Prison Industrial Complex

Here are three of the papers I wrote for my class on the American prison system, which should be abolished.


Reconsidering Freedom and Bravery: Prison Culture and America

            America: the land of the free, the home of the brave. The country where each individual person has control over his or her destiny. The country where brave ones sacrifice luxuries afforded to the rest of “us” as they endure hardships to fight against “those” who threaten the American way of life. In this paper, I argue that these hegemonic notions are (perhaps surprisingly) not challenged by the fact that the penal state has come to dominate U.S. institutions and society, but rather, when interpreted through a critically engaged perspective, actually expose the tensions inherent in the modern socioeconomic environment vis-à-vis the prison. This paper draws on the class’s field-trip to Jackson State Correctional Facility and Armory Arts Village in addition to modern scholarship to argue that “prison culture” most successfully undergirds the neoliberal state through its apparent embrace of freedom, its emphasis on the individual, and its assurances of security.

Prison culture refers to more than the inner-happenings of the prison. More broadly, it includes the institutions and communities that relate to the penitentiary in one way or another—which due to the expansiveness of the carceral state encompasses virtually all of America, and increasingly the world[i]—leading to “a society committed to the construction of prisons and the warehousing of mass numbers of people with little regard for the complexities of their lives, the lives of those hired to confine them, and the communities that surrounded them.”[ii] Though people often feel disconnected from the prison unless they have a direct connection to it, thinking about the U.S. as a prison culture forces one to consider the affects of the prison outside the space of the actual prison. It encourages one to draw connections between prisons and society, and between prisoners and ordinary citizens; because after all, one could not exist without the other.

The fact that the very notion of freedom cannot exit without the potentiality of captivity emphasizes the distinct relationship between free American citizens and imprisoned criminals. In this relationship, convicted criminals become the property of the state, subjected to its punishments and categorizations, all the while the rest of the free citizenry stands by and speculates on the characteristics and conditions that might lead one to prison. Yet despite being closely tied to one another in a sort of binary-bind where alternatives to imprisonment cannot even be conceived, their relationship is most significantly characterized by a vast distance.

This distance can turn feet into miles, as it remains even when subjects stand in direct sight of spectators, such as during prison tours or nightly news programming. As Michelle Brown warns, “In contexts where individuals only know incarceration at a distance, the dynamics of penal participation are slippery and can quickly devolve into complex, often voyeuristic frameworks which privilege various kinds of punitive, individualistic judgment.”[iii] Conclusions made from a distance, in other words, risk being formed from biased information, most likely transmitted by a propagator of neoliberal thinking who hungrily seeks to unite privileged classes by their shared fear of social and economic insecurity.

The neoliberal paradigm places all non-prisoners, typically White and (sub)affluent, opposed to those unfortunate enough to have a run-in with the law, typically Black and poor.[iv] Though scholars contend that approximately 90% of Americans have broken some sort of law that could have landed them in prison, penal spectators nevertheless assume that inmates uniquely and completely deserve their punishments.[v] Part of this hegemonic narrative on the American penal system derives from national television. In his study of ABC, CBS, and NBC, Bill Yousman found the central themes in the news’s coverage of incarceration to be fearmongering and to be misleading—for example, by focusing on out-of-the-ordinary upbeat rehabilitation programs, riots, and escapes. Yousman concludes, “Prisoners are portrayed as dangerous, violent, parasites, while the prison system itself is depicted as providing these unworthies with decent living conditions and plenty of opportunities for success.”[vi]

Essentially lacking from the mainstream news media’s account of incarceration are stories that might humanize the inmates, depict the inmates as victims of injustices like false convictions, or expose the structural inequalities that still plague America and that contribute to racialized state violence. The media’s tendency to ignore the racialization of incarceration leads Angela Davis to attest that society’s commitment to individualism “imputes responsibility to the individuals who are its casualties, thus reproducing the very conditions that produce racist patterns in incarceration and its seemingly infinite capacity to expand.”[vii] Davis presents a sympathetic view of prisoners that escapes the body of understanding possessed by a majority of penal spectators who exist distanced and consciously separate from the “criminal class.” Yet as Davis and other critically engaged scholars understand, the “criminal class” emerged concurrently with neoliberalism’s restructuring of the state, and can be seen as victims of extended structures of traditional racism.

Neoliberalism’s replacement of the welfare state with the carceral state represents the increasingly punitive (and consistently racist) treatment of the poor.[viii]  Noah De Lissovoy describes how the neoliberal state operates under the principle of violation, the material and symbolic domination of racial groups, to justify this carceral turn towards poverty. Through violation, racism becomes permissible, as Davis suggested, by reshuffling responsibility onto the victims themselves. With its emphasis on individual freedom, neoliberal discourse casts all crime as a personal choice and all inmates as threats to society. This neoliberal insistence on the individual as the primary controller of social pathologies masks the traces of racism and white privilege as they affect American communities materially, politically, and symbolically, providing “the cover for processes of class war from the top.”[ix] With its emphasis on the “free market” and its insistence that the individual consumer be “free” to choose, neoliberal discourse attempts to align itself with patriotic notions of freedom in order to pursue the neoliberal agenda—the solidification of class power. [x]

It was with these tensions in mind that the class arrived at Jackson State Correctional Facility and Armory Arts Village. Armory Arts Village, located in the historic nineteenth century Jackson State Prison, has been renovated into apartments for artists in an attempt to revitalize the city and to provide a use for an otherwise vacant and decrepit building. Armory Arts Village retains its ties to the prison of its past while simultaneously assigning it a new identity. To preserve the site’s history, tours are lead by residents of the Village. The site also offers haunted tours and has rentable space available for social gatherings.

