320 from Constantine I commanded that such men:

shall not be put in manacles of iron that cleave to the bones, but in looser chains, so that there may be no torture. He must be kept in good health by the enjoyment of light, so that he might not perish from the torments of prison.

Emperors sometimes gratuitously showed mercy. One instance illustrates the distinction between the kinds of crime and the treatment of criminals.

An edict in 367 announced the emptying of the prisons in honor of Easter, except for those guilty of treason, homicide, rape, adultery, sorcery, and crimes against the dead. These exceptional crimes, which merited summa supplicia punishment, were termed crimina excepta: crimes so heinous that ordinary criminal procedures were suspended in their prosecution.

The category of crimen exceptum also explains some of the erosion of status distinctions that had marked earlier forms of Roman punishment. During the days of the republic and 1st century of the empire, honestiores were either quickly executed, usually by decapitation, or allowed to flee into exile. By the 3rd century, honestiores and humiliores alike underwent torture and suffered summa supplicia for crimina excepta.

Medieval Punishment

The Germanic tribes that fell Rome and took over much of Europe crafted simpler laws: there was little need for the learned law of a lost empire. Germanic laws were chiefly concerned with establishing the rights of kings and regulating the settlement of private disputes. Public law had a rudimentary place. Prisons merited only occasional mention.

Those accused of a crime spent time in jail until their trial. Otherwise, prison continued to be an exceptional punishment in medieval times. Kings sometimes used monasteries to imprison captured rebels, but the duration of incarceration was typically weeks or months, not years.

Fines were common for minor crimes, including as settlement for simmering blood feuds between families. Only those who owed large sums of money languished in prison during the Middle Ages. They were held only until their family paid off the debt.

Those guilty of moral wrongdoings, such as public drunkenness or slander, were sometimes beaten with clubs.

Violent or repeat criminals might be put into stocks or a pillory in the town square. Stocks were heavy frames of wood or iron which held criminal’s ankles, rendering an offender immobile. There a criminal sat, where a passerby might enjoy pelting the miscreant with rotting vegetables or rocks. Those in stocks were only allowed to defend themselves against those who laughed at them.

Nobles were not usually placed in stocks, but almost anyone else who committed a crime could end up in them, including monks and nuns.

A more severe punishment was the pillory. Pillories were wooden or iron frames that held the heads, hands, and sometimes feet of criminals.

Those pilloried were forced to stand in a hunched-over stance for hours or days at a time. Pillories were more painful than stocks, and offenders had no means to defend themselves against assault.

The Chinese used a cangue in lieu of a pillory. A cangue was a large, heavy wooden collar. Standing with a cangue about the neck was exhausting.

Thieves and those guilty of assault were sometimes banished, losing all legal rights and property. Those who took in the banished themselves became outlaws. Towns that protected outlaws might have their walls destroyed by the king’s soldiers.

Manslaughter and murder were hanging crimes. Properly done, the drop in a hangman’s noose broke the neck, resulting in a quick death. Instead, hangmen often tied the knot wrong, letting a criminal suffer strangulation, and so give a better show.

While men might be hanged, most women were instead garroted. Considered more dignified than swinging at the end of a rope, it spelt a slower death.

Nobles sentenced to death were beheaded. Supposedly a statelier departure, a condemned noble knelt down with his head on a wooden block. In one stroke, an executioner parted the head from the body with an axe or sword.

Treason – conspiring against royalty – might draw only exile. More often, traitors were dragged behind a horse to the public square, where they were hanged. Then, after cutting out hearts and stomachs, their bodies were quartered. Sometimes a traitor’s remains were left on display as a deterrent to those not kindly disposed to royalty.

The most flamboyant death sentence was being burned alive. This torturous execution was especially favored by church authorities for more than symbolic reasons. Being roasted to death was an unusual punishment except for arsonists, who got a terminal taste of their own medicine.

Physical medieval punishments were public displays and popular entertainment. Those drawn by horse to the town square for hanging often created a procession, with spectators following in the condemned man’s wake.

Showing an early inclination for innovation, medieval Japanese creatively executed criminals. A condemned man might alternately be impaled, beheaded with a metal saw, or strung up and repeatedly skewered before the finale of slashing the throat to bleed out.


The Germanic legal codes inherited by Anglo-Saxon England used imprisonment for theft and witchcraft, but the most common punishments were those in the rest of Europe: compensation, exile, mutilation, and death.

In the violent century following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror and his successors attempted to impose their authority throughout the kingdom, but order was not attained until the 2nd half of the 12th century, under Henry II.

William I built the 1st English royal prison – the Tower of London – to hold his enemies. There were others, such as the Fleet, which were used chiefly as jails, as well as for occasional prisoners of war and hostages.

Prisons were used to hold private enemies, especially during the Anarchy (1135–1154): a disastrous civil war of succession for the throne after Henry I, which started after the king’s only legitimate heir died in the accidental sinking of the White Ship on 25 November 1120.

Henry II issued the Assize of Clarendon in 1166. It was an effort to deal with rampant lawlessness in the country. The Crusades were in full swing, keeping noble landowners away from their castles for years on end.

Worse, in the wake of the Anarchy, the mercenary soldiers hired for the effort were out of work. Many took up robbery and other violence for their livelihoods. Crime surged in the absence of authority.

The assize established a presenting jury for each district, which was to inform the King’s itinerant judges of the most serious crimes committed there, and to name a suspect if possible. This jurisprudential proceeding became the modern grand jury.

The assize had the immediate effect of engendering false accusations, and so fueling miscarriages of justice. In a longer perspective, the act began the transformation to an evidentiary model for criminal trials.

At the time, the prevailing party in a trial, especially for felonies, was decided by ordeal, battle, or compurgation. Compurgation allowed a defendant to be acquitted by getting a required number of people, typically 12, to solemnly endorse his oath of innocence.

While Henry’s 1166 assize fostered trial by jury, recourse to trial by combat was not officially rescinded until 1819.

