History of Penal Institutions


history of penal

The origins of the prison can be traced back to the first known legal code, known as the Code of Hammurabi. Written in Babylon around 1750BC, the laws covered many of the day-to-day aspects of living, such as:

  • Duties of employees
  • Food
  • Military Service
  • Religion
  • Slaves
  • Theft
  • Trade

The punishment for breaking the laws of Hammurabi’s Code did not focus on imprisonment, but on the notion of Lex Talionis (an eye for an eye.) Standard punishments included being fined, thrown into water, removal of fingers, and death, and people were only imprisoned if they could not afford to pay their fines.


The Romans created some of the first known prisons, which began as renovated public building basements and quarries. One of the most famous Roman jail houses was the Mamertine Prison. Built around 640 BC, the facility was situated within a sewage system beneath the ancient city, and consisted of a variety of dungeons. Prisoners were held in abominable conditions, and shared much of their prison space with human waste from the sewers.

Mamertine Prison

There is no evidence in Roman Law to show that imprisonment was served to criminals as a sentence, but rather it was used as a holding cell for those awaiting trial or punishment. Punishments were often based around physical pain, banishment and death, but sometimes criminals were sentenced to forced labour, usually in Ergastula. An ergastulum was another form of Roman prison for dangerous or badly behaved slaves. It was essentially a deep pit in the ground, covered by a large roof, and prisoners were forced to work and sleep inside its squalid conditions.


Prisons became a punishment in their own right during the Middle Ages (4th – 15th century) in Europe. All levels of political administration or authority had the right to detain citizens whom were deemed as criminals. This resulted in castles, fortresses and basements becoming renovated into personal prisons across England and the rest of Europe. The Roman Catholic church were a large aspect to the evolution of the prison also, and were renowned for their imprisonment of badly behaved monks. When monks committed serious crimes, such as murder or arson, they were forced to live in underground rooms, where they lived in solitary confinement to reflect on their wrong doings.

The 12th century saw the rise of civil governments and the development of public law, which further progressed the need for some form of prison. Ruling monarchs used castles such as the Tower of London, or dungeons such as the Bastille in France to lock away political rivals.


The expansion of cities and the breakdown of feudalism led to both social and economic turmoil in Europe, and particularly England. Work was scarce, and many citizens were made homeless and forced into begging or prostitution on the streets. This serge of crime in England, led to the creation of the work house, and the Bridewell Palace was transformed into one of the first prototypes for our modern prisons.


In 1553, Edward VI gifted the City of London with Bridewell Palace with the intentions of it being used for an orphanage and for the punishment of disorderly women. As the crime levels increased, more and more people were sent to Bridewell, and the need for more of its kind became clear.

Bridwell Prison

Multiple ‘Bridewells’ were built across the country, and were filled with prostitutes and vagabonds. They were forced to adhere to a strict regime of physical labour, hence the name ‘work houses’ which were their official designation.


Not all European countries adopted the workhouse concept, and many found it cheaper and easier to send criminals to distant outposts overseas. By the 18th century, sending criminals to the colonies was common practice for most European countries. On occasions, criminals would be sent to institutions overseas, such as Devil’s Island in South America’s French Guiana, which were known for hard labour, insect infestations and a minimal food supply. The transportation of criminals to the penal colonies occurred in the Americas from 1610 to 1770, and Australia between 1788 and 1868 and was offered as an alternative to the death penalty.


The use of derelict war ships were donated by the Royal Navy to the British government in the 18th and 19th centuries to be used as prison ‘hulks’. They were anchored in waterways around the country, filled with criminals of all ages. The conditions on board the prison hulks were filthy, overcrowded and riddled with disease. As they were all war-torn, many of the vessels let in water, and prisoners held in the lower decks often drowned. Those that survived were kept in iron chains and handcuffs, and is believed to be the first examples of the ‘ball and chain’ coming into mainstream use.

