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In ancient times

Many jurisconsults and Scriptural interpreters include imprisonment among the number of penalties recognized in Hebrew legislation, but the fact may well be questioned. However, on the coming of the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar, there were at least three prisons at Jerusalem, and, about the same time, the names of the places of detention were expressive of the regime to which the culprits were subjected, such as Beth ha-keli (house of detention), Beth haasourim (house of those in chains), Beth ha-mah-pecheth (from the name of an instrument for chaining the hands and feet), and Bor (cistern, underground receptacle) [cf. Thonissen, "Etudes sur l'histoire du droit criminel des peuples anciens" (Brussels, 1869)].

At Athens imprisonment was imposed as a penalty, though this is doubted by many. It seems there was only one prison placed under the authority of the Eleven. The prisoners were not isolated and could be visited by their friends and the members of their family. Some were deprived of freedom of movement by having their feet attached to wooden blocks (Thonissen, "Le droit pénal de la république athénienne", 1875). At Rome there still remains at the foot of the Capitol the ancient Mamertine prison. It comprised an upper portion and a dungeon, the Tullianum. The prisoners were enclosed in the former which was lighted only by narrow loopholes, and, if they were condemned to death, they were thrown into the dungeon through an opening in its roof, to be strangled like Cataline's accomplices or starve to death like Jugurtha. Their naked corpses were then thrown out on the steps on the Gemonies. Imprisonment, which the laws did not usually pronounce, was of two kinds, simple detention or detention in chains. It was for life or for a time, according to the gravity of the offence. The supervision of the public prisons at Rome was entrusted to the triumviri capitales. Under the empire perpetual imprisonment was abolished theoretically, imprisonment being considered not so much a penalty as a means of supervising culprits. The care of the jails, up to the middle of the third century, was included among the duties of the triumviri capitales. In the provinces a more regular administration entirely under military control was then being instituted. At first the accused do not seem to have been separated from the convicted, nor were the sexes kept apart; though there are instances of solitary imprisonment (Humbert in Daremburg and Saglio, "Dict. des antiquités grecques et romaines", s.v. Career).

Influence of Christianity

It was natural that when Christians were being hunted down and cast into jail for their faith, the Church should recommend the faithful to visit the prisoners. The deacons and deaconesses were especially charged with the care of the incarcerated Christians, bringing them the comfort of religion, food, clothing, and especially money, which was needed to procure certain mitigations, even liberty. The deaconesses more particularly were appointed to this office, for in visiting the Christians they ran less risk of awakening the suspicion of the pagans. At an early period the bishops began to purchase the liberty of the prisoners. For this they made collections, and if the receipts were not sufficient, they sold the church property. Not only their own flock but the Christians in distant lands were objects of their charitable zeal. Debtors, towards whom Rome was so heartless, were not forgotten. Justinian granted private debtors the right of asylum in the house of God, but only if the creditors abused their rights; this favour was not, however, extended to public or state debtors. The Church, the help of sinners, could not but extend her assistance and protection to criminals; for crime is primarily a sin. In the earliest times, as soon as more peaceful days had dawned, she endeavoured to free them from prison, to punish and correct them in another way. For this she employed three means.

In the course of time, through the influence of the Church, the lot of prisoners was greatly improved. The Council of Nicaea (325) ordered the procuratores pauperum to visit the jails and offer their services. The Synod of Orléans (549) obliged the archdeacon to see all the prisoners on Sundays. The active intervention of the Church began in the days of Constantine the Great and continued for a long period. The bishops and priests were invited and authorized to supervise the conduct of the judges, to visit prisoners on a certain weekday, Wednesdays or Fridays, and find out the reason of their imprisonment, to speak with them about their position and wants, to inform the proper authorities of any defects they noticed and to have changes made. During the Middle Ages this right and duty was enforced only here and there. St. Charles Borromeo was a great reformer and reorganized the whole prison system in his diocese, even to the smallest details, on an essentially humanitarian and Christian basis. The clergyman deputed by the bishop to look after the prisoners had to inquire constantly "quae illorum cura adhibeatur, cum in primis ad animae salutem, tum etiam ad corporis sustentationem", i.e. what care was taken of them, first in regard to their spiritual needs and then as to their physical welfare.