On the heels of his assize, Henry II ordered sheriffs to build jails in each county, to hold those accused of felonies until they could be tried by itinerant royal justices, the counterpart of circuit court judges. Nobles, with more limited rights of justice, also kept jails.

Some English jails were franchisal: the right to arrest and hold an accused was given or sold by the king to jail keepers, who derived their income from the difference between what they were paid to keep a jail and the money spent on its maintenance and cost of prisoner keep. In the late 20th century, the US adopted this model for its prisons. Franchisal incarceration is a long-proven means for inhumane treatment via the profit incentive to keep prisoners on the cheap or extort them.

Into and in the 13th century, imprisonment became more common for debtors of the crown, and for those who interfered with the justice system. But confinement remained primarily coercive. In the early 13th century, English jurist Henry of Bracton could comfortably quote Ulpian in that English prisons were for custody, not punishment.

The prison-building program begun by Henry II took on a life of its own. From the 1270s, the number of prisons in England and imprisonable offenses rose rapidly.

Besides the proliferation of offenses that might land one in prison, the ways to stay out diminished during the 13th century. Bail, frankpledge, and property attachment were not as reliable as they used to be in springing someone from stir. The number of offenses for which no bail could be obtained rose, including arson, jailbreaking, treason, and arrest by order of the king or his chief justice.

By 1520 there were 180 imprisonable crimes in the common law. Offenses worthy of imprisonment included vagrancy, disturbing the peace, illicitly bearing arms, and moral umbrages. Locking up minor misfits became commonplace.

English criminal law intended punishment to be quick and public, and so serve as a deterrent. Hence, there was shaming displays, which included the stocks, pillories, ducking stools, branding, and mutilation. Capital punishments also made their stark point: hanging, decapitation, drowning, burning, and being buried alive.

Much like Roman prisons, conditions in medieval English prisons varied considerably, from comfortable to foul.

Prisons presented profit opportunities to jailers. A prisoner could better his situation through payment. While irons were not, by law, supposed to be used to aggravate confinement, paying an “iron fee” might provide considerable relief.

Prisoners bore much of the cost of their confinement. Private charity greatly aided those imprisoned, particularly the poor, who depended upon benefaction for their survival.

As the centuries wore on, the flagrant displays of punishment lessened. A sentence of confinement grew to be a punishment unto itself. Prison became an institution.

England was a compact kingdom, which from the late Middle Ages was ruled by a series of sovereigns who based many of their claims to legitimacy on the strength of common and canon law. English jurisprudence and its punishment practices spread to its colonies, and so the common law regime became one of the major justice systems of the modern world.

 Continental Europe

One of the chief differences between the common law in England and that evolving on the continent was the degree to which the Roman legal legacy had an impact. Unsurprisingly, Italy was the home of Europe’s first major center of legal study. One feature of the new learned law that did not derive from Roman practice was the use of punitive punishment.

Roman law gave considerable discretion to judges, who may establish their own system of punishments, including creating new ones. Those eliminated were the harshest retributions that seemed inapt. Imprisonment offered an appealing alternative. Whereas a prison sentence was reversible if new evidence appeared, mutilation or a capital penalty was not.

Medieval Italian law regarded requital as both a punishment for wickedness and a potential vehicle for reformation.

As Italian cities grew, so too the crime problem. During the 14th and 15th centuries, lawmakers fit punishments to crimes with rational precision. This spelt a general reduction in the physical severity of sentences. From the 12th to 15th century, what had been harsh bodily punishments were succeeded by fines. In the 14th–15th centuries, fines were often combined with imprisonment.

Germany in the late Middle Ages was the most fragmented of the European kingdoms. Local power went unchecked, as royal authority and its jurisprudence were limited. Hence, Germany relied upon local custom, which dictated both procedure and punishment. Canon law applied in German lands, but it was confined to ecclesiastical courts.

In capital cases, mutilation was often a prelude. Nobles were beheaded, while lesser men were broken on the wheel, burned, or hanged.

Prisons served as a mitigation of the death penalty, or an alternative to a fine when the offender was insolvent. Except for mitigated death sentences, prison terms were typically short. But by the 15th century, especially among cities, terms of imprisonment varied considerably.

Well into the early modern period, German prisons were comparatively ad hoc. They might be rooms and holes in the foundations of local forts, in the cellars of town halls, or in subterranean chambers known as Locher. Prisons were local facilities regulated by local authorities.

Learned Roman law did not seep into German courts until the end of the 15th century, and it was not until 1532 that a full-fledged criminal code appeared, by way of Emperor Charles V.

Like Germany, the Scandinavian countries favored punishments that entailed property loss, mutilation, or death. Iceland occasionally imposed penal servitude.

Although imprisonment was employed in canon law courts in northern Europe and Iceland, it was not used in Scandinavia until the 16th century, when labor camps were gradually introduced. This applied as well to the Low Countries.

France comprised territorial principalities until the late 12th century, when Philip II began centralization. Nonetheless, jurisprudence remained largely regional until Napoléon.

Custodial imprisonment was long common in France. From the 13th century, prison as punishment became more common. Blasphemy was an offense for which one would serve time.

Royal prisons were better regulated than the provincial variety. They were supposed to have reasonable quarters, with residence not intended as a punishment in of itself. At least bread and water were provided, though in some cases prisoners could pay for better food, or have it delivered by relatives or friends.

In royal prisons, prisoners were deprived of their clothes, and made to wear a simple garment that was readily identifiable, so as to help mark escapees and those permitted on brief outside visits.

The sexes were routinely separated in royal prisons, with guards of the same gender if possible. One of Joan of Arc’s complaints was that she had not been accorded female jailers.

Modern Punishment

The fate of reform efforts is distressingly similar – each generation provides its successor with scandals to correct. ~ Argentinian criminologist and lawyer Edgardo Rotman

Prisons as punishment became more common throughout Europe from the late 16th century. It was an evolution away from the more immediate physical abuse for non-capital crimes common in the Middle Ages. From the 18th century, in presumably locking away the problem, prison became the chief institution for combating crime.