Jim and Judy, eager to introduce their new tour group to the horrors and history of the prison they have come to call home, began by emphasizing the prison’s role in the community’s economy. The business generated by the prison—which included various forms of farms and factories, such as produce and clothing—established Jackson as one of the three leading industrial cities in the United States. The prisoners responsible for the city’s economic success spent their days in inhuman conditions and under corrupt leadership—facts that Jim and Judy revealed with great sympathy. They took the time to emphasize the mundane aspects of these prisoners lives: honey buckets for plumbing, intense heat in the summer, frigid temperatures in the winter, the rampant disease with poor health care, and the harsh punishments inflicted against them for violating the code of silence.

Jim and Judy also partook in offering the group spectacular descriptions of inmates sentenced to solitary confinement and stories of prison escapes. It was with heightened drama that Jim described the “subhuman” convicts that emerged from the solitary confinement cells after the inspectors finally demanded to check on them. These moments reminded the class that the “politics of the penal gaze here are inevitably embedded in spectacle and thrill seeking.”[xi] Despite the fact that we were a University-level class, Jim and Judy still treated us to the full monty of the prison tour, including voyeuristic stories of inmates tying cigars to cockroaches to pass their rare bits of pleasure around.

This part of the tour emphasized how much of a prison culture America is, and how a prison influences its surrounding community in unexpected ways and to surprising extents. Life in Jackson was more or less organized around the prison. For example, in addition to the prison comprising the majority of Jackson’s economic sector, Jim and Judy discussed how the prison’s front lawn became a park where community members would gather and spend their afternoons playing games and socializing. In addition to hosting an annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, the prison even hosted an annual watermelon festival, and the inmates formed a prison band that entertained the community at such events.

Of course, it was definitely not all fun and games for the inmates. Jim and Judy’s description of the prison as a complete and austere institute reminded the class of Foucault’s docile bodies, simultaneously made to be useful through prison labor. When discussing the old prison, Jim and Judy emphasized its corruption and inhumane conditions, but never addressed trends in the racialization of criminalization. They talked about overcrowding and the large proportion of nonviolent offenders, but they never once mentioned race’s role in the prison system. Nevertheless, they remained fairly objective in presenting the history of the old prison, taking care to present the story from the point of view of the inmates themselves.

The objective gaze that allowed Jim to sympathize with the inmates of the past seemed to partially vanish when we arrived at the modern penitentiary. Jim took care to ensure the class of the safe distance between the inmates and us, reinforcing the notion that the prisoners are a potentially violent threat. This notion was also reinforced when Jim instructed us to think highly of Correctional Officers, and to thank them for putting their lives on the line for our safety. He seemed to be quite proud of modern ingenuity when he described how the yellow poles informed guards of exactly where to shoot. At one point, after he let the phrase “innocent inmates” slip, Jim immediately laughed at his mistake, as if to confirm that no inmates were innocent, of course, considering the fact that they are criminals, after all.

Yet several times, Judy encouraged us to critically consider modern notions of criminality. By telling the class the story of the grandma who ended up in prison through an unfortunate string of events, she asked us to be conscious of the people sent to prison that might not deserve to be there. She also suggested that people end up in prison, not because of their deviancy, but because of ulterior conditions, such as low self-esteem. Though this ultimately places the responsibility back on to the individual actor (rather than accounting for the structural conditions and inequalities that might lead to one’s incarceration), it can also be seen as an attempt to humanize the inmates. In the end, Jim and Judy offered a soft critique of the modern carceral state.

Visiting the modern prison made a profound impact in my ability to imagine imprisonment. By experiencing the claustrophobia and constant surveillance of the cells, the distance between me as a penal spectator and the subjects which Jim encouraged us to gaze upon became or felt at least slightly narrowed. Yet as Michelle Brown argues, being so distanced from both the prisoners and the experience of prison, I will never be able to understand the tremendous, tortuous monotony of prison life. But the experience of visiting the prison, and the exposure of this class’s material more broadly, has taught me to think critically about my normalized notions of criminality. It has helped me understand the difference between the mythical view of the prison verses the useful study of the prison. Similarly, it has helped me relate my findings to American culture more broadly, to consider what normalized aspects of American national identity deserve closer scrutiny.

