Prisons For All Intents And Purposes The Essay


Prisons For all intents and purposes the modern history of penology -- which is to say, the science and the theory of imprisonment and the state apparatus of the penitentiary -- begins with the late 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. In Bentham's day (corresponding roughly to the time of the American and French Revolutions) there was no idea of a penitentiary per se: there was instead His Majesty's Penal Colony of New South Wales, i.e. present-day Australia (Morris and Rothman 1998, 246). The equivalent of a modern-day misdemeanor offense, such as shoplifting, was sufficient to earn some unlucky Irishman a one-way ticket to Botany Bay, where convicts labored under military supervision. Bentham, meanwhile, was the founder of the philosophical school of Utilitarianism, which attempted to approach and codify ethics in the same way that his contemporary Adam Smith was to codify the theory of market economics. Utilitarianism held that social good was measured by utility, or usefulness, and that the only philosophic goal in government was to maximize that utility and provide the greatest good for the greatest number. To some extent, Bentham was concerned with the contemporary British justice system under George III which still operated under "monarchical law" (Foucault 130). The revolutions in America and France had increased domestic unrest, and an abortive French-funded uprising in Ireland was to some extent due to the unpopularity of law enforcement which overrepresented the Irish among those sentenced either to death or to penal transportation to Australia . The Australian colony represented an older tradition of providing prisoners with labor that was intended to be punitive: to be sentenced to hard labor under the British justice system was generally to be sentenced to "picking oakum," as it was proverbially known. This was, to some extent, a military form of justice, as "oakum" was a substance used by the British navy to stop leaks, and was made by tearing the individual fibers from old rope and applying tar to them: although a necessity for the navy, the production of it was a punishment for infractions of military code. Yet it became more generally a policy for those sentenced in civilian magistracy courts for criminal offenses to be sentenced to things like "rock-breaking" or "picking oakum" (Foucault 1977, 139). And we should recollect here the famous example of Oscar Wilde, the Irish writer sentenced to hard labor at Reading Gaol a century after Bentham: Wilde's two-year sentence for "gross indecency" (i.e., homosexuality) was apparently so physically grueling that it was widely credited, all the more shocking when we consider that Wilde was in fact no frail or effeminate poet, but a man over six feet tall who had been a prize-winning boxer as an undergraduate. "Picking oakum" may sound like a military euphemism like "peeling potatoes," but two years of peeling potatoes would not leave a man physically crippled (Morris and Rothman 1998, 135-6).

To the Utilitarian school of thought, there must be a more useful thing to do with the imprisoned population. Standards of decency were, of course, shifting all the time with regard to crime and punishment in British and other western societies. The England of Bentham's day treated capital punishment as a public entertainment, with hangings at Tyburn commemorated with pamphlets describing the horrible crimes of the man about to be hanged, and crowds of men women and children would attend and listen to the "hanging speech," or last words of the condemned man -- yet the same society that permitted this considered itself morally advanced for having done away with earlier Elizabethan-era punishments for crime such as brandings, mutilation (having one's "ears cropped"), castration and the like (Morris and Rothman 1998, 31-2). The issue of crime and punishment presented the Utilitarians with an interesting and fertile ground of speculation (Morris and Rothman 108-9). Bentham would propose the idea of what he termed "the panopticon" -- rather than being housed in a common area (like a contemporary downtown jail "drunk tank") prisoners should be housed in separate cells radiating out from a central elevated guardpost. The sense of constant surveillance would force the prisoner to examination of his own actions in the sight of others and thus would be conditioned into law-abiding behavior -- not unlike the operation of a "Skinner box" for training pigeons (Foucault 1977, 200-2). The first Penitentiary in the United States is Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, which is still standing, although it now houses a museum...


