PRISON, PRISONER. A place of confinement or restraint, often as a means of punishment. A person so confined.

Descriptive words.

A variety of terms are used in the OT and several in the NT to describe incarceration. These are variously tr. in the major VSS. The following list includes most of the occurrences of significance:

1. אֲזִקִּים, H272, זִקִּ֑ים, “chains,” “fetters” (Ps 149:8; Jer 40:1, 4; Nah 3:10).

5. חָנוּת, H2844, “vaulted room” cell (Jer 37:16; KJV “cabin”).

6. כֶּ֫בֶל, H3890, “fetter” (Pss 105:18; 149:8).

8. מַהְפֶּ֫כֶת, H4551, “stocks” (2 Chron 16:10; Jer 20:2f.; 29:26).

11. פְּקֻדָּה, H7213, “guardhouse,” “prison” (Jer 52:11).

12. עֹ֫צֶר, H6808, “restraint,” “coercion,” understood in KJV as “prison” (Isa 53:8).

14. סוּגַר, H6050, “prison,” “cage” (KJV “ward”) (Ezek 19:9); and מַסְגֵּר, H4993, “dungeon,” “prison” (Isa 24:22).

15. שָׁבָה, H8647, “take captive,” and its derivatives may imply, but not explicitly indicate imprisonment (e.g., Num 21:1; Ps 68:18 [Heb. 68:19]; Isa 20:4).

17. ἅλυσις, G268, “chain,” “bond,” “handcuff” (Acts 12:6f.; 21:33; 28:20; Eph 6:20; 2 Tim 1:16; Rev 20:1f.).

19. οἴκημα, G3862, “cell,” used euphemistically for “prison” (Acts 12:7).

20. σειρά, G4937, “cord,” “rope” (2 Pet 2:4).

Nature of imprisonment.

The foregoing citations indicate the different kinds of imprisonment known in Biblical times. These included incarceration in a pit, perhaps a cistern, in a military or royal building, in cells and dungeons, and occasionally in a house. Devices sometimes were used to make the prisoner uncomfortable, such as fetters or stocks. Floggings also were administered, esp. during NT times. It must be recognized, however, that imprisonment itself was not necessarily a legal means of punishment. Rather it was often a detention prior to trial, the isolation of a dangerous person, or a restraint imposed with no judicial sanction. It is observed that Ezra 7:26 provides the first clear Biblical example of imprisonment with legal sanction. Roman prisons were for detention, or to coerce those in contempt of court, but were not for the extended penalizing of free persons. Many who would have become political prisoners were allowed exile. Private prisons also existed.

Notable examples of imprisonment.

1. Joseph was taken by his brothers, cast temporarily into a pit, sold to traders (Gen 37:23-28), and again to an Egyp. officer (v. 36). Without legal sanction he was imprisoned in what is thought to have been a round structure, perhaps a fortress (39:20 and cf. A. 13, above), and ultimately in a dungeon (41:14).

2. Detention pending judicial decision (Lev 24:12; Num 15:34; cf. A.10, above).

3. Samson was imprisoned and put to hard labor (Judg 16:21).

4. Micaiah, a prophet, King Hoshea of the northern kingdom (Israel), and King Jehoiakin of Judah were put in security as political prisoners (1 Kings 22:27; 2 Kings 17:4; 24:15). When Jehoiakin was subsequently released he was wearing prison clothes (25:27-30). King Zedekiah received a worse fate (Jer 52:11; cf. A. 11 above).

5. Jeremiah suffered various forms of imprisonment: in stocks, in the king’s private prison, in another private prison—evidently with cells and dungeon, and in another dungeon, possibly a cistern. (See references to the Book of Jeremiah in A. 1 through 9 above.)

7. Prisons provided illustrative material for Jesus (Matt 5:25; 18:30; 25:36, 39, 43, 44; Luke 12:58).

8. John the Baptist was imprisoned (Matt 4:12 and parallels).

9. Jesus’ predictions that His disciples would be imprisoned (Luke 21:12) were fulfilled. Peter, who affirmed readiness to go to prison (22:33), was imprisoned at least three times according to Acts: the first time with John (Acts 4:3), then with other apostles (5:18), and alone (12:3f.). His miraculous release is well known.

10. Paul imprisoned others before his conversion (8:3) and afterward frequently was committed to prison for his faith, and was also beaten frequently (16:22-29; 22:23ff. etc.; 2 Cor 6:5; 11:23). In Rome he was under house arrest (Acts 28:16). His imprisonment resulted in the so-called “prison epistles”—Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. Following his release, the evidence leads to the assumption that he resumed his activity for a time, but only to be imprisoned again prior to his execution (2 Tim 1:8; 2:9).