Like the base of a building may be built deep underground to preserve both its structural quality and aesthetic appeal, the foundation of American prison culture remains hidden from the public’s scrutinizing gaze. Exposing the foundation necessarily makes the entire structure less appealing, as it both reveals designs the architect never intended to be made public, and also unveils embedded cracks or flaws that threaten the structure’s integrity and stability. To further elaborate on this metaphor, the hidden aspects of America’s prison culture, hidden for their grossness, are integral parts of the carceral system. Without them, the system would not be the same system, nor would the system be able to fulfill its function. We are told America is free and brave, but as ex-convicts emerge from prison dispossessed of virtually all rights and property, the land of the free becomes the land for the free, and the home of the brave more accurately refers to the prisons and prisoners themselves—they who repeatedly endure pain, unpleasant and dangerous conditions.

[i] Loïc Wacquant, “The Advent of the Penal State Is Not a Destiny,” in Social Justice 28.3. (Fall 2011). pp. 81-87.

[ii] Michelle Brown, The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle. (New York: New York University Press 2009), p. 2.

[iii] Ibid., p. 5.

[iv] Angela Davis, “Locked up: racism in the era of neoliberalism,” in The Drum. (Mar 2008).

[v] Bill Yousman. Prime Time Prisons on U.S. TV. (New York: Peter Land 2009), p. 85.

[vi] Ibid., p. 105.

[vii] Davis, op. cit.

[viii] Loïc Wacquant, “The punitive regulation of poverty in the neoliberal age,” in openDemocracy (Aug 2011).

[ix] Noah De Lissovoy, “Conceptualizing the Carcerael Turn: Neoliberalism, Racism, and Violation,” in Critical Sociology (Jul 2012), p. 2.

[x] David Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. (New York: Oxford University Press 2005), p. 39-41.

[xi] Brown, op. cit., p. 91.



Brown, Michelle. The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle. (New York: New York University Press 2009).

Davis, Angela. “Locked up: racism in the era of neoliberalism,” in The Drum. (Mar 2008).

De Lissovoy, Noah. “Conceptualizing the Carcerael Turn: Neoliberalism, Racism, and Violation,” in Critical Sociology (Jul 2012), pp. 1-17.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. (New York: Oxford University Press 2005), pp. 1-63.

Parenti, Christian. Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. (New York: Verso 1999), pp. 3-28.

Sinden, Jeff. “The Problem of Prison Privatization: The US Experience,” from Capitalist Punishment: Prison Privatization & Human Rights, (Charlottesville, VA: Clarity Press 2003). pp. 39-47.

Yousman, Bill. Prime Time Prisons on U.S. TV. (New York: Peter Land 2009), pp. 77-140.

Wacquant, Loïc. “The Advent of the Penal State Is Not a Destiny,” in Social Justice 28.3. (Fall 2011). pp. 81-87.



Power of The Prison

Most U.S. citizens lack even a modest understanding of the American prison system, neither how it functions as an institution in American society (and increasingly in the world at large) nor what happens inside the carceral state, off the books, behind the bars, or inside the minds of the convicted criminals themselves. Prison topics and implications remain outside the realm of typically grasped and understood knowledge for numerous reasons (to be discussed later), and in some cases have even become taboo. Prisons are gaped at and feared, but are also venerated for the protective services they provide society. Though most people’s engagement with the prison stops at such visceral responses, prisons shape American society in profound yet overlooked ways. Like elusive mice scampering away from capture and into safe hiding between the walls where they remain established and threatening, no matter how much prisons try to discretely settle into their environments, they nevertheless exert a tangible effect on community members’ lives and imaginations. The power of the prison over American understandings of race, gender and sexuality dictates how we, the American public, categorize and rank people according to their relationship to the fundamental pillar of the carceral state—the penitentiary. The very nature of the penitentiary system allows this power to translate into notions of worth, of deservedness, and of value. In other words, the carceral state dictates who is and who is not allowed to be a full and free citizen. The crisis of the current carceral state can perhaps best be studied through a multidimensional American Studies’ approach that examines the history, economics, cultural manifestations, and ethnic divisions currently characterizing the American penitentiary system.

The elusion of prison topics from the public dialogue is shocking when one considers the magnitude and strength of the carceral state. Indeed, Loïc Wacquant asserts America has earned the title of “the first genuine prison society of history (original emphasis)” (121, 2001). Though prisons have existed for thousands of years, Wacquant and others believe that the modern prison system is such that, for the first time ever, it actually defines the U.S. state as a carceral entity.

As Achille Mbembe (2003) obliquely argues, the formation of the carceral state can be understood similarly to other modern terror regimes as a function of necropower. He outlines necropower as beginning with territorial fragmentation, a process that prepares society for separation, seclusion, surveillance, and control. After society is determined to be sufficiently cordoned off, infrastructure warfare sees to it that the enemy be disabled, disarmed, and disenfranchised. Ultimately, a state of siege arises where daily life is militarized and the empowered party withholds virtually all forms of capital (human, cultural, financial and political) from their disempowered subordinates. In its most visible forms, necropower emerged during the French Revolution, on the plantation, in Nazi Germany and apartheid Africa, and in the colonial occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.