Influence of the papacy

The influence of the Papacy also was very great, and the prison system at Rome became a model. Popes Eugenius IV (1435), Paul V (1611), and Innocent X (1655) passed regulations improving the conditions of prisoners, until finally Clement XI (1703), by constructing St. Michael's prison, introduced the most essential change needed to ameliorate the penal system: the construction of a house of correction for youthful offenders, as is recorded in the inscription on the façade "Perditis adolescentibus corrigendis instituendisque ut qui inertes oberant instructi reipulicae serviant" (for the correction and education of abandoned youths; that they who, without training, were detrimental to the State, may, with training, be of service to it). The methods employed to reclaim culprits were separation, silence, work, and prayer. Each prisoner had his cell at night, but all worked in common during the day. A religious confraternity supervised them and undertook their education. Each one was taught a trade, and was encouraged by a system of rewards. The punishments consisted in bread and water diet, work in their cells, black holes, and flogging. In the large workshop of the jail was inscribed the motto: "Parum est coercere improbos poena nisi probos efficias disciplina" (It avails little to punish the wicked unless you reform them by discipline). In 1735 Clement XII erected a prison for women on the model of St. Michael's. If Clement is considered the creator of the modern penitentiary system, it must be pointed out that at Amsterdam the principle of separation at night and work in common during the day had been introduced in 1603 (Von Hippel, "Beiträge zur Geschichte der Freiheitstrafe" in "Zeitschr. fur die Gesch. Straf.", 1897, p. 437, and Roux, "Revue pénitentiaire", 1898, p. 124 sqq.), and that the work of the Dutch inspired many imitators in Germany and Italy, where learned jurisconsults proclaimed that the reformation of the culprit was the object of punishment (Rivière, "Revue penitentiaire", 1895, p. 1152). A priest, Filippo Franci, after experimenting at Venice and Naples on the effect of separating prisoners according to sex, age, and social rank, succeeded in making his house of refuge at Florence (casa pia di refulgio), by the application of individual separation, a model establishment for the correctional education of children.

Influence of the religious orders

In the Middle Ages the Church founded religious orders which bound themselves by vow to the redemption of captives; the Trinitarians, or Mathurins, established in 1198 by St. John of Matha and Felix de Valois, and the Nolascans, founded in 1223. In Spain, France, and especially Italy, there were, moreover, associations or confraternities labouring to improve the condition of prisoners: the Confraternità della Misericordia and the Compagnia di Santa Maria della croce al Tempio detta de Neri at Florence, the Pia Casa di Misericordia at Pisa, the Casa della pietà at Venice, etc. Besides the prisons depending on the State, there were prisons under the control of the religious authorities. Each convent had one or at times two prisons in which religious were incarcerated. The term of imprisonment was temporal or perpetual. The culprit had to do penance and amend his ways. He was isolated and often chained. Generally the discipline was severe; not unfrequently corporal punishment was added to incarceration and the prisoner put on bread and water. The Church had the right to punish clerics for penal offences and had its own episcopal prisons, but from the middle of the sixteenth century, as a result of the changed relations of Church and State, the privilegium fori disappeared and the State resumed its right of punishing clerics in non-religious matters. In the episcopal prisons clerics were treated more gently than were the monks in convent prisons, nevertheless in certain cases the discipline was very rigorous. The Church had jurisdiction also over the laity in offences of a religious character. Finally, it created a new procedure, differing from the ordinary, viz. The inquisitorial procedure in cases of heresy. Imprisonment was the severest punishment the inquisitors could inflict directly. According to the inquisitional theory, it was not really a punishment, but a means for the culprit to obtain pardon for his crimes, and to amend and be converted, while close supervision prevented him from infecting the rest of the flock. The prisoners were subjected to two regimes: the severe and the milder; but, in either case, the captive was given only bread and water; he was confined to a cell, and forbidden all communication, though the latter provision was not strictly enforced. Those under the milder discipline could, if they behaved well, take a little exercise in the corridors, a privilege granted also to the aged and infirm. Those condemned to the severe regime were cast fettered into a narrow dark cell; sometimes they were chained to the walls. The prisons were constructed without any regard to the health or convenience of the inmates, and the condition of the latter was wretched. The Inquisition sometimes commuted or remitted the punishment. The remission was ad tempus, for a longer or shorter period, according to the case.

