Prison term

"Jail" redirects here. For other uses, see Jail (disambiguation).
For other uses, see Prison (disambiguation).

A prison,[2] jail, or gaol,[3] is a facility in which individuals are forcibly confined and denied a variety of freedoms under the authority of the state as a form of punishment. The most common use of prisons is as part of an organized governmental justice system, in which individuals officially charged with or convicted of crimes are confined to a jail or prison until they are either brought to trial to determine their guilt or complete the period of incarceration they were sentenced to after being found guilty at their trial. Outside of their use for punishing civil crimes, authoritarian regimes also frequently use prisons and jails as tools of political repression to punish political crimes, often without trial or other legal due process; this use is illegal under most forms of international law governing fair administration of justice. In times of war or conflict, prisoners of war may also be detained in military prisons or prisoner of war camps, and large groups of civilians might be imprisoned in internment camps.


Ancient times

The origins of prisons can be traced back to the rise of the state as a form of social organization. Corresponding with the advent of the state was the development of written language, which enabled the creation of formalized legal codes as official guidelines for society. The most well known of these early legal codes is the Code of Hammurabi, written in Babylon around 1750 BC. The penalties for violations of the laws in Hammurabi's Code were almost exclusively centered around the concept of lex talionis ("the law of retaliation") where people were punished as a form of vengeance, often by the victims themselves. This notion of punishment as vengeance or retaliation can also be found in many other legal codes from early civilizations, including the ancient Sumerian codes, the Indian Manama Dharma Astra, the Hermes Trismegitus of Egypt, and the Mosaic Code.[4]

Some Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, began to develop ideas of using punishment to reform offenders instead of simply using it as retribution. Imprisonment as a penalty was used initially for those who could not afford to pay their fines. Eventually, since impoverished Athenians could not pay their fines, leading to indefinite periods of imprisonment, time limits were set instead.[5] The actual location of the prison cells is not known.

The Romans were among the first to use prisons as a form of punishment, rather than simply for detention. A variety of existing structures were used to house prisoners, such as metal cages, basements of public buildings, and quarries. One of the most notable Roman prisons was the Mamertine Prison, established around 640 B.C. by Ancus Marcius. The Mamertime Prison was located within a sewer system beneath ancient Rome, and contained a large network of dungeons where prisoners were held in squalid conditions, contaminated with human waste. Forced labor on public works projects was also a common form of punishment. In many cases, citizens were sentenced to slavery, often in ergastula (a primitive form of prison where unruly slaves were chained to workbenches and performed hard labor).

Middle ages

During the Middle Ages in Europe, castles, fortressess, and the basements of public buildings were often used as makeshift prisons. The possession of the right and the capability to imprison citizens, however, granted an air of legitimacy to officials at all levels of government, from kings to regional courts to city councils; and the ability to have someone imprisoned or killed served as a signifier of who in society possessed power or authority over others.[6] Another common punishment was sentencing people to galley slavery where they were chained together in the bottoms of ships and forced to row on naval or merchant vessels..

Modern era

During the 18th century, popular resistance to public execution and torture became more widespread, and rulers began looking for means to punish and control their subjects in a way that didn't cause people to associate them with spectacles of tyrannical and sadistic violence. They began to look towards developing systems of mass incarceration as a solution.[7]

Britain practiced penal transportation of convicted criminals to penal colonies in the British Empire, in the Americas from the 1610s through the American Revolution in the 1770s and in Australia between 1788 and 1868.[8] France sent criminals to tropical penal colonies including Louisiana in the early 18th century.[9] Penal colonies in French Guiana operated until 1951, such as the infamous Île du Diable (Devil's Island). Katorga prisons were harsh work camps established in the 17th century in Russia in remote underpopulated areas of Siberia and the Russian Far East that had few towns or food sources. Siberia quickly gained its fearful connotation of punishment.[10]

The first prisons in the United States were modeled on Jeremy Bentham's "panopticon" model, with wings of one-person cells radiating outward from a central control/surveillance structure. This was later replaced with what was known as the "Auburn System", where prison cells were placed inside of rectangular buildings that lent themselves more to large-scale penal labor.[11]

