Crime and punishment
— 600 BC: The earliest prison we know of through archaeological evidence is built, the Mamertine Prison in Rome. It will be the imprisonment site of both Peter and Paul.
— 450 BC: The Law of the 12 Tables of Rome refers to the possibility of imprisonment for debt.
—399 BC: Socrates is imprisoned and executed in Athens.
— 30s AD: John the Baptist, Jesus, and various apostles are imprisoned as Christianity is born and spreads.
— Before 313: Christians are imprisoned and executed during times of persecution, most famously under Nero (64), Decius (249–251), Valerian (258–259), and the “Great Persecution” of Diocletian and his successors (303–313).
— 1166: Henry II of England commissions the building of prisons and introduces the concept of trial by jury.
— 1188: Newgate is built in England in response to Henry II’s commission. It is used for over 700 years, closing in 1902.
— 1197: The Fleet Prison is built in London. It is destroyed by riot (and, once, fire) and rebuilt a number of times until it closes in 1844.
— 1215: The Magna Carta establishes the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers.
— 1298: Pope Boniface VIII, in Liber Sextus, his collection of canon laws, argues that the purpose of prison is confinement, not punishment.
A prisoner carving, 1848. Wikimedia.
— c. 1300: The Mirror of Justices (England) forbids certain kinds of torture.
— 1351: The “benefit of clergy” (escaping a death sentence by being a clergyperson) is extended to any literate person in England.
— 1516: Thomas More suggests in Utopia that imprisonment (rather than death, flogging, or other punishments) is a solution to petty crime as well as more serious offenses.
— 1521:Martin Luther begins translating the Bible into German while imprisoned.
— 1546: Anne Askew is executed for heresy.
— 1557: Bridewell Palace reopens in London as the first modern workhouse.
— 1610s: England begins to use penal transportation to the American colonies as a means of punishment.
— 1624: Women are allowed to plead “benefit of clergy.”
— 1635: One of America’s earliest jails opens in Boston.
— 1680s: Quakers begin to campaign against the death penalty.
— 1686: Construction begins on the Ospizio di San Michele in Rome. It will house a jail and a hospital.
— 1706: England abolishes the literacy test for avoiding the death penalty.
— 1730: John and Charles Wesley begin visiting prisons along with their friend William Morgan.
— 1745: John Wesley publishes A Word to a Condemned Malefactor.
— 1748: Baron de Montesquieu publishes Spirit of the Laws, urging more leniency in punishments.
— 1764: Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments condemns torture and the death penalty; it influences the development of the modern penitentiary system.
— 1774: The Maison de Force is built in Belgium and is considered a model prison for its time.
— 1776: Jonas Hanway’s Solitude in Imprisonment recommends solitary confinement as a punishment.
— 1777: Prison reformer John Howard publishes The State of the Prisons in England and Wales.
— 1779: The United Kingdom passes the Penitentiary Act.
— 1780s: The United States begins to cease sentencing people to death for any crime other than murder.
— 1787: England begins to transport prisoners to Australia.
— 1790: Solitary confinement is first used in US prisons.
— 1791: English philosopher Jeremy Bentham designs the “panopticon,” a prison layout where all inmates can be watched from one guard post.
— 1813: Elizabeth Fry first visits Newgate. In 1817 she establishes the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate.
— 1818: Auburn Prison opens in New York state, using the “Auburn system” of hard labor in groups during the day coupled with solitary confinement at night.
— 1820s: The United States begins to move from the workhouse system to the penitentiary system.
— 1826: Sing Sing Prison opens in New York state, built by Elam Lynds. It employs solitary confinement and whipping.
— 1829: Eastern State Penitentiary enforces solitary confinement at all times, later called the “Pennsylvania system.”
— 1833: Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville publish On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France.
— 1840s: The idea of parole develops.
— 1844: Isaac Hopper organizes the New York Prison Association. In 1845 his daughter Abigail Hopper Gibbons organizes the Women’s Prison Association.
— 1848: John Luckey publishes Prison Sketches.
— 1872: Reformed convict Jerry McAuley founds the Water Street Mission in New York.
— 1873: The Indiana Women’s Prison, the first US prison exclusively for females, accepts 17 prisoners.
— 1891: The United States establishes a federal prison system.
— 1934: Alcatraz opens.
— 1971: The Stanford Prison Experiment simulates prison conditions to test the psychology of prisons.
— 1976: Chuck Colson founds Prison Fellowship.
— 1987: David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” killer, is converted in prison.
— 1989: The United States establishes its first “supermax” prison.
— 1995: Burl Cain becomes warden at Louisiana State Penitentiary and establishes faith-based reforms in the prison.
— 1998: Karla Faye Tucker is executed despite widespread protests arguing for the commutation of her sentence.
This article is from Christian History magazine #123 Captive Faith. Read it in context here!
By the editors
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #123 in 2017]
Prison as a parish: Christian responses
How Christians have tried to reform the justice system and minister to prisonersTodd V. Cioffi
“Keep my fur cloak in memory of me”
Letters Hus wrote from prison.Jan Hus
William Morgan’s gift
An obscure Irish teenager inspired Methodists to Undertake over 200 years of prison ministryKevin M. Watson
“I shall be patient”
The only writing in Tyndale’s hand still extantWilliam Tyndale
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