Q. Recently we read in the Torah about Joseph being in prison. Did prison do him any good? Do prisons do anybody any good?
A. A range of midrashic material deals with Joseph’s incarceration. We are not certain how he coped with what must have been harsh conditions and rough company, but the story makes its contribution to the sequel in which he saved Egypt from destruction.
Prison is never a holiday even though some prisons provide better physical amenities than others. The problem is whether prison makes a person better or worse. We know that the public thinks that it is being protected by offenders being locked away, but is that the only purpose of the prison system?
There is a fierce attack on prisons by Dagobert D. Runes in his essays, “Of God, the Devil and the Jews” (Philosophical Library, New York, 1952). He argues that herding offenders together for long periods is not likely to rehabilitate them but to spread what he calls the infectious disease of criminality. He prefers the Biblical system of cities of refuge “where offenders would be compelled to live, but allowed to have a normal life”. “Create penal villages and penal towns,” he suggests, “where offenders may live, with their families, normal lives”.