The history of prisons in India and elsewhere clearly reflects the changes in society’s reaction to crime from time to time. The system of imprisonment represents a curious combination of different objectives of punishment. Thus, prison may serve to deter the offender or it may be used as a method of retribution or vengeance by making the life of the offender miserable and difficult.
The isolated life in prison and incapacity of inmates to repeat crime while in the prison, fulfils the preventive purpose of punishment. It also helps in keeping crime under control by elimination of criminals from the society. That apart, prison may also serve as an institution for the reformation and rehabilitation of offenders. It therefore, follows that whatever be the object of punishment, the prison serves to keep offenders under custody and control.
The attitude of society towards prisoners may vary according to the object of punishment and social reaction to crime in a given community. If the prisons are meant for retribution or deterrence, the condition inside them shall be punitive in nature inflicting greater pain and suffering and imposing severe restrictions on inmates. On the other hand, if the prison is used as an institution to treat the criminal as a deviant, there would be lesser restrictions and control over him inside the institution.
The modem progressive view, however, regards crime as a social disease and favours treatment of offenders through non-penal methods such as probation, parole, open jail etc. Whatever be the reaction of society to crime, the lodging of criminals in prison gives rise to several problems of correction, rehabilitation, and reformation which constitute vital aspects of prison administration.
It is significant to note that the prison inmates are to be dealt with different punishments because uniform punishment for all of them would hardly serve the ends of justice. It therefore, necessitates classification of prisoners into different categories depending on the gravity of their offence and the term of punishment awarded to them.
Proper classification of offenders for the purpose of treatment is a pre-condition for an ideal penal programme. The introduction of modern ‘classification methods’ in prisons is essentially directed to meet this end.
The origin of prison is inter-linked with the system of imprisonment which originated in the first quarter of nineteenth century. Initially, prisons were used as detention houses for under-trials. Persons who were guilty of some political offence or war crime or who failed to pay their debts or fines were lodged in prison cells with a view to extracting confession from them or securing the payment of debts or fines.
Subsequently, with the march of time and advancement of knowledge and civilisation, the conditions of prisons also improved considerably. Since the present day penology centres round imprisonment as a measure of rehabilitation of offenders, the prisons are no longer mere detention houses for the offenders but they seek to reform inmates for their future life. The modern techniques of punishment lay greater emphasis on reformation, correction and rehabilitation of criminals.
The modern prison system in India is essentially based on the British prison model which in itself is an outcome of prison developments in America during the late eighteenth century. It will therefore, be proper to trace the evolution of prison system in America, Britain, Russia etc. before dealing with the prison developments in India.