The United States is probably the world’s greatest proponent of imprisonment as punishment for crimes. For the recent past, the United States has consistently had the highest incarceration rate of any large country in the world. Most of the rest of the world has followed the United States’ example, and prison is the generally accepted method of punishing crime in the world today. It will be shocking to many Americans and Europeans to hear that the whole idea of a prison system does not have biblical support, and there are good reasons to believe that it is unsound.
The Law of Moses sets out what is, without a doubt, the ideal system of criminal justice. It must be the ideal, since the Law was devised directly and entirely by God Himself, as Israel’s King. It is striking, then, that there is no jail in the Law of Moses. Punishment is by physical and financial damages or death. Outside of the Mosaic code, jail is mentioned occasionally in the Old Testament (Gen 39:29–40:23; Jer 37:11-21), which shows that it existed at the time, though there was no jail in Hammurapi’s ancient law code, either. In Numbers 15:34, a man was held in custody pending a verdict, but it was assumed that the verdict would not be that he should remain in jail. So jail did exist at the time of Moses, but only as a place to temporarily hold the accused pending an investigation and trial. Jail finally became the societal norm by the time of the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament, although the Romans used their jail system in combination with other forms of punishment.
Jail is a terrible place that forces otherwise good men to act as criminals, and subjects them to great abuse from other criminals and from guards. It creates a great financial burden on society to care for the prison population. It creates a great social and financial burden for families who lose members of their family to jail. It condemns the incarcerated to a terrible living death. It is well established that in any country that has a prison system, otherwise good people who enter the prison system for minor offenses will often come out of jail as hardened criminals. Many are forced to join gangs, often along racial lines, as a means of surviving in prison. Many are horribly beaten, abused, and even killed; there were 9,000 reported instances of (homo)sexual assault in U. S. prisons in 2011 alone, and many more that were not reported. In America, about 70 percent of prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release. Society, meanwhile, loses the services of people who otherwise could be doing productive labor, and instead has to pay to take care of them. The idea of jail as punishment for crime ultimately comes from the Greco-Roman classical world—and, more recently, from England—not from the Bible.
(As an application, the Bible never recommends jail as discipline for children. The Bible recommends rebuke and non-injurious corporeal punishment for the discipline of children [cf. Prov 13:24; 19:18; 23:13-14; 29:15, 17]. The idea that it is better for parents to send children to their rooms than it is to spank them does not come from the Bible, although the Bible does not forbid parents from sending children to their rooms. In my own experience, adults who are the best disciplined and best behaved are the ones who were disciplined physically as children, not the ones who were grounded and sent to their rooms.)
One of the fundamental flaws of the jail system (and also of extrabiblical ancient Near Eastern law codes, such as Hammurapi’s) is that it lacks a sense of punishment in proportion to the crime. Under the Mosaic Law, a thief had to make restitution for the thing which he stole, adding 20 percent to its value (Lev 6:4-5). If a man dug a pit and failed to cover it, and another man’s ox fell into the pit and died, the man who dug the pit was given the dead ox, but had to pay the price of the ox to the ox’s owner (Exod 21:33-34). The overall principle of justice in the Mosaic Law was equal recompense: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life (Exod 21:23-25). The punishment was to be exactly equal to the crime committed—no more, and no less. A murderer was to be put to death (Num 35:17). A man who knocked out his neighbor’s tooth was to have his own tooth knocked out (Lev 24:19). A false witness was to be given the sentence that would have been given to the man whom he falsely accused (Deut 19:16-19). In certain cases the judges could prescribe a limited number of lashes as punishment for unspecified crimes (Deut 25:1-3). Various other punishments are prescribed in the Mosaic Law for specific offenses, but always with the aim of equal recompense and preserving the moral fabric of society. This is a great contrast to the modern American legal system, in which often light sentences are given for serious crimes, while some minor offenses result in a long jail sentence and a heavy fine. Little or no concern is given to how the sentence might negatively impact the guilty person, his family, or all of society. The perfectly equal nature of the criminal justice system set out in the biblical Torah led Moses to boast, “What great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law, which I set before you today?” (Deut 4:8).
There are several other errors in the reasoning behind the prison system. One is the idea that all punishment that causes sensory pain is evil, whereas imprisonment is compassionate because it does not cause sensory pain (the same idea behind the movement to ban the spanking of children). However, I guarantee you that if you asked people who were being sentenced for a crime to choose between twenty years in prison or forty lashes, most of them would choose the forty lashes. They might be sore for a while, but they would still be free and able to work and to be at home with family. This shows that prison is actually a far more terrible punishment than lashes. God Himself often afflicts His people with physical problems in order to teach them lessons, and certainly God is not unjust. Even within the prison system, it is unfortunate that prisoners are punished for misbehavior by being placed in solitary confinement, rather than by being punished physically. Studies have repeatedly shown that solitary confinement creates mental and physical problems that are far more serious than the temporary, superficial injuries caused by appropriately administered physical punishments.
Many people today hold the mistaken notion that the purpose of the criminal justice system is not actually to inflict punishment on criminals, but is rather to isolate dangerous people from the rest of society and to rehabilitate them. The Bible, however, teaches that retribution is the basic purpose of the punishments inflicted by a criminal justice system (Rom 13:4). Another purpose of the criminal justice system is to restrain sin, whether by punishing people who commit crimes, or by others hearing of this punishment and being afraid to commit the same trespass. The ultimate deterrent to crime is capital punishment (cf. Deut 13:5, 11; 17:7, 12-13; 19:19-20; 21:21; 22:21-24; 24:7). Under the Mosaic Law, people who were so thoroughly wicked that they had to be removed from society—such as sorcerers (Exod 22:18), apostates (Deut 13:1-18), and uncontrollable rebellious teenagers (Deut 21:18-21)—were to be executed, rather than locked up in prison.
If people are in jail, they should have to work (or at least be given the opportunity to work), so as to make them productive contributors to society. But the American model is generally for the prisoners to be cared for at the public expense. Prisoners in America are given free meals, free medical, dental, and vision care, free clothes, free housing, 24/7 protection, and so forth—benefits that poor, hardworking people do not receive. Some of the worst criminals receive these benefits for decades, and the financial cost to society is enormous. According to a New York Times study, the city of New York’s annual cost per inmate was $167,731 in 2012. Nationwide, the average annual cost per inmate is a little more than $30,000. The moral cost to the prisoners themselves and to their families is even more devastating. Prison is an unbiblical idea that society truly cannot afford.