For capital crimes, hanging grew to predominate, often as a theatrical exercise of power. Towns put their gallows field in a conspicuous location. Amsterdam, for instance, placed theirs on a spot visible to ships going to and from the harbor.

Execution processions were common in cities across Europe. Prisoners were marched through the streets to the gallows while churches rang their bells to announce the event.

The scaffold served as the stage for which the drama of justice was conspicuously enacted. For authorities, it was a flagrant exhibition of social control.

The crowd for execution events were largely the lower class. Whatever moral lesson the authorities might intend meant little to those in attendance, who were there solely for the spectacle.

In certain cases, attendees felt favorably toward those about to swing. Smugglers were often viewed sympathetically, as the need to get by however opportunity allowed could hardly be considered a crime.

Executions in the wake of riots were a special problem for magistrates. Condemning rebels for tax revolts or protests over food prices were bound to find a majority of spectators strongly sympathetic.

During the 18th century, the timbre of crowd reaction at executions changed. Though this was best documented about London, it probably applied in other European cities as well.

Hangings evolved into festivals. Onlookers cheered the condemned or offered them drinks. Bold men who went fearless to the gallows garnered admiration.

The celebratory mood changed the attitude of the men about to be executed. They wore their finest costumes and adopted the posture of heroes.

As a consequence, the authorities came to view executions as presenting a problem of public order. In 1783, London magistrates abolished the procession from the local prison to minimize the merriment. Nevertheless, hangings continued to draw large, vulgar crowds.

Into the 19th century, as the execution ritual lost its power to impart a moral instruction or buttress the power of the authorities, officials lost confidence in public punishment. Revulsion by the elite to the spectacle also spelled its decline.

While the early modern period at first saw a rise in capital punishment which peaked during the 16th century, enthusiasm for the death sentence then ebbed. At the same time, courts redefined the crimes that earned termination. Property offenses that had been capital crimes became imprisonable instead. Death was increasingly reserved for more serious crimes against a person.

In addition, judicial torture, commonly used to elicit confession, came under sustained attack during the 18th century. By the end of the century, most European countries had abolished court-sanctioned torture.

Well into the 19th century, whatever revulsion the elite may have harbored were overridden by the conventional idea that public physical punishments were necessary as a moral deterrent. Those who advocated prolonged imprisonment spoke most strongly against the scaffold, and they were to prevail. By the mid-19th century, most non-lethal corporeal punishments had been forsaken; or at least, as with flogging in England, removed from public witness.

Between 1850–1870, capital punishment migrated to within prison walls. The Netherlands abandoned the death penalty altogether in 1860, except for a brief episode following World War 2.

France was the exception. It continued public executions until 1939, shortly before the Nazis came and revived the practice.

The invention of the penitentiary was in part a search for something to replace putting criminals to death. ~ Lawrence Friedman

 United Kingdom

Neglect and disorder were the dominant features of an 18th-century English prison. Upon entering, the noise and smell of the place was overwhelming. Some prisoners lived in ease while others suffered in squalor. Evidence of authority was hard to find.

Prisons were at the time largely self-financing operations. Wardens were parasites: living off fees from inmates for food, bedding, and other amenities.

Jailers typically treated prisoners like customers. Those who could pay were cultivated, while those who could not were neglected. Poor prisoners lived in horrid conditions.

Many wardens demanded payment before prisoners were released. This spelt a prolonged stay even if the captive was innocent or had served his sentence.

In larger prisons, the position of jailer was so lucrative that it was widely sought. Rapacity was kept in check only by the freedom of prisoners to petition magistrates. Wardens did not want trouble. A riot was bound to attract unwanted attention.

Even if jailers had the desire for tighter control, they could hardly afford it. Prisons had barebones staff.

Hence, prisons were largely self-governed. Prisoners often developed their own elaborate rules and procedures for keeping order. In larger jails they had their own courts, to hear complaints and settle disputes. The order in prisons mirrored society at large to a surprising degree.

The only constant in English criminality from the late 18th century onwards was the nearly uninterrupted rise in crime and number imprisoned. This reflected the acceleration of inequity under industrial capitalism and government indifference to the well-being of the underclass.

English prisons were especially full of debtors. The imperiling power of a creditor over a debtor long ran as a source of public complaint. That so many innocent families were confined in sickness and hunger aroused widespread sympathy.

Still, sanctimonious authorities regarded imprisonment for debt as a worthy sanction for ensuring responsible conduct in business. At the least, it seemed a necessary evil.

Waves of reform changed the way English prisons were run. The imperial crises that arose with the American Revolution provoked far-ranging questioning of English morality and institutions.

Nothing but a real reform can save us from ruin as a nation. Were our prisons new modeled, it would be one considerable step toward reform of the lower orders of the people. ~ English lawyer and civic activist Josiah Dornford in 1785

 John Howard

John Howard was appointed sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773. One of his responsibilities was the supervision of the county jail. What he found horrified him.

Howard visited other facilities and found much the same. His interest became an obsession. After touring the prisons of his own country, Howard explored those in the rest of Europe.

Howard’s extensive survey resulted in The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777). It was grim subject which managed to capture public attention. In it he advocated what the Dutch had already managed to achieve, to his considerable admiration: prison as a clean, orderly institution.


A small group of evangelical Quakers concurred with Howard, though for different reasons. They believed that all people had an “inner light,” and that personal reform was possible. To the Quakers, criminal incorrigibility was not the product of human nature, but of mistaken punishment. Part of their proposed solution was prisons which were orderly and quiet.

England achieved better prisons to a large extent by rebuilding ones that existed and building new ones. Imprisonable crimes were burgeoning in the early 19th century, and thereby so too the prison industry.