Placing the U.S. carceral state alongside Nazism may seem exaggerated and unwarranted, but an objective examination reveals the justifying factors. In his example of late-modern colonial occupation, Mbembe identifies a characteristic of necropower that links it to the carceral state and also partially explains why such abuses remain hidden from public scrutiny:

Here, the colonial state derives its fundamental claim of sovereignty and legitimacy from the authority of its own particular narrative of history and identity. This narrative is itself underpinned by the idea that the state has a divine right to exist; the narrative competes with another for the same sacred space. Because the two narratives are incompatible and the two populations are inextricably intertwined, any demarcation of the territory on the basis of pure identity is quasi-impossible. Violence and sovereignty, in this case, claim a divine foundation: peoplehood itself is forged by the worship of one deity, and national identity is imagined as an identity against the Other, other deities. History, geography, cartography, and archaeology are supposed to back these claims, thereby closely binding identity and topography. As a consequence, colonial violence and occupation are profoundly underwritten by the sacred terror of truth and exclusivity. (27, 2003)


Though Mbembe speaks of colonialism, he could just as accurately be referring to the current U.S. carceral state. His reference to the “divine foundation” of the sovereign, where the sovereign’s claims to authority lie inherent in its very identity, can be likened to the social contract theory, where citizens must automatically comply with the disciplinary power lest they set themselves opposed to state doctrine and in queue for punishment.[i] Considering the deadly implications of being a part of the “other”—the group set opposed to the soverign’s identity or historical narrative—most people complacently align themselves with the identity suggested by the sovereign.

In this manner, whole populations become “regularized” or “normalized” as part of what Michel Foucault terms biopolitics. This process of normalization establishes a binary that can be used to punish the “non-normal” group while re-assuring the “normal” group of their strength and security—so long as they remain normal, that is. Yet in terms of the current carceral state, scholars argue one need not even do anything to align themselves with the “other,” but can be made to be “other” by virtue of their milieu. Foucault speaks to the links between biopower and race as that, “racism justifies the death-function in the economy of biopower by appealing to the principle that the death of others makes one biologically stronger insofar as one is a member of a race or a population, insofar as one is an element in a unitary living plurality” (258, 2004). As the formation of plurality necessarily implies exclusivity in biopoltics, maintaining a national image of America as united and free likewise requires excluding unfavorable aspects from the projected American identity, such as the taint of slavery on the historical narrative, the dominant role of the prison in the “Land of the Free,” or the humiliating presence of poverty in an otherwise affluent nation.

Today, racism is neither tolerated by the majority nor, in most cases, obvious. Unlike during slavery or Jim Crow, blacks today are technically allowed access to the same spaces and are told they are equal to their white counterparts. Yet as Wacquant argues and many agree, the admittedly horrible institutions of  slavery and segregation have simply evolved over time from slavery, to the Jim Crow South, to the ghetto and now into the “carceral-assistential complex” of the modern penitentiary system plus hyper-ghetto. In this new peculiar institution, the combined roles of the prison and the welfare state invisibilize and reactivate racism under the new disguises of crime, ‘welfare dependency’, and the ‘underclass’.[ii] Julia Sudbury advances, “While overt Jim Crow racism had waning public acceptance in this post-Civil Rights era of Martin Luther Kingesque integrationist policies, criminalization provided a new camouflaged racist language in which code words such as ‘criminal’, ‘drug dealer’ and ‘welfare queen’ could be used obliquely to the racialized ‘enemy within’” (61, 2002).

Racist policies have not been defeated, they have simply been disguised. As Angela Davis (1998) investigates in her appraisal of Frederick Douglass’s treatment towards the convict lease system, the Thirteenth Amendment—initially enacted to legally abolish the slave economy—contains a gap that allows for legalized slavery “as a punishment for crime.”[iii] Thus  began the transfer from the prison of slavery to the slavery of prison. “Through this transference, ideological and institutional carryovers from slavery began to fortify the equation of blackness and criminality in US society.”[iv] Davis argues Douglass did not adequately address the convict lease system because it was both perfectly legal and directed at people considered “criminal.” Yet specific crimes—Mississippi Black Codes, for example—became racialized and aimed to label black people as criminals solely to send them to prison in order to extract labor from them.