Modern prison reforms

In spite of these efforts to better the prison system in earlier days there was much room for improvement in the buildings, diet, and discipline. Usually the main object of the authorities was to punish rather than to reform the culprit. Not unfrequently the greatest criminals and persons convicted of trifling offences were imprisoned together. Fortunately, after the construction of St. Michael's prison by Clement XI, the development of cellular imprisonment went on uninterruptedly. From Central Italy the movement spread towards Northern Italy, to Turin (erection of the House of Good Counsel, 1757), Venice (1760), Milan, where Empress Maria Theresa established in 1759 a house of correction containing 140 cells, 25 of which were for women and 20 for children. From Milan the system, as might be expected, was introduced almost immediately into the Austrian Low Countries where Maria Theresa's efforts were earnestly seconded by Viscount Jean Vilain XIV, Burgomaster of Ghent (Vicomte Vilain XIV, "Mémoires sur les moyens de corriger les malfaiteurs", Brussels, 1841). At his suggestion the celebrated prison of Ghent, finished in 1775, was erected (Holtzendorf, "Handbuch", I, pl. 3, gives the plan of this prison). The system adopted there was isolation by night and work in common by day. Moreover a division of the culprits according to juridical and moral classification was seriously undertaken.

A general change in prison discipline was effected through the efforts of John Howard the philanthropist, b. in 1726 at Hackney, London (Rivière, "Howard, sa vie, son oeuvre" in "Revue pénitentiaire", 1891, pp. 662 sqq.; Howard-Wines, "Punishment and Reformation", 122 sqq.; Krohne, "Lehrbuch"; Cuche, "Traité de science et de législation pénitentiares", 304). Having visited the prisons of England, Germany, France, Italy, Portugal, Turkey, and North America, he published in 1744 a remarkable work, "State of the prisons in England and Wales with preliminary observations and an account of some foreign prisons". Howard described the wretched conditions of the prisons: imprisonment in common without regard to age or sex, want of space, bad food, damp and vitiated air, want of light, filth, immorality, the use of spirituous liquors, gambling with cards and dice. After noting the evils, he proposes the remedies. It is on a religious training of the prisoners that he relies most for a reform; the second great means is work; he holds that society is bound by the ties of brotherhood and even by the hope of reclaiming the culprit, to provide him with proper food and subject him to a hygienic regime; he favoured the separation of prisoners, though he did not approve of the system of shutting them alone in cells both by day and night, except for certain classes of culprits; all others he would separate only during the night. Howard was the interpreter of the opinion of the civilized world. It is interesting to note the results of this change of opinion in the different countries, or, at least, to point out the original systems.

United States of America

(1) The Pennsylvania system is the work of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, founded in 1776. The fundamental idea of this regime is rigorous and continued isolation to excite to repentance and lead the culprit to a better life. At first the system was carried to such an extreme that the cells were without light in order that the darkness might act more powerfully on the prisoner's mind and conscience. Some writers say that the culprits had no work to do, but that is uncertain. The Pennsylvania system, in its rigorous form as it was originally established, prevented, it is true, the mutual corruption of the prisoners and the planning of crimes to be committed on their release, which are the negative effects of individual separation; but it was not suited to produce positive results, that is, an awakening of the moral sense in man left to his own meditations; the cell can have an influence for moral good only when it enables the reflections of solitude to be guided and strengthened by outside influences (Cuche, op. cit., 312 sqq.).