But the original facility built in 1829 remained standing long enough to house notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone in the 1930s -- it would not close until 1971. If Bentham provided the blueprint, Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary represented an attempt to engineer certain aspects of the theory behind the panopticon (Morris and Rothman 1998, 107). But if British systems of penal labor had grown out of a military context, the American prisons grew out of a religious and eleemosynary context -- America's comparatively recent independence from Britain at the time Eastern State was constructed meant that no large scale state bureaucracy of any kind existed, and fell back largely upon religious and charitable or eleemosynary groups. Eastern State therefore replaced the Benthamite emphasis on social correction with a religious motivation: prisoners would be placed in separate cells not to facilitate the intrusive observation of the panopticon but to put the prisoner alone before the eyes of God, so to speak -- the Society of Friends, or "Quakers," who were the religious majority among governmental figures in the Philadelphia of this era therefore endorsed the Benthamite model but without the centralization and thus the modern Penitentiary was born (Morris and Rothman 1998, 298-9). Although Bentham's proposed invention survives in surveillance towers of the exercise yards and outdoor facilities of prisons.The next major leap in prison construction and design would occur in New York State, as Ossining: the famous "Sing-Sing." Sing-Sing was operational around in the precise same period that Eastern State would be established, but it represented New York's differing model for corrections, insofar as it turned a profit. There was thus no concern over taxpayer support for prisoners -- they paid their own way, essentially (Morris and Rothman 1998, 165).
The earlier model of institutions like Eastern State and Sing-Sing would be overturned largely as a (perhaps unintended) consequence of American involvement in World War Two. The first aspect represents a broad cultural shift inadvertently brought about by the war, which established psychiatry broadly as a medical profession, brought on in an advisory capacity, in fulfillment of the original Benthamite notion of social melioration through ministration to the invididual criminal's psychology -- this led to a paradigm shift toward a more "psychotherapeutic" model of crime and punishment focused on rehabilitation (Morris and Rothman 1998, 159) The simple fact was that the Roosevelt Adminstration's military mobilization included large extensions of the state apparatus -- the internment of large numbers of legally-residing Japanese and Italian persons during the war, for which the U.S. Government would ultimately apologize, certainly plays a role in the history of federal involvement with something like incarceration. This apology does not disguise the fact that the contemporary practice of American penitentiaries, though, is perhaps just as susceptible to sharp critique today as the justice system generally was back in Jeremy Bentham's time, when the idea of a federal pentitentiary run on socially meliorist principles was first proposed. In George III's England, it was the Irish who were disproportionately overrepresented among those sentenced to life imprisonment in Australia. In today's America, it is African-Americans. Perhaps the most consistent and articulate critic of contemporary prisons is Angela Y. Davis, a onetime Communist Party vice-presidential candidate who had previously graced the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, but now currently an academic. Davis criticizes the contemporary state of American pentientiaries as the "prison industrial complex" (Davis 2003). This seems a valid critique when we ask whether or not federal "Supermax" prisons are not, in fact, a form of bureaucratic self-justification for a hypertrophied and corrupt system. This corruption has, in Davis's opinion, unsurprisingly followed quite closely with the subjection of prison management to principles derived less from Bentham than from Adam Smith -- what we might loosely term the "privatization" of the prison industry, in which the government contracts its prison businesses out to large independent firms, much in the same way that the U.S. military during the most recent Iraqi occupation would contract out dangerous security tasks to private mercenary firms like Blackwater. But treating the American prison system in this way has inevitably led to corruption.

It is worth noting the most recent American scandal in this regard, which seems to have borne out Davis' most fundamental critiques of the contemporary penitentiary system. In Pennsylvania -- the state which, ironically, was the first to offer official endorsement of the Benthamite ideal of state control of prisons -- Republican administrations infatuated with privatization as an official policy to roll back the welfare state would privatize the specific pentitentiary facilities…

Sources Used in Documents:


Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? Berkeley: Open Media, 2003.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House, 1977.

Morris, Norval and Rothman, David J. The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

"PA Judges Accused of Jailing Kids for Cash." Associated Press, February 11, 2009. Accessed February 26, 2011 at:

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