HMS Discovery Prison Hulk

One of the most well known battle ships to be converted into a prison hulk was the HMS Discovery at Woolwich in 1818. She was transported to Deptford in 1824, where she served as a convict ship until she was dismantled in 1834. As the 19th century came about, it was realised that the prison hulks were not adequate to house thousands of people over long periods of time. Despite the inevitable closure of the prison ships, it did demonstrate to the country that mass incarceration and labour was a viable and successful solution for crime prevention and punishment.


The first prison reform movement began to rise at the end of the 18th century when the need for land based prisons became clear.John Howard John Howard was appointed as the High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773, when he first visited the county jail. Appalled by the prison’s dire condition, Howard began inspecting other prisons throughout the country and found similar environments everywhere. He expressed specific concerns regarding those prisoners whom were being held simply because they could not afford the jailer’s fee. Taking this issue to parliament in 1774, Howard was called to report his findings to a House of Commons select committee. He impressed the members of the committee, and he was even publicly thanked by them for his ‘humanity and zeal.’

Howard continued his tour of prisons across England, Scotland, Wales and Europe for several years, and published the first edition of The State of the Prisons in 1777. In it, he described in great detail his findings and experiences of the prisons (Bridewells) he visited:

‘There are several Bridewells (to begin with them) in Food, which prisoners have no allowance of food at all. In some, the keeper farms what little is allowed them: and where he engages to supply each prisoner with one or two pennyworth of bread a day, I have known this shrunk to half, sometimes less than half the quantity, cut or broken from his own loaf. It will perhaps be asked, does not their work maintain them? for every one knows that those offenders are committed to hard labour. The answer to that question, though true, will hardly be believed.

There are very few Bridewells in which any work is done, or can be done. The prisoners have neither tools, nor materials of any kind; but spend their time in sloth, profaneness and debauchery, to a degree which, in some of those houses that I have seen, is extremely shocking. Some keepers of these houses, who have represented to the magistrates the wants of their prisoners, and desired for them necessary food, have been silenced with these in considerate words, Let them work or starve. When those gentlemen know the former is impossible, do they not by that sentence, inevitably doom poor creatures to the latter ?

I have asked some keepers, since the late act for preserving the health of prisoners, why no care is taken of the sick: and have been answered, that the magistrates tell them the aft does not extend to Bridewells . In consequence of this, at the quarter sessions you fee prisoners, covered (hardly covered) with rags; almost famished; and sick of diseases, which the discharged spread wherever they go, and with which those who are sent to the County- Gaols infect these prisons. The fame complaint, want of food, is to be found in many county-gaols.

In about half these, debtors have no bread; although it is granted to the highwayman, the house-breaker, and the murderer ; and medical assistance, which is provided for the latter, is withheld from the former. In many of these Gaols, debtors who would work are not permitted to have any tools, lest they should furnish felons with them for escape or other mischief. I have often seen those prisoners eating their water-soup (bread boiled in mere water) and heard them say, ” We are locked up and almost starved to death.”

Prison Reformers

As to the relief provided for Debtors by the benevolent act, 32rd of George II. (commonly called the lords act, because it originated in their house) I did not find in all England and Wales (except the counties of Middlesex and Surrey) twelve debtors who had obtained from their creditors the four-pence a day, to which they had a right by that act: the means of procuring it were out of their reach. In one of my journeys I found near six hundred prisoners, whose debts were under twenty pounds each: some of them did not owe above three or four pounds: and the expense of suing for the aliment is in many places equal to those smaller debts; for which some of these prisoners had been confined several months.

At Carlisle but one debtor of the forty-nine whom I saw there had obtained his groats: and the gaoler told me that during the time he had held that office, which was fourteen years, no more than four or five had received it; and that they were soon discharged by their creditors neglecting to pay it. No one debtor had the aliment in York Castle, Devon, Cheshire, Kent, and many other counties. The truth is, some debtors are the most pitiable objects in our gaols.”

The paper also included detailed plans and maps,complete with a detailed set of instructions regarding necessary improvements for the existing prisons. Major recommendations which were taken on board were:

  • Staff should be trained and paid by the government.
  • Prisoners should be housed in single cells.
  • Inspections by outside parties should be imposed.
  • Prisoners need to be provided with a healthy diet and reasonable living conditions.