After the unification of Italy in 1861, the parliament reformed the repressive and arbitrary prison system inherited from the predecessor absolutist states. The liberal reforms were intended to modernize and secularize punishment and emphasized discipline and deterrence, the reforms were not, however, extended to women's prisons, which remained in the control of Catholic nuns, Italian women's prisons continued to be modelled on the convent, with its emphasis on moral conversion rather than educational and vocational training.[12] Italy developed an advanced penology under the leadership of Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909).[13]

Prison design


Prisons are normally surrounded by fencing, walls, earthworks, geographical features, or other barriers to prevent escape. Multiple barriers, concertina wire, electrified fencing, secured and defensible main gates, armed guard towers, security lighting, motion sensors, dogs and roving patrols may all also be present depending on the level of security.[14] Remotely controlled doors, CCTV monitoring, alarms, cages, restraints, nonlethal and lethal weapons, riot-control gear and physical segregation of units and prisoners may all also be present within a prison to monitor and control the movement and activity of prisoners within the facility.

Modern prison designs have increasingly sought to restrict and control the movement of prisoners throughout the facility and also to allow a smaller prison staff to monitor prisoners directly; often using a decentralized "podular" layout.[15][16] (In comparison, 19th-century prisons had large landings and cell blocks which permitted only intermittent observation of prisoners.) Smaller, separate and self-contained housing units known as "pods" or "modules" are designed to hold 16 to 50 prisoners and are arranged around exercise yards or support facilities in a decentralized "campus" pattern. A small number of prison officers, sometimes a single officer, supervise each pod. The pods contain tiers of cells arranged around a central control station or desk from which a single officer can monitor all the cells and the entire pod, control cell doors and communicate with the rest of the prison.

Pods may be designed for high-security "indirect supervision", in which officers in segregated and sealed control booths monitor smaller numbers of prisoners confined to their cells. An alternative is "direct supervision", in which officers work within the pod and directly interact with and supervise prisoners, who may spend the day outside their cells in a central "dayroom" on the floor of the pod. Movement in or out of the pod to and from exercise yards, work assignments or medical appointments can be restricted to individual pods at designated times and is generally centrally controlled. Goods and services, such as meals, laundry, commissary, educational materials, religious services and medical care can increasingly be brought to individual pods or cells as well.[17]

Inmate security classifications

The levels of security within a prison system are categorized differently around the world, but tend to follow a distinct pattern. Most developed countries divide prisons into separate security classes depending on the inmate population and the security needed to keep them under control. Accordingly, most developed countries have classes ranging from the most secure, which typically hold violent prisoners and those judged most likely to escape, to the least, which are most often used to house non-violent offenders or those for whom more stringent security is deemed unnecessary. Below are some different examples of prison classifications from around the world.

In the United States, "jail" and "prison" refer to separate levels of incarceration; generally speaking, jails are county or city administrated institutions which house both inmates awaiting trial on the local level and convicted misdemeanants serving a term of one year or less, while prisons are state or federal facilities housing convicted felons serving a term of more than one year. On the federal level, this terminology has been largely superseded by a more complex five-tier system implemented by the Federal Bureau of Prisons that ranges from low security "Prison Camps" to medium security "Correctional Institutions" and finally maximum security "Penitentiaries". Federal prisons can also house pre-trial inmates.[18] Furthermore, in recent times, supermax prisons have been created where the custody level goes beyond maximum security for people such as terrorists or political prisoners deemed a threat to national security and inmates from other prisons who have a history of violent or other disruptive behavior in prison or are suspected of gang affiliation. These inmates have individual cells and are kept in lockdown, often for more than 23 hours per day. Meals are served through "chuck holes" in the cell door, and each inmate is alotted one hour of outdoor exercise per day, alone. They are normally permitted no contact with other inmates and are under constant surveillance via closed-circuit television cameras.

