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I have learned that punishments in the Torah often (always?) have a rehabilitative aspect to them as well as providing justice to the victim, e.g. someone who steals and can't pay back the value of what he stole becomes a slave, and through this experience it is hoped he will learn how to live properly. Or, even when a murderer is killed for his crime, this punishment is ultimately the best thing for his neshama.

My question is, is there ever a scenario where the Torah prescribes locking someone away as a punishment - not for the waiting period before the case is heard, but as the punishment itself. In the world in general, prison is not rehabilitative and there is a high rate of recidivism among the people who go there. However, what other alternative is there for people who are a danger to society, but not liable to the death penalty, e.g someone who is suspected of committing a murder but had no witnesses to the crime?

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I once heard in a shiur that the king was able to jail people, but I don't know the source, so I didn't look it up. – Menachem Feb 4 '14 at 22:40
Rebbi Yakov Galinsky zt"l was once asked your question by a prison guard. the the fascinating dialogue which pursued, in his sefer Shemos Parshas Mishpotim [the week he was niftar]. – rabbi Feb 11 '14 at 21:36
I learned in a shiur, but don't know the sources, that jail was a penalty if the accused was likely to hurt someone. Otherwise, the rabbis thought lashes, for example, were more humane because once done, the criminal could do tshuva and start fresh. Jail, however, would rob him of time to make amends and restart his life. – Bruce James Feb 12 '14 at 16:09

R' Samson Raphael Hirsch, when describing your case about a thief's slavery, writes that the Torah's system of punishment is much better than the prevailing system of imprisonment, which basically destroys the perpetrator. This implies that jail is never found as a punishment in Judaism.

That being said, there are times where someone is guilty of a severe crime, but is not subject to the death penalty, that he is locked up and fed a diet which will ultimately kill him. (See Tosefta, Tractate Sanhedrin 12:7-8). However, even in this case it seems that the point is his death, not his confinement.

This article provides some information about various types of punishment in Judaism.

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Very interesting. What's the source for being locked up and fed a diet which will ultimately kill him? – DaagahMinayin Feb 4 '14 at 17:58
@DaagahMinayin it's in the g'mara somewhere; I've seen it but don't remember where off-hand. With luck somebody will add a specific citation. – Monica Cellio Feb 4 '14 at 18:01

The concept of prison does not exist in The Torah. The closest thing that the Torah has to 'imprisonment' are the cities of refuge where someone who kills unintentionally has to go to and where he has to remain until the death of the current Kohen Gadol, and excommunication where the person who is excommunicated is socially isolated until the excommunication is lifted.

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Good point. Is he not allowed to leave the city of refuge, or does he leave at his own peril (that is, if the blood-avenger kills him outside the city, it's his own fault)? – Monica Cellio Feb 4 '14 at 18:37
where do the excommunicated get excommunicated to? what is this a punishment for? How does the Torah address protecting society from dangerous or potentially dangerous people? – DaagahMinayin Feb 4 '14 at 19:36
@DaagahMinayin excommunication is "get out of here", not "go there". The person is being kicked out, not confined elsewhere. – Monica Cellio Feb 12 '14 at 15:04

The torah itself never discusses imprisonment. Penalties for transgressions include restitution, financial penalties, lashes, becoming a slave, and capital punishment, but imprisonment as a final outcome isn't discussed. (I don't know how to prove a negative, sorry.)

See Ypnypn's answer for something that looks like imprisonment but isn't. And imprisonment can arise under modern penal codes under which Jews live, but that's different.

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Rambam writes that if someone commits murder in a way that isn't technically liable to the death penalty (e.g. he calls a hit man), the courts are entitled -- and expected -- to imprison him. – Shalom Feb 4 '14 at 18:57

I. When Eldad and Medad prophesied that Moshe would die and Yehoshua would take over, Yehoshua complains to Moshe:

וַיַּעַן יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן מְשָׁרֵת מֹשֶׁה מִבְּחֻרָיו וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנִי מֹשֶׁה כְּלָאֵם (Bamidbar 11:28)

Here's what Rashi writes:

הטל עליהם צרכי צבור והם כלים מאליהם (ספרי) ד"א תנם אל בית הכלא לפי שהיו מתנבאים משה מת ויהושוע מכניס את ישראל לארץ

However, jail is only the second interpretation, and the Ramban writes the following:

ולכך אמר לו "כלאם" כי אולי רוח שקר בפיהם או רוח רעה מבעתם והנה צריכין לשומם בבית הכלא כאיש משוגע ומתנבא

This is not imprisonment, but institutionalization.

