The Founding Fathers framed much of the United States on Judeo-Christian values, so it should be no surprise that prisons have roots in religion. But is modern imprisonment biblical?
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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.
One of the first projects was to revise the criminal justice system.
Colonial America punished criminals through swift execution of verdicts, which were generally performed publicly to bring shame and humiliation to the perpetrator and 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.
After the Revolution, however, the elite in America saw this system as archaic and inhumane. They determined to improve it through a complete overhaul.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signatory of the U.S. Constitution, proposed a new system of punishment to rehabilitate criminals. The hope was to turn the “dregs of society” into good citizens. Drawing from a Quaker belief that all humans have an “inner light”—an inherent goodness—Rush devised a system of solitary confinement. (This was also similar to an isolation punishment used by Catholic monasteries to punish disobedient monks.)
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 the most effective form of punishment as it was believed that it would give an inmate time to meditate on his actions and repent. In fact, the term penitentiary includes the idea of repentance.
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. Variations of Rush’s system spread throughout America and the world.
Not much has changed in modern prisons.
Inmates are still stripped of all their possessions, given a number, and locked up in a cell as punishment—rather than being flogged and released, or publicly humiliated. More recently, high-security or “supermax” prisons have resurrected a type of Rush’s model of solitary confinement.
The modern prison system borrows ideas from the Catholics and Quakers—two different sects of Christianity. But does this mean prisons are biblical? More important, would the God of the Bible use these institutions to rehabilitate—bring a change of mind—to those who inhabit them?
Today’s prisons have three basic objectives: punish a criminal by taking away his time, remove him from society (in an attempt to reduce crime as well), and rehabilitate inmates to become functional 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 telling—despite the large amounts of funding—the utter inability of the system to contain crime.
A trend of 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, a criminal receives automatic life imprisonment.
But laws such as these have not prevented criminals from falling back into old habits. According to a 2011 Pew Research Center report, more than 4 in 10 offenders return to state prison within three years of being released. These rates have been largely stable for well over a decade.
Not only are recidivism statistics troubling, the overall amount of men and women in prison is astounding. “Federal and state corrections facilities held over 1.6 million prisoners at the end of 2010—approximately one of every 201 U.S. residents,” the Council of State Governments Justice Center reported. Compare this to the 1970s, when there were only about 268,000 prison inmates in all 50 states.
The cost of holding these prisoners raises even more concerns.
In 2001, the average inmate cost over $22,500 annually, or about $62 a day, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Findings from a 2010 Vera Institute of Justice document, however, now reveal that the total per-inmate cost averaged $31,286. This equates to a price per day of about $86, nearly a 40 percent increase!
Additionally, the Pew study showed that a mere 10 percent reduction in recidivism rates for states equals a savings of more than $635 million in one year alone!
Increasing costs are not the only worry. Correctional facilities are criticized as being a “college” for criminals. While housed with other offenders, inmates have time to discuss, learn and hone their crafts—whether grand-theft auto, breaking and entering, or learning how to better escape capture. Rather than being rehabilitated, prisoners are often released only to commit criminal acts again—but more effectively.
Some states have thrown more money at the problem to try to combat these and other challenges. Florida, for example, has invested in a new model, as reported by the Havana Herald: “[A] new $17 million re-entry center is being called the next big innovation for getting convicted felons ready to return to society.”
This approach prepares “inmates to be released through programs like adult education and substance abuse” and could also involve administering training in vocations like “small engine repair and heating and air conditioning” (ibid.).
The issue of overcrowding adds to the list of concerns. Prisoners now sue state and federal governments for “barbaric” conditions, which stem from excess population.
In the end, many inmates win, with the courts ordering institutions to solve such problems, which can include releasing prisoners early. Regrettably, some of these individuals then commit other crimes, in some cases worse than the ones for which they were originally incarcerated.
“An Oregon man who killed two people in Portland…was released from an overcrowded county jail just weeks before the first killing,” The Associated Press reported.
Clearly, America’s prisons have failed to produce any tangible results. Simply put, they do not work.
So then, what is the biblical solution? Is the current system of imprisonment, which supposedly stems from Christianity, really what the Bible supports?
Imprisonment is littered throughout Scripture. As a young man, Joseph was thrown into prison in Egypt (Gen. 39:20). Samson, after having his eyes put out, was made 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 were incarcerated.
