stacks



the prison system

Michel Foucault, on the Role of Prisons



"Corporal punishment used to be carried out in a businesslike fashion. Bodies were branded, amputated, wrenched apart.

From the stake to the scaffold, from the pillory to the gibbet, physical suffering was produced with elaborate theatricality as an example to all.

Care was taken that no one should be unaware of it.

All that came to a sudden end in the second half of the 18th century.

The monotonous tumbling of locks and the shadow of the cell block have replaced the grand ceremonial of flesh and blood.

The condemned culprit's body is concealed rather than being placed on exhibition.

We no longer want to cause the criminal pain; we want to train him; we want to reeducate his "spirit."

The change took place throughout Western civilization in less than a century.

The Middle Ages had its prisons and jails but it was unfamiliar with anything resembling the rigid system of regimented, fastidious detention that developed between 1780 and 1820 as Europe and the New World became covered with penitentiaries.

It is not enough to say, with the 18th-century "reformers," that "humanization" and "progress" explained and justified this radical change in the penal system.

The shock of corporal punishment and the silence of reclusion are not simply two isolated and opposed phenomena; nor are their differences only on the surface.

They stand for a change from one kind of justice to another, a profound change in the organization of authority.

Under absolute monarchy, the criminal defied the authority of the king, and the authority crushed him and dramatically reminded everybody of its unlimited power.

For the theoreticians of the Enlightenment, someone who committed a crime broke the contract that bound him to his fellows.

Society put him aside and reformed him by carefully regulating his every action and every moment of his life in prison.

Prison means a rigorous regulation of space, because the guard can and must see everything.

It is also the rigid regulation of the use of time hour by hour.

Finally, it involves regulation of the slightest bodily movements or change of position.

Prison is not unique.

It is positioned within the disciplined society, the society of generalized surveillance in which we live.

"What is so astonishing," Foucault asks, "about the fact that our prisons resemble our factories, schools, military bases, and hospitals - all of which in turn resemble prisons?"




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