(2) The system of Auburn or silence (Chestel, "Avantages du Système d'Auburn", 1900), introduced in the State of New York, consists in isolating the prisoners only at night, in making them work together in strict silence during the day, and in separating them according to age and morality. This is, in general, the same as the regime of the prisons of Amsterdam, St. Michael, and Ghent. The principal objection urged against it is the difficulty of enforcing silence, and of preventing the inmates from communicating with one another. Moreover, such unnatural life makes the culprits irascible.

(3) In the so-called system of classification, the prisoners are divided not only according to sex, age, degree of guilt, aptitude for work, but also according to their moral character and the possibility of amendment; in each division work is in common. Such a system depending entirely on the judgment of the governor of the jail seems difficult to carry out in practice.

(4) In the mitigated Pennsylvania system, the inmates are isolated in cells day and night; they are separated also in church, in school, and on the grounds, but they work at a lucrative trade, read books, are visited by members of the prison staff, are allowed to received their relations from time to time, and may write to them.

(5) The state reformatories are intended to provide rigorous training for prisoners between the ages of sixteen and thirty who give hope of being corrected; the indeterminate sentence is the basis and the paroling of prisoners the completion of this system. The model established is the Reformatory at Elmira (Aschrott, "Aus dem Strafen u. Gefängnisswesen Nordamerikas", 1889; Winter, "Die New-Yorker staatliche Besserungsanstalten zu Elmira", 1890; Yoon, "Rapport sur l'organisation pénitentiare aux Etats-Unis" in "Revue pénitentiare", 1895; Barrows, "The Reformatory System in the United States";, Washington, Govt. Printing Office, 1900; Sanborn, "Rapport sur le Reformatory d'Elmira"; Cuche, op. cit., 358 sqq.). The committee of directors release, before the end of their term, those who deserve this favour. The convicts are isolated at night; and in the daytime receive a professional, physical, and intellectual training. Every opportunity is taken to provide for the moral and religious improvement of the culprits. It is not the object of the system to train the prisoners only at specified hours but rather to do so continually, by bringing them into constant contact with an intelligent and devoted staff of instructors, and thus gradually inspire better resolutions. A last characteristic of the system is the multiplication of classifications and gradations. The reward consists in being promoted from trade to grade, which results in an increase of comfort and a greater remuneration for manual work; the punishment in a corresponding descent. When he has been promoted to the first class or category, the convict, if his conduct during the preceding six months has been satisfactory, may be let out on parole. Generally a situation is found for him, and his employer sends in regularly an account of his conduct to the administration of the reformatory; certain officers are, moreover, appointed to watch over the paroled convicts and are authorized to arrest them and bring them back to the reformatory if their conduct is not satisfactory. This last stage of freedom on parole lasts six months, after which the prisoners are discharged from prison for good. (For treatment of juvenile offenders see JUVENILE COURTS.)

Great Britain

Captain Maconochie introduced about 1840 a special system called the progressive into the convict settlement of Norfolk Island. This system consisted in proportioning the duration of the punishment to the work done and the good conduct of the convict. The duration was represented by a certain figure or number of good marks settled according to the gravity of the crime. The culprit had to merit these good marks before being liberated; each day he was awarded one or more, according to his work; if his conduct was unsatisfactory a slight penalty was imposed. Maconochie thus gave the convict the control of his own lot. The results were marvellous. When transportation was abolished, England remained faithful to the idea of making imprisonment in a cell only a small part of the penalty, and of gradually preparing the convict to return to society when he had gained his complete freedom. This system comprises the following stages:

  1. The prisoner is at first confined to the cells for nine months.
  2. He is then sent to one of the central public works prisons, Chatham, Dover, or Plymouth, where the Auburn regime is in force — separation at night, work in common during the day. The culprits are divided into four classes, according to their work and conduct, by means of a system of marks, enabling them to reach a higher grade. Violation of discipline relegates them to a lower grade and even to the cells.
  3. The third period is one of conditional liberty, the prisoner being liberated on a ticket-of-leave. In Ireland Walter Crofton devised an intermediate stage between the public jail and conditional liberty. To test the moral character of the convict and to see if he was fit for liberty, he was compelled to reside six months in the prison at Lusk, a prison without walls, bars, or bolts, where the culprits were employed as free workmen in agriculture or a trade. This intermediate state was abolished when Crofton's connection with the Irish prisons ceased.