This shows that variations of imprisonment have been used for thousands of years.
Prisons, however, are not God’s way of dealing with crime. The above examples all occurred in nations not governed 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). 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 quickly and publicly carried out—often with citizens helping to execute sentences.
On top of this, penalties fit the crime. In the 21st century, however, what and how long a sentence should be are usually left to a judge to decide. For the same offense, one man may receive years in prison, while another only a handful of months—or even none at all!
In addition, physical punishment under Israel’s civil laws was made to fit the crime, not the criminal. Some violations incurred flogging or a mandatory death sentence. Others incurred less severe punishments. For example, under certain circumstances, if a man was caught stealing, he was ordered to pay back twice the stolen amount (Ex. 22:4-9).
By consistently and publicly punishing criminals, ancient Israelites knew what consequences would result if they broke laws. In doing so, crime was thwarted.
Even though it may seem that what is outlined in the Bible is “too simple” and critics could decry it would not fit every case, applying God’s Law would 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, but rather the ideas of men. Because of this, prisons cannot get to the core problem of crime—human nature!
The concept of solitary confinement has been amplified in the form of super-maximum security or supermax prisons. Inside these institutions, inmates have little to no contact with prison staff or other inmates and are in a single cell the vast majority of a given day.
Instead of Dr. Rush’s original objective 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, cannot follow the laws of government or the rules of lower security prisons. Virtually labeled unreformable, these criminals live in solitude—with little hope they will change—and no programs in place to ensure that they do.
“An estimated 80,000 American prisoners spend 23 hours a day in closed isolation units for 10, 20 or even more than 30 years,” National Public Radio reported.
The media outlet detailed the case of a man who served 29 years in solitary confinement “in a 3-by-6 cell that he describes as a ‘tomb.’”
“There was a slab of concrete that you slept on…and during the winter time you froze, and during the summer time you overheated,” the inmate stated.
During the remaining hour, prisoners are usually escorted to an exercise pen and then returned to their cells, which generally contain 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 three meals a day are delivered through an opening on the door for the prisoner to eat in solitude.
This is not what God intended.
While modern prisons are plagued with mounting problems, God’s Way involves swift sentencing and swift punishment.
There is one future case, though, in which God will use a sort of “supermax prison” for His own purpose. A sentence for someone He deems unfixable—but whose imprisonment will yield tremendous results!
What flows from this example reveals both the author of modern prisons and why they cannot succeed in rehabilitating men and curbing crime in society.
The book of Revelation describes when Satan himself will be imprisoned. Notice: “And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him” (20:2-3).
Yet there is a specific reason why God uniquely uses imprisonment for the devil.
Unknown to man, Satan is currently ruling as “the god of this world” (II Cor. 4:4). He is the one who broadcasts his nature to all mankind, spawning “children of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). It is he who is the ultimate author of crime. And it is he who has inspired both ancient and current prison systems. Satan, who has deceived the world into following his own twisted form of imprisonment, is himself facing a soon-coming prison sentence. God uses this unique prison system because the devil and his fallen angels are immortal beings who cannot be put to death or rehabilitated.
Eventually, the Earth will be free from Satan’s sway!
The Bible reveals that all mankind’s systems of government will be wiped away. This will happen at the Return of Christ, which is detailed throughout God’s Word. Notice: “…the God of heaven [will] set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people [not left to the ideas of men], but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (Dan. 2:44).
The planet will soon be a clean slate! But unlike the early years of America, the government will not be “left to the people”—it will not be based upon the ideas of Satan or men. This government—the kingdom of God—will be built upon God’s Law, which will be administered perfectly.
With Satan’s nature removed, God will pour out His Spirit upon humanity (Joel 2:28)—enabling the whole of mankind to change and overcome selfish desires. Minds that were once ruled by the power of the devil will be able to make right decisions, grow, change and overcome their old ways. This Spirit will allow true repentance—true rehabilitation! Even the darkest glares of the most hardened criminal will be turned into joyful smiles.
This newly established kingdom will teach man to solve his most persistent problems, which stem from his flawed systems and governments. Read What Is the Kingdom of God? to learn the incredible truth about this coming time.
No longer will anyone live out their days without human contact, or move in and out of prison cells, unable to break free of a life of crime. With this kingdom’s establishment, the problems of correctional facilities will be forever removed.
Mankind will then be freed from the ineffective system of prisons!