The Prison: Flipside of Modernity?

The eighteenth century saw, as Michel Foucault wrote in his 1975 study of the prison, the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle. We consider ourselves modern now that we do not gather at the market place any more, with fear or excitement, to see a criminal being flogged or dismembered or hung. Torture still exists, that is clear, but not in the open, and reserved for what are called extra-ordinary situations, like threat of war or infringement on national security. The ‘ordinary’ criminal now awaits what Foucault has named ‘punishment of a less immediately physical kind, a certain discretion in the art of inflicting pain, a combination of more subtle, more subdued sufferings, deprived of their visible display […]’. In the eighteenth century the modern prison was born, the institution which punishes by forcing its inmates to live a ‘corrected’ life – rising, sleeping, eating and working at fixed hours, under strict rules concerning social and hygienic conduct, disciplined rather than punished in the old meaning of the word.

The work of Foucault continues to strike a chord with ever new readers, as it makes them aware that the situation of the prisoner is a mirror of the situation outside in many respects. Although the ‘free’ individual has many liberties in comparison with the prison inmate, these are still subject to quite some disciplining, brought about by a complex system of threats and benefits. I sometimes think that especially my country, the Netherlands, is a champion in that respect. With myriads of fiscal measures, conditions that are part of the health care and social security system, codes of conduct and protocols, behavior in public space as well as in the private sphere is strongly influenced.

A younger thinker who has taken up the subject, a reader of Foucault and advocate for abolishment of the present prison system, especially in the USA, is Angela Davis. In her work on the prison system she has asked attention for at least two of its main features that were not addressed by Foucault: the racist basis of it (functioning as a silent successor of the system of slavery in some of its aspects) and its economic basis. In her book Are Prisons Obsolete she recounts how she was surprised to learn in the late sixties that about 200.000 people were imprisoned in her country – and that at that time she would have never believed it to become reality that thirty years later about ten times as many would people prison facilities. Especially since the eighties the number of prisons began to grow in an inbelievable pace, while at the same time ‘corporate involvement in construction, provision of goods and services, and use of prison labor’ did. Such that in a variation of an old expression one could speak of the ‘prison-industrial complex’.

Her analysis made me think of an article I read on the web, about the research of business historian Caitlin C. Rosenthal, that shows that many modern management was not just invented on recent workfloors, but has traceable roots in slavery, which did not have the oppression of people of colour as its primary goal, but the rational use of manpower – which was experimented with on those that in the mind of the mighty of those days could be seen as inferior. I always hated the change of name of the ‘personell department’ into ‘human resource management’. I want to work and be considered ‘personell’, okay, but I do not want to be considered a human ‘resource’, like coal and iron are natural resources.

I think Angela Davis drew our attention to something important: like Foucault readers immediately see the rational disciplining of human bodies, tried out in the prison system, as the flip side of our rationalized lives in modern societies – one has to see that the transformed system of slavery in present day prisons is the flipside of another aspect of our lives. Tried out (and still disproportionately exercised) on people of colour, but hungrily expanding its target groups, corporate ideology is treating human beings as material, as just a resource for global industries and businesses. Being disciplined into our rationalized lives, with our ‘rational’ preferences and goals, we are an easy prey for the next step of being used to produce, no matter what. Goods, knowledge, care, measurable of course, dead bodies in wars, countable, succesfull operations in hospitals…

Who thinks societies cannot do without prisons, has to look at alternative forms of retribution and reconciliation developed by humans in other times and places. We have seen new variaties of them been tried out for instance in the Gacaca courts in Rwanda, where the modern judicial system could not cope with the huge amount of suspects of genocidal acts. Reinventing village justice known from tradition, we have seen a system in operation which is not so much aimed at punishment and discipline, but rather at repairing wrongs that have been done and that also looks at the future, by aiming at some form of reconciliation. Those are values that are not so easily transformed into the logic of corporate ideology, and that suggest perhaps there are ways out of some of the wrongs of modernity.

My knowledge of the Gacaca courts is based on a documentary which I saw perhaps two years ago, and cannot find again. There is a lot to be found, though, in writing and on film, on the subject.

I learned about the work of Caitlin Rosenthal through this article.

I cited and/or used the literature below:

Angela Y. Davis ‘Radicalized Punishment and Prison Abolition’ from the Angela Y. Davis Reader, Edited by Joy James, 1998, accesible here.

Angela Y. Davis Are Prisons Obsolete? Publishers Group Canada, 2003

Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, Vintage Books, New York, 1995 [original French edition 1975]

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4 comments
  1. Lee said:

    Included in the analysis should be people who are in prison due to laws that shouldn’t exist in the first place–primarily drug laws. In the United States, about half of federal prisoners and 15-20% of state prisoners are in prison on drug offenses. These prisoners are disproportionately black, even though the majority of drug users are white. Though this certainly doesn’t account for all of the huge increase in the U.S. prison population, it does account for a significant percentage of it.

    • Thanks, Lee, for this contribution. I was aware of that fact, and it is good that you mention it here!

  2. Dickjan Nieuwenhuizen said:

    Dear Angela,

    Just some remarks on your blog.

    I studied criminal law and the penal system around the time that Foucault wrote his book, which, by the way, I have not read. For us criminal law students, it was then already obvious that the prison system doesn’t work. It is a university of crime: send a pickpocket in and a professional bankrobber comes out. Under the right circumstances (and maybe the wrong laws or the wrong State) we all can be the criminal. However emotionally we identify ourselves with the victim and demand retribution, revenge, the tougher the better. No politician ever won votes with being soft on crime, Why that is so: see Dan Ariely: the upside of irrationality.

    You touch on the economic side of the prison system and on modern slavery, although you don’t call it that. David Graeber in his magnificent study: ‘Debt, the first 5000 years’ explains how that all works and where it all comes from. Our whole economic system has become a monstrosity with a life of itself. The last five years show that we humans no longer control this system. He explains very clearly why we all are small cogs in a system of wheels that is spinning fast out of control. The fact that in the US the prisons are being exploited is completely in line with his reasoning.
    I can provide mindmaps of both books. The one of Graeber is very big because the book contains tremendous amounts of information. Just send me an inmail.

    You give an example of other systems like repairing and looking to the future. especially reconcilitation. For thousand of years that is already the norm in many religions. So for thousand of years we humans have already the knowledge that a system based on revenge just does not work.
    We are living in a time in which it becomes clear that most of our systems are failing. I wonder how it will be thirty years from now. Will we make a peaceful transition or will we have to experience a kind of götterdämmerung?

    • Thanks, Dickjan, for your comment and interesting reading suggestions. I will look them up,

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