Standing in the well of a jail on New York’s Rikers Island as profanities rain down on you from the cells above, you realize the absurdity of academia’s most celebrated book on incarceration. Discipline and Punish, by the late French historian Michel Foucault, criticized jails and prisons for subjecting inmates to constant, spirit-crushing surveillance. The truth is that surveillance goes both ways in correctional facilities. Inmates watch their keepers as intensely as they are watched—and usually much more malignly.
So begins a piece in City Journal by Heather MacDonald. Apart from obvious non-Foucauldian flubs such as “spirit-crushing” one might welcome a critical reappraisal of D&P. Here are the charges against it:
1. It is implied that it is ” romantic” and academic, divorced from brutal reality
2. Criminal behavior is controlled in non-Foucauldian ways 9unspecified)
3. Prisoners surveill back. Conclusion: “Like surveillance, power in jails flows between officers and inmates in multiple directions.”
4. “Left to its own devices, inmate society is not carnivalesque spontaneity, as the Foucauldians might have us believe.”
Pretty weak tea if this really is a debunking as the New Statesman called it. Not too hard to see Foucault nodding in agreement about point 3 for example.
MacDonald admits right away that her descriptions are focused on American jails, rather than prisons. Foucault of course did the opposite and then (despite a couple of digressions into Philadelphia’s old prisons) mainly French examples in the 19th century without a view to developing a general theory of modern criminality. He did have more to say in other works of course, notably about the concept of the dangerous individual.
Apart from the way the piece is hung on Foucault without ever engaging directly with Foucault (a kind of name exploitation) the piece is quite eye-opening about conditions in American jails. It’s pretty clear that they have become the locus of last resort when there are no alternatives (state provided or otherwise) to deal with the homeless and mentally ill.
In fact what she describes is more like the Wire than an anti-Foucault and all the better for it. So read beyond the article’s hook if you want to get anything out of it.
MacDonald argues that “order through discipline” and surveillance are necessary because they reduce inmate violence and officer corruption. She also argues that surveillance is inadequate.
This is her conclusion:
But the order that the lobbyists, academic critics, and neo-Foucauldians see as oppressive is inmates’ only hope for safety and even, perhaps, rehabilitation. The recent insights of urban policing—that order matters, that small violations lead to greater crimes, and that information must be gathered and analyzed—are all equally pertinent to jails, where chaos and corruption always threaten.
Again, all very Foucauldian (did she think Foucault said discipline was applied for no reason?).