Prisons are an odd thing in modern democracy; in some ways the pillar of our justice system, a testament to a way of doing things that means we can endeavour to transform criminals into productive members of society and a way of punishment that allows us to hold the moral high ground over serious criminals to whom we do not do the whole ‘eye for an eye’ thing. But on the other hand it is, when you think about it, a somewhat barbaric practice; to take a fellow human being, another person born free and equal, and to take away not only their freedom for the immediate future, but in some respects their equality for as long as their criminal record lasts. If crime is a contentious issue, then ideas concerning punishment are even more controversial.
The idea of imprisonment was invented less as a tool of justice and more one of political convenience; whilst an opposing warlord is locked up, he can’t orchestrate a war or rebellion (as I have found out whilst playing Crusader Kings II). Indeed, throughout medieval times, common criminals were never punished by imprisonment; they were either fined, had body parts (usually hands) removed, or were executed (usually by hanging; the chopping block was for noblemen right up until the guillotine, which was a great social leveller when it came to execution). Locking someone up meant they needed feeding and housing, which was only really worth the cost for noblemen who one could ransom. It was also considered somewhat dishonourable to kill noblemen in most cases, even more so the higher rank they were; indeed, there was much outrage when Oliver Cromwell ordered King Charles I executed despite the fact that he had been convicted of treason and was highly unpopular (as well as, by all accounts, something of an arsehole).
Quite a good way of tracking the history of imprisonment as a punishment is to study the history of the Bastille in Paris; a fortress built in the 1300s, it was first declared a state prison in 1417. Originally, it held whichever landed gentry and noblemen had pissed of King Louis the Whicheverwasinpoweratthetime, but over time this role changed, and the commoners started to find their way in too. This was fuelled by the fact that people often got very angry at seeing certain types of often petty criminals, many of whom were barely out of childhood, getting strung up on a gibbet, and riots were generally things to be avoided. Particular bones of contention concerned those who had Things To Say about the French monarchy and government (especially once the state tried to censor the material spewing from the newly invented printing press), and people whose religious alignment disagreed with whoever was in power, but would certainly agree with large sectors of the mob. To try and placate the populace, therefore, the Bastille began to take on more prisoners who the ruling classes felt would cause… a disturbance were they to be publicly hanged. Increasingly, the Bastille began to be used as a place to hide away those who had spoken out against or in some way fought against the state (whose death would really infuriate the mob), and the prison increasingly became a bone of resentment, a symbol of the stranglehold those in power had over their subjects. As such, it was a natural target for rioters when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, and Bastille Day (14th of July) is still a national holiday in France.
The chaos following the French revolution and the social upheaval of the next few centuries did change the balance of power and the role of imprisonment within society; it was the punishment of choice for many crimes, the old days of hacking a thief’s hand off gone, and execution was now the reserve of the kind of people who the public felt deserved it. However, right up until the Second World War, the justice system was brutal in a lot of countries; dungeons were generally small, packed with poorly-fed prisoners and infested with disease or rats, and many countries still operated forced labour camps and penal colonies. There were two reasons for this; firstly, prisoners were still expensive to maintain and were not seen as worth expending any great effort for, so any way the state could get some use out of them was seen as all well and good. The other reason concerned the role that prison had to play. Imprisonment was in those days (as today) to prevent criminals from committing more crimes, to punish them for the crimes they had committed and to scare others into not performing the scare crimes; but what wouldn’t come along until much later was the idea of rehabilitation. Our modern justice system is such that almost every criminal, regardless of their crime, will return to the outside world one day, and we can all agree that it would be preferable for everyone if, upon said return, they didn’t commit any more crimes. Trouble is, prison does not do that role any favours; by simply throwing someone in a grotty cell for several years, all you are likely to build in them is resentment against you and the system, and since human beings are remarkably stubborn people, this is likely to lead to re-offending. We have also come to realise that prison on its own is frequently ineffective as a deterrent for serial criminals, who are generally less sorrowful about committing their crimes as they are about getting caught. Once released, they are most likely to just go right on with their old life, the life that was exciting and (in some cases) profitable to them before the law caught up with them. And then, of course, there’s the problem posed by a criminal record, making people far less able to find work and often forcing them back to crime just to keep their head above water. This has given rise to the fourth role played by the modern prison and justice system; that of rehabilitation.
I am no legal expert, nor have I ever spent time in prison, so I am undoubtedly underqualified to talk at length about how comfortable prisons ‘should’ be, the correct way to treat prisoners, how to correctly implement the role of rehabilitation, etc. But I think we can all accept that the role of the justice system nowadays is, primarily, to reduce the amount of crime in this world, and unfortunately, bars and guards ain’t gonna cut it on their own. And we must also remember that, whatever they may have done, prisoners are people too. They still have rights, they still deserve at least some respect; many are victims of circumstance as much as anything else. And in any case, there’s a reason that we don’t hang prisoners any more; because our moral code must be stronger than that of a murderer, because we must show at least a modicum of love to those who would give us none, because we must be better, nobler people than they.