"If you would understand anything, observe its beginning" (Aristotle)

    Early correctional history is usually categorized as the time period from 2000 B.C. to 1800 A.D. (Allen et al. 2010).  This period covers a lot of ground, from ancient Babylonian and Sumerian codes to the rise of the penitentiary system in America.  In-between, there were many different philosophies and practices, but one or two underlying themes might be noted about the progression of early history.  One, there was a shift from lex salica to lex talionis.  Lex salica (also called wergild) is a type of vigilante law or justice (similar to vendetta or blood feud) where a victim of wrongdoing (or their family) carry out revenge or retaliation under the assumption that an offender has to (absolutely must) pay for their crime.  This notion that there must be some "final" justice is the earliest form of justice, and it characterized very ancient times, at least up until the development of lex talionis.  Most students know lex talionis means "an eye for an eye or tooth for a tooth" but it technically refers to the switchover in time when governments (not families or private individuals) got into the vengeance or retaliation business.  Clearly, one cannot govern a country with vigilante justice running rampant all over the place.  So, lex talionis represents the idea that the government "owns" the crime, not the victim(s) or the family member(s).  At first, lex talionis was only applied to slaves and the lower classes, but eventually, it became the dominant form of justice (and still is today, to a large extent).

    Two, there was a shift from physical punishment to psychological punishment across the early historical period.  One of the best books ever written about this was by Foucault (1995), but there exist lots of other books, encyclopedias, and pictorials about all those ancient, barbaric torture devices found in the underground chambers of castles.  In my opinion, some authors make too much out of the history of torture and corporal punishment, almost as if some kind of scientific proof is established by pointing out certain devices were effective against certain types of offenders.  The truth is that most governments only experimented with the accoutrements of pain apparatus for a short time, and most nations ending up following the British-Spanish-Dutch-French-German pattern of relying simply on flogging (whipping) for most offenses.  Flogging is also called "caning" (and still a legal punishment) in many parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.  Anyway, the shift to psychological punishment evolved from (of all places) religious doctrine, specifically the notion of natural law (or lex naturalis).  Now, natural law is a complex concept, and quite so here, because we are really talking about ecclesiastical law (those ceremonies and rituals that the Church followed to interpret Canon law).  This meant that, for the first time, judicial officials would have to have doctorates or at least be licensed to practice law, and the interference of such Church officials on state affairs softened the "arbitrary and capricious" nature of a King's justice.  The Age of Enlightenment which came around in the Eighteenth Century brought an even greater recognition of human dignity.  The end result was that prisoners were tortured less (and put to death less), but forced to suffer longer, more psychologically tormenting, stays of imprisonment.  Also, during this time period, places of imprisonment gradually moved from underground to aboveground (and in some cases, above-water, as with confining prisoners on board abandoned ships; i.e., hulks).  The most famous underground prison was Mamertime in Rome (named after the Roman god Mars).  Mamertime was the place where Paul and Peter were imprisoned. It consisted of a vast network of dungeons under the city’s main sewer system connected to the surface via a grand entranceway. Corridors and chambers descended downward, and were marked by the symbol of an upside-down cross. The right-side-up Crucifix symbol that became Christianity's trademark can be partially accounted for by resentment of this early Roman prison symbol.    Actually, we have the Spanish Inquisition to thank (despite all its drawbacks) for getting away from underground prisons toward above-ground prisons (or presidios).  Yet, again, it is important to remember that a variety of practices were in existence around the world.

    Corporal punishment is more likely found in non-Western nations, especially when amputations or floggings are involved.  Rape of a prisoner is also mostly a non-Western phenomenon.  However, the Western world is no stranger to punishments involving torture, beatings, and execution.  Corporal punishment predates the emergence of anything that could be called a prison system.  Most early European places of imprisonment were just holding pens until a sentence of corporal punishment could be carried out.  Books by Held (1985) and Earle (1995) document many of the curious punishments of bygone days.  Earle (1995) points out, notably enough, that the European aristocracy were exempt from any corporal punishment or bodily harm.  Women offenders, poor and gossipy ones at that, were the most likely group to receive corporal punishment.  Some of these punishments were religiously-inspired, but others were devised with secular, scientific precision, like Benjamin Rush's Merry-Go-Round or Jeremy Bentham's Spanking Machine.  Flogging of women was usually across the topless breast while flogging of men was usually across the naked back.  In the 1500s, it was common to hang offenders upside down and whip them.  By the 1600s (and well into the 1800s), whippings occurred in a more upright position, along with a variety of shackling devices such as bridles, bilboes, stocks, pillories, crosses, and posts.  As strange and antiquated as these punishments sound, there have actually been respected criminal justice and criminology professors who have advocated a second look.  Newman (1995), for example, argues that a system of graduated electric shock should be considered a part of any effective prison system.  Moskos (2011) argues for a system where offenders can trade in years against their sentence for a number of floggings. 

