Golden Age Amsterdam played a key role in the history of Western punishment. For centuries beforehand, penal incarceration and purpose-built prisons were already integrated into European penal practices and common constituents of the European cityscape. Yet Amsterdam's elders in the 16th century founded a new type of institution, a workhouse designed to retrain convicts and help them become productive members of society. The men's Rasphuis and the women's Spinhuis, established in 1596 and 1597, respectively, were built on former convent grounds within the city and operated as small factories that disciplined both their inmates and the population at large, in ways reminiscent of the era's hospitals, almshouses and mental asylums. Political, religious, social and economic forces certainly took their toll on the founders’ lofty ideals, but the institutions they set up continued to run for centuries, inspiring later reforms in and beyond the continent.
In the Western imaginary, Rasphuis and Spinhuis inmates are transitional figures, partaking in experiences that are both quintessentially medieval and recognisably modern. For, on the one hand, they were subject to significant physical hardships, including corporal punishment; and on the other, their strict routines and harsh conditions were also meant to be normalizing and rehabilitative rather than merely retributive or deterrent. Further, and perhaps more importantly in the context of this volume, their punishment took place at the physical heart of a bustling city, indeed a world capital at the time. Thanks to their prominence and central location, Amsterdam's workhouse prisons served the moral and political needs of the community around them effectively, not least by announcing a formidable presence of municipal institutions with strong claims on maintaining urban order. For better or worse, prisons, like law courts, reified local justice systems for centuries to come.
Present-day urban dwellers, however, would probably find the vicinity of prisons troubling rather than comforting. In part this has to do with prisons’ national rather than municipal administration since the late 18th century, when central governments took over criminal justice duties that previously fell under the remit of cities. Since then, neither inmates nor the crimes for which they serve sentences are by default local or even provincial.