The progressive system has been adopted in Hungary; during the intermediate stage the prisoners are employed on farms. What characterizes the regime of penal servitude, in addition to its progressive organization, is the nature of the work imposed on the prisoners. In the second stage the prisoners are engaged only in public works. The jail at Wormwood-Scrubs was built entirely by convicts, as were the breakwater at Portsmouth and part of the docks at Chatham, etc. Prins (Science penale et droit positif, p. 445 sq. believes that the progressive regime, while not perfect, offers perhaps more scope than the purely cellular system, as it approaches more closely the normal conditions of life. The successive stages bring the convict nearer to liberty, and enable him to appreciate the advantages, the dangers, the meaning, and significance of freedom. The shops, where groups of prisoners work under the control of the authorities, accustom them to the conditions of free work. Riviere and Cuche, viewing the question from another standpoint, hold that if the common prison is only a preparatory school for recidivists, it still retains that character when it is imposed on a criminal who has just completed his stay in the cells. Persons who have caught a cold are not placed in a draught to fortify them against the draughts they must be exposed to later. At all events, what may have succeeded in one country or in the case of a particular race might produce evil results if applied elsewhere (Cuche, op. cit., 325).


When a discussion arises among prison experts as to the merits and demerits of the cell, the typical example is always the Belgian cell says Cuche (cf. "Notice sur l'organisation des prisons en Belgique", Brussels, 1910). It is necessary, therefore, to study it in detail. The cellular regime is due to Ducpetiaux, Inspector-General of Prisons, who, in 1830, determined to put an end to the abuses of the penitentiary system in vogue in Belgium, and to place the criminal in a cell, compensating for the severity of the punishment by curtailing its duration. Although he soon had the satisfaction of seeing his plan succeed so far as to have cellular jail erected, it was only on 4 March, 1870, that cellular imprisonment was adopted by law. All penalties of deprivation of liberty are undergone under the regime of cellular isolation by day and night. The rule, however, admits of exceptions. The physical or mental condition of some prisoners will not allow the application or continuance of cellular discipline. Again the crowding of the cellular jails sometimes makes it necessary to allow the prisoners to be put together. Finally, those who are condemned to hard labour or perpetual imprisonment are isolated only during the first ten years in prison. At the expiration of that time, those condemned to a life sentence are allowed to choose either to continue their form of imprisonment or to be placed under ordinary discipline. From 1870 to 1909, 170 (76 per cent) selected to continue their cellular life, and 55 (24 per cent) choose the ordinary discipline.

The cellular system as it exists in Belgium is considered at present the most practical, though criminologists and practical experts are far from agreeing on the advantages and inconveniences of the cell, except in the cases of short terms, when there is unanimity. "The real value of a penitential institution is in no way absolute", says Cuche (op. cit., p. 331); "we have merely to see if its advantages are considerably greater than its inconveniences; it must be remembered, too, that its merit is greatly increased when intelligent and devoted men are in charge of the establishment. If it be laid down as a principle that the prisoners shall be subjected to the cellular regime only as long as is judged proper by the physician who shall examine them on their admission and visit them regularly afterwards during the course of their punishment; if there be an official staff and a sufficient number of visitors to preserve the social element in each prisoner; finally if, in confining prisoners to their cells, due discrimination as to sex, age, and race is made, the evil results of prolonged isolation will in large measure disappear". M. Henri Joly ("Problèmes de science criminellel", Paris, 1910, pp. 195, 211), who visited the central prison of Louvain on three occasions, was very favourably impressed by the system; he recognized that an excellent programme is being carried out: the prisoner is separated as much as possible from his fellows, and brought into contact as far as possible with society properly so-called, with which he maintains the best relations; his only regrets are that there are so many prisoners and that conditional liberations are granted so rarely.