Victorian imprisonment embodied several curious contradictions. Arrive in prison as the result of a minor offense, and you would be treated more severely than had you committed one of the great crimes. Commit a grave offense (short of murder), and you would be punished ostensibly more with an eye to reformation than had you been modest in your crime. Commit no offense at all, other than destitution, and as pauper, you would have workhouse food markedly less generous than that which Her Majesty granted to convicted felons. ~ English penologist Seán McConville

In the late 19th century, prison committals declined. While wardens congratulated themselves for their reformative efforts, skeptics pointed out that the falling numbers owed to shorter sentences and curtailed use of imprisonment, including leniency in paying fines late.

Despite a growing population, crime was down. The general prosperity of the late Victorian era naturally reduced criminal need.

It may have helped that the more hardened cases had for decades been transported to the convict continent of Australia (162,000), and a relative smattering (30,000) to the rowdy colonies in America. That ne’er-do-wells provided the foundation of the white population of Australia tinged the culture and politics of that country.

Though there were fewer prisoners, imprisonment became more punitive in late-19th-century England. The 1865 Prison Act insisted on hard labor as a substitute for whatever other corporal punishments may have previously been on offer. This was a common modus operandi of 19th-century European prisons, which were essentially forced labor camps.

Much inhumane treatment in England came courtesy of Colonel Edmund DuCane, the government’s chief penal advisor. With fallacious financial calculations and ill-considered judgments ascribed as “scientific,” and swallowed whole by gullible government leaders, England embarked upon nationalizing its prison system, and instituting a level of severity that made medieval punishment look like it had mollycoddled criminals.

At the turn of the 20th century, England established preventative detention: keeping habitual offenders behind bars out of proportion to their misdeeds. Winston Churchill was instrumental in limiting it to the “worst class of professional criminals,” having investigated and found that grotesquely long sentences were being imposed on petty thieves for stealing food and trivial bits of property.

In the 1990s, the United States, predictably acknowledging no historical provenance, revived the practice of unjustly institutionalizing criminality on minorities and poor whites: prolonged punishment irrespective of crime.

As one reads history, one is absolutely sickened not by the crimes the wicked have committed, but by the punishments the good have inflicted. ~ Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for 2 years for sodomy in 1895

Into the 21st century, Britain allowed its prisons to deteriorate. Prisoners were housed in crumbling buildings infested with cockroaches and rats. Understaffing and overcrowding allowed a culture of violence to bloom, which only worsened from the mid-2010s as the government did nothing to address the problems.

 United States

In the 17th and 18th centuries, American colonists shared the same apprehension that the British had about criminality, whether it be sinful acts or tangible transgressions: that deviance was part of society, with no prospect of eliminating it from their midst.

The colonists, particularly in Puritan colonies, made no distinction between sin and crime. They regularly punished violations of the moral code. The records are replete with punishments for fornication, idleness, Sabbath-breaking, and the like. ~ Lawrence Friedman

Crimes in colonial towns met the same punishments as in the mother country: fines, whippings, mechanisms for shame (the stocks, public cages), banishment, and, for the worst, the gallows. Not on the list was imprisonment. Jails held men awaiting trial, but long-term incarceration was not practiced.

On those whom it was inflicted, and for its witnesses, punishment was meant as a deterrence. Magistrates never considered the possibility of rehabilitation through their mandated mortification.

Criminal justice in the colonial period was haphazard. To an exceptional degree, the efficacy of a penalty depended on the offender.

Law enforcement was so scattershot that punitive coercion quickly descended to death. A recidivist may be fined or whipped once or twice, but then a repetitive transgression would find those slow on the uptake swinging by the neck.

Capital punishments are the natural offspring of monarchical governments. Kings consider their subjects as their property; no wonder, therefore, they shed their blood with as little emotion as men shed the blood of their sheep or cattle. But the principles of republican governments speak a very different language. An execution in a republic is like a human sacrifice in religion. ~ American physician and civic leader Benjamin Rush after the American Revolution

In the aftermath of independence, Americans repudiated the British legacy for dispensing criminal justice. Men of the American Enlightenment were apt to blame the law itself for the level of crime.

The countries and times most notorious for severity of penalties have always been those in which the bloodiest and most inhumane deeds were committed. ~ Italian criminologist Cesare Beccaria in 1764 (Beccaria had a profound influence on America’s founding fathers.)

This logic was compelling to the leaders of newly independent America. Looking back on the colonial period, as British law was so severe, juries had been loath to convict any except the most terrible criminals. Once punishment lost its certainty, the deterrent effect was lost entirely.

Punishment statutes were amended to reflect this newfound optimism. By 1820, the death sentence had been scratched out of states’ law books except for the most heinous crimes. So arose the question of what was to substitute for execution. The answer was incarceration.

Instead of eliminating bad men, they were to rot in prison. There would be no succor for the prospect of rehabilitation. What mattered was the certainty of punishment, not what happened to the punished.

Faith in legal reform had faded. Shuffling statutes had produced no impact on the level of crime.

Prisons at the time were anarchic. Escapes and riots were commonplace. Life in prison was casual and undisciplined. One New York lawyer concluded: “Our favorite scheme of substituting a state prison for the gallows is a prolific mother of crime. Prisons as presently constituted are grand demoralizers of our people.”

A few reactionaries aside, no one wanted to bring back the gallows. Something had to be done about prisons.

(American frontier justice in the 19th century was different than in the urban East. In the untamed west, economy dictated the disposal of criminals, most often by hanging.)

Discipline was ushered in. The stringent models established in New York and Pennsylvania in the 1820s diffused through the nation, and into Europe.

The history of the prison system in the United States confronts an extraordinary paradox. In the 1820s and 1830s, when democratic principles were receiving their most enthusiastic endorsement, incarceration became the central feature of criminal justice. As freedom became more celebrated in outside society, notions of total isolation, unquestioned obedience, and severe discipline became the hallmarks of the captive society. ~ American social historian David Rothman

By the 1830s, prisons in the US, UK, and the more civilized countries in Europe were run on the principles of order and regularity. Each prisoner had a cell. Silence was enforced. Deterrence took a back seat to reform as the aim of incarceration. On that score it was wildly unsuccessful.

