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Posted on April 20th, 2012, by

The development of the contemporary penitentiary system did not occur in a day. In stark contrast it was a complicated process of the evolution of various systems of punishment which eventually resulted in the creation of a system of prisons where people served their terms for crimes they committed. In this respect, it is particularly noteworthy to refer to the book by Michel Foucault, “The Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of Prison”¯, in which the author traces the evolution of punishment and appearance of prisons as an essential part of human system of punishment. It is important to lay emphasis on the fact that the author distinguishes four major stages which led to the emergence of prison: torture, punishment, discipline and prison itself. The author argues that various forms of punishment gradually evolved and led to the creation of prison, which marked the transition from the violent punishment, the punishment of the body of a criminal to the punishment of his soul, or spiritual punishment which he suffered from while being in prison.

First of all, it should be said that, on analyzing the problem of punishment Michel Foucault identifies two forms of penalty. On the one hand, he defines the violent and chaotic public torture, which used to be practiced in the past, including the 18th century. On the other hand, he distinguishes more modern form of penalty, which is highly regimented daily schedule for inmates from an early 19th century prison. In this respect, the author argues that torture is one of the earliest forms of the penalty which has been applied since ancient times, while prison is a relatively new invention. Michel Foucault argues that tortures were applied to criminals to punish them for crimes they committed and this form of penalty was primarily motivated by revenge of those who were affected by the crime. The intended purpose of torture as a penalty was to reflect the violence of the original crime onto the convict’s body for all to see. In such a way, it was believed the criminal received what he deserved, while the publicity of the punishment was a preventive measure to teach other people that crime would severely punished. At the same time, torture apparently enacted the revenge upon the convict’s body.

However, on analyzing the effects of this form of punishment, Foucault arrives to the conclusion that torture provided forum for a convict’s body to become a locus of sympathy and admiration. In addition, torture created a site of conflict between masses and the sovereign at the convict’s body. For instance, Foucault points out that public execution often provoked public riots in support of a prisoner. Thus, he concludes that torture was an ineffective and even dangerous, in a way, form of penalty.

At the same time, Foucault notices that the society and the justice system gradually evolved and changed the form of penalty replacing tortures by more sophisticated forms of punishment, which varied consistently, but still targeted at the physical punishment of a convict’s body. In other words, they targeted at the punishment of his body, though they could affect a convict’s soul as well. For instance, Foucault speaks about “mini-theatres”¯ of punishment which would have expose convicts’ bodies on display in more controlled and effective spectacle than torture. As a result, convicts were forced to do work which reflected their crime and it was considered to be the punishment was a form of repay from the part of the convicts to the society for their crimes. At this point, Foucault argues that the introduction of “gentle”¯ forms of punishment was the first step on the way to the creation of modern prisons.

The next step on the way to the creation of prisons was the increased role of discipline. Foucault views highly refined forms of discipline with the smallest and most precise aspects of human body. He distinguishes four aspects: firstly, cellular, which determines spatial distribution of the body; secondly, organic, which ensures that the activities required of the bodies are natural for them; thirdly, genetic, which controls the evolution over time of the activities of the body; and fourthly, combinatory, which allows for the combination of the force of many bodies into a single, massive force (Foucault, 195). Foucault argued that discipline developed new economy and politics for bodies.

Moreover, he stood on the ground that discipline created favorable conditions for the emergence of prisons which were built up on the basis of discipline.

Speaking about prisons, Foucault lays emphasis on the fact that prisons are the central element of criminal punishment (204). Foucault argues that the development of prison led to the development of a new form of penalty and the entire system of penalty shift to het “carceral system: (212) which became the dominant system of penalty in the modern society. In fact, the key point in Foucault’s views on the emergence of prison is the shift of penalty from physical domain, form the punishment of a convict’s body, to the spiritual or moral domain, to the punishment of a convict’s soul. In this respect, it should be said that the limitation of freedom and the entire carceral system implies above all moral and psychological sufferings of an individual who was isolated from the society and could not fully exercise his freedom. At the same time, this form of penalty was apparently more sophisticated because it limited consistently individual’s activities.

In this respect, it is possible to refer to Hannah Arendt’s views on human and the role of activities and action in human life. To put it more precisely, she argued that action constitutes an essential part of human life since people cannot exist without action which is essential for their daily relations and interpersonal contacts and communication. In such a context, it is quite natural that Hannah Arendt refers action to the “public realm”¯ (307).

Apparently, the action naturally affects the public realm because people live in the society and constitute an essential part of the society. Therefore, an individual’s actions naturally affect his relations with other people, even though the action is not directed at other people. What is meant here is the fact that an individual can perform some routine, regular action which does not involve other people directly. For instance, as one person does his work, it does not necessarily mean that he supposes to involve all other people in his action. Nevertheless, through his action an individual can define the attitude of other people toward him because, according to Hannah Arendt, it is through action people can do their judgments concerning each other and it is through the action that the agent is discovered (315). What is meant here is the fact that, while observing each other activities and being involved in some common activities directly or indirectly, people interact and get information about each other. They understand each other and make their own judgments concerning the character and personality of each other. As a result, the action becomes a powerful tool, which defines, to a significant extent, the perception of an individual by other people, by his social surrounding.

However, the author reveals two major problems, which are the characteristics of action in the modern world ”“ the action is unpredictable and irreversible. In order to solve these two defects of action, modern people have developed two solutions: promising and forgiveness. The latter are apparently contradicting to the principle of penalty, which, in spite of the development of prisons, still aimed at the punishment and revenge on criminals rather than on their forgiveness. In this respect, it should be said that Foucault was quite skeptical in regard to the evolution of the system of penalty and he viewed prisons as places where people underwent severe spiritual sufferings which could reflect the crimes they committed in the past.

In fact, Michel Foucault rejects the common view on prisons as a kind of humanitarian form of punishment. In stark contrast, he argues that the imprisonment of an individual is not less, if not to say more severe punishment than torture or other, earlier forms of punishment and penalty. In such a way, he lays emphasis on the fact that the existing penitentiary system is still imperfect and it is founded on the principle of discipline. On analyzing various forms of penalty, Foucault argues that prison is just a new form of penalty used by disciplines and maintained by new technological power which can be found not only in prisons but also in schools, hospitals and military barracks.

In such a way, he argued that prison is a restriction of individual’s freedom based on severe discipline, which is the characteristic of many institutions in modern society and it is not unique for prison solely.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the development of prison, according to Foucault did not occur spontaneously. Instead, it was a complex process which involved not only the evolution of the justice system and the system of punishment, but it also involved a complex societal, cultural and technological changes which contributed to the formation of prison as a new form of penalty. In this respect, it should be said that prison originated from torture, punishment and discipline, which represented different forms of punishment and gradually grew more and more complicated and sophisticated. However, the major point of the change was the shift from the corporal punishment to the spiritual punishment of convicts. In this respect, Foucault is very skeptical about humanist nature of prison as a form of penalty and, what is more, he does not believe in its high effectiveness.

At this point, his views are supported by Hannah Arendt who laid emphasis on the fact that two major human conditions are promising and forgiveness, which prison could provide neither for inmates nor for the society.

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