11. The abode of the departed evil is called a prison in the difficult passage (1 Pet 3:18-20).

12. The abyss in which Satan is confined during the millennium is also called a prison (Rev 20:7).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

priz’-n, priz’-’-n-er, priz’-ner (there are various Hebrew words which are rendered "prison" in the King James Version, among them:

1. Hebrew Words:

(1) cohar, "round house," "fortress" (8 times in Genesis), (2) kele’ "restraint," "confinement" (12 times: in historic books, Isaiah, Jeremiah, with "house"), (3) maTTarah, "guard," "sentry" (13 times in Jeremiah and Nehemiah), (4) mahaphekheth, "distorting," i.e. stocks or pillory (4 times), (5) ’ecur, "bond," "fetters" (Ec 4:14; Jer 37:15); "ward" in the King James Version is usually the rendering for mishmar):

2. In Early Times:

The earliest occurrence of the word "prison" in the King James Version is found in the narrative of Joseph’s life in Egypt (the Jahwist). The term used, namely, cohar, means perhaps "round house" or "tower." It seems probable that among the Hebrews there were no special buildings erected as "jails" in the premonarchical period, and perhaps not before the post-exilic period, when the adoption of the civic institutions and customs of surrounding nations prevailed. In Egypt and Assyria, on the contrary, there were probably public buildings corresponding to our modern jails. Among the Hebrews, rooms in connection with the royal palace or the residence of prominent court officials would be used for the purpose.

3. Joseph in Egypt:

According to one narrative (Jahwist) in Genesis the prison in which Joseph was confined had a "keeper," while according to another narrative (the Elohist) the offending members of the royal household, namely, the royal butler and the royal baker, were placed "in ward" with the "captain of the guard" in charge, i.e. in some part of the royal palace. This is still more probable if, instead of "captain of the guard," we should translate "chief of the cooks" i.e. superintendent of the royal kitchen.

4. Causes of Imprisonment:

It was often necessary to restrict the liberty of individuals who for various causes were a menace to those in authority, without inflicting any corporal punishment, e.g. Joseph’s brethren were kept "in ward" three days (Ge 42:19); Shimei was forbidden to pass beyond the boundary of Jerusalem (1Ki 2:36); the person who was caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath was put "in ward" pending his trial (Nu 15:34). In the monarchical period, prophets who criticized the throne were put in prison, e.g. Micaiah by Ahab (1Ki 22:27), Hanani by Asa (2Ch 16:10). Hoshea, after his abortive effort to institute an alliance with So or Seve, king of Egypt, was shut up in prison by Shalmaneser (2Ki 17:4); compare also 2Ki 25:27 (Jehoiachin in Babylon); Jer 52:11 (Zedekiah in Babylon).

5. Under the Monarchy:

The Book of Jeremiah throws considerable light on the prison system of Jerusalem in the later monarchical period. The prophet was put "in the stocks that were in the upper gate of Benjamin, which was in the house of Yahweh" (20:2). Mere imprisonment was not adequate punishment for the prophet’s announcement of Judah’s doom; it was necessary to have recourse to the pillory. During the siege of Jerusalem Jeremiah was confined in the "court of the guard, which was in the king of Judah’s house" (32:2, etc.). The "court of the guard" was evidently the quarters of the sentry who guarded the royal palace. According to the narrative of Jeremiah 37, the prophet was arrested on a charge of treachery and put in prison "in the house of Jonathan the scribe" (37:15). This verse does not necessarily mean that a private house was used as a prison. The words are capable of another interpretation, namely, that a building known as the "house of Jonathan the scribe" had been taken over by the authorities and converted into a jail. We read in the following verse that the house had a "dungeon" (literally, "house of the pit") and "cabins" or "cells."

6. The Treatment of Prisoners:

The data are not sufficient to enable us to give any detailed description of the treatment of prisoners. This treatment varied according to the character of the offense which led to incarceration. Samson during the period of his imprisonment was compelled to do hard labor (Jud 16:21). Grinding was the occupation of women, and marked the depth of Samson’s humiliation. Dangerous persons were subjected to various kinds of physical mutilation, e.g. Samson was deprived of his sight. This was a common practice in Assyria (2Ki 25:7). The thumbs and great toes of Adonibezek were cut off to render him incapable of further resistance (Jud 1:6).

Various forms of torture were in vogue. Hanani the seer was put into the pillory by Asa (for "in a prison house" we should render "in the stocks"; see the Revised Version margin). In Jer 29:26 for "prison," we should render "stocks" (so the Revised Version (British and American)) or "pillory," and for "stocks," "collar" (as in the Revised Version margin). the King James Version renders a different Hebrew word by "stocks" in Job (13:27; 33:11). There was a special prison diet (1Ki 22:27), as well as a prison garb (2Ki 25:29).

7. Other Hebrew Words:

There are other Hebrew words rendered "prison" (sometimes incorrectly) in the King James Version. In Ps 142:7, the word which is translated "prison" means a "place of execution," and is derived from a root which denotes, for instance, the isolation of the leper (Le 13:5; compare $Isa 24:22; 42:7). In Isa 53:8 "oppression" not "prison" is the correct translation while in Isa 61:1 the Hebrew denotes "opening of the eyes," rather than "opening of the prison." Prisoners are promised "light after darkness, gleam after gloom."

8. In the New Testament: