After I teach at Kingsborough Community College today, I’ll take 2.5 hours of bus/train/bus/car to get to Rikers Island Correctional Facility to teach inmates about medieval pilgrimage. I’ll make a similarly long and annoying trip to get back home. When I did prison work in Boston it literally took an entire to day to get out there, do our work, and get home.

Prisons were a late development in medieval Europe. Imprisonment was first used as a punishment in monasteries because it was forbidden for religious to shed blood or have their blood shed. Therefore, monastic wrongdoers could not be mutilated or executed for serious crimes as secular people would have been. So, monks and nuns were confined in the cells in which they lived.

Imprisonment started to be more widely used in the 13th c. Even then, long-term penal sentencing was an exception. Mostly prisons were used to keep flight-risks in custody until their trial or to hold debtors until they paid off their creditors (which created a host of other problems). Prisons were usually put in the center of town – urban officials and the populace were proud of their new modern penal devices. This placement allowed prisoners to remain, in limited ways to be sure, members of their community – not least in that they were more easily visited by friends, family, and volunteers.

Medieval prisons were horrible places but we can learn from their sparing use and a central location that made incarceration less burdensome to those who support and are supported by incarcerated people.

November 10, 2015

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