The Founding Fathers framed much of the United States
on Judeo-Christian values.
It should come as no surprise that its prisons also have roots in religion.
But is modern imprisonment biblical?
What is preventing prisons from deterring crime?
By Samuel C. Baxter
Seventeen-nineties America was a fledgling nation—“a clean slate.” It was thought that any problems of the past could be solved with the high aim of constructing a perfect nation.
Colonial America punished criminals through swiftly executed punishments, which were generally performed publicly to bring shame and humiliation to the perpetrator and to prevent similar crimes from occurring. Typical sentences involved being whipped or a stint in the stockades.
Jails did exist, but they were only used to hold criminals awaiting trial and sentencing.
However, after the Revolution, the elite in America saw this system as archaic and inhumane, and determined to improve and update it.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signatory of the U.S. Constitution, proposed a new system of punishment, one that would work to rehabilitate criminals, turning them into functioning members of society.
Drawing from a Quaker belief that all humans have an “Inner Light”—an inherent goodness—Rush devised a system of solitary confinement (this practice also has roots in Catholic monasteries, where disobedient monks were isolated as punishment).
In this new system, men were placed in a tiny cell and given only a Bible to read. The prisoner was referred to by a number rather than a name and kept in his cell most of the day, except for a short period of exercise in an adjoining pen. Silence was maintained at all times. When an inmate was allowed out of his cell, a hood was placed over his head to continue his isolation. Being alone with one’s conscience was considered to be the most effective form of punishment, allowing the inmate time to meditate on his actions and repent.
Although this system of complete isolation was scrapped after the American Civil War due to its high cost, it marked a move toward imprisonment as the primary form of punishment. Less strict variations of Rush’s system spread throughout America and the world. This led to the prisons of today.
Modern prisoners are still stripped of all earthly possessions, given a number and locked up in a cell as punishment—rather than being flogged and released, publicly humiliated, or executed. More recently, high-security or “supermax” prisons have resurrected a type of Rush’s model of solitary confinement.
Given the roots of the modern prison system in two different sects of Christianity, a few questions must be asked. Are prisons biblical? Does the God of the Bible prescribe this as an appropriate and effective way to curb crime? And can prisons actually rehabilitate—bring a change of mind to those who inhabit them?
America’s Prison System
Today’s prisons have three [stated] basic objectives: punish a criminal by taking away his time, remove him from society (in an attempt to remove crime as well) and rehabilitate inmates to become better functioning members of society upon release.
The problems inherent with this system have remained the same for years: recidivism (repeated relapse into criminal acts), overcrowding, cost and, most tellingly—despite the large amounts of funding—the utter inability of the system to reduce crime.
A recent trend by state governments has been to pass laws calling for stricter mandatory sentences, with the thinking that longer prison time will deter future crimes. A variation of this is the “three-strike rule”: If convicted three separate times for a felony, the criminal receives automatic life imprisonment.
Laws such as these have not prevented a dramatic increase in the prison population.
At the end of 2006, roughly 1 in 31 adults in the United States were in prison or jail, or on parole or supervised release, according to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
During the late 1970s, there were about 268,000 prison inmates in all 50 states. By the end of 2006, there were over 2.4 million. Despite this drastic increase, crime rates remain high.
More prisoners also equal higher costs. In 2001, the average inmate cost over $22,500 annually, or about $62 a day (BJS). If the amount spent on inmates has remained the same since then, prisoners will have cost the nation over $50.5 billion annually. Some reports claim the costs are over $60 billion per year.
Correctional facilities are also criticized as being a “college” for criminals. While housed with other offenders, inmates have time to discuss, learn and hone their craft—whether grand theft auto, breaking and entering, or learning how to better escape capture. Rather than being rehabilitated, prisoners are released, only to commit criminal acts again—but now more effectively.
Of the prisoners released in 1994 (the most recent nationwide study by the BJS), 67.5% were rearrested within three years. It is likely this percentage has increased since that time.