Proportional and progressive reductions of the term of incarceration are granted. The rule in force reduces a sentence of 6 months to 4 months and 23 days; a year to 9 months and 12 days; 3 years to 2 years, 1 month, and 8 days; 5 years to 3 years, 5 months, and 10 days; 10 years to 6 years, 3 months, and 9 days; 20 years to 9 years, 9 months, and 12 days. The legislature not having provided cases in which the original sentence is between 20 and 25 years, a conditional liberation is granted to the prisoner when he would have been definitely liberated if he had been granted a reduction of 10-12 of the years over 20. Experience shows that a mathematical reduction, uniform in every case, ignoring the principle of the individualization of the penalty, does not meet the necessity of repression. The only result of the system is to weaken the effect of prison restraint and to liberate much too rapidly criminals unworthy of the favour (Prins, op. cit., 523 sqq.).

The prisons are divided into two classes: central prisons, two in number, Louvain and Ghent; secondary prisons, numbering twenty- seven. The central prison of Louvain, and all the secondary prisons, except two which are to be changed, are arranged with a view to complete separation night and day. The central prison of Ghent, erected towards the close of the eighteenth century, has eight divisions, only one of which has been arranged for cellular imprisonment by day and night; the others contain only night cells, the prisoners being assembled during the day. The central prisons receive only male convicts. There is no central prison for women, on account of the few crimes committed by women; they are incarcerated in the secondary prisons. The central prison of Louvain receives those condemned to hard labour and seclusion, as well as prisoners sentenced to correctional imprisonment for more than five years. There is a special quarter in the central prison at Ghent for youthful convicts. The inmates are isolated in cells at night and work in common during the day. The law allows the courts and tribunals in sentencing an individual under the age of eighteen years completed to order him to remain at the disposal of the Government after the end of his term till he attains his majority: such persons are also sent to Ghent. However, those who on account of their youth, the moral conditions in which they are situated, or their previous conduct, do not deserve to be subjected to the more rigid discipline of the special quarters till their majority are sent to a philanthropic school. The secondary prisons, which with one exception have two distinct sections, one for men and one for women, are principally prisons for punishment; accused persons are detained there; they contain, moreover, different classes of inmates, such as those detained only temporarily, beggars and vagabonds awaiting transference to the mendicity institutions.

The central administration of the prisons is under the control of the minister of justice. Connected with the central administration is the inspection department, divided into three sections: the first includes everything, except the accounting and construction departments; the second is engaged on the accounts; the third attends to buildings, improvements, and repairs. Besides the supervision of the inspectors, which embraces the prisons as a whole, there is permanent local supervision which, in each establishment, is confided to a commission, called the administrative commission. The members of this body, numbering three, six, or nine, according to the importance of the prison, are appointed by the king and selected preferably from the ranks of the clergy, physicians, manufacturers or merchants, engineers or architects. The royal procurator of the arrondissement, the burgomaster of the commune, and the military auditor, if there be one in the locality, are ex officio members. The commission participates in the work of reforming the lives of the condemned by visiting the cells as often as possible. It advises pardons and conditional liberation, and is consulted on the suggestions made by the governor. It is not a mere organ of control and consulting council; it participates in the working of the establishment, at least in the cases provided for by law, such as granting holidays to the staff, approving contracts, regulating the conditions relating to the work of the prisoners. The members of the staff of the central prison of Louvain may be taken as an example: a governor, two assistant governors, three Catholic chaplains, two Protestant chaplains, a Jewish chaplain, two teachers, two doctors, a druggist, two accountants, two store-keepers, five clerks, a head-warder, fifty guards, five assistant warders, and four inspectors of work. As the central Prison of Louvain contains about 600 ordinary cells, there are about twelve prisoners for each warder. The inspectors of work are employed exclusively to give professional instruction to the prisoners, and to supervise the work of the principal trades, shoemaking, tailoring, etc., as well as the repairing of the furniture and buildings. In five jails where the small number of female inmates requires only one wardress, the latter is a lay person. In all the others the supervision of the female prisoners is confined to nuns.

