One of the most controversial social institutions in terms of both necessity and the proper management of the system is that of the prison system. Nearly every civilization that has been documented throughout history has had some form of a penal system out of necessity as the laws began to form and individuals chose to operate outside of those laws. In order to maintain a form of civility, the government bodies found it necessary to remove these individuals out of the general population for the safety and protection of the society. However, what to do with these individuals has often changed throughout history and these changes can be utilized to mark the social norms and values as well. It is the intention of this author to evaluate these changes through the facilities, management of the system through public and private sectors, and the treatment of the inmates in order to apply these changes to the attributed changes in societies from the time period of Ancient Greece to the modern penal system.
Prison Facilities
The location and standards of the prison facilities have dramatically changed since the ancient Greek society. In fact, it is noted that the initially documented prisons were most often located in underground dungeons as a means to completely remove the freedoms and rights of the inmates to participate in the civilization (“History of Prisons, 2015). These inmates were no longer considered to be the responsibility of the society and therefore the facilities were poorly maintained, if at all, and the living conditions were more similar to that of a caged animal than a human being. However, Gibson (2011) notes that in the eighteenth century, other social institutions received various reforms which led also to the reform of the prison system. Gibson (2011) further explains that the prisons, upon the first reform wave, began to look and operate similar to an asylum whereas there was obvious need for treatment of the inmates, but isolation was still the primary purpose of the system. Presently, the systems operate as more of a rehabilitation unit and therefore the facilities are modeled after the operations of society (Gibson, 2011). In other words, the purpose of the facilities are now thought to be to prepare the inmates for the return to society and therefore offer schools, fitness centers, access to technology, and even more contact with the outside world than ever before.

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Public, Private, and Government Management
One area of change that can be viewed in the prison system from ancient Greece to the modern society can actually be viewed also as a return to the initial concepts despite the drastic changes and long term implications that occurred during the Greek civilization. Prior to the decision to formulate a government in the ancient Greek civilization, personal property and and criminal law was determined by a civil society. Therefore, the process of imprisonment was also determined in the private and public sector of this civil society. However, “the historical time line surrounding the rise of government institutions in Ancient Greece originated with Solon’s penal reforms. Prison construction and penal policy arose before other portions of the government-controlled criminal justice system” (D’Amico, 2010, pg. 463). This shows that the prison system became one of the top priorities of the newly founded government and this has remained a primary function of the government in societies ever since.

As the global economy has taken a downward spiral, many economists and government officials have accredited this economical concern to the costs of the prison system. Aman and Greenhouse (2014) explain that this has resulted in the tendency to return to a time whereas the penal system was more of a private sector business than a government controlled social institution. In this system of prison privatization, the business is responsible for the cost of the inmates, but is allowed to utilize the prisoners for profit making labor. Aman and Greehouse (2014) explain that this return to the use of private sector prisons pre-dates the ancient Greek society in terms of social institutions and represents, in some form, the use of inmates as slaves to the private sector. However, the treatment of the inmates are much more controlled through the social functions of civil rights.

Treatment of Inmates
Although it was noted that many private sector prisons are allowed to profit from the work of the inmates, it has also been documented that these prisoners must be treated fairly in accordance to the human rights policies. However, one area of treatment that was allotted in ancient Greece that is not represented in the modern prison system is that of a temporary release. According to Cheliotis (2014) the recognition of the importance of masculinity was the foundation of these temporary reprieves in the Greek prison system whereas the modern policies regarding such temporary releases cannot be considered comparable. In fact, even the concept of visitations is very closely monitored in modern society. Perhaps this is due to the advancements in travel and the ability for the inmate to flee if given the opportunity. Although this practice is noted to be used for the purpose of compliance, the concern of escape in modern times prevents a return to such a policy (Cheliotis, 2014). Therefore, although the inmates receive better facilities, health care, and the potential for rehabilitation, their time spent as an inmate is served completely within the facilities with no chance of a temporary release.

Although the prison system has always been viewed as a necessary function in society, the manner in which this social institution is operated has varied greatly. Many of these changes have occurred through a process of trial and error that can often prove that the systems of the ancient Greeks were more rational than that of modern society. However, the overall treatment of the inmates in terms of social interaction and ability to be reintroduced into the general population serve to represent the social value of the human rights. The return to prison privatization shows a social focus on the economic burdens of society. The continuum of the sentence, rather than the temporary release, shows that the society understands the punishment to be a focus of rehabilitation rather than a life long sentence with temporary reprieves for the purpose of compliance. In short, the adaptations of the prison system show a clear picture of the areas of importance in modern society.

  • A man Jr., A. C., & Greenhouse, C. J. (2014). PRISON PRIVATIZATION AND INMATE LABOR IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY: REFRAMING THE DEBATE OVER PRIVATE PRISONS. Fordham Urban Law Journal, 42(2), 355-409.
  • Cheliotis, L. K. (2014). Order through Honor: Masculinity and the Use of Temporary Release in a Greek Prison. South Atlantic Quarterly, 113(3), 529-545. doi:10.1215/00382876-2692173
  • D’Amico, D. (2010). The prison in economics: private and public incarceration in Ancient Greece. Public Choice, 145(3/4), 461-482. doi:10.1007/s11127-009-9575-z
  • Gibson, M. (2011). Global Perspectives on the Birth of the Prison. American Historical Review, 116(4), 1040.
  • “History of Prisons.” (2015). Retrieved from: