April 2012 History Matters: Prisons
We're unlocking the evolution of incarceration as our ancestors saw it.
If Fox’s new TV series “Alcatraz” has piqued your curiosity about prisons in your ancestors’ day, penitentiaries’ real history may surprise you. Until the mid-18th century, dungeons, gaols and other places of incarceration weren’t built primarily for punishing violent offenders. In the United States until the 1830s and England as late as 1869, debtors were sent to prison—where, ironically, they had to pay for their keep. As little as 60 cents’ worth of debt could mean imprisonment. England’s political detainees were locked in the Tower of London or Pontefract Castle.

Those we’d consider criminals, however, were jailed only until they could be deported to penal colonies such as America, Australia or France’s Devil’s Island. Or they would be held pending corporal or capital punishment. In the 1500s and 1600s, lawbreakers were shamed and made into examples in public events: whipping, branding, dunking, confinement to the stocks. Execution was the punishment for many crimes, not just murder, reducing the need for cells.