the hand that theives

Penitentiary, from the Mediaeval Latin pēnitēntiārius, “of penance.”

The history of magical crime and punishment is not, for all intensive purposes, far different from its mundane counterpart. For the majority of history both Wizards and Muggles employed penalties that were both harsh and automatic, with the goal of both punishing the criminal and deterring like-minded individuals through example. It was tradition in many European cities to display the severed hands of theives, heads of murders, and individuals placed in stocks near the city gate or town square as a warning to would be offenders. Despite fanciful historical retellings, jails and dungeons were not generally places where the persecuted were cast to languish their lives away in despair: they were merely the storage through which the convicted passed on their way to punishment that would either result in their deaths, release, or, especially in the age of Colonialism, their transportation across the sea to some distant holding sorely in need of a new populous.

Indeed, if there were such a thing as a “prison” as we would recognize it today, it would have to be colonies like Carolina and Australia, where convicts were sentenced for life. Such was the terror of such a fate that more people chose the gallows over deportation. Wizards and witches, at least in England, were of a similar disposition, choosing the merciful touch of the killing curse, the restraints of an unbreakable bond, or, if the offense were grave enough, the icy embrace of the dementors to being exiled to such a wild and foreign shore.

In the late 1600s, a new train of thought began to race through both magical and mundane society. Perhaps, the thinking went, the convicted should not face such sudden and irreversible fates. A man accused of being a thief, for example, is not truly exonerated a year or even a month later when the true culprit is found if his hand has already been removed from his body, and the complications of unbreakable oaths, killing curses, and the soul-sucking kiss of the Dementor are likewise not repairable even by the strongest magics. So it was that the concept began to gain traction, even amongst the most conservative of magical families (many of whom had at least one member in violation of the Statute of Secrecy at least once…the newly enacted bans on magical practice were incredibly restrictive to families that had been used to leverage their powers for status amongst Muggles and often had to give up temporal authority to abide by the Statute).

Azkaban, the first wizarding “penitentiary,” was opened in 1718 to general approval. Calling the institution a true “penitentiary” however, is considered especially grievous amongst most legal scholars, who understand the once charitable purpose of those institutions. Azkaban was only ever another punishment, albeit one from which the tried could be retrieved in a living if psychologically scarred state. The failure of Wizarding Britain to differentiate between levels of crime is also an especially grievous oversight, and the subjecting of “suspected” defendants to detention in Azkaban under the psychologically tortuous care of Dementors (for an example in recent years, see “Hagrid v. Ministry of Magic - 1993”) is a process only recently corrected by Minister Shacklebolt and Madam Secretary Hermione Granger.

The first magical prison to open in the AWC was built in 1818, and opened exactly one century after Azkaban opened its doors. Unlike its English counterpart, however, Greystone Prison, which is still open and active in the North Eastern Region on an isolated island on Lake Ontario, was built with the intention of reforming those inmates in whom some hope of “salvation” was still held. The whole prison was designed by Edmund Ferry, a half-blood wizard and graduate of SI, and is specifically structured to dampen the magical talents of the inmates, who are stripped of their wands and other implements for the duration of their stay.

Greystone, and later Under-State Penitentiary (in Pennsylvania), featured extensive programs to help reform their inmates: daily exercise, mandated periods of quiet reflection, led prayer (which was ruled unconstitutional in 1898 and transformed into voluntary prayer), and classes in civics were required. Future prisons, including Under-Alcatraz in California, Blackrock in South Dakota, and the High Energy Retention Compound (HERC) in New Mexico would institute similar programs in the future, to varying degrees of success.

Like our Muggle counterparts, however, Wizardkind seems to have lost sight of the original purpose of its penitentiaries: prisoner reform has taken a back seat to prisoner punishment and storage. Recent statistics released by AB-DENs (who are responsible for the general oversight of the prisons, though law enforcement tends to fall to more local constables or “strike wizards”) show that the recidivism rate amongst incarcerated offenders has grown steadily in direct proportion to the abandonment of programs meant to reform offenders. Though our prisons have not fallen as low as the British system or, alas, our Muggle counterparts (the Muggles, if you can believe it, have privatized their prisons…making the incarceration and redemption of their own people a process of profit: the results have not been surprising in the least for anyone with the slightly bit of common sense…Muggle prisons are not so much set on redeeming their inmates as they are on making repeat customers), it has still fallen far from its original ideal…

There are still five magical prisons open in the AWC, each with a very specific purview and containing a far smaller population than its Muggle counterparts. Greystone, with its airy rooms, extensive exercise gardens, and lake-serpent and Mermish guardians, houses those convicted of nonviolent offenses which nonetheless require imprisonment: theft, embezzlement, illegal experimentation, and smuggling. The under-prisons, Under-State and Under-Alcatraz, were built using the same potent rituals that were used in the construction of the capitol building. Every stone laid by Muggle hands was mirrored by magical construction, creating a building that exists in the same location as the mundane prison while touching it only lightly. This probably explains the many stories of hauntings in both of these prisons, as the sorcery still hosted within their walls sometimes leaks through the mirrored shapes and causes strange occurrences. Under-State is largely used for violent, male offenders, while Under-Alcatraz mostly hosts the female population. The division of the sexes was mandated in the early 20th century, and has since been challenged numerous times, though without much success.

Blackrock was originally built to house werewolves who were judged too dangerous to be left to their own devices, but has since been reconverted to house a variety of sentient magical creatures found to be in violation of AWC or international magical law. By far the most populated prison in the nation, Blackrock is built on cursed earth which was shunned by the local Native tribes long before Europeans arrived. The place has a dark reputation, and is also used to house evil and troublesome ghosts that have had to be exorcised from their original abodes for the safety of Muggles and Mages alike.

Finally, the HERC is a fortress hidden beneath the sands of New Mexico. The nature of those held in its dark depths is not well known, and in truth the very existence of the compound is not acknowledged by the government of the AWC by law, though every Mage in the nation knows of its exists. It is believed the HERC is only for the most powerful and dangerous of people: Aurors turned spy, MRD researchers gone mad, Mages who have stumbled onto strange and eldritch powers that they cannot control, or monsters whose strength and cunning cannot be contained in the haunted and screaming walls of Blackrock.

Finally, the death penalty is still legal in five of the seven districts of the AWC. Though both western districts outlawed the punishment in the 1980s, the other five will still utilize it against the most grievous of crimes, usually involving capital-murder or “gross and terrific conduct of such a depraved nature that it offends the sensibility of Muggle and Mage alike.”