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Conditions of Prisons in the First Century
Paul in Roman Custody.

Conditions of life in prison
Summary: Prison in the days of Paul, were not as we may know in a country like Australia, with our human rights mentality so deeply embedded in our heads. Prisons in the days of Paul were not pleasant or healthy. In the mind of the people, prison was equal to death, despair, sickness of mind and body, and humiliation. This short article looks at four features of prison: physical constraints, chains, hygiene, and distress and mortality. An example of Paul’s experience in prison would be at the end of this article. We will take as an example the passage of Acts 16:16-38. 1. The physical constraints in imprisonment. a) Overcrowding and lack of basic necessities. There are no indications left for us to study about the amount of prisoners that a prison could hold or what constituted overcrowding. However, there are some things that we do know, for example, certain events such as war, civil disturbance, enforcement of condemnatory edicts, etc., could pack prisons beyond capacity. The consequences of these is unbearable heat and dehydration of prisoners. Plus, the need of security resulted in inadequate ventilation (no windows), and the lack of air arrived sometimes to serious dangerous levels. We can be quite sure that comfort for sleep, were nonexistent. Prisoners, had the floor to make themselves comfortable, or if they were lucky, a rough sleeping pallet near the floor. The only mention of bedclothes, is that sometimes prisoners or their helpers (families) would bring something. Prisoners outer cloak was essential clothing under normal circumstances. They wore it over their back during the day and at night it became a part of one’s bedding, keeping out the cold of the night. b) Darkness and Light Prisons generally were devoid of light. Apparently even in the free prison at Rome (for upper class prisoners), was a place of darkness. In the more secure cells there was no natural light at all. During the night, there was absolute darkness, and after nightfall in some places light was not permitted. The darkest places were normally the more secure, but they were also the unhealthiest. But far worse was the psychological impact of
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total darkness on the prisoners. 2.- Chains The principal objective of chains is to restrict mobility and prevent escape. The manner in which prisoners wore chains was varied: they could be fettered by one or both legs; wearing manacles on one or both wrists; chained from the neck; they could be chained in pairs; sometimes at night all prisoners could be chained together, etc. The chains were made of rough iron, that would eventually rust with the perspiration of the prisoners, causing untold pain, saying nothing of the weight of the chains, normally around 7 kg. The chains weight would be debilitating and the potential for the chain to render the limbs useless was increased when the prisoner was deprived of sufficient nourishment. Finally, chains were noisy, and the creaking of chains caused scant sleep of prisoners. 3.- Diet and Hygiene a.) Food and Drink Neglect and abuse was known in the matter of diet and hygiene. Securing adequate nourishment fell on the shoulders of the prisoners (family and friends); poor prisoners often were neglected and suffer great misery. To depend on the ration of the prison was actually to put their life at risk, because its lack of variety, quantity and quality. In fact the food of prisoners was about half the amount of food given to slaves. The food barely sustained life, and they could be turned easily into a weapon of punishment, torture or even execution when withheld by guards. The only generosity in official provision for many was the last meal before execution. Lastly, for a Jew, prison signifies a place of profound uncleanness, especially a gentile prison. The matters of Jewish commensality and food purity regulations, was impossible to follow, unless outside benefactors really helped. b.) Clothing and Personal Toilette Prisoners were often unclean and lacking in good hygiene. Elsewhere is written about the stench that emanated from prisons, and officers were complete oblivious of the hygiene of the prisoners. Baths could be provided (even once a day), but that was only to very high standards prisoners (princes and the like), the same is the case of haircuts. Poorer prisoners had to endure without baths. Barbers knives were a danger to security; therefore prisoners had to put up with long unkempt and matted hair, and full o lice. The clothes worn in the filth of the prison, on bodies that were seldom washed or bathed,
