Christian History Timeline: 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.

alcatraz prison

[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]

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