Foucault on Mass Incarceration

Foucault on Mass Incarceration

Michel Foucault (1926-1984), French philosopher and historian.  Sure, we all cite him, but have we read his work lately? And seen just how current it is?

This summer, I re-read his book Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison (1975). It’s an intellectual history of criminal punishment in France. A summary of the ideals of 18th and 19th century European writers. Kings, they said, had preferred public punishment. But a less public, less physical system would be better.

Of course, these writers wanted a less cruel system. But they had other ideas, too. Prison would help prisoners psychologically. Each inmate would have time alone to reflect on their crimes. Together, they would learn good work habits.

But do prisons actually achieve these goals?

No, says Foucault. Incarceration does not actually rehabilitate criminals or reduce crime. So, why do we still use the system? And why are we so slow to improve it?

Because, Foucault, answers, prison isn’t meant to punish, rehabilitate, or reduce crime. Instead, it has a different social function. Prison tries to create a particular kind of person.

Prison imposes a discipline on inmates. A precise daily schedule. Where and when to eat, work, exercise, move about. Constant observation and evaluation. Punishment for breaking rules. Thus, it’s a little bit like school. Schools use discipline to create a particular type of person, too.

What type of person does prison aim to create? A delinquent, says Foucault. Someone for whom petty crime is a way of life. Think about it. In prison, guards consider every mistake a petty crime. Inmates are paid poorly, if at all, for their labour. So, to get what they need, they learn to hustle. They form close friendships with other inmates. So, they develop a shared approach to getting by.

Unfortunately, even after release, an inmate can’t escape the experience. Few people want to hire a former felon. So, it’s hard to find a good job. The justice system does not really allow a fresh start. It monitors former inmates. Re-incarcerates them for even slight offences. Often with a harsher sentence. Thus, inmates become part of a special impoverished, at-risk group.

But not all lawbreakers become inmates. Wealthy lawbreakers, for example, rarely go to prison. Instead, future delinquents are recruited from particular social classes. Which ones? The oppressed ones. Those most likely to rebel.

And who keeps tabs on the possible rebels? Social workers, psychologists, criminologists. Their training tells them: childhood abuse, poverty, and mental health create criminality. So, to be helpful, they visit, support, study, and report. But, they do not re-shape the system.

How does mass incarceration help the wealthy and powerful? They use it to break up a group’s cohesion. To make political organizing harder. And to discredit the organizing that succeeds. Did that protest look like serious resistance? But it was only a riot. More petty crime from a familiar group of delinquents. Lock them up, again! Or, in a pinch, turn them against their peers. Hire them as strikebreakers, informers, and thuggish enforcers. They cannot easily find work, so they’ll often take it.

Sound familiar? How does it work in your region? Who are the races, ethnicities, classes recruited into delinquency? Who gets hired as informers? As thugs? Guards? Social workers? Who resists and how? How are school and work also “disciplinary”?

Just think about it. And then notice what it helps you understand.

Needlework portrait of Michel Foucault by my late friend Barry Goodman. It hangs in our living room, along with Barry’s portrait of Edmund Husserl.

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