The Purpose of prisons

Prisons have long been the place of confinement for the punishment and rehabilitation of criminals. Indeed, incarcerating individuals has a long, sordid history.As long ago as Old Testament times, prisons in Jerusalem were used for detention to confine individuals until corporal or capital punishment could be administered.

Prisons and dungeons were used over centuries to hold prisoners who were then transported out of the country, killed, or left to die. Special prisons were built to house specific prisoners. Debtor’s prisons, for example, were places where debtors were held until they paid their debts. Penal colonies were formed to exile prisoners from the general population by locating them in a remote location, often an island or distant colonial territory where wardens or governors had absolute authority. Historically, the British and French colonial empires used North America, Australia, and other parts of the world as penal colonies. Regardless of the type of prison, the purpose was to isolate the prisoner from society and mete out punishment through a regimen of strict discipline, including but not limited to forced labor.

Britain holds the distinction of leading the way for prison reform. British prison reformer Howard John (1726-1790) had great influence in improving sanitary conditions and securing humane treatment in prisons not just in England but also throughout Europe. He was responsible for persuading the House of Commons in 1774 to enact a set of penal reforms and improvement in conditions. At the time, prisons were known by the term “penitentiary,” suggesting that the purpose was penance by the prisoner,  including rehabilitation through education and skilled labor. The modern age of prison reform continued in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Incarceration of individuals as a form of punishment, not simply as a holding state until trial or death, was a true break with the past. In North America, two notable women-Elizabeth Fry and Dorothea Dix-advocated for humane treatment of the prisoners and spearheaded prison reforms, including the individualization of treatment, psychiatric assistance, professionalization of correctional officers, the introduction of work release programs, and constructive labor and vocational training.

Whereas in the past labor was introduced in prisons chiefiy as punishment and to keep discipline among the inmates, such work is now considered a necessary part of the rehabilitation of the criminal.

The chief types of prisons in the United States (with similar institutions in other countries) are the local jail, for pretrial detention and short sentences, and the state and federal penitentiaries for convicts with longer sentences. Special penal institutions house juveniles, the criminally insane, and the military. Modern prison systems include different types of security levels (maximum, medium, minimum). Yet, even in the 21st century, prisons are used as a tool of political repression to detain individuals considered “enemies of the state.”

Prison population statistics
So many factors have contributed to the burgeoning prison population around the world. As of 2006, it is estimated that at least 9.25 million individuals are imprisoned worldwide. This number is widely believed to be an underestimate as underreporting and lack of accurate data from various countries is acknowledged. In absolute terms, the United States has the largest inmate population in the world with more than 2.5 million prisoners being held in federal or state prisons or local jails.[1]

If recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated 1 out of every 20 persons (5.1%) will serve time in a prison during their lifetime.
-U.S. Dept of Justice

Stated another way, over one-quarter of those incarcerated around the world are housed in the American prison system. Thus, the United States has the dubious distinction of housing the world’s largest prison population and many reasons for this are unique to the United States. From 1980 to 2000, the prison population in the United States increased exponentially. Zero tolerance policies, “three strikes” legislation, and longer sentences each contribute to the situation.

Russia and China also have a significant number of individuals imprisoned, and the United Kingdom had 80,000 inmates in its facilities as of 2007, which is one of the highest rates among the western members of the European Union (EU). Poland, however, has the highest imprisonment rate among EU countries (234 prisoners per 100,000 population). [2, 3]

Men (9.0%) are over 8 times more likely than women (1.1%) to be incarcerated in prison at least once during their life.

-U.S. Dept of Justice

All things being equal, high rates of incarceration in a given nation should correlate with a high crime rate. It is difficult, however, to explain trends in national crime rates and in the type or severity of legal punishment because of differences in definitions of various offenses and reporting methodologies. The higher incidence of violent crimes and use of firearms as contributing factors to the high murder rate in the United States, for example, explain, in part, the differential in the U.S. rate of incarceration compared with other countries. Almost half of the inmates in American prisons and jails are incarcerated for a violent offense, a proportion much higher than that seen in other developed countries. Also, the dramatic increase in the number of individuals incarcerated for a drug offense in the United States is not seen in other countries. Moreover, American sentencing practices seem to be harsher for many offenses, not just for violent crimes. Stated bluntly, the U.S. incarcerates more individuals and for longer periods of time than other countries.

Prison population statistics - UK - 25 May 2011
This note provides a detailed summary of the prison population in England and Wales with a more limited analysis of the situation in Scotland.

Prison population statistics - US - 2006
Incarceration in the United States - 2008-2010


Madelon L. Finkel, PhD
Madelon L. Finkel, PhD, is professor of clinical public health and director of the Office of Global Health Education at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, NY. Dr Finkel is an epidemiologist whose work focuses on women’s health issues. Her interests also include global public health issues with ongoing research projects in rural India and Peru. Dr. Finkel has published extensively, including Praeger’s Understanding the Mammography Controversy: Science, Politics, and Breast Cancer Screening and Truth, Lies, and Public Health: How We Are Affected When Science and Politics Collide.



  1. Walmsley R. World prison population list. 7th ed.
  2. Wikipedia. Prisoner population rate 2007-2008.
  3. Mauer M. Comparative international rates of incarceration: an examination of causes and trends: Presented to the US Commission on Civil Rights; June 20, 2003; Washington, DC.
  4. US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs. Correction statistics.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI uniform crime report.
  7. Maruschak LM for US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs. Medical problems of prisoners.
  8. Griefinger RB, Heywood NJ, Glaser JB. Tuberculosis in prison: balancing justice and public health. J Law Med Ethics. 1993;21:332-341.
  9. World Health Organization. Tuberculosis in prisons.
  10. Shalit M, Lewin MR. Medical care of prisoners in the USA. Lancet. 2004;364:34-35.

Full References  »

Provided by ArmMed Media