Carceral archipelago

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The concept of a carceral archipelago (meaning a prison consisting of a series of islands) appears in social theorist Michel Foucault's work on surveillance systems and their technologies over modern societies and its practice of social control and discipline over its population in all areas of social life. Taken from his work Discipline and Punish (1975), modelled on the principle of and related to the nation state, and ideally employed on the idea of an incarceration system producing society's need for prisons, it employs physical boundaries to gain control of urban space. Foucault was referring to the Mettray Penal Colony when he introduced a possible socio-cultural nomenclature to be used, "It was the most famous of a whole series of institutions which, well beyond the frontiers of criminal law, constituted what one might call the carceral archipelago."[1]

In the form of a carceral dystopia, public space is transformed into defendable space, with the installation of walls, gates, fences, surveillance cameras and security checkpoints. Such installations are meant to provide control over urban space. In these spaces, gatherings of strangers to the area are discouraged, and barricades of various forms can prevent people from entering or passing through.[2]

Foucault's theories on prison and punishment[edit]

Foucault's main feature in his work Discipline and Punish traces how it was possible that our society has become one in which surveillance and monitoring are permanent and constant features of our world. These contemporary forms of social control, punishment, surveillance and the prison system had unlikely origins: a whole series of accidents and unintentional consequences, and a transformation in the nature and understanding of punishment that took place around 18th-century Europe.

This is why the case of Robert-François Damiens is important. He was doubly 'unlucky' and 'unfortunate' – because both his gruesome punishment had become redundant and obsolete, because not long afterwards criminal punishment had become 'humane'. However, this 'humaneness' had its own rationale. According to Foucault, the very notion of the criminal had become political within the confines of political economy, the western legal system[3][4] had been transformed from one of cruelty to one of repeating one's crimes over and over again, therefore producing the 'rational' professional criminal; criminals were punished differently (and less dramatically, rather ironically). The professional criminal had now been tied to the general specifics of the judiciary, giving the rather false impression that the working population were susceptible to criminal law breaking and anti-social behaviour. This wrong impression produced an explosion of different techniques at who it was primarily aimed at rather ironically, the working population from where the inexhaustible supply of the professional criminal, labour power and political power all came from this particular group and inevitably become an invaluable source of discipline and punishment to the rest of society. This doesn't mean to say, however, that society was split into a two-tiered society, one for punishment and one for the unpunished; what it does mean is that the intended recipients of the system of prison and punishment was primarily targeted at the disparate, atomised, poorer 'classes' not atomized as collective individuals, but as a group who had no effective organization, a counter organization meaning an organized super structure, such as the state for example, and were unable to fight back in any effective way.

According to Foucault's work on Discipline and Punish the technical analysis produced;they were not ad-hoc, but deliberate the eventual technologies that were produced migrated to 'everywhere' in society, such as schools, army barracks, hospitals and the workplace, rather paradoxically, compelling the judiciary to make it necessary to have a system of penance (time served), nearly 70% of criminals go back to the prison system,[5][6][7] therefore ensuring that the criminal justice system[8] is 'rational', invisible, transient, 'normal', 'familiar'. What this eventual unintended historical outcome does mean is that the prison system becomes a system designed to produce prisons for 'ever',[9][10] making it impossible for the prison to be removed from society maximising the criminal justice system's survival, making sure of the objective that the criminals themselves 'police' and protect the whole criminal justice system.[11] The criminals are needed, so incidentally are the laws and the policy, lawmakers producing the endless cycle of recidivism making it a permanent fixture in history to everyone in society and by operating efficiently producing professional criminals ensuring that the double edge sword of recidivism, criminals and the working population are coalescent[12] with one another as one organic whole, punishment 'works' so the criminal could 'learn' his 'errors better'.

Punishment, according to Foucault, was concerned with being a better criminal about learning how to be punished 'better', hence the 'trick' of 'rehabilitation'. Rehabilitation was part of the tumultuous chain of events in 16th–18th-century European societies at this time where there was dramatic, drastic and radical social changes in the shape of economic, political, judicial reform in society and wasn't much concerned with reforming the individual criminal, at least with elimination of criminality, which it was powerless to do. Modern punishment, Foucault argued, was concerned with guaranteeing the return of the criminal to the criminal justice system not as an exile, as in previous cases, but as a product of both economic and scientific 'rationality' being punished better means making punishment a 'scientific system'.[13][14][15] This for Foucault made punishment and the criminal become an integral part of 'western' scientific rationality basing it on a model 'cure' for reforms and meant two things; a surface of inscription for power/knowledge, knowledge/objects and the submission of bodies through the control of ideas; the analysis of representations as a principle in a politics of bodies, which for Foucault was far more effective than the old institutions of torture and executions.

Foucault makes an observation on what kind of tool was used to make this new kind of punishment possible; Semiology, propagated by a group Foucault calls the Ideologues. It was this particular group who developed the thought of the individual and his relationship to others and society, but invented the necessary technology which would include the economic justification for, as opposed to the sovereign, punishment.

This type of new punishment that replaced public torture and execution had a number of distinctive characteristics that are revealed by Faucher's House of Young Prisoners: strict discipline, exact rules, surveillance and rehabilitation. Foucault has just connected his history of punishment with his general project to describe contemporary forms of social control. His two main projects in this area has just recently been released entitled Biopower and Biopolitics. It relates to the practice of modern nation states and their regulation of their subjects through "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations" and also by describing Biopower: "By this I mean a number of phenomena that seem to me to be quite significant, namely, the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the 18th century, modern Western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species. This is what I have called biopower".[16][17]

Foucault argued that the procedures and technology for the control of the plague established around 1700 became a template for a more general form of social control. In order to control the plague, a village was sequestered and every street was put under constant surveillance by a 'syndic' who reported to an 'intendant'. These procedures were absolutely necessary to stop the spread of the plague.

