Michel Foucault, on the Role of Prisons

By ROGER-POL DROIT– August 5, 1975

Following are excerpts from an interview with Michel Foucault, French philosopher, psychiatrist and historian, and author of “The Order of Things” and “Madness and Civilization.” It first appeared in the Paris newspaper Le Monde, preceded by a commentary by the interviewer Roger-Pol Droit. This was translated by Leonard Mayhew.

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?”

Q. Prisons, in their contemporary form and functioning, may seem like an isolated invention that appeared suddenly at the end of the eighteenth century. But you show that, on the contrary, their origin should be traced to a much more profound social change.

A. When we read the great historians of the classic era, we can see that to a great degree the administrative monarchy-as centralized and bureaucratized as it could possible be-was, in spite of that, an irregular and discontinuing power structure that allowed individuals and groups a certain latitude to twist the law, to establish customs that suited them, to find a way of slipping around obligations, etc.

The Ancien Regime was loaded down with hundreds of thousands of ordinances, that were never enforced, rights that no one exercised, and regulations that masses of people ignored. For example, not only traditional fiscal fraud but also the most blatant smuggling was part and parcel of the economic life of the kingdom. In short, a perpetual give-and-take between legality and law-breaking was one of the conditions under which authority operated.

In the second half of the 18th century this system of tolerance changed. New economic conditions and the political fear of popular movements, which became chronic in France after the Revolution, demanded a different social arrangement.

The exercise of power had to become more refined, more clear-cut and between the centralized decision-making apparatus and the individual as continuous a connection as possible had to be formed. This occasioned the appearance of the police force, the administrative hierarchy, the bureaucratic pyramid of the Napoleonic state.

Long before 1789, jurists and “reformers” had dreamed of a society in which punishments would be uniform, where chastisements for law-breaking would be unavoidable and equal, with no exception or evasion possible.

Suddenly, corporal punishment, the grand ritual of chastisement designed to arouse fear and act as a deterrent-which, however, many criminals escaped-disappeared before the demand for a universality of punishment concretized in the prison system.

Q. But why prisons rather than some other systems? What is the central role of enclosing, cloistering, the “guilty” party?

A. You ask where prisons come from. My answer is “from practically everywhere.” Something was “invented,” to be sure, but it was an entire technique of surveillance: the control and identification of individuals, the regulation of their movements, activity, and effectiveness.

This took place in the 16th and 17th centuries in the army, colleges, schools, hospitals and work places. It boiled down to a technology that made possible exact, day-by-day power over bodies. Prison is the ultimate embodiment of that age of discipline.

The social role of internment is to be discovered in terms of a person who begins to emerge in the 19th century: the delinquent. This establishment of the criminal world is absolutely correlated with the existence of prisons. Within the masses, a small core of people became, so to speak, the privileged and exclusive licensees of criminal activity.

In the classic age, on the contrary, violence, petty thievery and embezzlement were extremely common and, in the long run, were tolerated by everyone. The malefactor, it seems, was able to melt very easily into society. If he happened to get caught, penal procedures were swift and definitive: death, life in the galleys, banishment.

The criminal world was not so closed in on itself, something that developed essentially out of the existence of prisons, out of the “marinade” of prison society that forms a microsociety in which men find real solidarity that will provide them, on their release, with mutual support.

Prison is a recruitment center for the army of crime. That is what it achieves. For 200 years everybody has been saying, “Prisons are failing; all they do is produce new criminals.” I would say on the other hand, “They are a success, since that is what has been asked of them.”

Q. Nevertheless, over and over we hear that prison, at least ideally, should “cure” or “readapt” the criminal. It is-or should be, we say-more “therapeutic” than punitive.

A. Criminal psychiatry and psychology risk becoming the ultimate alibi behind which the prevailing system will hide in order to remain unchanged. They could not possibly suggest a serious alternative to the prison system for the simple reason that they owe their origins to it.

The prisons established immediately after the penal code presented themselves from the outset as an instrument of psychological correction. Prison was a medico-judicial remedy. Placing every single prisoner under the care of a psychotherapist would in no way change the power system built on generalized surveillance established at the beginning og the 19th century.

Q. There remains the question of what “benefit” the ruling class derives from the establishment of this army of crime of which you speak.

A. Well, to begin with, it makes it possible to break up the continuity of accepted lawbreaking. In effect, it isolates a small group who can be controlled, kept under surveillance, and thoroughly known. They become the object of hostility and distrust of the very classes from which they come. For the poor are the most frequent victims of most everyday crimes.

The result in the final analysis is gigantic economic and political profit: Economic profit from the fabulous sums derived from prostitution, drug traffic, etc. Political profit in that the more criminals there are the more readily the population will accept police controls.

Not to mention that this system provides a work force for the lowliest political jobs: putting up posters, poll-watching, strike-breaking. Under the Second Empire, the workers were quite aware that the “scabs,” as well as Louis Napoleon’s antiriot forces, were all ex-prisoners.

Q. Then, all the talk and activity about prison “reform” and “humanization” is just subterfuge?

A. It seems to me that whether the prisoners get an extra chocolate bar on Christmas or are let out to make their Easter Duty is not the real political issue. What we have to denounce is not so much the “human” side of life in prison but rather their real social function-that is, to serve as the instrument that creates a criminal milieu that the ruling classes can control.

Q. How do you define this “managing” of lawbreaking? Doesn’t the very phrase presuppose a strange conception of law and society?

A. It would be pure illusion to believe that laws are made to be respected, or that the police and courts are intended to make them respected. Only in disembodied theory could we pretend that we have once and for all subscribed to the laws of the society to which we belong. It is common knowledge that laws are made by certain people for other people to keep.

But we can go further. Lawbreaking is not an accident, a more or less unavoidable imperfection. Rather, it is a positive element of the functioning of society. Its role is part of a general strategy. Every legislative arrangement sets up privileged and profitable areas where the law can be violated, others where it can be ignored, and others where infractions are sanctioned.

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