In England and Wales, prisoners are assigned security classes when they are sentenced. Prisons are given security classifications depending on the prisoners they are designed to hold. The British prison system is also divided into "Open" and "Closed" prisons. Categories A-C are considered "Closed" prisons as prisoners cannot be trusted to interact with the public, while category D prisons are generally "Open", meaning that prisoners with a good record and who are approved can be allowed limited interaction with the public such as home-leave or a nominal employment.

Lower-security prisons are often designed with less restrictive features, confining prisoners at night in smaller locked dormitories or even cottage or cabin-like housing while permitting them freer movement around the grounds to work or activities during the day.

Common facilities

Amongst the facilities that prisons may have are:

  • A main entrance, which may be known as the 'sally port' or 'gatelodge' (stemming from old castle nomenclature)
  • A religious facility, which will often house chaplaincy offices and facilities for counselling of individuals or groups
  • An education facility, often including a library, providing adult education or continuing education opportunities
  • A gym or an exercise yard, a fenced, usually open-air-area which prisoners may use for recreational and exercise purposes. Overcrowding at many prisons, particularly in the USA, has resulted in many prisons being forced to house large numbers of prisoners, often hundreds at a time, in gymnasiums or other large buildings that have been converted into massive open dormitories.
  • A healthcare facility or hospital
  • A control unit or segregation unit (also called a 'block' or 'isolation cell'), where prisoners are placed in solitary confinement to isolate them from the general population[19]
  • A section of vulnerable prisoners (VPs), or protective custody (PC) units, used to accommodate prisoners classified as vulnerable, such as sex offenders, former police officers, informants and those that have gotten into debt or trouble with other prisoners
  • A section of 'safe cells', used to keep prisoners under constant visual observation, for example when considered at risk of suicide
  • A visiting area, where prisoners may be allowed restricted contact with relatives, friends, lawyers, or other people
  • A death row in some prisons, a section for prisoners awaiting execution
  • A staff accommodation area, where staff and prison officers live in the prison, typical of historical prisons
  • A service/facilities area for support facilities like kitchens (see also: prison food)
  • Industrial or agricultural plants operated with convict labour
  • A recreational area containing items such as a TV and pool table
  • An administration area where prison management and operations are located

Special types of prison

Youth detention facilities

Prisons for juveniles (people under 17 or 18, depending on the jurisdiction) are known as young offender facilities or similar designation and hold minors who have been remanded into custody or serving sentence. Many countries have their own age of criminal responsibility in which children are deemed legally responsible for their actions for a crime. Countries such as Canada may try to sentence a juvenile as an adult, but have them serve their sentence in a juvenile facility until they reach the age of majority, at which time they would be transferred to an adult facility.

Military prisons and prisoner-of-war camps

Main articles: Military prison, Prisoner-of-war camp and American Civil War prison camps

Prisons have formed part of military systems since the French Revolution. France set up its system in 1796. They were modernized in 1852, they are used variously to house prisoners of war, unlawful combatants, those whose freedom is deemed a national security risk by military or civilian authorities, and members of the military found guilty of a serious crime. Military prisons in the United States have also been converted to civilian prisons, to include Alcatraz Island. Alcatraz was formerly a military prison for soldiers during the American Civil War.

In the American Revolution, British prisoners held by the U.S. were assigned to local farmers as laborers. The British kept American sailors in broken down ship hulks with high death rates.

In the Napoleonic wars, the broken down hulks were still in use for naval prisoners. One French surgeon recalled his captivity in Spain, where scurvy, diarrhea, dysentery, and typhus abounded, and prisoners died by the thousands:

""These great trunks of ships were immense coffins, in which living men were consigned to a slow death.... [In the hot weather we had] black army bread full of gritty particles, biscuit full of maggots, salt meat that was already decomposing, rancid lard, spoiled cod, [and] stale rice, peas, and beans."[20]

In the American Civil War, at first prisoners of war were released, after they promised not to fight again unless formally exchanged. When the Confederacy refused to exchange black prisoners the system broke down, and each side built large-scale POW camps. Conditions in terms of housing, food and medical care were bad in the Confederacy, and the Union retaliated by imposing harsh conditions.[21]

