- Ashley T. RubinAshley T. RubinDepartment of Sociology, University of Toronto
Prisons are government-sanctioned facilities designed for the long-term confinement of adults as punishment for serious offenses. This definition of prisons, frequently belied by actual practice but an accurate representation of the prison as an ideal type, emerged relatively late in human history. For most of Western history, incarceration played a minor role in punishment and was often reserved for elites or political offenders; however, it was rarely considered a punishment in its own right for most offenders. The notion of the prison as a place of punishment emerged gradually, according to most accounts, over the 17th through 19th centuries. Although there were several precursors to penal incarceration, the most influential was the 17th-century Dutch workhouse, the first formal uses of penal incarceration in a prison as a distinct institution began with the American proto-prison in late 18th century and evolved into the modern prison in the early to mid-19th century. These modern prisons proved influential around the world. In late-19th-century America, however, the modern prison experienced a series of re-imaginings or iterations beginning with a proliferation of different forms, including distinctive forms of Southern punishment (convict leasing, chain gangs, and plantation-style prisons), specialized prisons across the country (women’s prisons, adult reformatories, and maximum-security prisons), and efforts to reduce reliance on prisons (drawing on innovations from Australia and Ireland). This flurry of activity was followed by a period of serial re-creation in the 20th century in the form of the big-house prison, the correctional institution, and the warehouse prison, including its subtype: the supermaximum-security prison. In this recent period, American prisons have once again become models copied by other countries.