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became absolutely soiled and deteriorated rapidly as it was used as work clothes and night wear. With little space, especially when prisons were overcrowded, prisoners had to do “everything” in the same place. Moreover, the dead (those who died of lack of air, or illness, or changes of temperature) were piled in a corner to be taken away latter. 4.- Stress, Distress and Mortality a.) General Debility and sickness Prisons were associated with death, and this was further solidify by the constant physical and psychological distress brought by life in custody. Prisons were not healthy places. The prisoners were normally weak, this brought about by the scarcity of good nourishment, lack of hygiene, confinement, darkness, torture. And being weak, they caught sickness easier than in normal circumstances. b.) Suicide Many of the deaths in prisons, we can be sure, were due to the prison conditions. Many times death was an escape sought by the prisoners. Romans often chose death to prison for the simple reason that if they were sent to prison, they would be stripped of their properties and that would leave their families with nothing. This was actually contemplated in the Roman law. But generally suicide was a response to the misery of the life in prison, especially if the prospects of release were remote. However, once in custody, suicide was not easy. Guards were always on the alert for prisoners trying it. This only intensified the suffering of the prisoners, who in turn refuse to take food, but even then, they would be force fed. It is easy to see that once the sentence had finished, the prisoners emerged from confinement broken in body and spirit. 4.- Paul’s experience of prison in Acts Paul at Philippi: The experience of Paul at Philippi was certainly the worse (Acts 16:1640). After being beaten, Paul and Silas were thrown in the inner cell. Most probably, his whole stay in there was in total darkness. The other prisoners were probably in the same cell. It makes sense because it would be more secure and it explains as well how the prisoners were listening to Paul and Silas, and later Paul says “we are all here”. This account tells us something about the clothing in prison. Paul and Silas were striped to be then flogged. The despoiling would have been with
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little care for the clothes they were wearing. They would have been torn and offer little protection to their wounds and bodies from the filth of the prison. Paul and Silas suffered enough of the beating that their cleansing was effected before any practical action was undertaken. And there are many passages in we can see that Paul was suffering: the Lord said to him “courage” (Acts 27:3), Paul’s reaction when he first sees the brothers in Rome, he was encouraged and thanked God (Acts 28:15). The experience in the Philippian jail concords with what has been said, Paul and Silas had probably nothing to eat or drink since the trial earlier that day. The fact that Luke wrote that the first thing that the gaoler did after his conversion, was to bring them food, attests this. In Jerusalem: In Jerusalem, Paul’s clothes would have been ruined completely by the mob, and in prison the clothes might have suffered further deterioration, plus, there too he was stripped to receive another flogging, only he stopped them before it could happen, by saying that he was a roman citizen. The prison experience of Paul in Jerusalem was probably not all that bad (remember the distress of Claudius Lysias at having abused a Roman possessing citizenship superior to his own). The first five days of that imprisonment, was less accommodating, since Felix had send him to a normal type custody. About new clothing and baths, we can assume that they were not often facilitated to a prisoner like Paul. Other examples: In the Caesarean custody, was more relaxed. He was confined in a dignify manner, reasonable requests were attended to, except that of visitors. Later it was better, with the personal care of a centurion, and he was not isolated from visitors. Passengers in transit, aboard ships, was harsh. They were normally tied to the crossbeams of the ship below deck, in darkness, suffocating heat, and little if any food. Paul’s custody aboard the ship was clearly not worse than that of his custodian (reasonably good). He was clearly kept above deck. Paul’s ability to hear the conversations (Acts 27:10f.,21-26,3036) is an indication that he may have been chained to the centurion himself. Paul’s transit, apart from the need of basic security and the shipwreck, was not harsh. Two other examples of clothes used as bedding are the passage when the angel said to Peter to put on his cloak after breaking his chains (Acts 12:8), so presumably he was using them as bedding or sleep covering, and when Paul asks Timothy to bring him his coat left at Troas (2 Tim, 4:13). The
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urgent request for Timothy to come to Paul (2 Tim 1:4;4:9,21) finds confirmation on the failure of practical assistance in the local context (2 Tim 1:8, 15; 4:9-12,14-16) as well as the approach of winter (2Tim 4:21).

The lack of footnotes of this documents it is due to the fact that this are the notes I took during a course I did on the Acts of the Apostles. They are mainly taken form a book called Acts of the Apostles in its context. Once I find the exact reference I will add it. Peace!

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