How Was Prison Invented and When?

Being sent to prison is a common form of punishment today, but what did we do with criminals before prisons were invented?

In the Nick. There were plenty of punishments around before prisons, ranging from the expensive (paying a fine) to the horribly gruesome (having something chopped off, an ear, hand or nose, for example).

The worst punishment was death, and still is in some parts of the world, and plenty of terrible ways to die were invented. Prisons in the ancient world were mostly used as places where accused criminals awaited trial, or convicted criminals awaited execution.

During the Middle Ages, people were sometimes locked up in castle dungeons. In Warwick Castle one group of soldiers was held in the dungeon for four years, but it wasn’t a common punishment for ordinary prisoners.

In Britain in the 1700s, more than 200 crimes were punishable by death, which is one way of doing without prisons but seems a bit unfair. From the mid-1700s, people began to be locked up in prison as a punishment.

Prisons were filthy and overcrowded, especially on the ‘prison hulks’, huge prison ships, but conditions did improve over the 19th century and more emphasis was put on the rehabilitation of prisoners.

Today there are 139 prisons in England and Wales holding nearly 80,000 prisoners. But people are still arguing about the effectiveness of this form of punishment.

‘Oubliettes’ were pit-like castle dungeons with no windows and only a trapdoor on 4,5 the ceiling. Prisoners could be thrown in and forgotten about, sometimes until they died (‘oubliette’ comes from the French word ‘oublier’ – to forget).

Even the highest security prisons are not 100% secure. Can you match escapologists to the prison they escaped from, when and what happened to them next?

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