Culture,  Theology

A Brief History of Prisons and Their Failure

Alcatraz, one of the most well known prisons

On a recent episode of The Briefing, Al Mohler discussed New York’s plan to spend $9 billion on building new prisons. Mohler included a brief discussion of the history of prisons which inspired me to do a little more research on the issue.

Throughout most of human history, prisons were meant to be a temporary arrangement.

Prisons in the ancient world were a place where a suspect was to be held while waiting for his case to be heard. For example, Leviticus 24:10-12 mentions the imprisonment of an individual until the verdict had been reached, and the judgment was then administered (cf. Num 15:32-36). Similarly, in ancient Mesopotamian practice, a suspect was often held in the temple until his trial.

This pattern is continued in the New Testament era where prisoners were either held until their case was clarified (Acts 5:17-25; 16:23-24), or debtors were kept while they or their family paid off the debt (Matt 18:28-30; Luke 12:58-59).

The modern manifestation of prisons arrived in the 19th century.

The rise of modern prisons is largely attributed to Jeremy Bentham (1741–1832). Bentham was responsible for pushing the idea of a prison as a panopticon (i.e., a prison where guards would have constant surveillance on the inmates). According to Mohler, this alternative form of punishment was pushed during this time in history as the more humane alternative. 

It was during this time state owned prisons began to operate. One of the first of these (in the United States) was the Eastern State Penitentiary. Located in Philadelphia, the prison regulations required separate confinement as a form of rehabilitation. As part of the process, the warden was required to visit each inmate every day.

The failed purpose of modern prisons was to rehabilitate.

As noted by the example above, many prisons were called penitentiaries. The word penitentiary comes from the Latin paenitentia, which means repentance. As the name indicates, the purpose of these modern prisons (aka penitentiaries), was to facilitate repentance and character reform. This is also why some prisons are called correctional facilities.

For the Christian, it will come as no surprise that modern prisons have largely failed at rehabilitation. For Jeremy Bentham, the ultimate explanation for human actions was either pain or pleasure. Thus, the theory emerged that it was possible to facilitate rehabilitation in the right environment. In contrast, the Christian understands that natural man is bent on sinning and the promise of pain or pleasure cannot change the heart which is set in sin (cf. Jer 17:9; Rom 3:10-12; Gal 5:17).

It is only through the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that true character reformation can happen. Mankind is not inherently good, and mankind is powerless on their own to resist the temptations and enticements that sin has to offer. It is only through submission to Christ, and the regeneration that takes place in salvation that one can say, “I was something, but now I am washed” (cf. 1 Cor 6:9-11).

It is interesting is it not, that something like the history of prisons can be a window into one’s theology. Whereas many secularists would champion the idea of prisons for character reform, a Christian needs to think outside of the cultural box and look at this from a biblical perspective.

Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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