Since ancient times, prisons have been used for the involuntary incarceration of people from all strata of society including royalties, political dissidents, prisoners of war, slaves, vagrants and criminals.


More than two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire constructed an underground prison at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, adjacent to the Forum Romanum which was then the heart of government and commercial activities. Prisoners were tried at the Forum Romanum and cast into this dark and ominous prison prior to their execution.

In the United Kingdom, the Tower of London was used to imprison royalties such as Queen Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey and noblemen such as Sir Thomas More during the 16th century. More recently, it was used to incarcerate prisoners and spies of enemy states during the First and Second World Wars. Another prison in London, the Newgate, was used to incarcerate criminals and vagrants for over eight hundred years since the 12th century while some of the most hard-core convicted criminals were deported and imprisoned at the Port Arthur prison at Tasmania, Australia in the 19th century.

Within the former Soviet Union, prison camps known as the “Gulag” housed a wide range of convicts including petty criminals and political prisoners Over at France, the defeated Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte was imprisoned on the island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic where he died in 1821.


One of the most infamous prisons in Asia is the Hoa Loa prison, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton” which held American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. In China, imprisonment was coupled with hard labour during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, this was known as “Laogai” (劳改) which means “reform”, this has been abolished in recent years.

Here in Singapore, the Changi Prison Complex has focused on rehabilitation of offenders via emphasis on mental health in Singapore prisons. Psychiatrists in Singapore, as well as psychologists, both in public and private sectors, collaborate to reduce recidivism. Primary and specialist healthcare are accessible to prisoners with aftercare community supervision to reintegrate prisoners back to society upon their release.


The most famous prisoner in modern Africa is probably Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected President of a fully represented South Africa. He was imprisoned as a political prisoner under the apartheid regime at a prison on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa in the late 20th century. Prisons had also been used to incarcerate slaves. For several hundred years between the 15th to the 18th century, more than 30,000 African slaves passed through the “door of no return” each year into the brutal and degrading Elmina Castle Slave Prison in Ghana prior to being sold into slavery in America.

In the United States of America, the first maximum security prison of modern time, Alcatraz, was built on an island in San Francisco Bay where it operated until the 1960s. Currently, the United States of America has the largest number of documented prisoners in the world. Prisoners of war form another important category of prisoners. The Baghdad Correctional Facility, also known as the Abu Ghraib prison, held Iraqi prisoners of war and enemy combatants during the recent Gulf War and “War on Terror”, it gained notoriety and international condemnation because of the systematic physical, psychological and sexual abuse of the prisoners held there including gruesome tortures and homicides


Today, prisons exist across countries and play important functions within the criminal justice and security systems of nations and regimes. With the advent of technology and increased understanding of the associations between various psychopathologies and offending, there will be likely be an increased focus on quality mental healthcare and personalised psychotherapy for offenders with mental disorders while safeguarding society’s need for security.

Dr John Bosco Lee

Forensic Psychiatrist


Foucault M. (1975). Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison.Translated from French by Alan Sheridan in 1977. Penguin Books.

Gunn J. (1974a); Prisons, shelters and homeless men. Psychiatric Quarterly,48, 505-12.

Morris N & Rothman D.J. (1998); The Oxford history of the prison: the practice of punishment in western society. Oxford University Press.