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Historical Book Review | Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Published onJun 01, 2017
Historical Book Review | Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Michel Foucault. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. Vintage Books, 1977; 333 pp.; ISBN: 0679752552.

For hundreds of years, criminologists and penologists alike have investigated the various functions and designs, as well as the policies and practices that regulate the effectiveness of prisons as correctional institutions. The ideological aims underpinning penal practice can be either myopically focused or quite diverse as they reflect the varying goals of retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. However, as corrections continue  to undergo numerous reforms, scholars and policymakers might do well to revisit, critically reflect upon, and reexamine the socio-historical origins of the prison and its close relationship to power structures operating in the wider society. French philosopher, Michel Foucault’s book, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, is a radical reevaluation of our more mainstream assumptions regarding the role of penal institutions and their foundational purposes in advanced, sophisticated societies, where freedom and liberty are cherished. As Foucault states, “This book is intended to be a correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge; a genealogy of the present scientifico-legal complex from which the power to punish derives its bases, justifications and rules, from which it extends and by which it masks its exorbitant singularity” (p. 23).

The book is divided into four parts that convey how society’s response to crime evolved from torture to punishment to discipline and, ultimately,  to the creation of the prison. Foucault’s work has been criticized for its obscurity and specialized language; however, his unique use of prose is also one of his purposive stylistic techniques to illustrate how discourses, like institutions, are complex structures in which individuals can become easily trapped and confined without the knowledge needed to find their escape. As Foucault takes the reader on a journey through the past in order to better understand the conditions of the present, his audience is challenged to resist the temptation to perpetuate the penal path we chose to take centuries ago in hopes that the human sciences will become the agent of change necessary to actualize what we could become in the future.

In the first part of his book, Foucault presents a stark retelling of the grotesque and horrific public execution of Damiens the regicide in 1757, which is followed by a contrasting account of the documented prison rules inmates are subjected to in 1837. The comparison between the two approaches to punishment reveal a fundamental shift from the 18th Century to the 19th Century, whereby the focus of punishment is no longer limited to the offender’s body and is now extended to his or her “soul.” The soul refers to our modern concept of the mind, such as the psyche, conscience, or personality, which allows for new possibilities of punishment as the investigation of the subject, while incarcerated in prison, can now look beyond the crime to unearth underlying motives that drive criminal behavior.

Prior to the creation of the modern prison, crimes were seen as direct challenges to the sovereign’s power, which undermined the hierarchical order that placed the monarch as the all-powerful head of state above the lower orders of society. Foucault refers to this power structure as the political situation of the era in which power works from the top down. Under these power dynamics, there was a ceremonial system of punishment that entails both torture and execution. The trial was initially hidden and relied on torture to expose the truth of the crime. Thus, torture served as a secret investigation by judicial authority, and it was highly regulated as a tool to exact a measurable quantity of pain with the aim to extract evidence, and ultimately, a confession. A confession would remove the need for further investigation and transition the ceremony to the public execution, where the executioner would serve as the sovereign’s champion to carry out this political and judicial ritual in an effort to repair the injury to sovereignty caused by the crime. In addition, “the spectacle” of public execution requires an audience, because in order for the ceremony of power to be complete, the people must bear witness to the restoration of order and give it meaning. However, there was uncertainty in how the vicariously viewing public would react to the execution. People may attack the executioner and attempt to free the prisoner. Additionally, the convict’s last words could become the political focus of how crime and its punishment are portrayed in literature, and responses to this literature might lead to forms of popular illegality, such as demonstrations or riots from the angered masses.

The second part of Foucault’s book examines the penal reforms that occurred as societies evolved out of the Age of Enlightenment and new forms of production and capital accumulation materialized during the Industrial Revolution. During the 18th Century, judicial violence was increasingly seen as exceeding the legitimate limits of power exercised by the sovereign. As such, humanitarian efforts by reformers, like Beccaria, sought to end the shameful practices of torture and public execution and replace them with a careful calculation that adjusted punishment to the nature of the crime, created new consequences, and punished just enough in order to prevent future offending. This new approach to punishment reflected the concept of the social contract in which all citizens collectively agreed to form a state and punish those who broke the laws, so that the right to punish was no longer to appease the vengeance of the sovereign but instead to uphold the common defense of society.