    Capital punishment in early times was quite gruesome.  Some common methods included: burning to death; breaking on the wheel (breaking the major bones of the body with an iron rod while tied to a large circle); impaling; disemboweling; beheading; and drawing and quartering (offender is tied to four horses that pull in different directions).  After executions, the corpse might be gibbeted and displayed in chains, or it might be surgically experimented upon by doctors.       


    In early times, large prisons consisted mostly of holding pens (either above ground fortresses or underground dungeons), and far worse punishments existed; e.g., torture, public whipping or hanging spectacles, and/or being fed to the lions.  However, as Kittrie, Zenoff & Eng (2002) argue, incarceration as the "ideal" punishment (second in popularity to the death penalty) came into favor only around the time the practices of transportation and penal slavery (servitude) became popular.  Transportation, of course, means banishment to a foreign land, like the American colonies or Australia.  Banishment, of course, was an ancient punishment going back to the days when families enacted justice as vengeance against offenders.  Plato had also said that a country ought to have three prisons: one for those awaiting trial, one for vagrants and misfits, and another in a place far, far away.  It is difficult to say exactly when transportation started, but suffice it to say that prior to 1850, many countries around the world relied on transportation to send serious offenders to far-away colonies.  After 1850 (and to some extent before), governments started experimenting with a variety of transportation known as PENAL SERVITUDE.  Penal servitude involved being "sold into slavery" for a period of years either as a sailor in the Navy, at a galley port for the Navy, as a soldier in the Army, as a fighter in a mercenary force, as a worker for a businessman, or as a worker for a plantation owner.  Penal servitude became quite popular in Spanish-speaking parts of the world, and some experts regard some of this Spanish practice (circa 1688-1748) as the birthplace of the modern, above-ground prisons in the form of Spanish forts (presidios) and central prisons which handled the overflow of implacable prisoners assigned to penal servitude.  All presidios had prisons, consisting of 8x10 foot stone cells with iron bars, and they were primarily used as part of Spanish conquest (along with missions and pueblos) for housing foreigners and Indians.  The model of a prison "cell" widely in use today can be traced to the presidio cells.  You can see from the following table why penal servitude became so popular because it was seen as more lenient than transportation.


Penal Servitude

7 years or less 4 years or less
7-10 years 4-6 years
10-15 years 6-8 years
15 years or more 8-14 years
life life

    The relationship between slavery and corrections is an interesting story that needs to be elaborated on.  Unfortunately, there are only a few books on the subject that are "classics" such as Hughes (1987) work on transportation.  This is also a matter of some controversy since the 13th Amendment reads as follows:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place to their jurisdiction.

    This Amendment is usually interpreted to mean that slavery and peonage (forced servitude for owing debts) are abolished, but nothing prohibits compulsory work (for a private master in a jail) if a breach of contract or offensive behavior is "duly convicted" as a crime.  Compulsory conscription into the armed services has been widely used by many states under this Amendment, but there are less than clear-cut cases of when the Amendment might apply, such as whether participating in an illegal union strike against an employer would qualify.  The real question is whether imprisonment is slavery or not, and few scholars have addressed that question (although plenty of jailhouse lawyers have).


    First off, there's some controversy over what constitutes a "true" correctional institution.  Most scholars agree that throwing people down underground mines, confining them to torture chambers, transporting them to far-away lands, and selling them off in slavery does NOT constitute any "true" form of corrections.  What is initially needed to make something a true prison is some special construction.  There has to be strong doors, locks, walls, bars, cells, etc.  Additionally, there should be a cadre of tenders, jailers, guards, or taskmasters to professionally exercise control 24/7.  Those are two things that are absolutely necessary, at a minimum, to make something a correctional institution, and the only places which met these criteria were the houses of correction, the workhouses, and certain jails.

