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The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky
Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. ~ Paul of Tarsus
Timeline of total number of inmates in U.S. prisons and jails. From 1920 to 2008.
Nothing can be more abhorrent to democracy than to imprison a person or keep him in prison because he is unpopular. This is really the test of civilisation. ~ Winston Churchill
The pigs had a tier of handpicked proxy prisoners, whom they used to violently suppress those who got out of line. ~ Kevin Rashid Johnson
Changi became my university instead of my prison. … Among the inmates there were experts in all walks of life — the high and the low roads. ~ James Clavell
Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons? ~ Michel Foucault
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage,
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage. ~ Richard Lovelace
If a captive mind is unaware of being in prison, it is living in error. ~ Simone Weil

A prison, correctional facility, penitentiary, gaol (Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales), or jail 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. The most common use of prisons is as part of a criminal justice system, in which individuals officially charged with or convicted of crimes are confined to a jail or prison until they are either brought to trial to determine their guilt or complete the period of incarceration they were sentenced to after being found guilty at their trial.

In some legal systems some of these terms have distinct meanings. For instance, in the United States, "jail" and "prison" refer to separate levels of incarceration; generally speaking, jails are county or city-administrated institutions which house both inmates awaiting trial on the local level and convicted misdemeanants serving a term of one year or less, while prisons are state or federal facilities housing convicted felons serving a term of more than one year.