By 1900 the legal framework of the Geneva and Hague Convention provided considerable protection. In the First World War, millions of prisoners were held on both sides, with no major atrocities. Officers received privileged treatment. There was an increase in the use of forced labor throughout Europe. Food and medical treatment were generally comparable to what active duty soldiers received, and housing was much better than front-line conditions.[22]

Political prisons and administrative detention

Certain countries maintain or have in the past had a system of political prisons: the gulags associated with Stalinism in the Soviet Union are perhaps the best known. Administrative detention is a classification of prisons or detention centers where people are held without trial.

Psychiatric facilities

Main article: Psychiatric hospital

Some psychiatric facilities have characteristics of prisons, particularly when confining patients who have committed a crime and are considered dangerous. In addition, many prisons have psychiatric units dedicated to housing offenders diagnosed with a wide variety of mental disorders. The United States government refers to psychiatric prisons as "Federal Medical Centers (FMC)".

Open facilities

The Suomenlinna Island facility in Finland is an example of an "open" correctional facility that are also established in Scandinavian nations. The prison has been open since 1971 and, as of September 2013, the facility's 95 male prisoners leave the prison grounds on a daily basis to work in the corresponding township or commute to the mainland for either work or study. Prisoners can rent flat-screen televisions, sound systems, and mini-refrigerators with the prison-labor wages that they can earn—wages range between 4.10 and 7.3 Euros per hour (US$5.30 to $9.50). With electronic monitoring, prisoners are also allowed to visit their families in Helsinki and eat together with the prison staff. Prisoners in Scandinavian facilities are permitted to wear their own clothes.[23]

Incarceration of women

Main article: Incarceration of women

Rape and sexual violence/abuse

Female inmates experience high rates of rape and sexual violence while incarcerated. Research documents numerous cases in which women are at a significantly higher risk than men for being sexually abused before and during prison. Sexual aggression and abuse by male prison staff is widespread. “In 2008 [according to recent Bureau of Justice Statistics], more than 216,600 people were sexually abused in prisons and jails…overall, that’s almost six hundred people a day- twenty-five an hour”.[24] The majority of women incarcerated experience abuse before prison and while incarcerated and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.[25] Sexual offenses against women prisoners can include rape, assault, and groping during pat frisks. Male correctional officials often violate women prisoners’ privacy by watching them undress, shower, and go to the bathroom. Research suggests that, “women with histories of abuse are more likely to accept sexual misconduct from prison staff because they are already conditioned to respond to coercion and threats by acquiescing to protect themselves from further violence”.[26][27] “In federal women’s correction facilities, 70% of guards are male,”[28] reinforcing female inmates’ powerlessness.

Health care

Most inmates are women of colour from low socioeconomic backgrounds and therefore suffer from both chronic diseases that are common in minorities (such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension) and health problems that may result from living in poverty (such as malnutrition, etc.). Incarcerated women suffer disproportionately from HIV/AIDS, infectious disease, reproductive issues, and chronic diseases. Within the American prison system, HIV became more prevalent among women than among men. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, from 1991 to 1998 the number of women prisoners with HIV increased by 69%, while the equivalent figure among male prisoners decreased by 22% during the same time period. The New York State Department of Health stated in 1999 that women entering New York state prisons had twice as high of an HIV rate as men entering New York state prisons. At the end of the year 2000 women in U.S. state prison systems had a 60% higher likelihood of carrying HIV than men in American state prison systems.[26]

Policies regarding health treatment at prison institutions often limit the availability of care. For example, at many institutions women must wait in lines in strenuous conditions until designated times for most medical treatments and medications. Medical treatment oftentimes needs to be requested and approved by correctional officers with little or no medical training.[29] Due to the geographic isolation of prisons and the comparatively low wages offered, there is a lack of qualified and experienced healthcare professionals willing to work in prison which reduces the quality of care offered. Overcrowding and poor environmental facilities exacerbate the problem.