The duty of the chaplains consists in presiding at religious exercises, and fulfilling the obligations of their ministry; religious instruction, administration of the sacraments, assistance to the dying. They go to the cells of their co-religionists unless the latter decline to receive them. The exercise of Catholic worship includes Mass and Benediction and also a moral and religious instruction on Sundays and feast days in the prison chapel. In the more important jails a spiritual retreat is given every year by an outside clergyman. Attendance at religious exercises is optional. Cuche remarks quite correctly that "for adults as for children, experience proves that religion is the best method of inculcating morality". This incontestable truth has been admitted by every prison expert in the neighbouring countries. Krohne declares that it is only by means of religion that we can hope through punishment to reform the criminal, which is the principal object of imprisonment. Kraus, in the "Handbuch d'Holtzendorff", gives an excellent refutation of the objection drawn from the liberty of conscience of the culprit. "Besides the moral influence of religion there is," adds Cuche, "the Divine service with its ceremonies, a fact often forgotten. In a prison, especially if it is cellular, assistance at Divine worship and singing of hymns, are excellent distractions, while they offer the prisoner an occasion for salutary reflection. In Germany choruses in four parts are sung in the evening. Krohne gives a simple and touching description of this ceremony. The same author recommends that each culprit should be given a hymn-book, as well as a New Testament, a Bible history, and a psalter. He even expresses the desire that the prisoner should be induced to purchase the hymn-book and the New Testament with his own money in order that he might keep them after his liberation."

Conditional liberation

Prins remarks: "As the system of conditional condemnation allows the judges to exercise their discretion, and remit the penalty in the case of offenders for whom a warning seems sufficient, conditional liberation allows the administration to act similarly towards those in prison, and to decide who should remain in prison till the end of their term and who should be prepared for definitive liberation by a conditional liberation. This plan acts as a stimulus, since it holds out to well-conducted prisoners the possibility of having their term shortened; it acts too as a restraint, as the liberated convict recognizes that the favour may be withdrawn; it is a stage of the punishment since it prepares the prisoner for his definitive liberation." Conditional liberation has become an essential part of the penal system throughout the world. As there is anticipated liberation, when the culprit seems reformed before the end of the term to which he was sentenced, so it logically follows there should be a supplementary detention when the criminal at the expiration of his term does not appear to be reformed. Under such circumstances an indeterminate sentence is advocated (Cuche, "Traité de science et de législation pénitentiaires", 356-9). Some see in this theory the logical result of a repressive system having as its sole aim the moral reformation of the criminal; others consider it the logical result of the theory which considers the punishment as an act of social defence, the intensity of which is proportioned to the danger personified in the delinquent (cf. Prins, "Science penale et droit positif", 455). This writer (op. cit., 459 sqq.) does not favour the indeterminate sentence as a penalty properly so called imposed on a normal responsible culprit, because it is not in harmony with the principles of our public law, which endeavours in the matter of punishment to safeguard the liberty of every individual against arbitrary use of power, and because it is very complicated in practice; he admits, however, that it is different when there is question of subjecting to government control youthful offenders, beggars, and vagabonds, or in the case of degenerates, lunatics or weak-minded persons.