The Penitentiary Act was finally passed in 1779, which introduced solitary confinement, religious reflection and a labour regime. Two state penitentiaries were proposed, one for each gender, but were never actually built, due to disagreements within the planning committee.


During the same time, many Quakers were also petitioning for better prison conditions, including Jeremy Bentham. He proposed that prisons needed to be more secure and easily managed, to ensure the safety for the jailers and the prisoners alike. In accordance with his ideals, he designed the Panopticon plan, which was to be the blue print for many prisons over the following years, including Millbank prison.

Millbank was opened in the summer of 1816, and was one of the largest prisons to use the Panopticon plan. The centre building was of a hexagonal shape, and was surrounded by six conjoined cell block buildings which sat on an 18 acre plot. The prison only contained female inmates until January the following year.

Millbank Prison Plan

By the end of 1817, a total of 212 prisoners resided within the walls of Millbank; 103 of whom were male, 109 were female. Despite good intentions of humane conditions and social reforming, the prison became rife with diseases such as scurvy and dysentery. Prisoners were eventually evacuated for several months. The majority of the female inmates were released, whilst the males were sent to live aboard neighbouring hulks.

Millbank prison was built on marsh lands, which inevitably led to the deterioration of the building. Alongside this, major design flaws became clear, such as the ventilation system which carried sounds, allowing inmates to communicate in their cells. A replacement National Penitentiary needed to be built, and so Pentonville was built. It opened in 1842, and Millbank was reduced to a holding depot for criminals prior to transportation. It was finally closed down in 1890, and slowly demolished over the following 13 years.

Other Quakers such as Benjamin Rush in the U.S also played a large role in the development of the prison system. He advised that prisons should not only remove dangerous criminals from society, but they should also attempt to reform the prisoners into law abiding citizens. Like other Quakers of this time, Rush advocated the use of solitary confinement, and saw it as a time for reflection and religious penance.

The first state prisons in the United States were built according to Bentham’s Panopticon plan, with wings of singular cells spiralling outward from a central surveillance hub. The old jail at Walnut Street in Pennsylvania was turned into a state prison, and the Newgate State prison was built in Grenwich Village, New York. Despite Bentham’s efforts, his Panopticon plan ultimately ended in failure. He had intended the central hub to give the governor a view of every cell in the prison, yet in practice, there were many blind spots. Due to severe overcrowding, solitary confinement became impossible and groups of men were forced to share single cells.


In 1816, another state penitentiary was opened in New York, entitled the Auburn Prison. Unlike the Walnut Street and Newgate state prisons, this facility was modelled around a new theory called the Auburn System, consisting  of work, sleep and absolute silence.

Auburn Prison

This ideology did involve solitary confinement at night times, but inmates were forced to work throughout each day, returning to their private cells only to sleep. The absolute silence derived from the idea that lack of speech takes away the prisoners’ sense of self, which would, in turn, force convicts to become complacent and obedient to the warden’s wishes.


Although the Auburn system was favoured in the U.S, another system was widely used in prisons around the world, known as the Separate system. This was,like the older prisons, founded on the notion of punishment via penance, allowing convicts to silently reflect and atone for their deviant behaviour. In 1829, the state prison, named the Eastern State Penitentiary was built in Philadelphia and predominantly focused on the Separate system. New prisoners were escorted to their cells wearing a hood over their heads to prevent them seeing other prisoners, and visa versa. They were given a large cell,in which they were to spend all of their time inside, which included everything they needed to live, sleep and work. Standard jobs given to prisoners were weaving or dying cloth, and making shoes or furniture, and was all completed by inmates kept in solitary confinement.

Eastern State Penitentiary

As with other prisons before it, the Eastern State Penitentiary had many design flaws and impracticalities. The building itself was monumental in size, covering a total of 11 acres of land, and was expensive to design, build and operate. The large cells, which were intended for one person only, meant that the prison became full to its capacity extremely quickly. They also meant that factory based production could not be taken advantage on, so the incoming revenue was limited.