Similarly, the War on Drugs allows for the legal targeting and mass imprisonment of African Americans. Enacted in 1986 by President Reagan, the Act transformed drug use from a medical issue to a criminal issue, at the same time removing discretion and imposing mandatory minimum sentences.[v] In this way, the government set the stage to quarantine the “polluting group” from the urban body. Consider that nonviolent black males comprise a majority of inmates imprisoned for drug offenses,  yet whites use drugs in equal proportions to blacks, and the public expects inmates are imprisoned because of the threat of their violence to soceity.[vi]

By repackaging racism, the prison effectively contributes to what Wacquant refers to as “the ongoing reconstruction of the ‘imagined community’ of Americans.” He argues that the criminal justice system both materially and symbolically divides Americans between implicitly white ‘working families’ and despicable dark-skinned criminals:

The former are exalted as the living incarnation of genuine American values, self-control, deferred gratification, subservience of life to labor; the latter is vituperated as the loathsome embodiment of their abject desecration, the ‘dark side’ of the ‘American dream’ of affluence and opportunity for all believed to flow from morality anchored in conjugality and work.[vii]


In other words, Wacquant believes that prisons “make race” in their alignment of criminality with blackness, as evidenced by the “bias in arrest, prosecution, and sentencing” that leads to the shockingly unequal racial composition of the prison despite even ethnic patterns of criminal activity.[viii] Sudbury expands, “As public funds are poured  into the high-tech policing of black suspects, ,a self-fulfilling cycle is generated whereby increased arrests in the black community reinforce the public fear of African Caribbean drug dealers and traffickers, legitimate the continuation of racially discrepant policing practices and generate additional resources for the police” (66, 2002). These ties between blackness and criminality extend beyond the prison bars and into the American imagination, caused in large part by the cyclical nature of disenfranchisement and criminality.

Many prisoners suffer a “civic death” post-incarceration: they are denied access to Pell Grants, veterans benefits, foods stamps, welfare payments, Medicaid, public housing, and other related forms of assistance.[ix] Furthermore, “criminal disenfranchisement” strips one black man in seven nationwide of his right to vote.[x] Such meshing of the ghetto and the prison “enforces and perpetuates the socioeconomic marginality and symbolic taint of the urban black subproletariat,” exposing what has been noted as an increase in the carceral state combined with a decrease in the welfare state.[xi] The system feeds off itself, imprisoning disenfranchising people, setting them up for repeat offenses, and setting their families up for economic instability.

In addition to being a “race-making” institution, the prison forms notions and understandings of sexuality. As Regina Kunzel argues in her book Criminal Intimacy, the prison makes same-sex sex acts more visible—the emerging complexity of which threatens to destabilize the hetero-normativity of the hetero-sexual matrix. Prison sex challenges notions of how one’s sexual acts relate to his or her identity. While gay inmates were criminalized and “perverted,” they were also frequently cast as only temporarily gay. Homosexuality’s controversial debut in the prison marked it as an “abnormal” condition and made it “ineradicably affiliated with criminality and the prison.”[xii]

At one point, homosexuality was considered, like blackness, to be a metaphorical contagion that threatened society’s moral stability. The prison world was incorrectly imagined as a place outside normal society where, “the lives of prisoners had nothing to do with the lives of those outside prison walls.”[xiii] This denial or misperception had serious consequences on the advancement of prisoner’s rights. As gay activists began to influence societal perceptions on homosexuality and  advocated for sexual liberation, prison sexuality became only about rape and violence. When certain relationships within the prison became unrecognizable, prisoners became further dehumanized, and their ultimate “civil deaths” became more acceptable.

Prisons have tremendous amounts of power—not just because of the most obvious reason that they can take away the most cherished principle of our democracy, freedom—but also because they subtly influence the ways in which we understand both race and sexuality. Prisons dictate who is and who is not allowed to partake in the nation’s politics and economy. The fact that so powerful an institution remains so poorly understood by a majority of society leaves a huge potential for abuse.

[i] Replacing the notion of “divine legitimacy” with the social contract theory is not to ignore nineteenth century claims of Manifest Destiny, nor the belief that the U.S. power structure “has God on its side”—such proclamations have existed since the birth of the nation and arguably still exist.

[ii] Consider how the list of illegalities changed alongside capitalism to punish property-related crimes committed by the poor against the rich with stricter incarceration.

[iii] Angela Y. Davis. “From the Prison of Slavery to the Slavery of Prison: Frederick Douglass and the Convict Lease System,” in The Angela Y. Davis Reader edited by Joy James (Malden, MS: Blackwell Publishers 1998) p. 75.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Julia Sudbury. “Celling Black Bodies: Black Women in The Global Prison Industrial Complex,” in Feministi Review 70.1 (2002) p. 54-74.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Loïc Wacquant. “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh,” in Punishment & Society 3.95 (2001) p. 95-133.

[viii] Ibid. p. 96.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid. p. 120.

[xi] Ibid. p. 97.

[xii] Regina Kunzel. Criminal Intimacy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2008) p. 47.

[xiii] Ibid. p. 14.


Davis, Angela Y. “From the Prison of Slavery to the Slavery of Prison: Frederick Douglass and the Convict Lease System,” in The Angela Y. Davis Reader edited by Joy James (Malden, MS: Blackwell Publishers 1998).

Foucault, Michel. “17 March 1976,” in Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at The College de France, 1975-76 (New York: Penguin 2004).

Kunzel, Regina. Criminal Intimacy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2008).

Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics,” in Public Culture 15.1 (Duke University Press 2003) pp.11-40.

