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A prison’, correctional facility, detention center, gaol (Australia, New Zealand, Republic of Ireland) jail (US, Canada and U.K. ), penitentiary, or remand centre is a facility in which inmates are forcibly confined and denied a variety of freedoms under the authority of the state as a form of punishment after being convicted of crimes. Prisons are most commonly used within a criminal justice system: people charged with crimes may be imprisoned until they are brought to trial; those pleading or being found guilty of crimes at trial may be sentenced to a specified period of imprisonment. Besides their use for punishing civil crimes, jails and prisons are frequently used by authoritarian regimes.

The term prison or penitentiary is often used to describe institutions that incarcerate people for longer periods of time, such as many years, while jail is often used to describe institutions focused on confining people for shorter periods of time (e.g. for shorter sentences or while waiting for trial / sentencing). Prisons often have facilities that are more designed with long term confinement in mind in comparison to jails.

Prisons can be used as a tool of political repression to punish what are deemed political crimes, often without trial or other legal due process; this use is illegal under most forms of international law governing fair administration of justice. In times of war, prisoners of war or detainees may be detained in military prisons or prisoner of war camps, and large groups of civilians might be imprisoned in internment camps.

The use of prisons can be traced back to the rise of the state as a form of social organization. Corresponding with the advent of the state was the development of written language, which enabled the creation of formalized legal codes as official guidelines for society. The best known of these early legal codes is the Code of Hammurabi, written in Babylon around 1750 BC. The penalties for violations of the laws in Hammurabi’s Code were almost exclusively centered on the concept of lex talionis (“the law of retaliation”), whereby people were punished as a form of vengeance, often by the victims themselves. This notion of punishment as vengeance or retaliation can also be found in many other legal codes from early civilizations, including the ancient Sumerian codes, the Indian Manama Dharma Astra, the Hermes Trismegistus of Egypt, and the Israelite Mosaic Law.

Some Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, began to develop ideas of using punishment to reform offenders instead of simply using it as retribution. Imprisonment as a penalty was used initially for those who could not afford to pay their fines. Eventually, since impoverished Athenians could not pay their fines, leading to indefinite periods of imprisonment, time limits were set instead. The prison in Ancient Athens was known as the desmoterion (“place of chains”).

The Romans were among the first to use prisons as a form of punishment, rather than simply for detention. A variety of existing structures were used to house prisoners, such as metal cages, basements of public buildings, and quarries. One of the most notable Roman prisons was the Mamertine Prison, established around 640 B.C. by Ancus Marcius. The Mamertine Prison was located within a sewer system beneath ancient Rome and contained a large network of dungeons where prisoners were held in squalid conditions, contaminated with human waste.[citation needed] Forced labor on public works projects was also a common form of punishment. In many cases, citizens were sentenced to slavery, often in ergastula (a primitive form of prison where unruly slaves were chained to workbenches and performed hard labor).

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