In 1825, another new prison was needed, and the state legislature put Captain Elam Lynds, creator of the Auburn system and former warden at Auburn prison, in charge of it’s construction. After searching for several months for the ideal location, Lynds finally selected a site in Mount Pleasant, New York named Sing Sing. The name originates from the Indian words: “Sint Sinks,” which translates as “stone upon stone.”

In May 1825, Lynds sailed down the Hudson River to Mount Pleasant with 100 inmates from Auburn prison. Upon their arrival, the prisoners worked in the quarry on site, and then proceeded to build the prison from the limestone they collected. Reports of abhorrent conditions arose on the building ground of Sing Sing, with tales of slave-labour, minimal housing or shelter and starvation.

It opened just a year later in 1826, and was considered to be America’s model prison, as it began making a profit almost instantly. Lynds operated Sing Sin based around his Auburn system,which dictated complete silence from the prisoners at all times and a hard work schedule. The cells were just 3 feet by 7, and were so small than many prisoners had to walk in sideways just to fit into it. Inside each cell was a bed and a bucket, with no running water or ventilation, as the only time the prisoners were in them was when they slept. They literally spent all day, everyday performing gruelling work, such as cutting stone and producing kitchen utensils, barrels, shoes and other such products.

Sing Sing Prison

The state saw Sing Sing thrive, as a prison and a business, and prisons across the country began adopting Lynds’ methods. Eventually, contractors of labour projects began to wield influence over the disciple and well-being of the working convicts, often with money being the main priority. Contractors would single out those which they deemed unsatisfactory to the warden, who would then punish the convicts, and send them back out to work. Roughly 74% of the inmates at Sing sing in 1854 were forced to partake in contract labour, producing anything from buildings to furniture and carpets.


Sing Sing was not alone in using their convicts as labourers, and this system spread across the country. It was viewed as a better alternative to the prisoners being idle each day, with the added bonus of teaching each working convict a trade, which would be useful upon their release. However, it was clear to reformers that prisoners were being exploited, and many prisons, including Sing Sing began producing items for the state only.

In Britain, penal transportation was coming to an end, and hard labour became a widespread punishment throughout the 19th century. Convicts of a wide variety of crimes were all signed up for the same punishment, ranging from rapists and murderers, to pickpockets and vagabonds. The standard working day was 10 hours of hard labour, and included forms such as:

  • The Crank Machine: This was a machine with a large handle, used for no other purpose than to exhaust and punish inmates sentenced to hard labour. Prisoners were forced to turn the handle up to 15,000 times per day, and the warden would set the crank, making it easier or harder to move. The wardens used screw on the crank to do this, tightening it to make the crank harder for the inmate, and many claim this is where the term “screw” became slang for prison wardens.
  • Shot Drill: The prisoner was forced to pick up an iron cannonball without bending his knees to his chest, take three steps to the right, then put it back on the floor, and repeat with another ball. The only point to this exercise, was to exhaust and punish the convict.
  • Treadmill: The treadmill consisted of a huge 20-foot paddle wheels with 24 steps around a cylinder and was used as a method of punishment and hard labour. As the prisoners stepped on the wheel, it would turn, either pumping water or crushing grains. This particular type of punishment was extremely dangerous, as there was no way to stop it churning when prisoners fell, crushing them under the machinery.


Convict leasing became widely popular in the Us in the late 19th century, but began to cease as the 20th century arose. The southern states kept using this form of punishment until the late 1920’s, without any false illusions of reformation.

Convict Leasing

Prisoners were leased to work on farms or build highways, and the nickname “chain gangs” arose, due to the convicts being chained together in rows. The final state to discontinue the use of contracted labour was Alabama in 1928.


The use of prisons was not as popular in Continental Europe as it was in the British Empire and the US, although state prisons were in use by the end of the 19th century in most countries. When Italy unified in 1861, they reformed their prisons and developed an advanced penal system under their leader, Cesare Lombroso. He suggested that criminals bore significant physical or mental abnormalities, which set them apart from ordinary citizens, such as a sloping forehead, asymmetry of the face and unusually long arms. He also claimed that criminals were less responsive to pain and touch, a lack of moral sense, increased vanity and impulsiveness and an excessive use of tattoos.