Care of liberated criminals

It is a duty of society to come to the aid of deserving liberated prisoners; for oftentimes they are not in a position to support themselves, and so fall again easily. Many societies have been established everywhere to assist and encourage liberated prisoners; their efforts should be directed especially towards youthful offenders. A new Central Association for the Aid of Discharged Prisoners was established in England early in 1911. While the association is an official body it combines and co-ordinates all the private philanthropic societies which in a disconnected way endeavoured to assist convicts on their discharge. Besides aiming to help the prisoner on his release more effectively than formerly, it aims to do away in most cases with the ticket-of-leave system. Persons discharged from penal servitude come under the cognizance and control of the central body. Representatives of the different societies are admitted to the convict prisons, and are thus enabled to divide the ground among the different agencies and to make a study of individual cases in time to deal with them on the release of the prisoners. On discharge from prison the convict keeps in touch with the society to which he belongs. Except in unsuitable cases police supervision is suspended so long as the convict behaves well and obeys the conditions imposed upon him by the central association, working through the particular society. If he misbehaves, or if, in the opinion of the authorities charged with his care, he is not sincere in his efforts to abstain from criminal courses, he may be returned to police control. But so long as he makes an honest endeavour to regain his position, guided and aided by the association, he is freed from direct contact with the police or from anything likely to obtrude his past upon the notice of his neighbors or employers.

Prison reform associations

The international prison congresses have played an important part in prison reform. The first was held at Frankfort-on-the Main in 1846. The Congress of London (1872), in which twenty-two countries were represented by 100 delegates, led to the creation of an international prison commission. The last, the ninth quinquennial session of the International Prison Congress, was held in Washington in 1910. Twenty-two countries belonging to the association were represented by delegates as well as a number of countries not yet officially members, among them China, Japan, and Egypt. One of the principal achievements of the congress was the formal approval of the indeterminate sentence, a product of American developments. The congress also approved the centralization of control of all penal institutions, including local jails, and the useful employment of all inmates, whether merely detained for trial or sentenced for long terms; and it favoured the discreet use of the probation system, advocating central supervision of probation in each state. Considerable attention was paid also to the methods of criminal procedure suitable for children and minors. The Prisons' Society of Rhenish Prussia and Westphalia (founded in 1826); the Society of Officers of the German Prisons (founded in 1864); the German Juristentag (founded in 1867); the International union of Penal Law (founded in 1889); the Société générale des prisons in France, and the National Prison Congress of the United States, have likewise materially aided the work of prison reform.

The following reforms among others have been warmly advocated:


KRAUSS, Im Kerker vor u. nach Christus (Freiburg, 1895); KRIEG, Wissenschaft der Seelenleitung, I (Freiburg, 1907), 347 sqq.; LIMBERG, Die Gefangnisseclsorge u. charitative Fursorge fur Gefangene und Entlassene in Preussen (1903); ROHDEN, Probleme der Gefangenenscelsorge u. Entlassenfursorge (1908); VON HOLTZENDORFF AND VON ZAGEMANN, Handbuch der Gefangniswesens (1888); KROHNE, Lehrbuch der Gefangnisskunde (1889); LENZ, Die anglo-amerikanische Reformbewegung im Strafrecht (1908); ASCHROTT, Strafen-u. Gefangniswesen in England wahrend des letzien Jahrzehnts (1896); KROHNE AND UBER, Die Strafanstalten und Gefangnisse in Preussen (1909); APPEL, Der Vollzug der Freiheitsstrafen in Baden (1905); ROSENFELD, 200 Jahre Fursorge der preussischen Staatsregierun fur die entlassenen Gefangenen (1905); HEIMBERGER, Zur Reform des Strafvollzuges (1905); BACHEM AND MEISTER, Gefangniswesen in Staatslexikon, II (1909), 418 sqq.; CUCHE, Traite de science et de legislation penitentiaires (1905); PRINS, Science penale et droit positif (1899); Revue penitentiaire, passim; International Prison Congress, Prisons and Reformatories at Home and Abroad (London, 1872); COOK, The Prisons of the World (London, 1891); WINES, State of Prisons in the Civilized World (Cambridge, 1880); IDEM, Punishment and Reformation (New York, 1910); PARSONS, Responsibility for Crime (New York, 1909); COONEY, Prison Reform in The Month, XCVI (London, 1900), 597.

About this page

APA citation. Collard, C. (1911). Prisons. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Collard, Charles. "Prisons." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. Dedicated to the staff & patients at the Clackamas County (Oregon) Jail.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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