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The US Prison System

Montreal, Quebec

In previous articles in this space, I have argued that American prisons lack a clearly defined mission. They are caught between correctionalism and retributivism. They are not supported by any coherent philosophy of punishment. This makes them particularly susceptible to influence by those individuals within the criminal justice system who do have a philosophy, of any sort. For the most part, their philosophy, over the past thirty years, has been clear and straightforward: prisons are the site of warranted retribution against people guilty of moral transgression.

The left, for the most part, is still caught up in a suspicion, stimulated in large part by Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, of the earlier, moral mission of correction characteristic of the prison system and of humanitarian groups such as the Quakers in the U.S. for the hundred years or so leading up to the 1970s, and has for this reason been unable to defend against the correctionalist institution’s displacement by something far more sinister. However correct the left may have been to raise philosophical concerns about the honesty of correctionalism’s claim to care about setting inmates on a course towards happiness and inclusion in society, these concerns do not correspond at all to the present reality of the prison institution. In spite of some vestiges of a bygone era’s philosophy of incarceration, the predominant philosophy in the U.S. is one that no longer even pretends to care about the well-being of inmates, and this is something much more frightening than the institution analysed by Foucault.

However sharp his indictment of the condescending and generally hypocritical claims of a bygone era’s carceral philosophy to be correcting the ways of its wayward charges, Foucault and others in his wake offered very little in the way of a positive program. For him, punishment issues not from justice but from a simple and ineradicable bloodthirstiness in human beings. One thus gets the sense that for Foucault the best way to deal with the need to punish while doing the least harm would be simply to cut off a few randomly chosen petty criminals’ heads in a public square and let the other petty criminals run about as before. This does not seem like a realistic option” and certainly does not seem more desirable than the admittedly imperfect reformist do-gooding of the Quakers.

In any case, Foucault’s negative case against correctionalism has proved succesful”it is now a moribund carceral philosophy. But it would have been nice had he, or someone else, offered a positive alternative. For what the decline of correctionalism has given way to is not an economical and honest way of dealing with a perhaps inborn need to exact punishment, but a bloated and shameful industry, hidden, to the extent possible, from public view.

It is hoped that the reader will permit a short excursus, to look at an institution that has developed in many respects in step with the modern prison. (A fuller treatment of the parallels will appear in a forthcoming article of mine in the Radical Philosophy Review.) Until the 19th century, calves and lambs were bled in the street in front of the butcher’s shop, or at his stall in the market place; and of course there were stockades and other mechanisms for the public humiliation of prisoners. One might ask why, in the shifting of town centres from town centres to strip malls at highway off-ramps, did they not shift the butcheries and the stockades there as well? Why were these pushed even further out, out of towns and out of minds?

From an architectural point of view the factory slaughterhouses and factory prisons are clearly the product of the same civilisation that sprouted Wal- Mart: they are outsized hangars, military in mood, indifferent and massive, clearly intended for high-capacity operation. The only difference is in the size of the signs announcing the different institutions’ different purposes. The box stores off the highway may not be quaint enough to make it into any illustrated children’s books, but they are still eligible for inclusion in reality. Industrial slaughterhouses and industrial prisons, in contrast, lacking big colorful signs and public parking, are as if non-existent in the modern landscape.

This is an essay about prisons, but I believe the fates of each of these institutions in the 20th century are, to a certain extent, parallel to one another and thus mutually revealing. For in each case we see a gradual disappearance from public view of functions that, while always brutal, were once at least acknowledged. With this gradual disappearance, we have been able to convince ourselves that we have surpassed our 19th-century ancestors in humanity and gentleness, when in fact just the opposite is the case. As Noëlie Vialles writes in Animal to Edible (Cambridge University Press, 1994), an ethnographic study of the slaughterhouses of southern France:

“While [the relocation of slaughtering to the town limits] certainly had to do with a town-planning policy concerned about public hygiene, exiling theabattoir was also, through that very policy, an expression of the profound shift in sensibilities with regard to such realities as death (human or animal), suffering, violence, waste and disease, miasmas’, and finally animals themselves, which were increasingly coming to be seen as lesser brethren'” (19).

Vialles notes that private slaughtering by butchers in their central shops was prohibited in France under Napoleon, and that this brought about an effective “dissociation of slaughtering and butchering.” The butcher does not have blood on his hands, he simply deals with a commodity that, by the time it reaches his shop, has been thoroughly de-animalised. The blood- stained hands now belong to the abattoir labourer, an unseen, abstract figure beyond the city limits, who certainly will never make it into any illustrated children’s book about our town, its buildings and people.

Along these same lines, it might be suggested that since the 19th century we have witnessed a similar dissociation of two very different aspects of our system of punishment. On the one hand, there is punishment’s public face, the courthouse, where a presumedly rational process is played out and justice is served. This process takes place in well-marked and accessible buildings; increasingly, it also takes place on television. This is the part the public wants to see, thus the reality shows’ on Court TV and the virtually indistinguishable courtroom dramas on the major networks.

On the other hand, there is the part not suitable for public viewing or primetime dramatisation– the part that occurs after the gripping drama of deliberation and rendering of the verdict has already been played out, and there is no longer any compelling reason to stay invested in the characters. The judges and lawyers go on to play in other dramas, the members of the jury return to their homes to resume watching television, while the convict is destined to live out the repercussions of the public chapter of his brush with justice, but now hidden away beyond the limits of the polis, and thus, in a literal sense, depoliticised: removed from the concern of the community, ejected into a black hole.

While the industrial slaughterhouse ensures that we need only be exposed to meat after it has been de-animalised and transformed into a commodity, the industrial prison ensures that we need not be exposed to the ultimate product of the justice of the courtroom, namely, to the human being who has been dehumanised and warehoused as a commodity. In both cases, what we are sheltered from is an unbearable transformation, a transformation that many of us are happy to permit to go on on a massive scale even if we would not authorise it for any particular case. The slaughterhouse worker and the prison guard alike are charged with the task of transforming a morally relevant creature into a morally irrelevant thing. And both are thereby stained in a similar way– how many tough-on-crime carnivores would want either of them over to dinner with the family? (What is said of prison guards here is of course a fortiori the case for those guards who work on death row. In a sense, they make the comparison between the slaughterhouse and the prison more than just a comparison. But we will leave capital punishment for another article.) For however streamlined this process is, however thick the rule-books are that see to the maintenance of strict hygiene standards and rigid adherence to procedure, the great majority of us still sense that something abhorrent is going on.

I would not prefer that we return to the occasional public beheading. But in defense of these it is worth noting that they would be far more economical, they would harm fewer people, and they would be honest about what punishment is, rather than concealing it beyond city limits behind anonymous grey walls, in much the same way that the slaughter of a lamb at a market stall is more honest about the nature of meat-eating than a slice of lamb wrapped in cellophane at a supermarket.

What I would prefer is a return to the hope expressed by the Quakers that some members of society might genuinely and earnestly be able to help others, that, contra Foucault, not every instance of do-gooding is a thinly veiled maneuver for power and domination. For what the abandonment of the hope of helping others through correction’ (an admittedly awkward choice of terms) has brought us is sheer power and domination over warehoused subjects, no longer veiled by the claim to hope to improve their moral character. I would prefer an admittedly largely hypocritical system that claims to be interested in helping its prisoners and occasionally –in spite of the cynicism of Foucault, and because of the sincerity of groups like the Quakers– just occasionally, in fact does help them.

Justin Smith is a professor of philosophy and writer living in Montreal. He can be reached at: justismi@alcor.concordia.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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