The house of correction, now used generally as a term for jails, has a very specific meaning and important place in history. These prisons, which were developed in England for centuries before becoming legally mandated institutions in the early 17th century, were a means of both detention and punishment for criminals. Though many look at the privations and brutality of old prison systems in horror, the house of correction was, in its own way, a revolutionary concept that, in theory, was meant to provide prisoners with an opportunity for rehabilitation.
Prior to the 16th century, jails were primarily used as holding places rather than institutions of punishment. Early laws far favored the administration of corporal and capital punishment, including whipping, branding, public imprisonment in stocks, beheading, burning at the stake, and mutilation. While waiting for a sentence to be carried out, prisoners were held in local jails, but crimes rarely carried a jail sentence. The idea of keeping a prisoner in jail for a while and then releasing him or her was rather strange to legal systems of the time.
Queen Elizabeth I of England had more than a few problems to deal with in her reign, one of which was the rebuilding of her country as a wealthy nation. The creation of the house of correction played some part in this transformation that defined her rule, by using prisoners for hard labor. Instead of the mere entertainment and warning provided by a good whipping, prisoners would be incarcerated for a set period, usually not exceeding two years, and forced to work hard jobs, which was seen as reformatory. The fact that the house of correction also provided free labor to increase the wealth of the country was probably a large factor in the 1609 law that made a house of correction compulsory in every English county.
The development of the house of correction played a major part in what would come to be known as the Poor Laws. These laws were a means of dividing up destitute citizens into those that deserved social services, such as the elderly or infirm, and those that were vagrants, beggars, and thieves by choice. The laws were meant to put the care and the provision for the so-called deserving poor in the hands of each community, while creating a mechanism to reform or at least punish those who were “undeservingly” poor.
The first house of correction was a palace built during the mid 16th century called Bridewell. For this reason, other houses of correction came to be commonly known as Bridewells, a term that spread beyond England's borders. The prison was closed in 1855, but spawned several similarly-named institutions throughout Europe and the US.