Prisons where evidently known to Israelites quite early (see the story of Joseph). Nevertheless, I could find no legislation in the Torah on imprisonment - it seems that this form of punishment was not used at all. I guess the reason for that is that prisons require a more centralized government and are not suited for a nomadic or rural society.

Later we find that Jeremiah was imprisoned, but it seems like an exception rather than some regular form of punishment.

My question: which countries in the ancient world had prisons, and how were they used? Were there regular laws concerning imprisonment (conditions, length of detainment)? Where were prisons invented?

  • I don't know, but I suspect that pre-trial imprisonment was common, but that prison as punishment was unknown. That was true in the American Federalist period.
    – MCW
    Jul 5, 2014 at 13:08
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    Note that any type of prison requires a large amount of free resources, because essentially you're supporting people that aren't working for themselves (this is true even you're using them as slave labor). So yeah, not suited for nomadic or near-subsistence rural societies. In Jeremiah's case the impression I always got was that the specific location he was being held was a further punishment, as opposed to simple incarceration. Jul 5, 2014 at 14:58

3 Answers 3


Prisons, as we understand them today serve the purpose of depriving an individual of their liberty; that idea of liberty did not exist at the time that you refer to. The liberty of an individual to live their life as they see fit within the restraints of the law is a modern concept, therefor the idea of punishing a person by depriving them of something of which they were not in possession of did not arise.

In addition it would be hard to conceive as punishment a regime whereby offenders were taken to a place, fed, clothed and housed all at the states expense when such largesse on the part of the state was not offered to those in society who had committed no crime.

Where such institutions as we might describe as prisons existed, to be incarcerated in such a place was not, in itself, the punishment. People in such places would be held there in order that they could fulfil their role as slaves or forced labourers or until such time as some other appropriate punishment could be carried out. Ancient law as based up the notion of ‘an eye for an eye’, that is retribution, where that retribution should seek to redress the loss felt by the victim of the crime. An eye for an eye can just as well be understood as, ‘a sheep for a sheep’ if a sheep has been stolen or ‘a son for a son’ if a person has been found guilty of murder. The act of cutting of a limb in the cases of theft is as much to do with preventing any future theft on the part of the guilty as it is with any sense of punishment. Such practises were the expedient and pragmatic approach to justice by a society that did not conceive of and therefor value liberty such that any loss of it could be considered punishment.

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    Some very solid thought in there; it would be greatly improved by citations.
    – MCW
    Jul 9, 2014 at 12:00

A prison is expensive: you have to build the installation with all the necessary security precautions (fixed costs), and then feed and cloth the inmates and guards (variable costs). This is completely unaffordable for a subsistence society (IOW, before feudal castles provides dungeons).

The Biblical law provides for 3 kinds of penalties: death, flogging (at most 39 strikes), and fine ("[the cost of] an eye [as the compensation] for [the loss of] an eye"). When the convict is unable to pay the fine, the law provides for "slavery" (which should be more accurately translated as indentured servitude - because it ends after 7 years or at Jubilee, whichever comes first) as a way to recoup the fine (imposed as the punishment for economic - non-violent - crimes, such as theft or damages). Such a "slave" would work, earning his keep and paying off the court-imposed fine.

So, one could consider "slavery" as the precursor to "labor prison camps".

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    This also explains why every 50 years (Jubilee) and after 7 years (Shmita) all debts were forgiven and all slaves were freed. Slavery was effectively a special kind of debt. This is why some like sds consider it more accurate to call it "indentured servitude"
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 9, 2014 at 17:57
  • In the interest of completeness, only Jewish male slaves were to be released. Although somehow I feel like this was less about denying freedom to a class of people, and more about making sure people without other economic support would be provided for (as in the year of Jubilee, the men would get their land back). I tend to feel that slavery in the ancient world was for two main purposes - 1) debt repayment/relief, generally because you made bad economic decisions, and 2) a means of population control after wars (some overlap with 1). Still maybe not nice, though. Jul 13, 2014 at 13:30
  • @Clockwork-Muse: Jewish females were also released. The intent of her "slavery" was that she would become a wife of the master or his son, but if it did not happen, she was to be released after 6 years or at puberty, whichever comes first.
    – sds
    Jul 13, 2014 at 14:13
  • Hmm, you're right, depending on which passages are in effect: Exodus 21:7 (she doesn't go free) versus Deuteronomy 12:15 (she does). Barring certain other restrictions of course. Argh, laws tend to be dry reading in any culture. The puberty thing is new to me though. Jul 13, 2014 at 14:25
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    @Clockwork-Muse: Exodus 21:7 "she is not to go free in the manner of male servants" - she DOES go free, but in a different manner (i.e., at puberty).
    – sds
    Jul 13, 2014 at 14:39

The ancient Romans had prisons, such as Mamertime Prison, but imprisonment was just a temporary measure before trial or execution, not a punishment in itself.

The English Houses of Correction introduced a more modern system of mass incarceration, with hard labor.

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    The Mamertime Prison only had 2 cells, so it hardly counts as an official prison. In the Catiline Conspiracy, various nobles had to take the one of the conspirators home with them in lieu of any actual prison in the city.
    – Oldcat
    Jul 7, 2014 at 23:37

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