    First created in 1555, the London Bridewell was the first "house of correction," and by 1576, England had built one in every country.  They housed all sorts of miscreants: pickpockets, burglars, drunks, wife beaters, and whores.  They existed side-by-side with the English almshouses (or poorhouses), and to better distinguish them, all the Bridewell-style prisons eventually became known as workhouses.  Workhouses existed for the "undeserving poor" as opposed to almshouses which existed for the "deserving poor."  Workhouses became the model of prison discipline, and set the stage for the expected behaviors of "masters" or correctional officers.   Almshouses became the model for social work institutions. Asylums for the insane crossed both sides, with some becoming prisons and others becoming social work institutions.  Certain counties also had jails (gaols) which were administered by sheriffs, but these institutions were used primarily as places of pretrial confinement where an offender languished until they figured out a way to get friends or family pay the sheriff.  In short, most jails were debtor's prisons.  Those that could not come up with a payment to the sheriff were called "jailbirds" (gaolbirds), and they were detained indefinitely under squalid conditions.  The English jails were the sites of much disease.  Prison reformer John Howard pressed for reform of the jail system, and succeeded in 1779 at getting England to construct a new penitentiary system based on what he saw from his travels through Europe, particularly the Maison de Force (stronghouse) at Ghent, Belgium and the Hospice of San Michele in Rome.  Both were big, multi-functional institutions that had separate sleeping quarters (cells) for each inmate and a system of classification that at least separated women and children from other criminals.

    The idea of separate cells as sleeping quarters appealed to the Quakers, especially to William Penn (1644-1718), founder of Pennsylvania and leader of the Quakers in colonial America.  The use of silent sleep and a large central hall for working expressed this religion's belief in a regimen of silence and expiation (for contemplation of past wrongs).  And, it is undeniable that yet another criteria which makes some place a correctional institution is a regimen.  The Quakers had a regimen.  Sure, they flogged anyone who broke the rules on silence, but at least they had a philosophy about how to reform prisoners, and the Walnut Street Jail they build in 1790 in Philadelphia is regarded as the first "true" correctional institution.  That's because it was the first prison in America to use individual cells and work details.  The regimen in place at the Walnut Street Jail became known as the Pennsylvania system (which brings us up to early modern history - the next lecture).  To be sure, America also had its share of other institutional types.  For example, an abandoned copper mine in Simsbury, Connecticut is sometimes claimed to be America's first true prison, and indeed it was the first state prison, and it was built in 1773, and it did have the first set of prison riots in American history, but it did not have a regimen nor any philosophy of reformation behind it.

    It wasn't until the 1860s (technically, the "modern era" of prison history) when Americans started giving serious thought to the advantages and disadvantages of different prison systems.  The Pennsylvania system was favored by the Jacksonian democrats because it kept prisoners separate from one another, and its competitor-model was the Auburn (New York) system, favored by Whig republicans, which allowed prisoners to congregate together, at least during the day.  Many Americans also took interest in the so-called "Irish system" of parole-based penology (used in Ireland and Australia during the 1850s), which was invented by Sir Walter Crofton who modeled it after Alexander Maconochie’s mark system.  The Irish system involved a period of solitary confinement, a period of congregate work with advancement to higher levels by credits, or “marks,” and, then, a period of minimal supervision, with the possibility of early release on a "ticket of leave."  


    One of the lessons here is that sometimes tough measures need to be taken against those who would break the rules of society.  Such offenders need to be separated, physically separated from the rest of society.  This separation rationale or containment doctrine (uncharitably called "warehousing" by critics and charitably called the protection of society and betterment of the offender by advocates) assumes that the conduct of certain crimes is so serious and the chance of repetition so great that the judge, acting for the good of society, must physically separate the offender from any motive or opportunity to harm the public again.  Separation or containment is sometimes referred to as incapacitation, although the correct term is incarceration. The difference is that incapacitation aims at making it permanently impossible to re-offend, while incarceration aims at making it impossible only for a short while, with a hope that re-offending will not occur upon release. If you banish somebody from their homeland forever, or if you castrate a rapist, that is incapacitation. If you send somebody away for awhile, and pay careful attention to where you send them, for how long, and whether or not they improved, that is incarceration. Given these examples, a sentence of life without parole would be incapacitation, as would the death penalty, and as would most eye-for-eye retribution. Incarceration is an inseparable combination of deterrence and rehabilitation. Incarceration without paying much attention to the "where," "how long" and "whether improved" is simply called punishment or penalty, and in the sociology of punishment, involves the study of "why" penal sanctions exist, or in philosophy, the study of the "why" or rationale behind punishment. Incarceration with attention to the "where," "how long" and "whether improved" is called penology (short for the 19th Century phrase "penitentiary science") or the science of corrections (a 20th Century social engineering term for the ability to be technically proficient at the processing of incarcerated offenders). The difference is that penology mainly looks at what needs to go on inside a prison to keep it functioning, and correctional science mainly looks at the effectiveness and efficiency of the whole correctional apparatus or the correctional subsystem component of criminal justice.