English writer and social critic Charles Dickens went to the Philadelphia prison during his 1842 American tour. He found it “cruel and wrong.”

Those who have undergone this punishment must pass into society again morally unhealthy and diseased. ~ Charles Dickens

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By 1865, the elements of the original penitentiary design, based on regimentation, isolation, religious conversion, and steady labor, had been subverted by a pervasive overcrowding, corruption, and cruelty. Prisoners were often living 3 and 4 to a cell designed for one, and prison discipline was medieval-like in character, with bizarre and brutal punishments commonplace in state institutions. Wardens did not so much deny this awful reality as explain it away, attributing most of the blame not to those who administered the system but to those who experienced it. ~ Edgardo Rotman

Following the Civil War, prisons were essentially modern, in being overcrowded, disorderly, and downright brutal.

There is no longer a state prison in America in which the reformation of the convicts is the one supreme object of the discipline. ~ American penologist Enoch Wines & American lawyer and educator Theodore Dwight in 1867

A significant problem with American prisons was the hardening process that went on inside them. Prisons held a diverse mix. The worst of them were often the ones with the most power. As in Europe, for those not in for long stretches, recidivism fostered continuity in inmate culture.

The internal social hierarchy had an especially strong hold because American judges meted out sentences 2 to 3 times longer than in Europe. This same heartless situation exists in the US today.

The reformatory movement of the 1870s, like those before it, failed. Dreariness pervaded prisons as they long had. Corruption and brutality were endemic, as were understaffing and overcrowding.

In the chaotic atmosphere enclosed by prison walls, wardens often resorted to cruelty to maintain authority. Despite statutory abolishment of corporeal punishment, it was widely practiced for the rest of the century, mainly in the form of flogging.

Treatment by region was disparate. The northeast made modest progress in improving prison management, while in the south, where over 75% of the prison population was black, management’s inspiration came from slavery: ruthless exploitation and total disregard for prisoners’ dignity and lives. The states leased prisoners to entrepreneurs who used them worse than slaves, as the businessmen had no ownership interest in their labor stock.

In the deep south, prisoners slaved away on plantations, under more horrid conditions than their forefathers had suffered. The regime of contracted convict labor continues to this day.

The American prison system remains a slavery system. Even people detained for possible civil infractions, never having been convicted of any crime, are enslaved. For instance, those detained while their immigration status is determined – innocent people – are contracted out by the federal government as slave labor.

Mississippi is illustrative of prison slave labor in an earlier era. Its maximum security Parchmann Farm was a 6,500-hectare plantation partitioned into 12 camps for men and 1 for women. Practically all prisoners performed agricultural work.

Each camp was enclosed by barbwire fences with strategically placed guard posts. Convicts were kept in what were appropriately called cages.

Mississippi had a peculiar feature that rendered its regime especially harsh: inmates were watched by other prisoners, termed “trustees,” whose cruelty matched or exceeded the hired guards.

The quality of American prisons further deteriorated in the late 19th century. This came from a burgeoning prison population that was increasingly new immigrant groups.

State legislators, with little sympathy for the immigrant, saw scant reason to render prisons anything more than custodial confinement. This barbarous mind-set remains to this day and has been notably invigorated under the sordid reign of President Donald Trump.

The evolution of incarceration continued. In the early 20th century, the institution was (again) modeled on the outside community: affording inmates the opportunity to mix in a communal yard and work in groups. Prison became a testing ground for judging readiness for release.

All the while, over the course of the 19th century, prisons started segregating their inhabitants; first by body and mind, then by criminality. Men, women, juveniles, and the mentally ill each had their own institution. Into the 20th century, inmates became confined to facilities according to the severity of their offense and extent of criminal record.

Another reform of the progressive era was a new type of prison: managed by penal professionals, designed to eradicate the prevailing abuses. Thus arose the “Big House”: large prisons, such as Sing Sing in New York and San Quentin in California, which might hold 4,000 or more men. These monuments to incarceration existed alongside unreformed state prisons.

The Big House exemplified the superficiality of reform. Cell blocks were still noisy, smelly, stifling hot in summer and frigid in winter. Despite milder treatment, the world inside prison walls was a depressing vista of cement and steel, with stultifying schedules and routines, and numbing isolation. Most long-term prisoners succumbed to institutionalization, and so had little prospect of successfully living free again, if the outside world would have them (which it would not). Prisons in the pre-industrial era were much different than those during industrialization, which became even more monolithic in post-industrial times: monstrous warehouses of rejected humanity.

The institutionalization of inhumanity within prisons was mirrored by bureaucratic exercise in government and large corporations. Post-industrial American society did not so much evolve as rigidify.

 Federal Prison

Until the late 19th century, those convicted of federal crimes were housed in state penitentiaries. In return, the state received boarding fees, and were permitted to use the federal prisoners in their labor system.

By the end of the 19th century, this arrangement came a cropper for 2 reasons. 1st was the rise in federal prison numbers: more than doubling from 1,027 in 1885 to 2,516 in 1895.

2nd, and more critically, Congress became uncomfortable with the leasing system. In 1887 it outlawed the practice of contracting federal prisoners to private employers. Inmates having lost their cash-cow potential, state prisons began refusing federal inmates.

So, in 1891, the federal government got into the prison business. The 1st chosen site was Leavenworth, Kentucky.

Construction of a 1,200-cell penitentiary began in 1897 and lasted some 30 years. Prisoners languished there in dark basements and cramped conditions. Idleness was rampant. Little distinguished Leavenworth from those that the states ran.

The 2nd federal prison, in Atlanta (1902), was more promising, as was the 1st federal women’s prison in Alderson, West Virginia (1928), where inmates were housed in cottages, and ate in decorated dining rooms.

