800px-State_Prison,_at_Sing_Sing,_New_YorkThe original purpose of confining a person within a prison was not to punish them, but was a means of keeping the perpetrator of a crime detained until the actual punishment could be carried out. This was usually in the form of corporal punishment that was intended to cause the guilty person pain, such as being beaten with a whip, or capital punishment which used a variety of methods to claim the lives of condemned individuals.

London is known as the birthplace of modern imprisonment. A Philosopher named Jeremy Bentham was against the death penalty and thus created a concept for a prison that would be used to hold prisoners as a form of punishment. Bentham drew up plans for a facility in which prisoners would remain for extended periods of time. His design was intended to ensure that the people who were locked up would never know if they were being watched by guards or not, which he felt would allow the prison to save money. Since the inmates could not be certain how many guards were present, Bentham reasoned, fewer officers would need to be hired to maintain the peace. In the end, this prison was never built, but the concept of using prisons as a form of long term punishment did catch on.

By the 19th century, prisons were being built for the sole purpose of housing inmates. They were intended to deter people from committing crimes. People who were found guilty of various crimes would be sent to these penitentiaries and stripped of their personal freedoms. Inmates were often forced to do hard labor while they were incarcerated and to live in very harsh conditions. Before long, one of the goals of a prison sentence became the rehabilitation of inmates. Many people felt that the fear of being locked up would be enough to deter an inmate from ever committing another crime, but other theories held that policies should be introduced to help reform prisoners before they were set free. These policies include mental examinations, educational programs and sometimes even far more drastic measures such as electroshock therapy. An opposing viewpoint to the rehabilitative effects of imprisonment claims that being incarcerated will actually cause people to become even more involved with a life of crime, because they become so enveloped in a criminal society while living with other inmates. Regardless of these conflicting opinions on rehabilitation of criminals, imprisonment continues to be one of the most common forms of punishment around the world.


Back to Crime Library