Prisons, penitentiaries, reformatories or correctional institutions, are virtually the only form of legal punishment today. Those who overstep the laws of society are no longer deported, publicly humiliated, or inflicted with brutal corporal punishments, and rarely are they executed. They are shut away from society in prisons which, with few exceptions, provide a punitive, negative environment, in which offenders serve out their terms in a state of demoralizing idleness.
The traditional, reforming role of imprisonment is being increasingly questioned, and the morale of prison staff has suffered as a result. The initial ideal of rehabilitation has fallen prey to all the complexities of the modern crime problem. With the enormous increase in criminal activity, prisons are over-crowded. They are often little more than warehouses of despair where unhealthy and inhumane conditions erupt in violence, rioting and insurrection. With two or three people crowded into the space intended for one, there is little incentive for introspection and reflection. There are other conditions that militate against rehabilitation. For example, the deprivation of personal security, of mobility and of privacy. In some institutions there is never quiet. In others the lights are never turned off. The link with the outside world is often tenuous, with visits limited and correspondence censored, delayed, or sometimes thrown away altogether, according to the inclination of the current administering officials. These seemingly petty matters can cause extreme psychological damage.
Imprisonment on a large scale is a relatively recent innovation. The first true penitentiaries (as opposed to penal institutions used solely for punishment) were constructed in America in the 1700s and were the product of two religious streams of thought – the Puritans in New England, who, in line with their prevailing ethic, established workhouses; and Quakers in Pennsylvania who constructed for the first time large conglomerates of solitary cells, seeking to offer 'wrong doers' the time and opportunity for introspection and reflection upon their deeds. Both groups, particularly the Quakers, viewed this new concept of punishment as a means to the larger end of rehabilitation and reformation. The ideas of imposed labour and isolated confinement were proposed with the best of intentions, and were visioned as constructive tools to lift a person from the environment of crime and propel him or her towards a change of heart and direction.
In 2018, 25 percent of the world’s prisoners were in the USA, although it had only 5 percent of the world’s population
Known rates of incarceration in 1991 were highest in the USA with 426 prisoners per 100,000 population compared with South Africa (33 per 100,000), the former Soviet Union (268 per 100,000) and the UK (97 per 100,000). In 1992 figures reported were 76 per 100,000 in the UK, 89 in France, 129 in New Zealand, and 338 in Zimbabwe. One quarter of the inmates of the US federal prison system were serving sentences of over 15 years, one half over 7 years, more severe that an other industrialized country. In the former Soviet Union, only 10% of sentences exceeded 10 years, most were less than five years, and prisoners generally served only one third of the time in prisons, the rest on parole.