Is the prison community effective?

Fact 9
History and prison
What came before and what comes after?

The birth of the prison (1760-1840?)

Anyone who researches the history of prisons and thinks about their meaning and purpose cannot ignore Michel Foucault. The French philosopher / historian / sociologist changed with his 1975 publication Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (Monitoring and Punishing: The Birth of Prison) the way the humanities discussed the prison institution and its relationship to society as a whole.

His research on this topic was also shaped by his political commitment. As an activist, he founded the with friends and colleagues Groupe d’information on the prisons (GIP), which set itself the goal of disseminating information about the inhumane living conditions in French prisons and giving the prisoners themselves a voice.

In his often historically based works, he explored the question of where the roots of our contemporary society lie. He asked about the origins of what we call 'modernity', about the connection between science and power, about the reasons for our institutions and practices:

[E] r emphasized that the "threshold of modernity", that is, the break from the 18th to the 19th century [...], was his "main theme". As recently as 1971, he said of this discontinuity: “I have not yet succeeded in pinpointing the roots of these changes. But one thing I know for sure: these changes have really taken place, and looking for their origin [sic] is not a pipe dream. "[1]

In his book published four years later Birth of prison he gave an answer to this question. To illustrate what he was getting at, he began the book with a page-long description of the extremely gruesome public execution of the king assassin Damiens in 1757. The drawn-out and orchestrated ordeal that ended in being quartered by horses to attack the king expiate, the regulations for the House of Young Prisoners in Paris from 1838 juxtaposed. In between, the public punishment and branding disappear and give way to a form of punishment that instead “only” curtails the delinquent's freedom and subjects his daily routine to a discipline that is petty down to the last detail. Foucault said:

in the Ancien Régime The borderline case of criminal justice was the endless dismemberment of the body of the regicide: the manifestation of the greatest power on the body of the greatest criminal, whose complete destruction makes the crime flash in its truth. The ideal case of today's penal system would be unlimited discipline: an endless questioning; an investigation that seamlessly merged into a meticulous and increasingly analytical observation; a judgment that would open a never-to-be-closed dossier; [...] a procedure that would be both continuous measurement of the distance to an unattainable norm and asymptotic movement that would force endlessly to obtain this norm.[2]

What Foucault describes here is the fact that brutal, public and corporal punishment has been replaced by a new system of punishment; one that is no longer aimed exclusively at the body, but strives for access to the soul.[3] It's about shaping people, changing them and adapting them to a desired norm. Foucault insisted that prisons were no less cruel than corporal punishment, but more insidious as they wanted to change the heart, will, and mind.

Foucault is directed against the self-portrayal of early advocates of the prison, who claimed at the transition from the 18th to the 19th century that they acted in the spirit of the Enlightenment out of kindness, respect and humanity. Rather, they were concerned with abolishing absolutist rule and establishing a new regime of control and discipline that better suited the interests and goals of the rising elite.

The prison serves Foucault only as an extreme example of a new power regime that would seize all areas of life in the modern age - from schools to factories to sports clubs. He saw the perfect model of this form of government in the architectural figure of the PanopticonDesigned by the legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1787.

The Panopticon is based on an elaborate system of visibility; but above all it is a “democratic”, not a totalitarian, principle of power. Because the guardian in the center is not the king or a dictator, but a mere functionary who in turn can be monitored and exchanged by all members of society. The Panopticon is a power mechanism for societies with a "flat" but also "area-wide" distribution of power; it aims to prevent association and communication outside of their controlling gaze. [...] This makes the Panopticon 'something like Columbus's egg in the field of politics'.[4]

The history of reception and the diverse criticism of and further development of Foucault's theory cannot be dealt with here. It should be mentioned, however, that historical research over the past few decades has turned to numerous aspects that Foucault left underexposed. Historians have begun to take a closer look at European colonialism and to see how and where, for example, in Vietnam, Africa, China, Japan or Peru Birth of prison took place and what new perspectives this opens up on Foucault's theory.[5] In addition, the historical connection between prisons and racism was researched more intensively, the experiences of women in prison were included and the perspective of the prisoners in general was given greater consideration.[6]

And what's coming tomorrow?

Few people will think in everyday life about whether a society without prisons is possible and perhaps even worth striving for. But a historical perspective makes it clear that most of the things that we take for granted and natural are the result of historical processes that could have turned out very differently. But what could alternatives to our current penal systems look like?

Not only historical and ethnological works can show the different institutions, practices and rituals that human society has developed to deal with deviant behavior. There are also numerous practitioners and theorists who are specifically concerned with alternatives to prison in the present.

A prominent representative in Germany is the lawyer Thomas Galli, who himself worked as a prison director until 2016. During his work, he increasingly came to believe that many things in the penal system do not work as intended by law and regulations. He made the decision to resign and since then has publicly advocated a critical examination of the reality of the prison and promotes other forms of dealing with crime:

All alternatives to the status quo will cost money, perhaps even a little more than the current penal system until they are established. In the medium and long term, however, resources that have been used up to now can be saved significantly: by concentrating punitive interventions on serious crime, by reducing consequential social costs as a result of the higher opportunities for rehabilitation of alternative measures and by focusing on preventive interventions.[7]

Various concepts for the prison system and promising areas for reform efforts in the justice system are discussed under the following keywords:

  • Offender-victim compensation / compensation for damage /Restorative Justice
  • Transformative Justice
  • Avoidance strategies
    • community service
    • Expansion of probation options
    • Expansion of the open prison
  • Partial abolition of the custodial sentence (e.g. substitute custodial sentence and deprivation of liberty for young people)
  • Decriminalization of drug and petty crime

Many of these suggestions and measures deserve their own article, which we will endeavor to review in the coming months.


1 : Philipp Sarasin (2005): Michel Foucault for an introduction. P. 130.

2 : Quoted from ibid. P. 147.

3 : Quoted from ibid. P. 132.

4 : Ibid. Pp. 142-143.

5 : See. Peter Zinoman (2001): The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862 1940.; Frank Dikötter (2002): Crime, Punishment and the Prison in Modern China. ; Florence Bernault, ed. (2003): A History of Prison and Confinement in Africa. ; (2005): Daniel Botsman's book Punishment and Power in the Making of Modern Japan. ; Carlos Aguirre (2005): The Criminals of Lima and Their Worlds: The Prison Experience, 1850-1935.

6 : See. Mary Gibson The American Historical Review, October 2011, vol. 116, no. 4, pp. 1040-1063.

7 : Thomas Galli (2020): locked away. Why prisons are no use to anyone. P. 181.

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