A new batch of problems has been added to the above list. Illegal immigrants are greatly contributing to both prison costs and the problem of overcrowding. Prisoners have also begun to sue state and federal governments for inhumane conditions, stemming from the problem of overcrowding. Often, the inmates win, with the courts ordering the institutions to clean up their acts.
America’s prisons have failed to produce any tangible results. Simply put, they do not work.
Biblical Criminal Justice
Imprisonment is found throughout Scripture. As a young man, Joseph was thrown into prison in Egypt (Gen. 39:20). Samson, after having his eyes put out, was put to work in a grinding mill prison house of the Philistines (Jdg. 16:21). Jeremiah spent many of his days in the “court of the prison” (Jer. 32:2).
Also, throughout the New Testament, men such as Paul, James, John the Baptist and Peter, among others, were imprisoned.
This shows that variations of imprisonment have been used for thousands of years.
However, prisons are not God’s way of dealing with crime. The above examples were all from nations not led by God!
When Israel was led out of Egypt, God gave the nation a civil code of laws that would cause the Gentiles to view Israel as a “great nation” that was both “wise and understanding” (Deut. 4:6). However, in this code God included no provision for prisons. Instead, there were swift and sure punishments for each broken law.
In contrast to America’s current prison system, a broken law generally resulted in a predetermined punishment—with no gray areas.
Once a man was sentenced, the punishment was swiftly and publicly carried out—often with citizens helping to execute sentences.
This system of corporal and capital punishment was used so that other citizens would “hear and fear” (Deut. 13:11; 17:13; 19:20), realizing the consequences of breaking the law.
The closest thing to a prison were wards, where criminals awaited sentencing, followed by their quick and sure punishment (Lev. 24:12; Num. 15:34).
On top of this, penalties fit the crime. In the 21st century, what and how long a sentence should be are usually left to a judge to decide. For the same offense, one man will receive years in prison, while another only a handful of months—or even none at all!
Physical punishment under Israel’s civil laws was made to fit the crime, not the criminal. Some crimes meant flogging or a mandatory death sentence. Others incurred less severe punishments. For example, if a man were caught stealing he was ordered to pay back twice the stolen amount (Exo. 22:4-9).
By consistently and publicly punishing criminals, the ancient Israelites knew what consequences would result if they broke these laws. In doing so, crime was thwarted.
If this were to be enacted today, it would still work. However, this system would be derided as archaic and outdated (just as similar punishments were from Colonial America). While modern prisons are plagued with mounting problems, God’s Way involves swift sentencing, with swift punishment.
It may seem that what is outlined in the Bible is “too simple” and critics could decry that it could never fit every case. However, applying God’s Law would work to effectively reduce crime—if a nation diligently applied it.
United States prisons cannot produce real rehabilitation or change in inmates. Modern systems are not based upon God’s Law, rather the ideas of men! Because of this, prisons cannot get to the core problem of crime—human nature!
If prisons did not come from the God of the Bible, then who is responsible for conceiving this form of punishment?
Recently a type of Dr. Rush’s solitary confinement has been brought back into practice in the form of supermax prisons. However, instead of facilitating repentance—bringing change in mindsets of inmates—these prison cells are reserved for the “worst of the worst”—prisoners who, given the current system, could not follow the laws of government nor the rules of lower security prisons. Virtually labeled unfixable, these criminals will live out their lives in solitude—with little hope they will change.
Over 20,000 inmates, spread across 30 states, are kept in lockdown and complete isolation in a 10-foot by 14-foot room for 23 hours a day. During the remaining hour, prisoners are escorted to an exercise pen, and then returned to their cell, which contains only a desk, a bed with a thin mattress, a sink and a toilet. The metal door is soundproofed to ensure as little contact as possible with adjacent prisoners, and the three meals a day are delivered through an opening on the door for the prisoner to eat in solitude.