Sudbury, Julia. “Celling Black Bodies: Black Women in The Global Prison Industrial Complex,” in Feministi Review 70.1 (2002) pp. 54-74.

Wacquant, Loïc. “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh,” in Punishment & Society 3.95 (2001) p. 95-133.


“Laws are made to be broken.”

             The title of this paper—a phrase commonly used by adolescents to justify misdemeanors, or to coerce their friends to join them in breaking the rules—suggests something that at first seems illogical. A typical responder might retort, “No, laws are made to protect us. Law breakers are criminals who belong in prison, and if you don’t be careful you’ll end up in there with them.” Such a response points to a fundamental fact of American society that most either remain ignorant to or choose to ignore: that the scale of mass incarceration in the United States is seemingly unrivaled in history.[i] Prison as punishment has taken such a hold on the American imagination that, as Foucault asserts, an alternative can hardly be imagined. Yet as the guillotine reminds us, prisons have not always been the primary form of punishment. This paper presents a study of the most recent evolution in punishment by examining the correlation between government types and specific manifestations of power, especially as pertains to the subjects governed and the effects of punishment on the minds, bodies, and spirits of both the individual and the group. The study concludes that the current carceral state maintains its efficacy by linking austerity and prosperity while simultaneously and quietly forging its way into the institutions that shape the American psyche, resulting in a strengthened power elite and a weakened public body.

Prior to the modern economy of power, the sovereign magistrate operated primarily through a “policy of terror” grounded in public spectacles of violence and the threat of torture.[ii] In the system of the monarchy, ritualized public executions revealed the invisible force of the sovereign and reminded onlookers of their allegiance to the king. Rather than re-establishing justice, the public execution reactivated power through retribution.

Its aim is not so much to re-establish a balance as to bring into play, as its extreme point, the dissymmetry between the subject who has dared to violate the law and the all-powerful sovereign who displays his strength…the punishment is carried out in such a way as to give a spectacle not of measure, but of imbalance and excess.[iii]


Corporal punishment—the revenge of the sovereign— simultaneously manifested and annulled the crime while instilling within the public a fear of the king’s power.

Not all, however, received the memo. Because the ritual of the public execution was dependent on the obedient participation of the crowd, it was only successful if the crowd complied. The nature of the public spectacle allowed those present the opportunity to side with the condemned and interfere with the process, as they did on a number of occasions.[iv] In addition to occasionally backfiring and turning the condemned into heroes, public executions bred lawlessness. Caleb Smith writes, “Execution day became a carnival, a holiday for drunks and pickpockets—the very authority that aimed to impress itself upon the people seemed instead to be suspended.”[v] The ritual of the public execution seemed to create more problems than it solved and ultimately gave way to less grisly —and less visible —forms of punishment.

The ruthlessness of the spectacle of the scaffold came under condemnation during the Enlightenment when reformers first took steps towards regulating the sovereign’s power. In their attempts to proportionate the punishment with the crime, reformers called for the respect of man’s “humanity.” Their aims were not entirely altruistic, however, for as Foucault explains, “The true objective of the reform movement… was not so much to establish a new right to punish based on more equitable principles, as to set up a new ‘economy’ of the power to punish… so that it should be distributed in homogenous circuits capable of operating everywhere, in a continuous way, down to the finest grain of the social body.”[vi] Authorities sought to reform the penal system to make it more efficient, more necessary, and more deeply engrained into the public at large. Reformers’ lackluster effort at improving the condition of the condemned is dually noted: as Smith writes, “The violent dehumanization of convicts on the scaffold and in the crowded, filthy dungeons of unenlightened regimes was the crisis that reformers sought to address; but the reformers’ solution, the modern institution built for the reclamation of lost souls, would incorporate its own, redefined practice of mortification.”[vii]

Nevertheless, mass incarceration was packaged as a humane alternative to the scaffold. As the public spectacle transformed during the eighteenth century into penal imprisonment, it seemed punishment was suddenly less severe, more clearly codified, democratically sound, and generally accepted. Reformers emphasized the rehabilitative potential of the prison, imagining the walls as becoming “mirrored surfaces of reflection” that would lead convicts “to reckon with themselves and their crimes.”[viii] In theory, the prison would mend the broken soul of the citizen and prepare him or her for re-entry into the civil body.[ix]

A number of different prison models began to take shape, though they all ultimately reinforced the same three principles: solitude, regulation, and categorization.[x] By partitioning the inmates’ lives into cell, church, and workshop, the prison aimed to control virtually every second of the inmates’ days. Inmates were examined, judged, and placed along a hierarchical spectrum. The entirety of the prison apparatus, from its architecture to its time-tables, reinforced surveillance, productivity, and submission. The composition of controlling forces resulted in disciplined and docile bodies, which could then be forced to obey virtually any decree, much like cogs in a machine, or like slaves on a plantation. Indeed, from its advent, the penitentiary subjected inmates to a “civil death” that “justified a virtually unlimited exploitation and discretionary violence against the living entombed,” while it “divested (them) of rights and reduced (them) to a kind of animal or undead life,” much like the dehumanizing practices used on black Americans.[xi]