These theories were popular at first, until the flaws in them became too apparent to ignore. Lombroso made his presumptions based almost entirely on incarcerated criminals, meaning that his conclusions could not be applied to the general population. Later regarded as the ‘Lombrosian fallacy’, Lombroso’s mistakes became infamous in the history of penal institutions.


Years later, in 1913, Charles Buckman Goring published his works entitled ‘The English Convict,’ which explored Lombroso’s theory of physical attributes among criminals in great detail. Sponsored by the British government, Charles Goring and other prison medical officers collected data from thousands of prisoners and compared their appearance to the Royal Engineers in the military,and found no differences between the two: “The physical and mental constitution of both criminal and law-abiding persons, of the same age, stature, class, and intelligence, are identical. There is no such thing as an anthropological criminal type.”


The 1920s and 30s saw a dramatic rise in organised crime, particularly in the United States. The gang culture was on the rise, creating men such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Bumpy Johnson. To combat this surge, the Unites States Department of Justice bought the military prison, Alcatraz in October 1933. The buildings were modernised to meet the necessary requirements to hold hardened criminals, and it was opened as a high security prison of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1934.

Aerial View of Alcatraz

The prison was intended to hold inmates who were continuously violent and difficult to control in other federal institutions around the country. Due to the isolation of the island, and the harsh weather conditions surrounding it, such as the salt water and fog from the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was deemed as the ideal location for one of the first super maximum prisons in the US. Inside Alcatraz, there was few efforts at rehabilitation for the convicts. It quickly became a warehouse for America’s most evil men, and gained instant notoriety for its infamous residents.

By the 1950’s, Alcatraz had turned into the most expensive prison in the United States, costing three times more money to run than the average prison. This was mainly due to the deterioration of the building itself, caused by the salt air and wind from the surrounding bay. Such drastic deterioration led to several escape attempts, showing the high security prison to have major flaws. In 1952, Director James Bennett published his annual report, calling for a more centralised prison to replace Alcatraz. Despite this, plans to repair the structure costing $5 million went ahead in 1958, but was finally ceased three years later, when engineers declared the building to be a lost cause.

The maximum security United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois was built and opened in 1963 to replace Alcatraz. Prisoners were transferred, and in 1968, a new behaviour modification program was set in place, named the Control and Rehabilitation Effort (CARE).

United States Penitentiary in Marion

This regime consisted of the prisoners spending most of their time in solitary confinement, combined with group therapy sessions. In such sessions, the convicts were scolded for their deviant behaviour and told to change their ways. The maximum-security prison at Marion was designed according to the telephone-pole plan, which was initially introduced in the 1920s.

This meant that the entire prison was based around one main corridor, with cell blocks and other buildings branching off from it. It became popular around the world for prisons, as it was quick and easy to construct, and was thought to be ideal for isolating specific buildings to combat bad behaviour and riots. However, like others before it, the telephone-pole design was riddled with flaws. It created a multitude of hidden corners and corridors, which were the ideal settings for stabbings and other prison violence.


The late 1960s saw a huge escalation in prison violence and outbreak attempts, which led to multiple riots occurring in prisons around the world. In the US, one of the worst known riots occurred in Attica Correctional Facility, New York.

Attica Correctional Facility Riot

In the early morning on 9th September 1971, after complaining about their ill-treatment and overcrowded conditions, the inmates seized many sections of the prison. This allowed them to take 42 hostages, including guards and civilians, and they made a list of their demands. A total of 39 deaths occurred during the Attica prison riot, 29 of whom were inmates who died at the hands of the state troopers.


In 1973, the first ‘control unit’ cells were created at the United States Penitentiary in Marion. Prisoners who were sent to the unit were assigned to spend 23-24 hours a day in small, one man cells, with no contact with other prisoners or visitors. On seeing how successful this was, other prisons followed suit, and the majority of the state prisons became equipped with their own high security units.


Continuing with their pioneering techniques, the prison was also the first to enforce a long-term lock-down in 1983. This was caused by events on 22nd October that year, when two prison guards were killed in separate events only hours apart. As a direct result of the two murders, the prison went on a permanent lock-down, for the following 23 years.

