A place of confinement for one being held for trial or for one found guilty of lawbreaking. Various original-language expressions referring to a prison, or jail, have the following meanings: “house of roundness” (Ge 39:20; compare ftn), “house of the cistern” (Ex 12:29, ftn), “house of detention” (1Ki 22:27), “house of custody” (Ge 42:19; Jer 52:11), “house of the prisoners or those bound” (Jg 16:21; Ec 4:14), “house of the stocks” (2Ch 16:10), “place of bonds” (Mt 11:2), “place of guarding” (Mt 14:10), and “place of custody or observation” (Ac 5:18).
Among various ancient peoples, including the Egyptians, Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians, imprisonment was a form of legal punishment. (Ge 39:20; Jg 16:25; 2Ki 17:4; Ezr 7:26; Jer 52:31-33) Prisoners might be bound with fetters and forced to work at hard labor, such as grinding. (Jg 16:21; 2Ki 17:4; Ps 105:17, 18; Jer 52:11) In Egypt, a trusted prisoner (as was Joseph) might be placed in charge of other inmates and assigned to wait upon those who had held prominent positions before their confinement.—Ge 39:21–40:4.
Prisons date back at least to the 18th century B.C.E., for it was then that Joseph was wrongly confined to the jail that was connected to “the house of the chief of the bodyguard.” (Ge 39:20; 40:3; 41:10) This Egyptian jail apparently had a dungeon, or hole shaped like a cistern, where some prisoners were kept.—Ge 40:15; 41:14; compare Isa 24:22.
The Mosaic Law did not provide for prisons as a form of punishment. Since justice was to be executed swiftly (Jos 7:20, 22-25), only in cases requiring divine clarification do we read in the Pentateuch of individuals being committed into custody. (Le 24:12; Nu 15:34) Eventually, however, places of imprisonment came to be used by the Israelites. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, was held in “the house of fetters, in the house of Jehonathan.” This place of confinement had “vaulted rooms,” perhaps dungeon cells. Conditions were so bad there that Jeremiah feared for his life. (Jer 37:15-20) Subsequently he was transferred to “the Courtyard of the Guard,” where he got a daily allowance of bread, could receive visitors, and was able to conduct business transactions.—Jer 32:2, 8, 12; 37:21; see also 1Ki 22:27; 2Ch 16:10; Heb 11:36.
In the first century C.E., according to Roman custom, the jailers or guards were held personally accountable for prisoners. (Ac 12:19) Therefore, the jailer in Philippi, believing that his prisoners had escaped, was ready to commit suicide. (Ac 16:27) For security measures guards were often stationed at prison doors, and prisoners might have their feet put in stocks or have their hands chained to those guarding them. (Ac 5:23; 12:6-10; 16:22-24) Some prisoners were allowed visitors.—Mt 25:36; Ac 23:35; 24:23, 27; 28:16-31; see BOND; JAILER.
As foretold by Christ Jesus, many of his followers experienced imprisonment. (Lu 21:12; Ac 26:10; Ro 16:7; Col 4:10; Heb 10:34; 13:3) The apostle John, in exile on the isle of Patmos, wrote that imprisonment would continue to be a form of persecution of Christians.—Re 2:10.
Figurative Use. In a figurative sense, “prison” can refer to a land of exile (as was Babylon) or to a state of spiritual bondage or confinement. (Isa 42:6, 7; 48:20; 49:5, 8, 9; 61:1; Mt 12:15-21; Lu 4:17-21; 2Co 6:1, 2) Though the spirit creatures who were disobedient in Noah’s day do not have physical bodies that can be held by material restraints, they have been limited in their activities and are in a state of dense darkness with reference to Jehovah God, as if in a prison. (1Pe 3:19; Jude 6; see TARTARUS.) Also, the abyss in which Satan will be shut up for a thousand years is a “prison,” a place of deathlike restraint or confinement.—Re 20:1-3, 7.