A prison is a place in which people are confined and deprived of a range of liberties. Prisons conventionally are institutions authorised by governments and forming part of a country's criminal justice system, or as facilities for holding prisoners of war. A prison system is the organizational arrangement of the provision and operation of prisons.
There are a variety of other names for prisons, such as a prison-house, penitentiary or jail (in British English, sometimes spelled gaol although pronounced in the same fashion). There are, too, many colloquial terms for prisons - such as clink, cooler, hoosegow, lockup, lockdown and slammer—and imprisonment—doing time, bird, porridge.
However, in the United States at least, jail is generally used for facilities where inmates are locked up for a relatively short time (either while awaiting trial or serving a sentence of one year or less upon conviction for a misdemeanor), while prison and penitentiary typically denote a place where inmates go to serve long terms after having been found guilty of a felony. In Massachusetts, some jails are known as houses of correction. In Washington some adult prisons are called reformatories, while in other states this is reserved as a term for a prison of the juvenile justice system.
Prisons in the criminal justice system
In the domain of criminal justice, prisons are used to incarcerate convicted criminals, but also to house those charged with or likely to be charged with offences. Custodial sentences are sanctions authorised by law for a range of offences. A court may order the incarceration of an individual found guilty of such offences. Individuals may also be committed to prison by a court before a trial, verdict or sentence, generally because the court determines that there is a risk to society or a risk of absconding prior to a trial. The nature of prisons and of prison systems varies from country to country. Common though by no means universal attributes are segregation by sex, and by category of risk.
The availability of incarceration as a sanction is designed to mitigate against the likelihood of individuals committing offences: thus prisons are in part about the punishment of individuals who transgress statutory boundaries. Prisons also can serve to protect by removing from society individuals likely to pose a risk to others. Prisons also can have a rehabilitative role in seeking to change the nature of individuals so as to reduce the probability that they will reoffend upon release.
Crime and punishment is a wide, very controversial and deeply politicised area, and so too are discussions of prisons, prison systems, the concepts and practices of imprisonment; and the sanction of custody set against other non-custodial sanctions and against the capital sanction, a death sentence. Some of these issues are discussed in the by country descriptions, below.
Prisons form part of military systems, and are used variously to house prisoners of war, enemy combatants, those whose freedom is deemed a national security risk by military or civilian authorities, and members of the military found guilty of a serious crime.
Many nations have a separate legal system for members of the armed forces; in the United States, this differential treatment seems to be suggested, but by no means mandated, by the Framers in the Fifth Amendment to its constitution. Members of the US armed forces are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and most military convicts convicted by court martial end up at the US Disciplinary Barracks or in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In former times, criminals in the naval services, including those convicted of sodomy were sent to the once-infamous Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine, which was closed in 1974.
Most militaries have some sort of military police unit operating at the divisional level or below to perform many of the same functions as civilian police, from traffic-control to the arrest of violent offenders and the supervision of detainees and prisoners.
The military equivalent to the civilian jail, in the sense of "holding area" or "place of brief incarceration for petty crimes" is known colloquialy as the "guardhouse" (land and air forces) or brig (naval forces). US military forces currently maintain regional several prisoner holding facilities in the US; see List of U.S. Military Prisons for names and locations.
Prisoners of War
The Geneva Convention provides an international protocol defining minimum requirements and safeguards for prisoners of war. In reality, many of these protocols are often ignored, especially more recent ones mandating the payment of a daily wage. Prisoners are often kept in ad-hoc camps near the battlefield, guarded by MP's (military police) until they can be transferred to more permanent barracks for the duration of the conflict. Treatment of prisoners-of-war has varied from age to age and nation to nation, the quality of conditions for prisoners often linked with the intensity of the conflict and the resources of the warring parties. During World War II in Europe, on the Western front at least, conditions for prisoners were generally mild (though by no means pleasant) compared to those at the notorious Andersonville facility during the Civil War, although numerous abuses were recorded even then.
Again, particularly after the US led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, military prisons and prison systems are highly controversial, at least in respect to the open-ended detention of foreigners without trial and/or prisoner abuse.
Military Prisons in Popular Culture
Military prisons and the treatment of military prisoners have often figured prominently in modern literature, cinema and even politics.
In the 19th century, written accounts of the barbaric treatment accorded prisoners on both sides during the Napoleonic and Crimean wars helped lead to the founding of the Red Cross and the promulgation of the Geneva Conventions.
There are numerous examples of 20th and 21st century cinema dealing with military prisons, including Hart's War (2002), starring Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell as American POW's in a German prison camp, continuing in a cinematic vein begun by Stalag 17 (1953). Stalag portrays the struggles of a group of American airmen in a German Luftwaffe prison to deal with the poverty and drudgery of captivity and to help select members escape to freedom while dealing with a hostile commandant who has planted a spy in their midst. Based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, this movie is widely considered the break-out role for American actor William Holden. Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) features Paul Newman as an Army deserter and petty criminal who, with the encouragement of the athletic director at the above-mentioned Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks uses boxing as means to deal with his restless energy and, eventually, to escape his life of crime and poverty and marry the girl of his dreams. Andersonville (1996) andThe Andersonville Trial (1970), both TV movies, dealt with the conditions at Andersonville Prison and its aftermath. George C. Scott directed and starred in the latter, along with William Shatner; the movie was based on an earlier play by Saul Levitt, who worked on the Untouchables TV series. The Caine Mutiny (1954) starring Humphrey Bogart, Fred MacMurray and Van Johnson dealt with the military legal system and naval brigs.
Some of the late-twentieth century military novels of American writer W.E.B Griffin make mention of the former Portsmouth Naval Prison facility, and the pity that a young Marine feels for the unfortunate Portsmouth-bound homosexual sailors he has to guard as they are transported there by train.
Certain countries maintain or have in the past had a system of political prisons; arguably the gulags associated with Stalinism are best known. The definition of what is and is not a political crime and a political prison is, of course, highly controversial, and critics can be found to rebut the suggestion that any of the following are political prisons:
World prison populations
Over nine million people are imprisoned worldwide. The prison population in most countries increased significantly beginning in the 1990's.
By country, the United States prison population is the world's largest in absolute terms, at more than 2 million; 70% of imprisonments are drug related. It is second largest in relative numbers with 701 people per 100,000 incarcerated; only in Rwanda, where as of 2002, over 100,000 people were held on suspicion of participation in the 1994 genocide, is the relative figure larger.
Both Russia and China also had prison populations of 1 million or more in 2002. No data is available for North Korea.  (http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs2/r188.pdf),  (http://www.prisonstudies.org/)
The UK had 73,000 inmates in its facilities in 2003, with France and Germany having a similar number.
Prisons in the United Kingdom
For information on prisons and related subjects in the United Kingdom, see articles on Her Majesty's Prison Service, on the United Kingdom prison population and the List of United Kingdom prisons.
Gatehouse of former 19th century St Albans
Prisons in the United States
- See Prisons in the United States
- James (Jim} Bruton, Big House: Life Inside a Supermax Security Prison, Voyageur Press (July, 2004), hardcover, 192 pages, ISBN 0896580393
- George Jackson. George Jackson: George Jackson: Soledad brother.
- Ted Conover. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. Knopf, 2001. Trade paperback, 352 pages, ISBN 0375726624.
- Mark L. Taylor. The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2001. ISBN 0800632834.
- Wil S. Hylton. "Sick on the Inside: Correctional HMOs and the coming prison plague" (http://www.wrongfuldeathinstitute.com/links/sickontheinside.htm). Harper's Magazine, August 2003.