To Foucault, these reforms reflected structures of power that still sought to suppress forms of popular illegality, which due to structural and economic changes underwent a shift in focus from rebellion to a focus on goods and property crime. Thus, Foucault offers a critique of these reform efforts and emphasizes how they strategically coincided with the modification of how power functions in society. His argument is that the real motivations for penal reforms were not manifested out of concern for the humane treatment of criminals in which the state would punish less, but instead, the aims were to make punishment more efficient by relying on the technology of representation via obstacle-signs to exert more control. The obstacle-sign represents the crime and its corresponding punishment in a clear association that is easily understood to dissuade the potential criminal. In other words, punishment was no longer used to reestablish order, and was instead used to prevent crime through the technique of punitive signs that serve to deter offending by stripping the crime of its attraction. According to Foucault, there were two ways society could punitively react to an offender, which either entailed restoring the offender to the social pact or shaping him or her into an obedient subject by using punishment as a technique of coercion that trained the individual’s habits. The appeal of corrective penality, which would target the offender’s “soul” for restructuring and create a compliant subject prevailed as the dominant form for organizing the power to punish and subsequently led to the adoption of the modern coercive institution known as the prison.

The third part of the book examines how docility is accomplished through the forces of discipline and control of time and space, rather than torture of the body. Within institutions, timetables are utilized to regulate time as the individual experiences it, while forms of exercise are used to regulate the body through activity. Foucault argues that it is through the division of space and time that the individual is created out of the group. This assertion is not to suggest that people never existed in groups before this historical period; however, it does claim that the concept of arranging people for the purpose of controlling them was new. So it is from the collective mass of bodies that the notion of “the norm” is established, and the modern invention of “the individual” is compared to this standard to determine if a person is normal (e.g., a sane person, a law-abiding citizen, or an obedient child) or abnormal (e.g., an insane psychopath, a hardened criminal, or a defiant child). The more abnormal one is, the more likely one is to be excluded or become subjected to discipline and control. Furthermore, Foucault states that the primary function of disciplinary power is to train docile bodies, and therefore, the success of disciplinary power relies on hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and examination.

Hierarchical observation, as through the construction of “observatories,” provides the watcher with a vantage point that makes it possible to  see everything constantly. Normalizing judgment creates a “penality of the norm” in which it is possible to measure differences between individuals and use punishment to correct departures from normal behavior. Thus, this judgment rewards people whose behavior acquiesces to the standard of the normal homogenous group to which we all are conditioned to belong; yet it also perpetually punishes and seeks to normalize those who deviate from the norm. Organizing people into ranks and classifications based on their “normality” accomplishes this process. Lastly, the examination fuses the processes of observation and normalization through a new ritualized practice that transforms the economy of visibility into an innovative exercise of power. Now the individual subject, instead of the sovereign, is the focus of observation and may be treated as a “case” to be analyzed and described. It is through these disciplinary mechanisms, instead of force, that the calculated gaze of discipline operates. As such, Foucault acknowledges Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison as the disciplinary apparatus with the architectural structure that enabled all prisoners to be seen incessantly, within their individual cells, by a supervisor without the inmates knowing when they were being watched. These conditions created power over people’s minds and the subordination of their bodies through architecture that fosters indefinite examination in order to render inmates compliant through normalizing (i.e., self-disciplining or self-corrective) behaviors that become internalized as they begin to conform to the “norm.”