It may appear that a wholly new and more just power came along with the advent of the penitentiary, yet in reality, sovereign power has merely shifted to a democratized disciplinary power that operates under a new series of stratagem. A whole new taxonomy of crime develops based off the idea of the social contract—the theory that each member of society agrees to abandon part of his or her sovereignty in order to gain benefits from the community in which he or she belongs. “The citizen is presumed to have accepted once and for all, with the laws of society, the very law by which he may be punished.”[xii] It becomes the judicial duty of the state to categorize and define the criminal’s offence and to align it with an appropriate punishment, that, in theory, is enacted by all of society, for “The least crime attacks the whole of society; and the whole of society —including the criminal—is present in the least punishment.”[xiii] No longer does the criminal violate his or her loyalty to a single sovereign; the criminal betrays all members of society. The power to punish the criminal no longer comes from the vengeance of the sovereign, but from the defense of society. While the judicial connection made between crime and punishment can be visually manifested in books of the law (and therefore can be used to justify punishment), the actual source of power—invested within the social body—remains  less visible, hidden within social institutions (hospitals, schools, work places, etc.) that covertly echo the surveillance, measurement, and judgment of the penitentiary.[xiv]

This new disciplinary force exerts itself just as tangibly on the body, though under completely different forms. Referred to by Foucault as the “new political anatomy,” the body transforms from being a subject that can manifest the king’s authority to being a subject that can be regulated, studied, classified, and utilized.[xv] The new political anatomy objectifies bodies through examinations where “a normalizing gaze, a surveillance… makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish… In (the examination) are combined the ceremony of power and the form of the experiment, the deployment of force and the establishment of truth.”[xvi] Through the examination by medical professionals, academic professionals, or virtually any other sort of “professional” (i.e. business recruiters), bodies are ever more visible, ever more objectified into individual “cases,” and infinitely classified as effect and object of both knowledge and power.

Prisons exists in the American consciousness, as Smith iterates, as, “not only a material structure or a matter of the law, narrowly defined, but also a set of images and narrative patterns; it is a language that enables expression and, at the same time, ensnares the subject in its designs.”[xvii] The new disciplinary force intersects with the new political anatomy on an ideological plane, as it aims to infiltrate the minds of the social bodies: firstly, by forming a natural link of resemblance, analogy, and proximity between the crime and the punishment to serve as signs for the political body; secondly, by representing the disadvantages of the penalty as more lively than the pleasures of the crime; thirdly, by using the duration of punishment to deter criminal activity; fourthly, by targeting all as “potentially guilty” and convincing all to consider themselves benefiters of punishment; fifthly, by infusing the new list of “illegalities” with moral undertones; and lastly, by depicting the criminal as the common enemy. [xviii] As Gottschalk explains, “Political elites in the United States have a long history of raising law-and-order concerns in an attempt to further their own political fortunes. And Americans have a long history of periodic intense anxiety about crime and disorder.”[xix] The above ideological formula produces and maintains a system of social control on the minds and on the imaginations of the American public.

The disciplinary force of the penitentiary appeals to the American imagination because it is based off notions of freedom and equality. It follows logically that the deprivation of liberty for punishment best suits a nation such as the United States that prizes freedom above all else. As Foucault says, “The prison is the clearest, simplest, most equitable of penalties.”[xx] Unlike money, time is distributed evenly among all citizens (while five hundred dollars means two very different things to a rich person verses a poor person, five years means essentially the same thing to the both of them), and can still be used as an effective measure of exchange between the guilty criminal and the vengeful public body (hence the phrase, “paying his time”). As Adam Gopnik recounts, “It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates.”[xxi] In addition to be judicially and economically sound, incarceration also appeals as punishment because of its promise to rehabilitate the delinquent. Prison protects society by keeping “dangerous beings” locked up while simultaneously honing to their humanity with the promise to transform their souls. The double functioning nature of the prison embeds it with a “self-evident” character.[xxii] In short, the power of the disciplinary force succeeds by combining lawfulness and patriotism, and by embedding itself so deeply into the American psyche that no imaginable alternative remains.

Despite its apparent “equalizing” nature, modern disciplinary power remains structured by class, gender, and race. As Smith points out, “the unique voices of the incarcerated provide access to otherwise buried truths of violence and mortification.”[xxiii] When we listen to such voices, we hear horrors of racism, rape, and violence against women.[xxiv] Foucault connects the rise of the penitentiary with the rise of capitalism, and asserts that, “the shift from a criminality of blood to a criminality of fraud forms part of a whole complex mechanism, embracing the development of production, the increase of wealth, a higher juridical and moral value placed on property relations, stricter methods of surveillance, a tighter partitioning of the population.”[xxv] In such a system, the same character born into a poor or wealthy condition becomes convict or congressman, respectively.

