Monday 8 July 2013

Prison as a Cultural Symbol

The prison in Balassagyarmat. Built in 1845,
it is the oldest functioning prison in Hungary.
Today, prison is the ultimate guarantee of the moral order. Considering its importance and its institutional embeddedness, it is astonishing to realize how recent a phenomenon the prison is: In its present form, it is less than 200 years old. This suggests that, despite its apparent indispensability, prison is not an evident option to ensure compliance with moral rules. So the question arises: why the prison and why not something else?

In an age as enlightened as ours, your first guess will be that the institution of prison must have a rational justification. In this regard, one can think of two possible arguments for it: a practical and a moral one. Unfortunately, neither of them works.

Ain't no sunshine in the prison window

The prison may be said to serve the practical purpose of reforming criminals into law-abiding citizens or, less ambitious, of keeping them off society for a while. Evidence shows, however, that prison produces more practical problems than it solves. Most criminologists have long lost hope that the prison can reform convicts. On the contrary, the everyday company of other offenders reinforces criminal attitudes and instills them even in prisoners who lived a normal life before being put in jail. In many cases, moreover, prisoners are abandoned by their families while serving their long sentences so they cannot count on anyone to help them reintegrate into society once released. This way the segregation of convicts from the rest of society takes its toll after their being set free: It diminishes the chances of released prisoners returning to normal life and leaves them with no option but to submerge into the criminal underworld with the help of their prison acquaintances. 

Those who do not cherish illusions about the practical usefulness of prison usually say that it is at least morally just: It restores the moral order by meting out punishment to offenders in proportion to the crime they committed. This argument also fails, however: Prison is an extremely unjust institution because it punishes not only the guilty but also other people who have nothing to do with the committed crime. By putting a bread-winner behind bars, it strips his dependants of a main source of their livelihood. It also deprives spouses of the moral and physical support they need in providing for the family and deprives children of the parental care they need for their healthy development. By often leading to the complete disruption of the family, prison can cause the most suffering precisely to those who are usually regarded as innocent: children.

Having seen the serious shortcomings of the institution of prison both from a practical and from a moral point of view, the question remains open as to why prison has become the main type of punishment in the modern era. I think the reasons are above all cultural: the prison symbolizes something which is important for modern Western culture. But what is that?

Surveillance and freedom

The architecture of the prison in Balassagyarmat was
inspired by Bentham's Panopticon model, which Foucault
regards as the prime symbol of the carceral system.
It was the French philosopher Michel Foucault who – in his 1975 book Discipline and Punishdrew attention to the constitutive role of prison in the organization of modern society. Foucault identified a significant rupture in the history of systems of punishment at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Before that, the main type of penalty had been public torture. It had been employed to demonstrate the king's power to avenge crimes against the public order. From the early nineteenth century on, however, state power did not content itself with avenging violations, but tried to discipline its subjects and regulate their behaviour through continuous observation and control. Prison was established as part of a large “carceral system” of surveillance institutions – including schools, hospitals and factories – that society has since been submitted to.

Forty years before the publication of Foucault's work, Oswald Spengler, a German philosopher of history, interpreted the institution of prison also in cultural terms. He devoted a short section in his posthumous work Early Times of World History to this problem noting: “It is one of the strongest symbolic expression of a culture how it punishes and what the punishment is aimed at.” The story he told was quite different from Foucault's, however.

According to Spengler, prison has always been the central type of penalty in Western Europe. The precursors of modern prisons were medieval dungeons and city gaols. What Spengler highlights is the remarkable absence of this type of penalty in earlier cultures, most notably in the Classical Antiquity. Instead of prison, the Ancient system of punishment was based on a penalty that no longer exists at all: exile.

Spengler advances the thesis that the difference between the Ancient and the Western system of punishment stems from the different world views of the two cultures: The principal value of Classical Antiquity was the well-ordered world in which one felt at home. Accordingly, the most severe penalty one could imagine was to deny the offender the opportunity to live in his habitual environment. “Not being allowed to stay there any longer, having to avoid the customs – that is the punishment.” By throwing wrongdoers into the limitless space out of the city borders, Ancient city-states actually forced them into what appears like complete freedom in the Western sense. For the West, in contrast, the main value is individual freedom. As a result, the most severe penalty deprives the offender of the opportunity to live, move and act freely by confining him within the narrow limits of a cell. “This way his life is shut off, because life means will, deed, movement, space” in the West. Exile and imprisonment, summarizes Spengler, “are two alternative forms of social deaths that are diametrically opposed”.  According to this account, prison was born out of the particularly Western love of limitless freedom.

To sum up the results of our investigation: Prison cannot be justified on rational grounds. At the same time, it seems to be explainable as a symbolic expression of an important aspect of our culture. Whether this aspect is total state control or individual freedom – well, this is an interesting question that requires some further research.

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