In part four of the book, Foucault proclaims that since our society is built on liberty, the prison, as an institution of coercion focused on the deprivation of liberty, is the obvious and self-evident form of punishment for society to employ. Moreover, society has yet to find a viable alternative, and as a result, is preoccupied with what we should do with the prison rather than how we might function without it. The prison maintains total power over individuals through panoptic surveillance and aims to reform his or her character through exercise, work, and training of the body and soul. Here, Foucault also explains how the modern prison is actually a penitentiary that combines the dual functions of the workshop (i.e., where prisoners engage in a world of production through “exercise”) and the hospital (i.e., where prisoners are examined by professionals of the human sciences to gain knowledge of the individual whereby behavior is recorded, mental state is assessed, and abnormality is cataloged) to increase the efficiency of power in the prison, which allows for the prisoner to be redefined as “the delinquent.” Consequently,  we see not only the expansion of prison but also the growth of the human sciences (e.g., psychiatry, criminology, psychology, sociology, and medicine), which create bodies of knowledge that controls and describes human behavior in relation to norms. The term “delinquent” is not referring to a youth who breaks a law, but instead it represents a new sub-class group in society whose very existence reflected illegality and crime, and the effects of the penality in which they are subjected to allows for this new criminal underclass to be identified for further control and observation by both the prison and the carceral system that serve as parts to a larger system of discipline that emerged from the class and economic conflicts of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Therefore, Foucault points out that rather than reduce crime, prisons produce “delinquents” and prison conditions encourage criminal networks to flourish, which later condemns released inmates to future recidivism and perpetual supervision and confinement that will eventually leave the prisoner’s family destitute and vulnerable in society, as well as susceptible to the temptations of deviance. Foucault is not necessarily arguing that prisons create crime; however, he does suggest that without prisons, crime and the criminal would be perceived in different ways. So after hundreds of years of witnessing prisons failing to reform “delinquency,” Foucault’s critique uncovers a perhaps more sinister motive behind the carceral system in which the aim is not to eliminate crime, but rather to reorganize our knowledge about crime in order to sustain a control society that manages conflicts over power through the mechanism of normalization that shape and govern everyone’s life. Thus, the prison serves as a vital component to the machinery of the carceral continuum, and its diffusion throughout society permits its survival as a complex apparatus to discipline and punish new and evolving forms of popular illegality that might challenge existing power relations and conventional social order.

Foucault’s analysis is still very much relevant today, and if we look close enough, we can identify numerous parallels to the concepts and notions he captures in his book. The original title, in French, is Suveiller et punir, which emphasizes the act of surveillance. If we step back and look around us, it is hard to ignore the overwhelming amount of surveillance we are subjected to daily in society and how it affects our conformity to the norm. Thus, research in the areas of surveillance studies and criminal justice technology would greatly benefit from incorporating Foucault’s work. Panopticism refers to “the few seeing the many,” and a vast array of surveillance technologies are increasingly being used in industries, schools, prisons, hospitals, the military, law enforcement, the courts, and corrections. Indeed, Foucault warned that the panopticon “is a type of location of bodies in space, of distribution of centers and channels of power, of definition of the instruments and modes of intervention of power, which can be implemented in hospitals, workshops, schools, and prisons” (p. 205). In other words, panopticism functions as a disciplinary apparatus whose microphysics of power can be generalizable to domains beyond the machinery of penal systems to expand the ability to control and discipline throughout all facets of the control society, or carceral city.

For example, let us consider schools and the hyper-vigilant response to school-related violence in the post-Columbine era. As Foucault mentioned, schools are designed as institutions of conformity and their architecture can easily be manipulated to enhance the visibility of students. The mounting of CCTV cameras in hallways, the installation of metal detectors and transparent lockers, the requirement to wear clear backpacks, and the use of ID cards with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that allows the movements of students to be tracked and monitored are all increasingly used in schools across the United States and in other countries. The goal of these surveillance technologies is to place students under constant panoptic inspection with the intention of deterring deviant behaviors like bullying, truancy, fighting, vandalism, and substance use. Like the panoptical processes used in prisons and community corrections (e.g., electronic monitoring   of those on probation or parole), the presence of CCTV cameras encourage self-surveillance because students do not know who is watching and when they are watching. In addition, official psychological profiles (i.e., an ordered system of knowledge/power used to compare a student’s behavior, relationships, and interests to a prescribed list of abnormal symptoms) may be used to identify several behavioral traits common to school shooters or disruptive students so school officials can determine who merits inclusion or exclusion. Similarly, recent reliance on zero tolerance policies in schools also acts as mechanisms to exclude those who pose a threat to the norm by exhibiting disruptive behaviors (e.g., insubordination, dress code violation, substance use, weapon possession, etc.), whereby they are diverted away from educational opportunities and funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline to face increased surveillance, discipline, and control.