  • At the risk of quoting Mephistopheles I repeat: Welcome to hell. A hell erected and maintained by human-governments, and blessed by black robed judges. A hell that allows you to see your loved ones, but not to touch them. A hell situated in America's boondocks, hundreds of miles away from most families. A white, rural hell, where most of the captives are black and urban. It is an American way of death.
    • Mumia Abu-Jamal, All Things Censored (2001, Seven Stories Press), pp. 55-56
  • PRISON, n. A place of punishments and rewards. The poet assures us that --
"Stone walls do not a prison make,"
but a combination of the stone wall, the political parasite and the moral instructor is no garden of sweets.
  • To say I was shocked, stunned, or humiliated on entering the penitentiary would not be the truth. It would not be true in nine cases out of any ten. It would be true if a man were picked up on the street and taken directly to a penitentiary, but that isn't done He is first thrown into a dirty, lousy, foul-smelling cell in some city prison, sometimes with an awful beating in the bargain, and after two or three days of that nothing in the world can chock, stun, or humiliate him. He is actually happy to get removed to a county jail where he can perhaps get rid of the vermin and wash his body. By that time, convicted, and sentenced, he has learned from other prisoners just what the penitentiary is like and just what to do and what to expect. You start doing time the minute the handcuffs are on your wrists. The first day you are locked up is the hardest, and the last day the easiest. There comes a feeling of helplessness when the prison gates wallow you up - cut you off from the sunshine and flowers out in the world - but that feeling soon wears away if you have guts. Some men despair. I am sure I did not.
  • Nothing can be more abhorrent to democracy than to imprison a person or keep him in prison because he is unpopular. This is really the test of civilisation.
    • Winston Churchill, letter to Home Secretary Herbert Morrison (November 21, 1943); Churchill, Closing the Ring (vol. 5 of The Second World War; 1951), p. 679.
  • While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
    • Eugene V. Debs, Statement to the Court Upon Being Convicted of Violating the Sedition Act, September 18, 1918
  • A prison taint was on everything there. The imprisoned air, the imprisoned light, the imprisoned damps, the imprisoned men, were all deteriorated by confinement. As the captive men were faded and haggard, so the iron was rusty, the stone was slimy, the wood was rotten, the air was faint, the light was dim. Like a well, like a vault, like a tomb, the prison had no knowledge of the brightness outside; and would have kept its polluted atmosphere intact, in one of the spice islands of the Indian Ocean.
  • The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.
  • Mr. Emerson visited Thoreau at the jail, and the meeting between the two philosophers must have been interesting and somewhat dramatic. The account of the meeting was told me by Miss Maria Thoreau [Henry Thoreau's aunt]—"Henry, why are you here?" Waldo, why are you not here?
    • Attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Arthur Samuel Jones, Thoreau's Incarceration [As Told by His Jailer], p. 15 (1962). This exchange was supposed to have taken place on July 23 or 24, 1846, in the Concord, Massachusetts, jail where Thoreau was placed for nonpayment of poll taxes. There are many versions of this story, but Thoreau's account does not mention a visit by Emerson, in his Reform Papers, ed. Wendell Glick (1973), p. 79–84, so it is probably apocryphal.
  • Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?
  • I will go to prison. I will be in the Gazette. I will move to a meaner situation, or anything else that is necessary.
  • The least I can do is speak out for the hundreds of chimpanzees who, right now, sit hunched, miserable and without hope, staring out with dead eyes from their metal prisons. They cannot speak for themselves.
    • Jane Goodall as reported in Janelle Rohr, Animal rights: opposing viewpoints (1989), p. 100; Jane Goodall and Jennifer Lindsey, Jane Goodall: 40 Years at Gombe (1999), p. 6. Occasionally misreported in truncated form, as "The least I can do is speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves", in, e.g., quote honored on EarthE eco money.
  • What I was to encounter at Greensville defied anything that I’d expected. The pigs had a refined system and license for brutalizing prisoners. I was not to understand the magnitude of the situation until a few days after being there. The pigs had a tier of handpicked proxy prisoners, whom they used to violently suppress those who got out of line. The ringleader – I’ll call him Pumpkin – was a career con with a reputation for butchering other prisoners. He had a trustee job (all trustees were similarly selected). Pumpkin was allowed by the pigs to keep weapons on his person. Part of the mental terror game was that while he was out cleaning (everyone knew he was a pig hit man and stayed armed), the pigs would bring others out around him in handcuffs. ... The next day or so the pigs would put them on the exercise yard together, remove everyone’s handcuffs except the target’s (they’d put five to seven prisoners in each pen), and allow them to mob attack the still handcuffed target. Or if they wanted him butchered, he’d be unhandcuffed and left to contend unarmed against a knife-wielding Pumpkin.
    • Kevin Rashid Johnson, Defying the Tomb: Selected Prison Writings and Art of Kevin Rashid Johnson (2010)
  • The law of nations knows of no distinction of color, and if an enemy of the United States should enslave and sell any captured persons of their army, it would be a case for the severest retaliation, if not redressed upon complaint.
    • The Lieber Code of 1863, United States Department of War.
  • Stone walls do not a prison make,
    Nor iron bars a cage,
    Minds innocent and quiet take
    That for an hermitage.
  • Show me a prison, show me a jail
    Show me a pris'ner whose face has grown pale