Pregnancy and childbirth

The needs of mothers during of pregnancy and childbirth often conflict with the demands of the prison system. “In 2007, the Bureau of Justice Statistics stated that, on average, 5% of women who enter into state prisons are pregnant and in jails 6% of women are pregnant”.[30] Very few of these women receive prenatal care, which can be very detrimental to both the mother and child, especially when coupled with inmates’ histories of inadequate health care as well as sexual, physical and substance abuse. Most of these pregnancies are deemed as high risk. Additionally, a lack of maternity clothes and resources to deal with premature births, false labors, and miscarriages pose serious challenges to prisoners. Furthermore, incarcerated women are a source of free labor for private companies. It is recorded that if women decline to work, then their medicinal needs are not fulfilled.[31] This becomes a major issue for pregnant women who may not physically be able to work but are in dire need of medical care. Most pregnant women are shackled on grounds of security in labor and delivery.[30]

Population statistics

As of 2010, it is estimated that at least 10.1 million people are currently imprisoned worldwide.[32] It is probable that this number is much higher, in view of general under-reporting and a lack of data from various countries, especially authoritarian regimes.

As of 2012, the United States has the world's largest prison population, with over 2 million people in American prisons or jails—up from 744,000 in 1985. That same year, it was also reported that the United States government spent an estimated US$37 billion to maintain these prisons.[33] In 2012, the United States prison population was estimated at over 2.3 million prisoners, meaning 1 in every 100 American adults are in a prison. The cost of these prisons was then estimated at US$74 billion per year.[34]

American prisons are overcrowded. As of 2009, California's 158,000 inmates were detained in prisons that were designed to hold 84,000—almost 14,000 of these inmates were sleeping in very tight spaces, or in hallways, or on floors. People are also being incarcerated at an increasing rate and new prisons cannot be built fast enough.[35]

China's prison population is about 1.6 million,[36] while the prison population of India is 332,112.[36]

Alternatives to Incarceration

Main article: Alternatives to incarceration

Conditional Sentences Conditional sentences were first introduced in 1996 in an attempt to reduce the amount of inmates in a quickly growing prison population. Conditional sentences, which are also known as indeterminate sentences, are sentences that are served outside of the prison walls and in the community with some sort of restrictions or conditions placed on the offender. The requirements or conditions may include mandatory programs such as a drug or alcohol treatment seminars, curfews, house arrest, or electronic monitoring. Most offenders who receive conditional sentences are low risk and are usually serving time for impaired driving where no death occurred. When an offender receives a conditional sentence of home confinement in comparison to incarceration, the offender is still able to see family members, maintain a normal job, and attend school. This is a huge advantage to conditional sentencing, since offenders are not completely cut off from the external world. Although the offender is not locked away in a prison cell, the offender is still expected to stay at home during certain times of the day or night. In order to verify that offenders are abiding by the restrictions placed on them, electronic monitoring is often used. The development of GPS, which allows law enforcement agencies to know the exact location of the offender by the use of satellites, has increased the effectiveness of offenders serving home confinement sentences drastically. Offenders can now easily be identified and tracked down through the use of GPS allowing law enforcement officers to quickly move in to make an arrest when an offender is in breach of their conditions.[37]

Restorative Justice Restorative justice[38] is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community, instead of focusing on satisfying abstract legal principles or punishing offenders (such as imprisoning them). Victims take an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, "to repair the harm they've done—by apologizing, returning stolen money, or community service".[39]

See also

Prisons portal


Further reading

  • Carlson, Peter M.; Garrett, Judith Simon, , Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 1999.
  • Diiulio, John J., ISBN 0-02-907883-0.

External links

  • Interactive world map showing number of prisoners per 100,000 citizens
  • Prison Radio
  • Australian Prisons
  • Russian Prisons photostory
  • Historic Prisons
  • Victorian Prisoners' Photograph Albums from Wandsworth prison on The National Archives' website.
  • 1473-8406.
  • The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research
  • Incarceration Reform Mega-Site (with 387 links)
  • John Jay College of Criminal Justice

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