“The Carceral” in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison, a book by Michel Foucault, first published in 1975, then later edited in English in 1977 still continues to rivet attention 35 years after it was written. It is evident to believe that it is still revolutionary in its findings. Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, sociologist and historian. The professor of history and systems of social thought at college de France, Foucault is widely recognised as a leading social theorist.
Discipline and Punish continues to provide insights and suggested solutions that appear in the penal system. Foucault’s point is to show how significantly the penal system changed in 80 years and details the history of the French penal system with the interpretation of historical events identifying the domination of human spirits. He argues, in the later part of the 18th century the focus of punishment began to shift from the body to the soul or mind of the offender to discipline them.
He described discipline as a type of power. Prisons became more than just places where liberty was deprived. Furthermore, the closing section of the book is the main focus of my review and is entitled, simply, “The carceral”. He investigated the massive shift from corporal to carceral punishment. Foucault analysed, our persistent and reasoned need to normalise individuals, to punish and reform deviance within society through discipline.
Foucault tries to account for universal and historical developments and the emergence of a disciplined society “the carceral archipelago” in which all of institutional life is characterised by surveillance and discipline and in which delinquent and abnormal behaviour are subjected to scientific investigation. Ultimately, Discipline and Punish is a call to arms, a predict for the future, and a study of the past all organised into one elegant text. The chapter opens with an explanation of a particular model French prison Mettray, possibly for young offenders.
Foucault describes how this was more than just a prison which housed minors who had committed a crime and minors who had not committed a crime but were without normal family relations. He describes how Mettray and other institutions of social life such as the school, the family, the workshop, the army and the prison were interrelated by the development of similar disciplinary techniques and shared certain similar features. He described them as places in which one’s action came under the direction of another’s will.
At Mettray, the timetable stressed physical exercise, hard work, and the organised recording of results. The aim was to produce “strong, skilled agricultural workers”. The prison trained other professionals too, focusing on techniques of “pure discipline”, rather than science, although Psychology was to develop in that institution. He explains “the disciplinary technique became a discipline which also had its school” (Foucault, 1977: 295). Traditionally, the school has been understood as a limited, relatively self contained and independent institution.
According to Foucault, embodied in it was a “carceral continuum” a diverse range of institutions given over to the surveillance for the training and the normalization of individuals. He explained Penitentiary rationality as the central part of the carceral system. Nevertheless, the point that Foucault emphasises throughout is that discipline works under surveillance upon one’s actions and engages one’s will to perform. He described this process of constant supervision benefited in the production of obedient and capable bodies.
He believes it is this which not only helps in reforming criminals but also to the education of students, management of workers and training of modern army. In his eyes, Mettray represented the birth of a new kind of supervision. He described Mettray as the punitive model (Foucault, 1977: 296). Foucault believed that the discipline of individuals will be achieved through microphysics of regulation. Foucault argues that surveillance attempts to transform individuals through observation and discipline and individuals therefore start to internally control themselves. Surveillance was seen to hold the key to reform.
He argued, “this great carceral network reaches all the disciplinary mechanisms that function throughout society” (Foucault, 1977: 298). Throughout the last part of Discipline and Punish Foucault suggests that a “carceral continuum” runs through modern society. He believed the mechanisms of discipline and power that control the prisoner’s life also control that of the citizen. Foucault’s account of the development of the prison and the carceral system makes it clear that society has a “carceral texture” and is penetrated by the same mechanisms that function within the prison.
Similarly, through its construction of delinquency, the prison helps to control and regulate class conflict and popular misconduct. Whereas, “the carceral naturalizes the legal power to punish, as it legalizes the technical power to discipline” (Foucault, 1977:303). For Foucault, an investigation of appearance of the prison in the early 18th century is actually a means of exploring the much wider and more contemporary themes of how domination is achieved and individuals are socially constructed in the modern world. Foucault related how the penal system with its outreaching arms affects society as a whole.
He believed other governmental programs, such as welfare and new educational techniques, expanded from the penal system. He called this expansion of disciplinary control the “carceral archipelago”. It created a whole society of docile bodies submitting to the will of the state. He argued, “we have seen that, in penal justice, the prison transformed the punitive procedure into a penitentiary technique; the carceral archipelago transported this technique from penal institutions to the entire social body” (Foucault, 1977:298).
Finally, it gives an increase to the theatrical suggestion which Foucault refuses to accept is that the prison is the symbol of our “disciplinary society”. This however, does not mean that society is like a prison and everybody in it is targeted, what he argues is that society, like prison and other institutions keeps individuals under surveillance in order to keep peace and the birth of the prison which Foucault describes is in fact the progress of contemporary society itself.
Foucault argues, classicists such as Beccaria saw retribution as a process for requalifying individuals as juridical subjects whereas Foucault believes that law breakers have placed themselves outside the society by committing an offence but the penal process should aim at returning them back as law abiding citizens (Cavadino & Dignan, 2002: 45). He sees the carceral as the answer because here he believes the offender is not outside the law and society.
In Foucault’s words, “the carceral with its far reaching networks, allows the recruitment of major delinquents and transforms their lives into disciplinary careers” (Foucault, 1977:300). Within sociology, the work of Michel Foucault has completed a different understanding of power and discipline compared to analysis deriving from Weberian and Marxist theory. For Foucault the modern prison, with its mechanisms of total surveillance, represented a new form of knowledge and power.
For Marx, the class struggle was the main problem in society as he believes the rich (bourgeoisie) get richer and the poor (proletariat) get poorer. Similarly, according to Foucault the ruling class used criminality as a way of preventing confrontations that could lead to revolution. He believed the ruling class used the law to diminish the power of these uprisings and the dominant class used the delinquent class as a means of profiting themselves (Smart, 1983).