Federal penitentiaries quickly filled up. Congestion and the need to more efficient record-keeping led to the creation of the federal Bureau of Prisons in 1929. Making prison employees federal civil servants was a vast improvement over their previous employment prospects, where guards were basically stuck at the prison where they had been hired.


The whole institution is conductive to psychology that builds up a sinister ambitious attitude among prisoners. ~ US Attorney General Frank Murphy on Alcatraz in 1939

Thanks to the crime wave that came from Prohibition, the number of hard-core federal prisoners soared in the early 1930s. This prompted the opening of a prison of last resort, with the purpose of isolating the most “vicious and irredeemable” criminals who were designated as having no hope of rehabilitation.

In 1934, Alcatraz was awarded the distinction of housing the worst offenders. Built as a naval fort in the 1850s, it had housed military prisoners 1861–1933. After conversion to civilian purpose, Alcatraz inmates were shipped in from other federal prisons, and transferred back before their release.

Alcatraz prisoners were isolated and had little contact with the outside world. In the early years, only indispensable conversation was tolerated. To compensate, Alcatraz had an extensive library stocked with many classics, and its food was above average.

While the rest of the federal system suffered overcrowding, Alcatraz maintained its original purpose of housing only “the worst of the worst,” and so had a surplus of beds.

The only escape from Alcatraz occurred on 11 June 1962. 4 men had dug tunnels through air vents with sharpened spoons, fashioned lifelike dummy heads to fool the guards, and stitched together a makeshift raft and life preservers from raincoats donated by other inmates.

3 of the 4 made it off the island. The 4th was left behind, having been delayed in demolishing the false wall which hid his tunnel (because he had used cement to keep the crumbling wall together, and then had trouble breaking through it).

The 3 escapees were never found. While the official report has the men as having drowned, various bits of evidence instead indicate that they successfully got away. The 1979 movie Escape from Alcatraz depicts the episode, albeit with theatrical flourish.

Owing to physical deterioration of the facility, Alcatraz was closed in 1963; its function as the depository of men better off dead continued at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois.


During World War 2, federal prisons became factories for the war effort, as well as the residence of those who conscientiously objected to the war, at a time when 2nd-guessing the wisdom of political leaders was an imprisonable offense. This forced labor was a continuation of common past practice in American prisons, albeit with more regimentation at the time.

For the 1st time in American history, in Johnson v. Dye (1949) a federal court recognized that prison was, in of itself, “cruel and unusual punishment.” The belated acknowledgment did little good. Provoked by the brutality of guards, lousy food, and low living in general, the American prison system was shaken by a series of riots in the early 1950s.

Despite the uproar, nothing was done. Meanwhile, the courts continued to imprison offenders at an appalling rate.

Life is at best barren and futile, at worst unspeakably brutal and degrading. To be sure, the offenders are incapacitated from committing further crimes while serving their sentences, but the conditions in which they live are the poorest possible preparation for their successful reentry into society, and often merely reinforce in them a pattern of manipulation or destructiveness. ~ report to the President on the state of US prisons by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (1966)

For the next half century, the greatest change came in the technology employed to keep the overcrowded penal populations subdued. The deadening routine remained constant, as did the atmosphere of fear and sporadic violence.

While power ultimate lies with prison authorities, immediate power within prison belongs to the prisoners. Thus arose acute problems with discipline and safety from prison gangs, which began to have a significant cultural presence beginning in the 1960s. These gangs, linked to outside street gangs, are welded by loyalty to religious and/or racial sentiments: a powerful bond. Inside, gangs determine discipline and pecking order in large, overcrowded, understaffed prisons.

Partly from the influence of prison gangs, and partly from overcrowding, it became difficult to protect weak or socially isolated prisoners; hence arose the need for ‘protective custody’ within prison. Commonly some 10% of the prison population is keep in near-solitary confinement simply because the guards are not the ones keeping order.

In the 2010s, the federal government, led by Republicans, refused to fund prisons with sufficient staff. Riots became a sporadic feature of larger prisons throughout the country, with their timing determined by the dominant gangs. While the list of complaints by rioting prisoners is always the same – bad food, inadequate health care, unfair punishments, lack of rehabilitative programs – the real causes are social tensions and idleness. Invariably the intended targets of violence in these riots are other prisoners.

Though the government keeps no reliable statistics, the torture and abuse of inmates by prison guards is a regular feature of American incarceration. Use of force to quell the slightest insubordination is the policy of many US prisons. Rikers Island prison in New York has a long history of meting out medieval atrocities to inmates. Rikers’ legacy may be egregious, but it is by no means alone

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From the 1970s for the next 40 years, virtually every aspect of the punishment system, from the way people were processed before trial to the way people were confined after conviction, grew harder. Thresholds of punitiveness people never thought our democracy would ever have became official policy: life without parole and death penalties for young people; lengthy detention before trial; humiliation and long periods of extreme isolation during confinement; decades behind bars for minor thefts and possession of drugs. ~ American criminologists Todd Clear & Natasha Frost

The crime rate shot up over a decade before the imprisonment rate began its ascent. Befitting a rigged economy, the great majority of crimes are economic: 10 times the rate of violent crime.

The framing of the crime problem as requiring an all-out “war” in response has had lasting consequences. The various war metaphors that have been used to characterize the necessary response to crime problems for at least the past 4 decades are important in that they served to legitimize the anything-goes approach that drove penal policy over that period. These wars also notably contributed to the increasing racial divide in punishment. ~ Natasha Frost & Todd Clear

From the last overall crime peak in 1994, crime rates have fallen. Incarceration rates did not follow the downward trend. The hardened criminalization system did not responsively soften.

Mental illness is often treated as a crime in America. ~ American criminologists Mary Looman & John Carl

From 1980 to 2000, imprisonment for nonviolent crimes tripled. For drug offenses, the increase was 11-fold. Overall, the country’s incarceration rate quadrupled.

