What was the first jail in the world?

The concept of imprisoning people as punishment for crimes has existed for thousands of years. Various ancient civilizations utilized forms of incarceration, confinement and detention. However, the earliest dedicated structures specifically built to hold prisoners that resembled modern jails emerged in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Ancient Civilizations

In ancient times, imprisonment was rarely used as a punishment in itself. It functioned more as a way to confine people awaiting trial or execution. Fines, corporal punishment, mutilation and capital punishment were more common penalties for crimes. However, some early civilizations did implement forms of incarceration as punishment.

Ancient Egypt

In Ancient Egypt, people convicted of crimes could be placed in labor camps and forced to work for the state. These detention camps housed prisoners in very harsh conditions.

Ancient Babylon

The Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest known legal codes dating back to about 1754 BC, prescribed imprisonment as a punishment for certain offenses in Ancient Babylon. People sentenced to jail time often had to labor while incarcerated.

Ancient Greece

There is evidence of detention centers to hold people awaiting trial in Ancient Greece. However, imprisonment was rarely used as a form of punishment. Fines, death, ostracism or exile were more common sentences.

Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome utilized various forms of detention and imprisonment. Carcer was Rome’s central prison used for short-term confinement prior to trial or execution. Lautumiae were quarries near Syracuse converted into dungeons to hold prisoners. And work houses known as ergastula imprisoned slaves in chains.

So while incarceration existed in rudimentary forms in the ancient world, purpose-built structures to house criminals as punishment were uncommon. The use of imprisonment as a major criminal sanction developed much later.

Middle Ages

Throughout the Middle Ages, imprisonment remained an uncommon punishment in Europe. Fines, branding, mutilation, flogging and execution were the most prevalent sentences. However, some basic jails and dungeons existed.

Ecclesiastical Prisons

The Catholic Church operated some of the earliest prisons during the Middle Ages in Europe to hold clergy and other religious people who needed to do penance. These ecclesiastical prisons were located within monasteries and were used both for punishment and protection.

Royal Prisons

Kings maintained royal prisons such as Tower of London to detain political prisoners, prisoners of war and nobility. These royal prisons were not used to incarcerate common criminals.

Town Jails

Some basic town jails called communas emerged across Europe in the 13th-14th centuries to temporarily hold local offenders awaiting trial or punishment in the communa’s attached courtroom. Conditions were filthy and grim.

Debtors’ Prisons

Debtors’ prisons existed to hold people who failed to pay back loans until they came up with the money. Debtors often had to purchase food and bedding while incarcerated.

So in summary, jails in the Middle Ages were relatively rare and primitive, focused on detaining debtors, clergy, political prisoners and nobility rather than ordinary criminals. Their use as an actual criminal punishment was limited. That began to change, however, in the late Middle Ages.

Late Middle Ages

Towards the end of the Middle Ages in the 14th-15th centuries, imprisonment started to emerge as a more common legal punishment across Europe. The rise of modern jails and prisons accelerated in the Renaissance beginning in the late 15th century.


One of the first dedicated correctional institutions was the London Bridewell, opened in 1555. Bridewells imprisoned people convicted of petty offenses and put them to work doing manual labor. Soon Bridewells spread across England and Scotland.


Amsterdam opened the rasphuis in 1596, considered by many historians to be Europe’s first full-scale penitentiary. It imprisoned convicts from across the Netherlands and forced them into hard labor while isolated in cells at night.


The Spinhuis was founded in 1597 in Ghent as one of the earliest prisons for women. It compelled imprisoned women to engage in spinning wool and other textile work.


German authorities established the zuchthaus in the late 16th century. Much like the rasphuis, convicts were subjected to forced labor and kept in solitary confinement when not working.

So by the end of the 16th century, dedicated correctional facilities focused on work and harsh discipline were spreading across Western Europe. This signaled the origins of the modern prison system.

Emergence of Modern Prisons

While the seeds of the contemporary prison system took root in the 1500s, truly modern jails emerged and evolved over the following few centuries. They emphasized incarceration over corporal punishment.

Amsterdam Correctional Houses

After the rasphuis, Amsterdam opened correctional facilities for men (1620) and women (1660) focused on providing moral and religious reeducation to prisoners to reform their behaviors.

Maison de Force

King Louis XIV of France instituted the maison de force in the mid 1600s. These were prisons organized on industrial lines where inmates worked in manufactories and shops.

Pennsylvania System

The Walnut Street Jail built in Philadelphia in 1773 implemented solitary confinement and labor in individual cells. This “Pennsylvania system” of constant isolation became a model elsewhere.

Auburn System

New York’s Auburn Penitentiary pioneered the “Auburn system” in 1817 based on prisoners laboring together silently by day and isolated in cells at night. It also introduced enhanced security.

Pentonville Prison

Pentonville prison opened in London in 1842 using the separate system of constant solitary confinement. It became a prominent prototype for many 19th century prisons.

So by the early 1800s, clearly recognizable modern prisons deploying systematic incarceration, labor, isolation and control had emerged and were spreading rapidly across Europe and North America. Imprisonment was now an established criminal punishment.

The First Official Jails

Given this evolution, which correctional institution can claim the title of being the first actual jail in the modern sense of the word? There are a few key contenders:

London Bridewell (1555)

As mentioned, the Bridewell in London was arguably the earliest dedicated correctional institution created specifically to incarcerate and reform petty criminals.

Amsterdam Rasphuis (1596)

Similarly, the rasphuis in Amsterdam was one of the earliest penitentiaries specifically built to imprison convicts and subject them to hard labor in cells.

Rome Regina Coeli Prison (1658)

The Regina Coeli or Queen of Heaven prison in Rome dates back to 1658. Still operational today, it laid a blueprint for future prisons.

Newgate Prison (1718)

London’s notorious Newgate prison, although existing since medieval times, was rebuilt in 1718 as one of the earliest modern jails with systematic incarceration.

Walnut Street Jail (1773)

Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail implemented solitary confinement and a daily routine of labor that became the influential “Pennsylvania system” of imprisonment.

Auburn Penitentiary (1817)

Auburn was an early model of the “Auburn system” defined by its silent congregate labor by day and isolation by night.

So in summary, while earlier prisons existed, these 18th and early 19th century models represent what could be considered the very first dedicated, purpose-built jails in the modern sense. They formed the foundations for prisons and mass incarceration as it exists today around the world.


The origins of jails and incarceration as formal criminal punishment seem to stem from 16th and 17th century Europe with the creation of facilities specifically built to confine and control offenders using hard labor and discipline. But imprisonment and detention certainly predate this era extending back thousands of years to ancient civilizations.

The widespread establishment of prisons as we know them today emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as progressive reformers pushed for incarceration and control rather than physical punishment. Auburn, Walnut Street and Newgate were highly influential as some of the earliest prisons embodying modern philosophies and architectural designs.

While identifying the absolute first jail in the world may be impossible, these pioneering correctional institutions represent the genesis of the modern prison system that has now spread across the globe and remains controversial to this day. The evolution of imprisonment and debates around its efficacy and morality are certain to continue. But learning the history provides critical context and perspective on where prisons originated and how they developed over time.

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