Incarceration as a sanction and treatment of criminal behaviour has its roots in the new ideas about mankind and society that emerged in post-Reformation Europe.
Written by Johan S. Helberg, former director at the Museum of Justice
Society’s tasks were no longer to care for the poor and punish the criminal, but to make them productive members of society. Out of these ideas came a new prison architecture, which was implemented during the 19th century at a scale that lacks comparison in our times.
The loss of liberty, or incarceration, as a common method of punishment is no more than a few centuries old. Although the custom of throwing individuals in dungeons is a well known, older custom. This, however, is a direct exercise in power, and different from the more systematic methods of crime prevention. Incarceration is not found in Norwegian medieval laws, but Magnus Lagabøte’s law of 1274 allowed for dark cells to be used in the king’s fortresses.
During the 17th century a series of changes in opinion on society’s problematic groups occurred in western Europe. Groups such as the sick, the poor, and individuals who had broken the laws and were facing punishment. Sickness, poverty and criminality are not necessarily always linked, but in practice those in the higher echelons of society have often viewed it that way. After the Reformation new thoughts emerged about how to handle such individuals, based on new theories on the cause of their current state.
In medieval times, the poor and sick were under the church’s jurisdiction, although there was a difference in theological opinion about them. One, based on the New Testament, saw them as people in need of compassion and care, while the Old Testament version saw sickness and poverty as punishments for people’s sins. After the Reformation, and perhaps especially in Calvinist areas, much emphasis was placed on the duty to feed oneself and one’s family. In this theology, poverty and sickness were a sign of a moral failure. This did not, however, result in people not caring for the poor at all. In fact it became important to improve the morality of the poor. This was done through the Great Incarceration. Across Europe the unemployed, disabled, poor and sick were interned, often under the same roof. This was not a good solution, and studies during the second half of the 18th century documented several unfortunate consequences, which led to a wave of reforms. One of the objectives after the French Revolution was ending incarceration as a poverty prevention method. But the idea of improving the individual was here to stay. It also affected crime prevention methods. The medieval solution had been to punish the body, by maiming or execution, in public as a warning to others. Now incarceration, correction and control became the preferred method. The criminal was seen as a person without the necessary morals, knowledge and skills a productive member of society needed, and this would be fixed by instruction and strict discipline.
Denmark-Norway took part in the reforms spreading through Europe, including the aforementioned development. Incarcerating all groups in one institution was seen as problematic, however, and instead separate houses were built: poorhouses, children institutions, workhouses, correction houses, etc. The line between these and pure prisons was narrow, and existed more in theory than in practice for a long time. But the theory was that you could make productive members of society of the interned. This coincided with the state’s growing role in social matters, not only because they hoped to make these groups valuable to society, but also because they were a cheap source of labour for the state’s projects.
Christian V’s Norwegian Code of 1687 demonstrates this. The law has six ways of internment:
- work in iron
- work on the navy shipyard Bremerholm
- work in houses of correction (spinning/weaving houses)
- imprisonment with bread and water
- work in the northern fisheries
- work in the southern mines
From 1734 to 1739 work in the mines and Bremerholm was replaced by work on the fortresses. This was part of a redistribution of resources towards the state’s large fortress-building projects. When this period was over, the slaves, as the workers were called, were hired out on private jobs – in chains. In 1842 a new criminal law was passed, which meant slavery was replaced by houses of correction, or workhouses, also for criminals (of both sexes). In reality, the law only declared officially what was already reality: that the houses of correction had evolved into prisons. From the 17th century the military had been practically the only arm of the state’s control apparatus, and during this time it was natural that the state gave the task of running the correctional facilities to the military. In the beginning the standard of living for the slaves was probably no more than a shelter secured against escape.
Towards the end of the 18th century the Enlightenment had advanced the view on corrective punishment methods. The most eager reformers had different ideological positions on philanthropy or materialism, but they all lived during the Industrial Revolution and developed similar ideas about what a prison sentence should be like. The criminal was seen as a person society had failed. He had not received the correct education or influences in order to make him an upstanding, productive citizen. The solution was corrective measures: confinement in isolation to shield the inmate from negative influences. The confinement consisted of vocation training, hard work, a regular schedule, strict discipline and religious education. The isolation was, together with the knowledge of constant surveillance, meant to strengthen the positive influences on the inmate, along with a chance for remorse and the development of self-control. It is in keeping with the image of the reformers that they considered their work in contrast to earlier times when the unfortunate were treated with warmth and care.
Such well-structured treatment plans needed an equally well-structured architecture to house them, and the reformers themselves developed ideas about how a prison had to be shaped. With few variations these were constructed around a central watchtower. From this observation point one could keep track of the building’s wards, which were long galleries with entrances to the solitary cells. Exercise yards and prison churches were constructed so that there was minimal contact between inmates. In the beginning of the 19th century several prisons were built with these ideas in mind, but it was only in 1842 with the Pentonville prison that the architecture fully reflected the new ideology of incarceration. As architects have remarked, these buildings show a good marriage of form and function! (For more information on the new ideologies and prison architecture in the 19th century, see Aud Sissel Hoel, “Maktens Bilder” (Disciplinary Images), Norsk rettsmuseum skriftserie bind 1 (2007)).
In Norway the new prison ideology was expressed in the Slavery, built by the Skansen watch in Trondheim between 1831 and 1833. One of its main features is an oval room in the building’s centre, from which the guards could keep an eye on the slaves through peepholes or “Judas Eyes”. But a true prison it was not. In 1837 a prison commission proposed the building of seven prisons around the country, but only one was built, Bodsfengselet in Kristiania, which opened in 1851.
As so often with stringent, ideological based social experiments, the prison ideology was also a result of an oversimplification, and did not produce the desired results. Isolating people for long periods of time under such a strict regime had unintended consequences on the inmate’s psyche.
The professional disciplines for punishment and incarceration was later developed to a far more sophisticated level, but this has not resulted in a new architecture specially designed like Bodsfengselet. In general prisons have unique characteristics in cases of maximum security facilities. In other cases there has been a focus on normal architecture, which is intended to prepare the inmates for life outside. In practice one has also had to adjust prisons to existing buildings, whether older prisons, military or civilian defence facilities.
Av Johan S. Helberg, former director at Justismuseet (2000-2017)
Published originally in Fortidsvern