II. After typing the above, I found that Rabbi Meir Blumenfeld (1900-1980. Rabbi of Newark, NJ. Prolific and well respected as a "gaon") dealt with this very question here. His understanding of the above Rashi, is based on the Ramban- that it wasn't imprisonment but commitment. He list several other possible places in תנ"ך that may seem to refer to imprisonment, but rejects them all.

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Rambam Hilchot Rotzeach ch.2 halacha 5 regarding a murderer who cannot be executed due to a technicality (such as hiring a hitman or indirectly causing his death). His beating and imprisonment is NOT to kill him.

If the king did not execute them, nor did the court deem the time as such to require strengthening the strictures against murder, it should nevertheless have the murderer beaten with severe blows - so that he is on the verge of death - and imprisoned, deprived and afflicted for many years with all types of discomfort in order to strike fear and awe into the hearts of other wicked men, so that his crime should not be a stumbling block and a snag for them, causing them to say: "Let me arrange to have my enemies killed the way so-and-so did, and I will not suffer the consequences."

ה. הרי שלא הרגם המלך ולא היתה השעה צריכה לכך לחזק הדבר הרי בית דין חייבין מכל מקום להכותם מכה רבה הקרובה למיתה לאסרם במצור ובמצוק שנים רבות ולצערן בכל מיני צער כדי להפחיד ולאיים על שאר הרשעים שלא יהיה הדבר להם לפוקה ולמכשול ויאמר הריני מסבב להרוג אויבי כדרך שעשה פלוני ואפטר:

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Yes! The Rambam mentions at least twice, cases when people are imprisoned as they are a danger to society.

Since they cannot be killed by Bet Din they are imprisoned on a starvation diet and then overfed, in the hope that they will die of overeating.

The Rambam describes this in משנה תורה - ספר נזקים - הלכות רוצח ושמירת נפש פרק ד

מכניסין אותו לכיפה, והוא מקום צר כפי קומתו ואינו יכול לשכב בו
ומאכילין אותן לחם צר ומים לחץ עד שיצרו מעיהן
ואחר כך מאכילים אותן שעורים, עד שכרסם נבקעת מכובד החולי

The 2 cases I found are:

  • משנה תורה - ספר נזקים - הלכות נזקי ממון פרק יא

    • A murdered who has witnesses, but they do not fully qualify to enable the death penalty, gets imprisoned until he dies of starvation/overeating.
    • ההורג נפשות, ולא היו שני העדים רואין אותו כאחת, אלא ראהו האחד אחר האחד, או שהרג בפני שני עדים בלא התראה, או שהוכחשו העדים בבדיקות ולא הוכחשו בחקירות--כל אלו הרצחנין, כונסין אותן לכיפה ומאכילין אותן לחם צר ומים לחץ עד שיצרו מעיהן; ואחר כך מאכילים אותן שעורים, עד שכרסם נבקעת מכובד החולי
  • משנה תורה - ספר שופטים - הלכות סנהדרין פרק יח

    • Somebody who got lashes for a Karet-type of sin (e.g. eating cheilev-fats, blood or Chametz on Pessach) and repeated his offense and again got lashes, on his 3rd offense he does not get lashes, instead he gets imprisoned until he dies of starvation/overeating.
    • מי שלקה בבית דין על איסור כרת, ולקה פעם שנייה על אותו כרת עצמו--כגון שאכל חלב ולקה עליו, ואכל חלב פעם שנייה ולקה עליו--אם אכל פעם שלישית, אין מלקין אותו: אלא מכניסין אותו לכיפה, והוא מקום צר כפי קומתו ואינו יכול לשכב בו, ונותנין לו לחם צר ומים לחץ, עד שיצרו מעיו ויחלה; ואחר כך מאכילין אותו שעורים, עד שכרסו נבקעת
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