(97% of federal inmates and 67% of state prisoners were convicted of nonviolent crimes. Well over half of those languishing in municipal and county jails are innocent of the crimes they are accused of; most there are awaiting trial.)

The fact that the United States, with less than 5% of the world’s population, incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners is largely due to mandatory minimum sentences. ~ American jurist Shira Scheindlin

In several states, law enforcement now charges with murder those who took illegal drugs with someone who overdoses and dies. Such cruelty helps keep the prisons well stocked.

This increase in arrests and imprisonments, accompanied by longer sentences, even as crime has dropped, is a sign that our society has become progressively more punitive, because we have made a collective decision to increase the rate of punishment, especially for blacks. It is impossible to reconcile this situation with the basic rights granted in the constitution. ~ American penologist Ernest Drucker

The US has over ~3,300 prisoners serving life sentences for such crimes as snitching someone’s sack lunch, petty shoplifting, trying to cash a stolen check, siphoning petrol from a truck, or stealing tools from a shed. Most of these punitions were meted out by the federal government. Over 80% of the inmates so sentenced are black men.

I’m being buried alive at a slow pace. ~ American inmate Ronald Washington, a black man, serving a life sentence for shoplifting 2 sports jerseys worth $90 as a teenager

The US is virtually alone in its willingness to sentence nonviolent offenders to die behind bars. ~ American human rights scholar Jennifer Turner

70% of those in local US jails have not been convicted of any crime. They languish there only because they are poor and powerless. The number of Americans who may be innocent but are indefinitely incarcerated is larger than the prison populations of most other countries.

Imprisonment in the US is a for-profit industry that aims to sustain high incarceration rates. The prison-industrial complex has tremendous political clout.

The privatization of prisons in the US as a supposed cost-saving measure has instead been a subsidy to corporate jailors which has cost the government more money than if it ran incarceration itself.

There’s a perception that the private sector is always going to do it more efficiently and less costly. But there really isn’t much out there that says that’s correct. ~ American political scientist Russ Van Vleet

For one, private prisons restrict the inmates they hold to those who are healthy, leaving the expensive dregs to the state.

It’s cherry-picking. They leave the most expensive prisoners with taxpayers and take the easy prisoners. ~ American politician Chad Campbell

In 2016, the federal government initiated an end to using private prisons, after an investigation found them drastically more unsafe than government-run facilities. With few exceptions, states have not followed suit.

Private prisons simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and they do not maintain the same of safety and security. Bottom line, I’d also say, you get what you pay for. ~ US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates

Laws to lessen imprisonment are frequently defeated by those with an economic interest in keeping people locked up. In California in 2008, the prison guards’ union helped defeat a bill that would have aided those with drug addiction rather than sending them to prison for long terms.

Only budget crises in many states has resulted in a slight decline in prison populations. At $28,000 a year to keep an inmate incarcerated, prisons represent a significant financial drain that lessens funds to other priorities, including education and health care.

The United States today is the only country that spends more on prisons than police, and only in recent history. ~ American criminologist Lawrence Sherman

In 2013, 2.2 million Americans were incarcerated: 25% of the world’s prison population, in a country with only 4.4% of the world’s people. 58% of those incarcerated were black or Hispanic. Though only 3% of the US population, young blacks and Hispanics comprise 30% of those imprisoned. These are, by and large, men unable to find decent employment.

America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation’s prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous. We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives. ~ American politician Jim Webb in 2009

People are celebrating the stabilization of the prison population in recent years, but the scale of mass incarceration is so substantial that meaningful reduction is not going to happen by tinkering around the edges. ~ American criminal justice advocate Marc Mauer in 2016

Imprisonment is an epidemic among the urban poor. In some communities, over 90% of families are afflicted.

Crime rates in communities with high incarceration rates can be traced directly to increases in imprisonment. In other words, what started out as a punishment for crime – prison – has now become a source of the very crime it seeks to control. Massive levels of arrest and imprisonment damage the social bonds that sustain life, especially for poor communities. By corroding or destroying social capital, mass incarceration sets up a perverse relationship: punishment leads to increased crime, as it replaces the moral mechanisms of family and community. These are the forces that normally function to assert social control, over young males especially, by the use of non-coercive means involving family and community. ~ Ernest Drucker

The social effects of incarceration are harrowing. 2/3rds of the American families with a loved one in prison struggle to meet basic needs. 83% of those with their partner incarcerated are women. 20% have to borrow money to make ends meet. Court costs average 1 year’s income. 70% of those families are caring for children under 18 years of age.

The US spends ~$80 billion on incarceration every year. This is a small fraction of what it costs American society, which is estimated at ~$1 trillion annually: 11 times what it costs to keep people locked up.

Every dollar in incarceration generates additional social costs. More than half of the costs are borne by families, children and community members who have committed no crime. While these costs do not appear on government budgets, they do reduce the aggregate welfare of society. ~ American criminal justice scholar Carrie Pettus-Davis

Owing to discrimination once set free, the possibility that imprisonment might bear reformative fruit has proven impossible. Prison deeply scars prospects for a decent life.

Punishment by incarceration operates like a chronic disease to systematically incapacitate individuals, wounding them physically and psychologically while in prison and disabling them for a future of successful participation in American life. Mass imprisonment leaves a trail of psychological, social, and economic damage affecting entire populations where incarceration has become normative, creating a chronic condition affecting millions over a long span of time. ~ Ernest Drucker

79% of women getting out of prison have been unable to afford housing. 67% of former prisoners are unable to find regular employment 5 years after being released.

67% of former prisoners would have liked to return to school and improve their employment potential, but only 27% are able to. 25% are barred from educational loans because of their conviction. 20% are denied public health benefits.

Hence, recidivism is high. 2/3rds of discharged prisoners are back behind bars within 3 years.

