Prisons are among the most fascinating systems in the world. The have slowly evolved from their early beginnings to the profit machines for large corporations they are today.

Prisons currently are a place for criminals to serve time as punishment for the crimes that they have committed. Their purpose is both to protect the public and to punish individuals for their actions, with the hope that their behavior will improve once they leave prison. There are, of course, many flaws in the prison system, but on the whole it is conceptually sound.

But how did we get here? How did the idea for a prison like system start? Here’s a short history of how the concept of prisons came about, and how they initially evolved.

Where Did The Concept Of Prison Came From?

First appearance in Ancient Times

Prisons — in one form or another — have existed in society for as long as a form of state order has. In ancient Greece, prison like systems popped up at the same time as written language did, which allowed laws or rules to develop more holistically and clearly. At first, offenders of these laws and rules were subject to retaliation. A far cry from what our current prison system is like, criminals were held in places where the victims of their initial crimes could retaliate against them.

This early form of imprisonment quickly evolved. Led by Greek philosophers, such as Plato (who wrote about imprisonment of sorts), prisons developed into areas where criminals were held as punishment for their crimes, rather than as retribution. Initially, the punishment for criminals was simply to pay a fine. But when people were unable to pay this fine, society came up with an alternative for them: a prison system.

The actual structures used for prisons in these times were nothing special. The Greeks did not create buildings specifically to be used as prisons, but rather held criminals in cages, basements, or any other pre-existing secure area.

Where Did The Concept Of Prison Came From?

Medieval Monastic Prisons 

The next large step in the evolution of the prison system came with medieval monastic prisons. Monastic prisons became popular around the 13th century. It is here where the modern form of prisons first began to take shape. Religious groups built special rooms in their monasteries that have very much the same foundation as modern prisons do. These monastic prisons were primarily used to imprison monks, but sometimes non-monastic members of society as well. The purpose was to imprison people as a form of punishment, so that they may realize their sinful way of life.

Many times young, troubled monks were imprisoned with older, wiser monks, so that the older monks could read to them until the time came for the younger monk to be released. These early monastic prisons stressed the difference between poor actions and poor understandings. They believed that monks with good disposition should be taught with words, while monks with severe disobedience should be taught with punishment.

Prisons have come a long way since their origin in ancient Greek times. This is just a glimpse into the fascinating history and evolution of a very interesting system.


Dustin Winters writes on criminal justice, bail bonds, legal history, the U.S. Constitution, prison facilities, rehabilitation and other related topics. Those who have legal needs are encouraged by Dustin to view the services offered by EZ Bail Bonds in Pearland, Texas.

Image credit goes to Correlation Of Mistress Ching.

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