Facts That Figure: Prisons

Facts That Figure: Prisons

By: C.G. Hoffman

Serving a stint in prison is hardly a badge of honor for anyone, but down under in Australia, it is a sign of yichus! Aussies who can count an elter-elter-zeidy as one of the convicts sent to Australia to build up the newly discovered continent definitely feel proud enough to boast about it.

Prisons as a long-term solution to punish offenders is a fairly recent idea. The idea is non existent in the Torah, where punishments are meted out to fit the crime. The Romans were among the first to imprison offenders as punishment for various crimes, including unpaid debts. Even then, a prison was usually a holding place for people awaiting trial or execution.

Medieval justice was brutal, efficient, and most of all, swift. A person in England could be hanged for cutting down a tree, pickpocketing, or stealing a handkerchief, among 220 other crimes eligible for capital punishment.

As the Renaissance and the ensuing Enlightenment started changing entrenched ideas, resistance to cruelty and torture became more widespread. Prison seemed a more humane way to punish criminals, and large prisons, often accompanied with facilities for hard labor, became more commonplace. The prison was seen as accomplishing two purposes: a harsh environment as punishment and deterrent, plus a place for criminals to contemplate their bad behavior and eventually be reformed.

One of the most famous prisons in the world was Newgate Prison of London, made famous by Charles Dickens. It was in use for almost 700 years. It was divided into two main areas: a “Common” area for poor prisoners, and a “State area” for more well-off prisoners who could afford to pay for better accommodations. The guards made a large part of their income from charging the prisoners for food, bedding, or to be released from their chains.

England’s prisons quickly became overcrowded and were teeming with disease. One solution was housing the overflow of prisoners on out-of-commission, derelict ships. These quickly became disease-ridden, overcrowded nightmares. England struck gold when Australia was claimed by England in 1770. Convicts were transported to Australia to serve out their sentence. With Australia being almost 8,000 miles away from England, most never went back, and settled and built up the continent instead. At least 8 Jews were on the first transport to Australia. One of them was Daniel Daniels, convicted of stealing “a copper pot, a pewter dish and a pair of shoes from Joseph Solomon.”

One of the most popular tourist attractions in California today, is the infamous Alcatraz Prison, located on a tiny rocky island off San Francisco. It was the nation’s toughest prison, and supposedly escape proof, as the violent waves around the island would dash any small boat onto the rocks. Nobody was able to escape and live to tell the tale, except for one daring trio of inmates. Three prisoners worked for months on their escape plan, fashioning dummies to thwart their jailers, and manufacturing lifeboats from pilfered raincoats. They made their way off the island on June 12, 1962 and were never heard from since.

Guantanamo Bay, leased from the government of Cuba to the USA, is one of the most controversial prisons in the world. Since September 11, 2001, it has housed suspected terrorists and Al Qaeda members. Some of the the most notorious terrorists are housed there, including Mohammed al-Qahtani, “the twentieth hijacker,” and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the architects of 9/11. 

Halden Prison, in Norway, is considered one of the most innovative prisons in the world, and has been called “radically humane.” The focus in Halden Prison is on rehabilitating prisoners and preparing them for life after prison. Surrounded by acres of blueberry forest, Inmates enjoy comfortable quarters with modern decor, and a variety of recreational classes, such as ceramics and professional cooking classes. The prison has a solitary confinement cell, but not so surprisingly, it has never been used.

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