What does it mean to be imprisoned

jail

In a prison for juveniles, the juvenile prison system. It is in Ebrach in Bavaria. A prisoner is here in an officer’s office trying to help him think about his life.
A cell in the Santa-Fu prison in Hamburg.

A prison is a place where prisoners live. The state determines who has to go to prison. The prisoner has mostly broken a law: being imprisoned is his punishment for it. Often the rest of the people should be protected from the criminal.

In many countries, however, there are also people in prison who have never stood before a judge. The government doesn't like that they are against the government. Then they are locked away or they disappear without a trace.

In Germany today, the state actually no longer says prison, but a correctional facility. Justice is another word for justice or the law of the state but also for the authorities that deal with the enforcement of the law. In Austria it is the prison and in Switzerland it is the penal institution. Most people just say prison anyway.

Many prisons are large, thick-walled buildings. There are iron bars on the windows and a high fence or wall with watchtowers goes around the building. This prevents the prisoners from breaking out. Still, it happens sometimes.

Much is forbidden in prison. For example, prisoners can borrow books from the prison library, but they usually cannot access the Internet. They are rarely allowed to receive visitors. The daily routine is strictly regulated.

Who has to go to jail?

Usually you are in jail as a punishment. A law says what happens to someone if they don't obey the law. For example, the law says: Anyone who steals will be punished with a fine or imprisonment for up to five years. Imprisonment means prison.

In court, the judges hear what a defendant is accused of. The judges decide whether he is guilty and how severely he should be punished. They can put a thief in prison for a maximum of five years.

But there are other reasons why someone is in jail. Sometimes the police still don't know if someone is guilty. The police and the court fear that the suspect could flee to another country. Then the suspect comes into custody. Such a detention is not yet as strict as the real prison. The suspect is not supposed to be punished: it is not yet known for sure whether he is guilty.

You can also go to jail if you are not allowed to live in a country. For example, some foreigners came to Germany because they were looking for asylum. If the state refuses, the foreigner should leave Germany. If the state is afraid that the foreigner will be hiding, he will be in custody for deportation. In Switzerland they say "deportation detention".

Have there always been prisons?

In an old prison in Berlin. The government of the German Democratic Republic has put its opponents in prison. This prison is now the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial. They explain what the communists did with their prisoners.

For a long time it was not common for people to go to jail. Most of the time, they were punished by beating or otherwise. Murderers and other serious criminals were killed. For example, those who were caught in the war were sold as slaves. A prison is expensive: it costs the state a lot of money to lock someone up.

Nevertheless, the ancient Greeks and Romans locked people up. But that was often not a punishment for a crime: most prisoners could not pay their debts. In a prison, the prisoners usually had to work hard. Also, some people went to jail because they were against the king. Nevertheless, there were rather few prisoners because the actual criminals were punished differently.

In the years after 1700, and especially after 1800, many prisons were built. People found it unfair when someone was punished with death straight away for a small cause. Some also thought: The prisoners should learn in prison how to behave better so that one does not become a criminal again. Today this is called "social rehabilitation" or "reintegration into society".

What happens in a prison

In the past, prisons were often dark rooms in the basement, for example in a castle. It was cold and damp. Often they had hardly any daylight or fresh air. There was a lack of mattresses and blankets, and often there was at most a bucket as a toilet. The food was bad and unhealthy. There are still bad conditions today, especially in poor countries.

In Europe today, prisoners are cared for much better. States have rules to ensure that prisoners live in a decent manner. The main punishment is that one loses one's freedom. Care is taken that they cannot get out by themselves. A prisoner is not allowed to walk alone through the building: an officer of the institution accompanies the prisoner, for example from the prisoner's cell to the dining room. There is always a door in the corridors that you can only get through with the right key.

There are also different prisons for different prisoners. Most of the prisoners are men. There are separate prisons for women and young people.

The prisoners also have a strict daily routine of work, food, and so on. The wages are very low. There is also a very limited range of goods that prisoners can buy. Leisure activities such as sport, fitness and others are only available as a basic offer.

The imprisonment should also make the inmates fit for the future life in freedom. Many prisoners learn in therapy to think about their wrongdoing and not to repeat it. This is very important, especially in juvenile prisons. Those who have not learned a trade can often do so in prison. Otherwise there is too great a risk that someone will commit another crime after being released.

  • Dungeon in a castle in Spain, the Castell de Montsonís.

  • There used to be a youth detention center here in Wismar.

  • The Garsten Prison in Upper Austria used to be a monastery.


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