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Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault

17 October 2007

Here follows my first attempt at reading and reviewing Foucault, completed earlier this year. Not a bad effort, I think, for a first attempt.

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault

Before the early 19th century, European ideas of crime and punishment tended to involve very public displays of the power of the monarch and the power of the state against the offending individual. Nowhere was this tendency more evident than in the spectacle of public executions. Those convicted of murder, piracy, counterfeiting, or other notable capital crimes would be taken to a public place for hanging or decapitation, and certain kinds of crimes warranted particularly gruesome punishments. In England, for instance, until 1790 the official punishment for women convicted of petty treason — a wife who killed her husband or a servant who killed her master or mistress — was burning at the stake. The mass hangings of convicts were public spectacles, with public processions, viewing stands set up for spectators and an almost festival-like atmosphere on the day. For those who did not receive the death penalty, the prisons that existed were more like enforced stays in squalid communal housing, with very little distinction drawn between the treatment given to first-time and habitual criminals, as well as those who were clearly mentally ill. And yet in a relatively short space of time, the horrific public executions and communal prisons gave way to quiet and concealed executions and the far more orderly and regimented system of modern prison life, a trend that continues into the present day. Social historians tend to point to the writings of progressive reformers who advocated a more dignified and humanitarian approach to the punishment of offenders. But a more in-depth look at the history of the prison provides an alternate viewpoint — one that has less to do with purely humanitarian concerns and far more to do with the desire to establish a greater sense of control over society and those who would consider violating its laws.

In Discipline and Punish, social theorist Michel Foucault directly confronts and challenges a number of existing ideas surrounding the prison reforms of the late 1700s and early 1800s, and even into the twentieth century. By looking at the evolution of justice systems (focusing primarily on France), he suggests that the shift away from public executions and towards the idea of incarceration and reform within prison walls was a means of reframing the image of the power of society over the individual. Public executions often had the effect of making a criminal into a public martyr, and the ballads and broadsides printed for the common people did less to condemn the crime and more to glorify the criminal. By shifting the focus of justice into the prison and out of the public eye, authorities would have more direct control over the lives of those who had violated the norms of society.

Foucault compares prisons to other collective corrective organisations — convents and monasteries, military barracks, schools (both the regular kind and those formed for charity children or juvenile offenders), lunatic asylums and hospitals, workhouses for the poor, and even the large factory complexes of the early Industrial Revolution — and finds the common threads of common discipline, constant surveillance, enforced work and education, and strict adherence to an internal hierarchy in all of these institutions. The idea of correction and reform has shifted society’s focus from the individual’s body (i.e., the brandings, tortures, and hangings carried out on offenders) to the individual’s mind and soul. This shift in focus, Foucault claims, has not had the reforming effect that the authorities would hope. Instead, it has actually encouraged and refined criminal activity and behaviours.

Discipline and Punish is a very dense text, and I had to look up a summary outline of the book more than once or twice as I read to be certain that I was following the premise of his argument. In the end, I think I managed to follow Foucault’s line of reasoning, though I know I would have to go back and read this over again in smaller fragments to get all of the nuances and points that he makes in the text. But as an analysis of the creation of the modern prison and its effects on the changing nature of crime and criminality in modern society, Discipline and Punish adds to the powerful argument that others have made as well — the prison system, as it stands, is not as successful at punishing crime and disciplining offenders as we might like to think. And it’s a bit refreshing, in a way, that Foucault doesn’t actually offer possible ‘solutions’ to this quandary.

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One comment

  1. Great Site!



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