In 1791, Jeremy Bentham drew up architectural plans (it was his brother, Samuel Bentham who was the true architect; Jeremy Bentham was the legal and philosophical brains behind the project) that took the logic of plague control and transformed it into a plan for controlling people in prisons, workshops, schools and other institutions. He called this the Panopticon. In a sense, Bentham became the architect for what Erving Goffman called 'total institutions'. The Panopticon was a round building with a central control tower looking into cells on the perimeter of the building. The guard in the control tower was hidden behind a screen. Thus the inmates never knew when they were being watched. The panoptic cell was therefore the opposite of a dungeon.

Foucault's themes[edit]

Historians have usually discounted the importance of the Panopticon because although Bentham drew up the plan, very few were actually built. Foucault claimed that numerous historians had missed the point: the idea of the Panopticon became used in many different settings in diverse ways. He quoted a 19th-century legal scholar called Julius who argued that Bentham's design was an event 'in the history of the human mind'. It was the 'birth certificate' of 'disciplinary society'.[18] This is the key point in Foucault's argument: the shift from the Panopticon to panopticism. The former is an architectural plan, the latter is a set of general ideas about the control of populations. Sociologists became interested in Foucault because of his account of panopticism. Here's an important distinction: punishment was inflicted on people who had been shown to break the law; at least you had to have proof the law was broken. But, Foucault argued, why have proof? This was a ploy Foucault considered, proof was far more rigorous and exact in its approach because some form of finality had to be reached, a consensus, of return or recycling of punishment inflicted on those who had very little choice which was a transition from torture and straightforward execution by contrast, panopticism was a form of social control (and power) that is inflicted on everyone. It is pre-emptive.

Foucault argued that the social sciences emerged as part of the package of panoptic, controlling devices that gave birth to disciplinary society. Rather than thinking of psychology, sociology, psychiatry or criminology as emancipatory projects designed to improve societies, Foucault saw them as 'strange sciences' that develop the technologies and procedures of panopticism. This creates what he calls 'power-knowledge' that can be used for social control. This led to a view of society as a 'carceral archipelago'. The word 'carceral' refers to anything concerning prisons, the word 'archipelago' denotes a cluster of islands. Foucault's idea is that we now live in a world in which we are constantly being watched, judged, disciplined, evaluated and controlled by different 'experts' who write reports about us. Foucault writes that 'the judges of normality are everywhere'.[19]

Because of this, Foucault became interested in strategies of resistance. How can anyone escape the carceral archipelago? He admired vagabonds who refused to live as others expected them to live, anarchists who challenge authority and so on. He gave the example of a homeless young man sentenced to two years in a reformatory. The young man smiled when given his sentence and refused to be depressed by it, or judged by the court.[20] We can now understand Foucault's book. It is a 'history of the present'. It explains how new forms of punishment in the 19th century became transformed into general techniques and procedures for controlling populations. Foucault argued that the social sciences are implicated in this process: they contribute to panopticism.

In his work after Discipline and Punish, Foucault became interested in a related question. Instead of looking at panoptic forms of control, he became interested in how people use information to think about themselves. He sometimes referred to this a study of 'ethics', other times he used the grander title: 'technologies of the self'. Think of reading magazines that provide ideas about what to wear, what to eat and other broad lifestyle concerns. Foucault studied two related issues: what information was on hand and what people chose to do with the information. In many ways, this took him in a new direction, suggesting perhaps ways of living in the carceral archipelago without striving to escape from it.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Solzhenitsyn's book with its full concern upon the Soviet forced labor camp system, The Gulag Archipelago, was published in the West, 1973. __Foucault uses "archipelago" Discipline and Punish,1975, introduced and used only the once for the length of the work. _to be read in first paragraph, top of this page>
  2. ^ Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances, Andrea Smith; Duke University Press, 2008; ISBN 0-8223-4163-8, ISBN 978-0-8223-4163-5, (From the Carceral State to the Carceral Church) p. 34
  3. ^ History of the prison system 16th-21st Century:The Howard League for Penal Reform Archived March 31, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Prison reform 1880–1914
  5. ^ One in 100: Behind Bars in America PEW Centre Report 2008 Archived March 27, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Probation Journal 55 The prison population in America 2008
  7. ^ State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America's Prisons PEW Centre Report 2011 Archived September 11, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ WHY HAS PRISON EMERGED AS A PROMINENT FORM OF PUNISHMENT FOR MOST CRIME AND WHAT ARE ITS FUNCTIONS IN RELATION TO WIDER Society Internet Journal of Criminology 2011 Archived 2012-04-25 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Texas Profile – Justice Reinvestment 2007
  10. ^ A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Texas 2004
  11. ^ Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish pp. 101–102 (1977)
  12. ^ Loïc Wacquant Deadly symbiosis: When ghetto and prison meet and meshPunishment and Society 3(1) pp. 95–134 2001 Archived October 21, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ "Nature Reviews Neuroscience Vol 8 pp. 300–311 The neurobiology of punishment April 2007" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-04-25. Retrieved 2011-10-24.
  14. ^ Science 312 2006 pp. 108–111 The competitive advantage of sanctioning institutions 2006[permanent dead link]
  15. ^ Gary B Melton Psychological evaluations for the courts: A handbook for mental health professionals and lawyers 2007
  16. ^ Michel Foucault The History Of Sexuality p. 140 1976
  17. ^ Michel Foucault Security, Territory, Population p. 1 2007
  18. ^ Foucault Discipline and Punish p. 216 1977
  19. ^ Foucault Discipline and Punish p. 304, 1977
  20. ^ Foucault Discipline and Punish pp. 290–292 1977

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