As Gopnik laments, “For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones.”[xxvi]The system structured along class lines is necessarily structured along racial lines as well, as pointed out by James: “In racialized societies such as the united States, the plague of criminality, deviancy, immorality, and corruption is embodied in the black because both sexual and social pathology are branded by skin color (as well as by gender and sexual orientation).”[xxvii] Black bodies are not nor have historically ever been treated the same as white bodies, which is why the spectacle of the public execution ended for white criminals long before lynching ended for black victims.[xxviii] It is also why blacks are sentenced to death row shockingly more frequently than whites: “Between 1977 and 1986 90 percent of prisoners executed had been convicted of killing whites, although the number of black victims was approximately equal to that of white victims.”[xxix] In many people’s eyes, the rise of the carceral state is yet another chapter in the history of black subordination.

In addition to disenfranchising a whole caste of people (including not just blacks but all those who exit the prison system)[xxx], the power-elite has strong economic motives to imprisoning mass amounts of people and holding them there for as long as possible. Gopnik, in examining a document released by Corrections Corporation of America (the biggest of the private prison firms), identifies the company for what it is: “a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery.”[xxxi] He expands, “It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.”[xxxii]

The notion of profitable punitive policies raises the question with which this paper began: are laws actually made to be broken? If mass incarceration is considered as a system of social control—or as racial, gender, or class control—then the system does exactly what it was designed to do; it maintains the position of the power elite while weakening the public body by manipulating notions of knowledge and power. Framing these questions along the historical evolution from sovereign power to disciplinary power reveals the seemingly calculated entrance of the prison system into the American psyche. By creating a partitioned society convinced of the connection between lawfulness and patriotism, between deviancy and immorality, and between punitive punishments and rehabilitation, and by reinforcing this mindset with the normalization of criminalized public institutions such as the school, hospital, and work place, prison advocates claim a stronghold on the American imagination of penal policy, all the while financially and socially benefitting from punitive polices. Adolescents rejoice, “Laws are indeed made to be broken!”

[i] Adam Gopnik, “The Caging of America,” in The New Yorker (Jan 30, 2012) ; and Marie Gottschalk, “Hiding in Plain Sight: American Politics and the Carceral State,” in Annual Review of Political Science (Jan 8, 2008).

[ii] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish. Second Vintage Books Edition, Vintage Books: New York (1977). p. 49.

[iii] Foucault, ibid. pp. 48-49.

[iv] Foucault, ibid. ; and Caleb Smith, The Prison and the American Imagination. Yale University Press: New Haven (2009).

[v] Smith, ibid. p. 8.

[vi] Foucault, op. cit. p. 80.

[vii] Smith, op. cit. pp. 49-50.

[viii] Smith, ibid. p. 2.

[ix] Smith, ibid.

[x] Foucault, op. cit.

[xi] Smith, op. cit. pp. 40, 41.

[xii] Foucault, op. cit. pp. 89-90.

[xiii] Foucault, ibid. p. 90.

[xiv] On page 247, Gottschalk does an excellent job of providing examples of the criminalization of every day life. For example, take the criminalization of education policy, which incorporates school-based police officers, drug sweeps, uniforms, metal detectors, zero-tolerance rules, and the growing use of sanctions such as detention and expulsion. Furthermore, consider the increase of gated communities, or increased surveillance at the work place.

[xv] Foucault, op. cit. p. 103.

[xvi] Foucault, ibid. p. 184.

[xvii] Smith, op. cit. p. 23.

[xviii] Foucault, op. cit. pp. 104-114.

[xix] Gottschalk, op. cit. p. 242.

[xx] Foucault, op. cit. p. 232.

[xxi] Gopnik, op. cit. p. 1.

[xxii] Foucault, op. cit. p. 233.

[xxiii] Smith, op. cit. p. 20.

[xxiv] Gottschalk, op. cit.

[xxv] Foucault, op. cit. p. 77.

[xxvi] Gopnik, op. cit. p. 2.

[xxvii] Joy James, “Erasing the Spectacle of Racialized State Violence,” in Resisting State Violence: Radicalism, Gender, and Race in U.S. Culture. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis-St. Paul (1996), p. 26.

[xxviii] James, ibid.

[xxix] James, ibid. p. 36.

[xxx] Gottschalk explains at length how, by denying convicts voting rights and other civil liberties, inmates leave the prison system as secondary citizens.

[xxxi] Gopnik, op. cit. p. 6.

[xxxii] Gopnik, ibid. p. 6.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish. Second Vintage Books Edition, Vintage Books: New York (1977).

Gopnik, Adam. “The Caging of America,” in The New Yorker (Jan 30, 2012).

Gottschalk, Marie. “Hiding in Plain Sight: American Politics and the Carceral State,” in Annual Review of Political Science (Jan 8, 2008).

James, Joy. “Erasing the Spectacle of Racialized State Violence,” in Resisting State Violence: Radicalism, Gender, and Race in U.S. Culture. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis-St. Paul (1996)

Smith, Caleb. The Prison and the American Imagination. Yale University Press: New Haven (2009).


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