Despite its enormity and great significance for tens of millions of our citizens, America’s mass incarceration remains largely invisible. Denial is the norm for the public at large, even in the face of the profound effects imprisonment has on the lives of so many American families. Compared to the burning issues of the day, mass imprisonment is only a marginal political issue at best. ~ Ernest Drucker


The rate of incarceration worldwide varies tremendously. The Cubans, Russians, and Iranians imprison many political dissidents, ratcheting their prisoner count. In Iran, under Sharia law, dissidence includes moral infractions that are not crimes in Western nations.

In Israel, being Palestinian is practically political dissidence in itself – an imagined infraction that readily lands young men in prison. Nearly 40% of Israeli inmates are noncitizens.

The US and South Africa imprison enormous numbers of blacks, albeit for different reasons. The majority population in South Africa is black, and South Africa is rife with violence, both economic and physical. By contrast, the US disproportionately imprisons blacks because it is a racist state.

The American prison system is designed to be oppressive. ~ American political activist Angela Hanks

The numbers for imprisonment for South Africa in the graph are misleadingly low. They do not include the tens of thousands that languish for up to 5 or more years in pretrial detention: held before trail because they either cannot make bail or were denied bail. South Africa’s court system has massive backlogs. The US is only marginally better for the indigent.

Many of these incarcerated South Africans may be innocent. While imprisoned, none are allowed the basic services available to sentenced inmates: no library books, no visits from social workers, not even recreational items.


You weren’t free to do anything except breathe the air. ~ Toshio Oriyama, former Japanese restaurant owner and 22-year prison inmate for a wrongful murder conviction

Like the rest of the country, Japan’s prisons are strikingly safe, clean, and orderly – and as quiet as retirement homes. Yet reformers claim that Japan’s jails are among world’s cruelest for the psychological toll they take on inmates.

Eye contact with jailors is often forbidden; when permitted, it must be accompanied by a smiling demeanor. Talking is banned for much of the day; reading only sometimes allowed. The compulsory work can be mind-numbing: folding pieces of paper into 8 and unfolding them, for instance.

Solitary confinement is the penalty for a slight infraction. Death-row inmates await their demise in solitary, sometimes for many years, never knowing when they will be executed.

Ordinary Japanese are either unaware or untroubled by their penal system. The media generally portray judges’ verdicts as “the voice of heaven.” The Japanese tend to mentally put themselves in the shoes of crime victims, not suspects. There is scant civic pressure for prison reform.

The Purpose of Prison

The original justification for prison may well have been incapacitation: the removal of an offender from the community. To this extent, prison reduces crime. But extensive research in different countries fails to correlate increasing the rate of imprisonment with reducing the rate of crime.

Further, the effect in modern application is often more excessive than it is significant. Incorrigible outliers aside, male proclivity to violence is a function of biology: flourishing in early manhood, then waning in the early 30s until largely extinguished around 35.

It is difficult to attribute prison with a deterrent effect, especially considering the massive numbers that languish within their walls in this day and age. The threat of incarceration may deter some, while in others it simply confirms criminal identity.

No punishment has ever possessed enough power of deterrence to prevent the commission of crimes. On the contrary, whatever the punishment, once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been. ~ Hannah Arendt

Sadly, one sure statement may be made about requital: whatever practices are followed by a society at any time, a majority of the citizenry feel them too lenient. Criminal acts are matched by a brutal lack of empathy in the hearts of the populace, especially those with a religiously righteous bent. Sanctimony is easier than compassion.

A just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation. ~ Pope Francis in 2015

More folk than just the Pope find it eminently sensible that the duration of punishment be a period of reformation. But prison simply does not fulfill that essential function at any level: psychologically, socially, or educationally. Incarceration cannot reform; it can only institutionalize and embitter.

It is hard to train for freedom in a cage. ~ New Zealander criminologist Norval Morris & David Rothman

The social justification for retribution in the form of imprisonment is that, in its absence, wronged individuals are prone to extract disproportionate revenge. Such vigilantism runs counter to the state’s interest in monopolizing violence. This has nothing to do with justice.

Talionic law originated as a restraint on punishment; best understood not as “an eye for an eye,” but as “only an eye for an eye.” The appropriate quantum of punishment is not easily assessed.

If suffering is the retributive goal, then prison is by far the most expensive option. The corporeal punishments common in medieval times were more immediate, better suited to the purpose, and considerably cheaper.

Economic crimes are largely the product of an inequitable society. If an unjust regime is to dish out further injustice to those deemed undeserving of a decent living, bring back indentured servitude for economic crimes when the offender cannot afford the fine for his transgression; quite fitting for an economic regime based on a ruthless market system.

Scandinavian countries run their prisons as a “factory with a fence,” as described approvingly by a US supreme court chief justice. There is a grim history of profiting off prison labor, from the chain gangs of the antebellum South to the labor camps in contemporary China.

In the quarries and salt mines of the ancient world, on the galleys plying the Mediterranean, to the Soviet gulags, prisoners were slave labor, worked to death. Nowhere was this brutal purpose more effectively realized than in Nazi concentration camps, with the mendacious motto “Work Makes You Free.”

The state profiting from crime is nothing more than a mockery of retributive justice. There is nothing just in slavery, which is what prison labor is.

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The rhetoric of imprisonment and the reality of the cage are often in stark contrast. Western societies carry expectations of prison that are unreal and contradictory. ~ Norval Morris & David Rothman

The failure of modern societies to take care of its peoples culminates with the profusion of prisons that dot every country. That crime is tolerated and then punished by extended incarceration damningly demonstrates the cruel inanity of injustice pervading humanity.

Prison embodies the mightiest power that the state exercises over its populace in peacetime. Extensive and prolonged incarceration, as is common, especially in the United States, demonstrates deep-seated moral corruption.

Prisons under authoritarian regimes not only incarcerate criminals, they also serve as silencers of political dissent. The US and other democratic countries do so too, albeit to a lesser extent.

Savagery is hard at work in a criminal justice system where imprisonment is the norm for a substantial minority of the population. Prisons are as logical for criminal justice as capitalism has proven itself to be for maintaining economic equity and environmental quality.