New Worlds: Lock ‘Em Up

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

When we think about punishing criminals, especially in the modern-day U.S., our thoughts often go first to prison. It’s far from the only way to impose consequences, either now or in the past, but it’s become so emblematic that any discussion of punishments feels like it ought to start there.

To begin with, though, we should remember that prison doesn’t have to mean the image that probably leapt to mind at the word. Any time you deprive somebody of the freedom to leave a particular place, you’re imprisoning them. You can lock them up in their own home — house arrest — and we already have the technology of ankle bracelets that set off an alarm when you pass a boundary and/or track your location through GPS; it isn’t hard to imagine a magical equivalent, or a version with more advanced technology.

Even when it isn’t that comfortable and spacious, a prison doesn’t have to be a dedicated building. Military fortifications have often been used as prisons, as have cellars, storehouses, and even royal palaces (usually for high-status prisoners). The main requirement is that it’s hard for the prisoner to break out or be rescued, which is most often accomplished through a combination of stout barriers and guards. Solid doors are hard to break down, but make it difficult to see what’s happening in a cell; gratings of wood allow visibility, but are easier to get through; gratings of iron are stronger and allow visibility, but are more expensive. And gratings of all kinds make it easier to pass objects into and out of the cell, which means you need to expend more effort on guards and controlling who’s able to approach it. (There’s a brilliant film called Strings which not only is made with marionettes, but builds its setting around that fact; the prison there is an open space with an overhead grid that restricts how far a prisoner can walk by trapping their head string.)

Individual cells are both a punishment and a luxury. Full solitary confinement for an extended period of time is a truly horrible experience; we are social creatures, and as the COVID-19 pandemic is proving, even the introverts among us don’t fare well when totally deprived of human contact. But so long as contact is permitted, having one’s own space becomes a privilege that allows for a greater feeling of autonomy. Historically that’s been the province of the wealthy elite (who often had servants taking care of them), while ordinary people got chucked into mass cells — unless they had sufficiently angered the authorities or were enough of a danger (or in enough danger) that they got locked up alone.

As the reference to servants probably indicates, what you’re allowed to have in prison varies wildly. Do you ever get to leave your cell? Are you permitted exercise, games, reading, other diversions? Alcohol or cigarettes? The chance to meet with family and friends, or even the privacy of a what we euphemistically term a “conjugal visit”? I mentioned before that the vindictive monkey in our brains often doesn’t want Bad People to have Nice Things, but depriving somebody of all stimulation and contact with the outside world is a great way to ensure that what you eventually release from prison is a traumatized wreck who no longer knows how to interface with normal society. From the standpoint of reducing crime, it’s better to maintain social bonds and the health of both body and mind.

Of course, that depends on what kind of imprisonment we’re talking about. Roughly speaking, you can divide our reasons for locking people up into three categories:

* Imprisonment before trial. Someone has allegedly done something wrong, so you sling them into jail until you can sort that out. In the case of something like a drunk tank, the sorting may not even be required; once they’ve sobered up, you let them out again. For everyone else, you hold onto them until they can be tried and sentenced, unless a bail system allows people to buy their temporary freedom. And although our thoughts naturally focus on the offender, it’s also possible to lock of up the accuser or witnesses to a crime, making sure everybody stays put to until the authorities can render a verdict — which, yes, can make people more reluctant to bring charges.

* Imprisonment until sentence is carried out. Once the trial has taken place, it may be necessary to hold onto the condemned until you can execute the sentence. This may be a literal execution, or a punishment like flogging, or detention while their family scrambles to pull together enough money to pay a fine. This kind of imprisonment is usually brief, though not always, especially when there’s a way to appeal the verdict.

* Imprisonment as punishment. Here we return to what most people think of nowadays: the decision to lock someone up is their sentence, whether that’s for thirty days, ten years, or the remainder of their natural life. (As an interesting side note, some people have attempted to argue that when they suffered a medical emergency that stopped their breathing and their heart, they were “dead,” and therefore they have fulfilled the terms of their life imprisonment and should now go free. To the best of my knowledge, the courts have rejected such arguments . . . but you could throw some very interesting wrinkles into that via science fiction or fantasy.)

Historically speaking, that last form of imprisonment is rarer than you might think — for the simple reason that it’s a hassle. It requires you to maintain a prison, and the guards to control it, in order to hold somebody for months or years or decades. You might also think it requires you to feed and clothe the prisoners, but actually, no: we’ve had setups that require the prisoner or their friends and loved ones to bear the cost of their imprisonment. Guards can earn extra money by charging inmates for everything from lighter chains (or no chains at all) to a better cell to medical attention to food, and cellar or ground-level cells might have barred openings facing onto the street through which the prisoners can beg passers-by for charity. If nobody gives you food or money to buy it with, or if a fellow prisoner steals what you get . . . then you starve to death and get thrown into a pauper’s grave.

If this sounds inhumane, you’re not wrong. The image of a clean, well-lit, well-regulated prison is often a mirage even today. Imprisonment as punishment doesn’t just mean depriving somebody of their liberty; it means subjecting them to the brutality of guards and their fellow prisoners, putting them at risk of disease (whether typhus in the past, or COVID-19 today), and damaging their ability to relate normally with the rest of society.

Of course, many of the alternatives are even less humane — as we’ll see next week.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Lock ‘Em Up — 5 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Lock 'Em Up - Swan Tower

  2. When they first start using prisons as a systemic way to punish people, many officials would also lock up the insane. Hey, two sets of people but why not one set of cells? You don’t have to worry about running out cells for one when you had plenty free for the other!

    Many religious figures pleaded against this on the grounds that it was inhumane — to the criminals. “Bedlam” and “madhouse” have in fact lost their edge now that they have drugs to keep the insane calm. (Of course, at the time, you had to be completely non-functional to be locked up as insane.)

    • Or you had to piss off somebody wealthy and influential . . .

      The handling of mental illness is on the endless list of things to talk about eventually, but yes, the prison aspect of it is very similar. (Though I don’t think people usually paid money to go look at ordinary prisoners for an afternoon’s entertainment.)

  3. Although the Hobbit does mention the Elvenking’s ‘dungeons’, I always had the impression that Thorin and the dwarves were locked up in ad hoc cells scattered around the caves. How many prisoners would the Good People need to hold normally, after all?

    Nanoha’s TSAB seems to lean heavily toward work-release programs — though most of the cases we see are child soldiers, falling into the youth rehabilitation category. Say you’re sorry, get put to work. One set of unrepentant adults end up in an orbital prison.

    One of the more recent Twelve Kingdoms stories has the judges trying to stick to their king’s “no more death penalty” policy, when the populace are howling for the blood of a serial killer. The story is largely them debating the issue. Emotional reparation vs. rehabilitation (already tried several times and failed, with more deaths), asking taxpayers in an agrarian society to feed a serial killer in a society in decline vs. opening the death penalty floodgate in a society in decline…

    • Another thing to bear in mind re: “cells” is that it wouldn’t be at all uncommon for a larder, a wine cellar, or some other such room to have a lock on the door, to keep people from pilfering. So it’s not like a nobleman or a king would have to go out of his way to find a secure room to put someone in.