Sunday, March 27, 2011

Beyond Foucault's "Detestable Solution"

When will there by something new under the sun in the theoretical underpinnings of criminal sentencing?

Michel Foucault wrote Discipline and Punish 35 years ago. The book probes the emergence of the modern prison at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Foucault links this emergence with the exercise of a new type of class domination that also extended outside prison walls, to institutions such as factories.

Prisons themselves were not new; they had existed for centuries. But around 1800 in the West, Foucault argues, they became mechanisms of a new form of class power. Detention colonized the field of correctional options and became the "penalty par excellence." In doing so, it "banished into oblivion all the other punishments that the eighteenth-century reformers had imagined."

Rereading Foucault's account of this, I was struck by his use of the rhetoric of banishment to describe the ascendancy of the prison as a way for society to respond to social conflict. No one ever imagined how ascendant the prison would become in the United States. Indeed, one suspects that even Foucault himself would be surprised by how common going to prison has become among people at the bottom of the social ladder. He died in 1984, before the American prison boom had really taken off.

Even when prison emerged two centuries ago as the dominant correctional paradigm, it seemed to do so almost by intellectual default. "It seemed to have no alternative," Foucault wrote in the mid-1970s, "as if carried along by the very movement of history."

Why do we continue to rely so heavily on prison as a response to crime? Foucault called it dangerous and useless; today, in America, one would have to add expensive. Yet we have lacked the vision to create a system to replace it Instead, prison remains, as Foucault said, "the detestable solution," which we have been unwilling or unable to give up.

I'm hoping that the Christian gospel can open our eyes to alternatives to the prison paradigm. After all, Jesus Christ boldly promised to make all things new. And unliked Foucault, Jesus did more than merely write about the powers that be. He confronted them, even when it meant a criminal's death.

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