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A cell and galleries at London's Newgate Prison in 1896.
A cell and galleries at London's Newgate Prison in 1896.

A prison is a place in which individuals are physically confined and usually deprived of a range of personal freedoms. Prisons are conventionally institutions which form part of the criminal justice system of a country, such that imprisonment or incarceration is the penalty imposed by the state for the commission of a crime. Prisons may also be used as a tool of political repression to detain political prisoners, prisoners of conscience and "enemies of the state", particularly by authoritarian regimes. In times of war or conflict, prisoners of war may also be detained in prisons. A prison system is the organizational arrangement of the provision and operation of prisons (see also corrections).

There are a variety of other names for prisons, such as a prison-house, penitentiary or jail (in British English and Australian English, the spelling gaol is sometimes used in a formal contexts, although this spelling is pronounced in the same fashion). There are, also, many colloquial terms for prisons — such as big house, beantown, can, clink, joint, jug, cooler, hoosegow, lockup, lockdown, "nick" and slammer — and a similar range of terms for imprisonment, including doing time, bird, porridge, working for Copper John, etc.

In the United States at least, jail is generally used for facilities where inmates are locked up for a relatively short time (either while awaiting trial or serving a sentence of one year or less upon conviction for a misdemeanor), while prison and penitentiary typically denote a place where inmates go to serve long terms after having been found guilty of a felony. In the United States, jails are usually operated under the jurisdiction of local municipal governments while prisons are operated under the jurisdiction of state or federal governments. In the state of Massachusetts, some jails are known as houses of correction. In Washington some adult prisons are called reformatories, while in other states this is reserved as a term for a prison of the juvenile justice system.


Prisons in the criminal justice system

A prisoner behind bars.
A prisoner behind bars.

In the domain of criminal justice, prisons are used to incarcerate convicted criminals, but also to house those charged with or likely to be charged with offences. Custodial sentences are sanctions authorised by law for a range of offences. A court may order the incarceration of an individual found guilty of such offences. Individuals may also be committed to prison by a court before a trial, verdict or sentence, generally because the court determines that there is a risk to society or a risk of absconding prior to a trial; such pre-trial imprisonment is known as remand. The possibility and maximal duration of remand vary between jurisdictions.

The availability of incarceration as a sanction is designed to militate against the likelihood of individuals committing offences: thus prisons are in part about the punishment of individuals who transgress statutory boundaries. Prisons also can serve to protect society, by removing individuals likely to pose a risk to others. Prisons also can have a rehabilitative role in seeking to change the nature of individuals so as to reduce the probability that they will reoffend upon release.

Gatehouse of former 19th century St Albans prison in England, as seen in Porridge.
Gatehouse of former 19th century St Albans prison in England, as seen in Porridge.

The nature of prisons and of prison systems varies from country to country. Common though by no means universal attributes are segregation by sex, and by category of risk. Prisons are often rated by the degree of security, ranging from minimum security (used mainly for nonviolent offenders such as those guilty of fraud) through to maximum security and super-maximum or supermax (often used for those who have committed crimes while imprisoned).

Crime and punishment is a wide, very controversial and deeply politicised area, and so too are discussions of prisons, prison systems, the concepts and practices of imprisonment; and the sanction of custody set against other non-custodial sanctions and against the capital sanction, a death sentence. Some of these issues are discussed in the by country descriptions, below.

Military prisons

Prisons form part of military systems, and are used variously to house prisoners of war, unlawful combatants, those whose freedom is deemed a national security risk by military or civilian authorities, and members of the military found guilty of a serious crime. See military prison.

Political prisons

Certain countries maintain or have in the past had a system of political prisons; arguably the gulags associated with Stalinism are best known. The definition of what is and is not a political crime and a political prison is, of course, highly controversial.

World prison populations

At least nine million people are imprisoned worldwide, though given under-reporting or lack of statistics for certain (often repressive) countries the number is likely much higher. The prison population in most countries increased significantly beginning in the 1990s.

By country, the United States prison population is the world's largest in absolute terms, at more than 1.3 million. Both Russia and China (with population 4 times that of the USA) also had prison populations of 1 million or more in 2002. No data is available for North Korea. [1], [2]

Rwanda has the largest proportion of its population in prison where, as of 2002, over 100,000 people (out of a total populace of some 8 million) were held on suspicion of participation in the 1994 genocide. The USA is second largest in relative numbers with 701 people per 100,000 incarcerated, and the proportion in Russia is similar.

The UK had 73,000 inmates in its facilities in 2003, with France and Germany having a similar number.

New Zealand has the 2nd highest prison population per capita in the developed world, of 169 prisoners per 100,000 population (second only to the United States).

Prisons by country

Prisons in Australia

Many prisons in Australia were built by convict labour in the 1800s. During the 1990s many prisons which were government run were privatised.

Prisons in Japan

Prisons in the United Kingdom

For information on prisons and related subjects in the United Kingdom, see articles on Her Majesty's Prison Service, on the United Kingdom prison population and the List of United Kingdom prisons. Also see house arrest.

Prisons in the United States

Prisons in history

The following are a selected list of prisons with well-known historical significance:

See also

Further reading

External links

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