USP Marion

Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, with a ban on all communal activities. By keeping prisoners in conditions similar to the control unit cells, prisoners were prevented from communicating with one another and had limited contact with the correctional officers.


The riots in the 60’s and 70’s forced drastic changes in design and technique. A central control pod is now the key aspect to the majority of western prisoners, which allows a guard to control all aspects of the hospital, from opening and locking doors, to stopping the water supply temporarily in an particular cell. The pod became very useful in terms of riots, as guards were able to immediately lock down any part of the prison, making it virtually impossible for riots to take place.

The main goal for any prison architect is to provide security in three main areas:

  1. The safety of the public
  2. Safety of the staff
  3. Safety of the prisoners

Because the primary goal is to protect the public, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the prison walls. Many prisons have double electronic fences, which are able to detect any movement around it, sending an instant alarm to the central control pod. A vast array of censors are used in prison walls throughout the world, including buried sensor cables, and the microwave intrusion link, which can detect movement from up to 1500 feet away.

In prisons such as Rikers Island, cells are made off-site into units consisting of two cells, separated by a plumbing and electrical cupboard. These cell units are made from concrete and steel,and are designed to be virtually escape proof, and easy for prison staff to maintain. The adding of the cupboard allows guards to fix and maintain plumbing in cells without coming into contact with the inmate. The pre-cast construction makes it almost impossible for any part of the cell to be broken off and fashioned as a weapon. Shelves and beds are built into the concrete structure, which weights approximately 26 tons, and costs $9,500 to build and install.

Prefacbricated prison cells

Many modern prisons use biometric devices in their security routine, such as the Hand Geometry Device. This electronically reads hand prints, and only grants access to those already stored within its memory. If any hand print is scanned and not recognised by the computer, and alarm will sound in the control pod and the appropriate action can then be taken.

Technology has enhanced the ability to provide security and control to inmates in prisons exponentially. Far from the simple lock and key on cells, the modern prison now thrives on technology for all aspects of daily operations, including protection. The electronic immobilisation shield is able to send 50,000 volts of electricity to any uncontrollable inmate, instantly sending them hurtling to the ground.

The general design of the modern prison uses a ‘podular’ layout, which consisted of small, separate, self-contained cell units known as modules, or pods. They are each designed to hold up to 50 prisoners, and are attached to individual exercise yards and other facilities in a campus like style. Each pod consists of tiers of cells, located around the central control pod, and can be designed according to the security level of the prisoners.

Connecticut control room

For example, ‘indirect supervision’ caters for extremely violent prisoners by providing sealed control booths for guards and confining prisoners to their cells, so no physical contact is made. ‘Direct supervision’ on the other hand, allows for officers to supervise the inmates in group environments, such as in the central day room or the exercise yard.


There are over 10.1 million people currently being held in penal constitutions across the world, and over two million of those are situated in the United States. Below is a recent survey taken by  the International Centre for Prison Studies, displaying the highest inmate counts on a worldwide level:

US 2,193,798 737 107.6 21.2 8.9
CHINA 1,548,498 118 N/A N/A 4.6
RUSSIA 874,161 615 79.5 16.9 6.8
BRAZIL 371,482 193 150.9 33.1 5.4
INDIA 332,112 30 139 70.1 3.7
MEXICO 214,450 196 133.9 43.2 5
UKRAINE 162,602 350 101.3 19.5 6.1
SOUTH AFRICA 158,501 334 138.6 27.5 2.1
POLAND 89,546 235 124.4 16.8 3
ENGLAND/WALES 80,002 148 112.7 16.4 5.5
JAPAN 79,052 62 105.9 14.7 5.9
KENYA 47,036 130 284.3 45.6 42
TURKEY 65,458 91 77.4 47.7 3.3
NIGERIA 40,444 30 101.5 64.3 1.9
AUSTRALIA 25,790 125 105.9 21.6 7.1
SCOTLAND 6,872 134 107.5 21 4.4
N IRELAND 1,375 79 91.5 37.4 2.2

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