    And I'll show you a young man
    With many reasons why
    There but for fortune, go you or I.
  • Over the past three decades, the number of prison inmates in the United States has increased by more than 600%, leaving it the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. During this time, incarceration has changed from a punishment reserved primarily for the most heinous offenders to a much greater range of crimes and a much larger segment of the population.
    • Devah Pager (23 March 2019), The Mark of a Criminal Record, 108, The American Journal of Sociology, pp. 937-975 
  • Doubles grilles à gros cloux,
    Triples portes, forts verroux,
    Aux âmes vraiment méchantes
    Vous représentez l'enfer:
    Mais aux âmes innocentes
    Vous n'etes que du bois, des pierres, du fer.
    • Fast closed with double grills
      And triple gates—the cell
      To wicked souls is hell;
      But to a mind that's innocent
      'Tis only iron, wood and stone.
    • Paul Pellisson, written on the walls of his cell in the Bastile (c. 1661)
  • The newspapers are gonna be tough on you. And prison is very, very hard on people who hurt kids. If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.
  • For critics of the criminal justice system, the arrest and imprisonment rates for blacks and other minorities suggest that the system discriminates against those groups. They argue, for example, that blacks, who make up 12 percent of the national population, could not possibly commit 48 percent of the crime: Yet that is exactly what arrest and imprisonment rates imply about black criminality. Defenders of the system argue that the arrest and imprisonment rates do not lie; the system simply reacts to the prevalence of crime in the black community. As we have noted repeatedly, prior research has not settled this controversy. For every study that finds discrimination in arrests, convictions, sentencing, prison treatment, or parole, another denies it.
  • Research on sentence patterns lends support to the contention that the system "values" whites more than it does minorities. For example, Zimring, Eigen, and O'Malley (1976) found that black defendants who killed whites received life imprisonment or the death sentence more than twice as often as blacks who killed blacks. Other research has found this relationship for other crimes as well: Defendants receive harsher sentences if the victim is white and lesser sentences if he or she is black. If harsher sentences do indicate that minority status equals lower status in the criminal justice system, that equation may also help explain why minorities serve longer terms, all other things held equal, than white prisoners.
  • Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass,
    Nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron,
    Can be retentive to the strength of spirit;
    But life, being weary of these worldly bars,
    Never lacks power to dismiss itself.
  • I have been studying how I may compare
    This prison where I live unto the world:
    And for because the world is populous
    And here is not a creature but myself,
    I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out.
  • Might I but through my prison once a day
    Behold this maid: all corners else o' the earth
    Let liberty make use of; space enough
    Have I in such a prison.
  • And, for thou wast a spirit too delicate
    To act her earthy and abhorr'd commands,
    Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee,
    By help of her more potent ministers
    And in her most unmitigable rage,
    Into a cloven pine; within which rift
    Imprison'd thou didst painfully remain
    A dozen years; within which space she died
    And left thee there; where thou didst vent thy groans
    As fast as mill-wheels strike.
  • If they lock me up, at least I'll have a place to stay.
  • If a captive mind is unaware of being in prison, it is living in error. If it has recognized the fact, even for the tenth of a second, and then quickly forgotten it in order to avoid suffering, it is living in falsehood. Men of the most brilliant intelligence can be born, live and die in error and falsehood. In them, intelligence is neither a good, nor even an asset. The difference between more or less intelligent men is like the difference between criminals condemned to life imprisonment in smaller or larger cells. The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell.
    • Simone Weil, in "Human Personality" ('c. 1933), in Simone Weil : An Anthology (1986), edited by Siân Miles, p. 69
  • I never saw sad men who looked
    With such a wistful eye
    Upon that little tent of blue
    We prisoners called the sky,
    And at every careless cloud that passed
    In happy freedom by.
  • The Americans have always been more open to my ideas. In fact, I could earn a living in America just by lecturing. One of my brightest audiences, incidentally, were the prisoners in a Philadelphia gaol — brighter than my students at university.
    • Colin Wilson, Interview with Paul Newman in Abraxas Unbound #7

Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations[edit]

Quotes reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 634.
  • In durance vile here must I wake and weep,
    And all my frowsy couch in sorrow steep.
    • Robert Burns, Epistle from Esopus to Maria in Chambers' Burns' Life and Work, Volume IV
  • Whene'er with haggard eyes I view
    This dungeon that I'm rotting in,
    I think of those companions true
    Who studied with me at the U-
    Niversity of Göttingen.
    • George Canning, song, Of One Eleven Years in Prison. Found in The Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin. Also in Burlesque Plays and Poems, edited by Henry Morley
  • Prison'd in a parlour snug and small,
    Like bottled wasps upon a southern wall.
  • As if a wheel had been in the midst of a wheel.
    • Ezekiel. X. 10
  • In durance vile.
  • That which the world miscalls a jail,
    A private closet is to me.
    * * * * *
    Locks, bars, and solitude together met,
    Make me no prisoner, but an anchoret.
    • Attributed to Sir Roger L'Estrange. Also to Lord Capel. Found in the New Foundling Hospital for Wit (Ed. 1786), IV. 40, as a supplementary stanza. See Notes and Queries (April 10, 1909), p. 288

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