Saturday, January 2, 2010

Foucault, the AFSC, and the Prison Paradigm

Michael Foucault and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) are admittedly an unlikely duo.

Foucault was a radical French intellectual whose work was animated by a drive to expose what he saw as the underlying connection between knowledge and power. He died of AIDS in 1984, around the time his work was coming into vogue in American academic circles.

The AFSC is an earnest, faith-based organization committed to progressive social action and deep-seated principles of justice. Rooted in the Quaker tradition but also committed to interfaith cooperation, it received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for its role in aiding displaced people in war-torn Europe.

Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (French, 1975; English, 1978) and a recent AFDC-supported book, Beyond Prisons (2006, by authors Laura Magnani and Harmon L. Wray), are separated by a generation in time and come from very different perspectives. Foucault, using a method he called “the archeology of knowledge,” examines the emergence of the modern prison two hundred years ago, as it grew to replace a penal system focused on torture. The AFSC, motivated by religious faith, seeks to point the way to a new paradigm beyond prisons, emphasizing the healing of relationships and community building.

As different as these perspectives are, the two books pose similar questions about the power dynamics present in a society that relies heavily on incarceration. “Regard punishment as a political tactic,” Foucault cautioned. The AFSC is more blunt: “Prisons serve the power structure.”

As the New Year begins, I will be reading Discipline and Punish and Beyond Prisons side by side. One irony I’ve noted already: The modern prison, with its excessive reliance on solitary confinement, has reverted back to the torture model of punishment it was supposed to replace.

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