Foucault’s overall critique of the existence of the carceral system and  the pervasiveness of the power to punish in society is that although we have modified how we discipline, punishment is still largely used to quell popular illegalities (e.g., demonstrations, protests, riots, etc.) that seek to change the dominant political and economic power structure in society. Over time, popular illegality evolved from efforts to subvert a despotic sovereign to illegality centered on property, to illegality focused on political upheaval. If we reflect on the turbulence of the 1960s, which sought widespread social and political change to promote issues of racial equality and civil rights, it is not too difficult to understand how civil disobedience and social unrest lead to political leaders (e.g., President Richard Nixon) desiring to restore “law and order” via the “War on Drugs.” Many critical theorists and social scientists have documented how the “War on Drugs” became a new strategy to classify and categorize citizens into groups of normal and abnormal through the overt criminalization of drug use and distribution. In this case, the street  pharmacist, the “crackhead,” and the dope boy are all targets of a harsh disciplinary response to what many claim is a public health issue. Examinations of how the War on Drugs is waged have revealed that African Americans, Hispanics, and the poor are disproportionately arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced for drug crimes. As one can see, the “delinquent” label Foucault wrote about as the product of prisons, which creates a new “criminal underclass,” is similar to today’s “criminal” label that stigmatizes ex-felons and allows for forms of legalized discrimination to exist to further marginalize them into a permanent under-caste of society (see Alexander, 2011).

Prisons are typically at the edge of cities or in rural areas hidden from the prying view of the public. Subsequently, their remote location means that these coercive institutions are often “out of sight, out of mind” and basically operate without the intrusion of public scrutiny. Foucault spends a great deal of time explaining how inmates are kept busy with forms of “exercise” and examined by professionals (e.g., psychologists) to assess changes in behavior, attitude, mental state, and overall well-being. However, Foucault’s theory also has room to evolve in order to investigate other ways in which inmates are manipulated and controlled to become docile bodies. One practice of considerable concern is the used of solitary confinement. A growing body of research is investigating how solitary confinement exacerbates pre-existing mental illness and cultivates new psychoses, as well as elevating levels of aggression, anxiety, and depression among inmates who receive this form of punishment while incarcerated. Perhaps torture has not completely disappeared, but rather has evolved to better produce “delinquency” that requires continued discipline and control.

By revisiting Foucault’s explanation of how society transitioned away from the spectacle of public execution, we can recall that society was presented with two new ways to punitively react to an offender. Rather than  choosing to restore the offender to the social pact, we chose to shape him or her into an obedient subject by using punishment as a technique of coercion that trained the individual’s habits. According to Foucault, this approach led to the formation of the carceral system we have today. Foucault also asserts that the prison is now an essential building block of society, so removing it without changing other aspects of the system would be futile. Currently, there is a worldwide movement seeking to replace punitive correctional practices with restorative justice practices, which aim to engage victims, offenders, and the greater community in a process of reconciliatory dialogue in an effort to repair the harm caused by crime and rebuild damaged relationships at both the individual and community level. Restorative justice practices aim to hold the offender accountable, build up the competency of the offender, and respond to conditions in the community that cultivate crime and undermine public safety. Through this process formal labels are typically avoided as the offender’s participation leads to their diversion from formal imprisonment and informal community-based sanctions are imposed instead. Perhaps the restorative justice approach, coupled with community-based rehabilitation, could serve as a viable alternative to incarceration and effectively restore the offender to the social pact.

These examples are only a few among many relevant reasons why Foucault’s work is still important today. Beyond the examples above, Discipline & Punish may specifically offer insight to many areas of critical social theory, legal studies, critical political theory, and critical criminological theory, especially post-modern criminology, cultural criminology, post-structural criminology, constitutive criminology, and semiotics among others. As Foucault reminds us, “Justice must always question itself, just as society can exist only by means of the work it does on itself and on its institutions.” 


Alexander, M. (2011). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

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