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The Emergence of the Prison

Updated on June 11, 2015


Blood and gore characterised punishment in the pre-modern era, with many forms of torture and physical punishment used for a variety of crimes. However, this was replaced by an institutionalised, private form of punishment; the prison. Looking at the political, economic and social changes in western society, we can understand the reasons why the prison emerged at such a volatile time in society.


The idea that the supernatural impedes on our world to communicate innocence and guilt died out centuries ago, yet the relics of this medieval ritual existed in the physical punishment that continued long into the 19th century. Punishment was used to restore balance through retributive justice and a means of deterrence as a public spectacle. The early 1700s involved excruciatingly painful physical punishments that were meted out for anything varying from theft of food to murder. The transition away from punishment as the infliction of pain to punishment as a deprivation of liberty was first seen in Bentham’s panopticon in the late 1800s (TBT, 1990). This emergence of the prison was as a result of a series of political, economic and social changes in the western world.

Moving from absolutism to a representative state, enlightenment theory and ideas about free will played a large role in the decrease of physical punishment. By the late 1700s, there was a decrease in the spectacular aspects of capital punishment. This resulted in less spectacularly grotesque displays of power. The Monarchy was opposed and therefore the spectacle of power and punishment that went with it slowly died out, as the belief that people are citizens and have rights came about (Pfohl, 1994). Crime became an act against the public, and the state, rather than a threat to the King and his god given authority.

Technological developments lead to economic changes such as industrialisation, which also contributed to the forming of the prison as populations rose, crime soared, and it became increasingly difficult to house the many criminals (Spierenburg, 1995). While Prisons were earlier used as a place to keep prisoners awaiting execution, the early forms of prisons can also be seen in British penal colonies both as a form of banishment as well as a means to get rid of criminals, vagabonds and beggars.

With this whirlwind of political and economic change taking place, philosophers such as Bentham, Hobbes, Rousseau and Beccaria formed their own theories regarding the role of punishment in society. Beccaria’s deterrence theory is based on the “deprivation of liberty”, which should be sufficient enough to deter people from crime. He opposed spectacles of punishment and torture as he believed that people are rational actors seeking to gain pleasure. In order to deter them from seeking unlawful pleasure, they must be deterred by the equivalent amount of pain so they will not repeat their crimes (Beccaria, 1918). This marked the beginning of the rational choice actors theory which is supported by Hobbes, Rousseau, and Beccaria. They believed that people no longer acted deviant due to supernatural powers, but as a result of their own rational choice, to seek pleasure and avoid pain (1918).


The first prisons in the early 1800s were thus based on the idea of deterrence due to the social contract that was believed to exist between citizens and their representatives. By giving up a small amount of freedom, the social contract guaranteed them greater social gains. Bentham, designed the Panopticon, a prison designed to encourage self-surveillance of prisoners to deter deviance, used the doctrine of utilitarianism to explain that pain and pleasure are the two primary motivators of human nature (Beccaria, 1918). He said that “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. . . . They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think” (1780)

The need for punishment to be retributive and deter occurred as people started to believe that criminals were able to be saved and ‘reformed’. The larger public were increasingly repulsed by public hangings and executions, and so the law changed to reflect this shift in idealized norms and values, not due to a belief among law makers that incapacitation was a better form of punishment, but because public demand for a spectacle of punishment had fallen (Soc 337 Lecture, 2012). Although there are many other alternatives to punishment other than a prison, in our modern society, the prison remains the main primary means of punishment in the modern era.

The concept of a prison addresses three main objectives of punishment in society; rehabilitation, deterrence and retribution. The objective of rehabilitation can be seen in the Penitentiaries in Western Europe and America where prisoners were required to reflect on their crime and do penance, in order to be reformed and be integrated back into society (Rothman, 1995). The Panopticon is explained by Foucault as encouraging a type of self-surveillance until deviant behaviour is eliminated as socially cohesive behaviour becomes internalised and the criminal is rehabilitated (Foucault, 1979). Beccaria supported punishment by deprivation of liberty as he believed that punishment as a deterrent should be rational, that is the least amount necessary in the circumstances and proportionate to the crime. Retribution is perhaps the least addressed objective of punishment, as modern society seeks to remove the private nature of punishment and punishing and treat crime as a public matter.

Beginning with Bentham’s Panopticon and moving on to the famous Auburn model in New York in early 1800s which was to rehabilitate prisoners through its highly regimented architecture and rules, to our modern day prisons today, the prison continues to remain unchallenged as the primary method of punishment. Why this is, remains uncertain. One may suggest that recidivism rates have fallen with increased rehabilitation, or like Beccaria, that the prison is the most efficient way of achieving the greatest good for the greatest number. But the prison continues to be a permanent feature in our society, reflecting our own values and beliefs of deviance and normativity.




Beccaria, C. 1819 [2004] “Of Crimes and Punishments.” In Classics of Criminology, ed. J. E. Jacoby. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, pp. 352- 260.

Foucault, M. 1979 [2004]. Excerpts from Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, in Classics of Criminology, ed J.E Jacoby. Long Grove, IL:Waveland Press, pp 491-505.

The Burning Times. Dir Donna Reed. Per Starhawk, Matthew Fox, Margot Adler. National Film Board of Canada, 1990. Film

Pfohl, S. 1994. Images of Deviance and social control. New York: McGraw Hill, pp 61 – 99.

Rothman D. J. 1995. “Perfecting the Prison”. The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, ed Norval Morris and David J. Rothman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp 110 – 129.

Spierenberg,P 1995. “The Body and the State.” The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practise of Punishment in Western Society, ed. Norval Morris and David J. Rothman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp48 – 77.

Wood, W. “Pain and Pleasure” SOCIO 337 The University of Auckland. March 14. 2012. Lecture.


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    • Anushka Britto profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Auckland

      Thanks so much Crime Traveller! I'm glad you enjoyed reading it :)

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Interesting Hub on the history of prisons and punishment and the various different theories which have evolved as time has gone on. I think it is important that we understand where our modern day practices have come from and how things have changed. Good Hub, I enjoyed reading it!


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