    All societies need a correctional system.  A correctional system assists with maintaining the integrity of the law and the ability of law to protect society. In a larger sense, the existence of a correctional apparatus helps society to enforce its behavioral norms, since the mere existence of a prison system reinforces the belief that there is a place where people can be put who exceed our tolerance for deviant behavior. In this sense, prisons serve to protect society, help define the limits of behavior, and help everyone know and understand what is permissible and what is not permissible. Almost all contemporary correctional systems claim the twin goals of public protection and fair punishment. Public protection (or public safety) is maintained by having a well-regulated set of procedures, facilities, and philosophies that are consistent with what court officials want and what society needs. Fair punishment is accomplished by applying some "corrective" yet still "punitive" action to convicted offenders that most often takes the form of humane security, custody, and control along a range of program opportunities all administered in a just and equitable manner within the least restrictive environment consistent with public safety.

    The United States imparted an unique religious twist to correctional institutions, and that twist consisted of the idea that prisons should not be so harsh and painful that the offender cannot have the opportunity to reflect over what they did and mend their ways. This idea is a combination of Enlightenment humanitarianism and 19th century Utilitarianism. It is, at once, both idealistic and practical. Some of the basic principles to enact such an idea include the rule against "fraternization," impersonality of dress, regimented meals and counts, marching in mass movement lines, and an expectation that each inmate will "do their own time." Architecture and routine are designed to convey the impression that restraint is the primary purpose and treatment a casual afterthought. These features make up the basic PENITENTIARY model.

    It wasn't long before Americans realized that adding more programs, farms, shops, classes, and recreation resulted in better control of prisoners and to some extent eased tensions within a penitentiary. Hence, the REFORMATORY movement was started, and newer prisons were built, some of which were called medium-security prisons with fences instead of walls, and minimum-security prisons without the need for armed guard towers. Special correctional facilities also sprouted up, for women, for youth, for reception and diagnosis, for prerelease purposes, for medical and psychiatric treatment, etc.

    Separation, obedience, and labor appear to be the "Holy Trinity" which guides the rationale for the whole of corrections (Kittrie, Zenoff & Eng 2002). Prisoners could be expected to be treated "differently" from other citizens (morally deranged or defective, perhaps), would obey all orders without question, and would work diligently at their assignments or reflection upon their misdeeds. Of these three, obedience without question appears to take precedence, and for this, correctional facilities adopted the quasi-military model of organization. Nothing else seems to produce unquestioning obedience better than a MILITARY MODEL. Above all, prisons are supposed to be places of order, a shining example that the outside world can look into and see what good things happen when the right principles of organization are put into place. Unfortunately, we often don't think of prisons that way today. Some reformers have thought so, and suggested a replacement FACTORY MODEL. However, most prison administrators are uncomfortable with suggestions for change at this basic a level.

    You will often hear debates over what is the "primary" goal of corrections -- to contain, to control, to punish, to restrain, to rehabilitate, to reintegrate, etc. Yet, one primary task remains essential -- prisons exist to retain CONTROL as a basic part of their organizational purpose, and control extends to any opportunities for treatment and betterment. The roots of this primacy run deep, as does public resentment, fear, and fashionableness which seem to drive a need to forget about prisons and deprecate those inside of them. To study corrections is nothing less than the study of factors that interconnect the psyche of mankind with the will to overcome inertia in society. Evading the study of prisons or failing to recognize their important place in society is something we cannot afford to do.


Allen, H., Latessa, E. & Ponder, B. (2010). Corrections in America, 12e. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Earle, A. (1995). Curious punishments of bygone days. Bedford: Applewood.
Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. NY: Vintage Books.
Garland, D. (1993). Punishment and modern society. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Held, R. (1985). Inquisition. Florence: Qua D'Amo Publishers.
Hughes, R. (1987). The fatal shore: A history of the transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787-1868. NY: Collins.
Kellaway, J. (2004). The history of torture and execution. Bucks, UK: Mercury Books.
Kittrie, N., Zenoff, E., & Eng, V. (2002). Sentencing, sanctions, and corrections. NY: Foundation Press.
Morris, N. & Rothman, D. (Eds.) (1997). The Oxford history of the prison. NY: Oxford Univ. Press.
Moskos, P. (2011). In defense of flogging. NY: Basic.
Newman, G. (1995). Just and painful. NY: Harrow and Heston.
Rothman, D. (1971). Discovery of the asylum. Boston: Little Brown.
Schmalleger, F. & Smykla, J. (2005). Corrections in the 21st Century. NY: McGraw Hill.
Smith, P. (2008). Punishment and culture. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Last updated: Nov. 11, 2012
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O'Connor, T.  (2012). "Early History of Corrections," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from