Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tocqueville's "Pretext" and the Spectre of Warehousing

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a highly celebrated book in certain academic circles. Introducing a handsome hardcover edition for the University of Chicago Press in 2000, Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop went so far as to assert that it is “the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.”

This post is not the right forum to assess that remarkable double claim. For now, I seek only to note the book’s historical connection to Tocqueville’s interest in prison reform.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and another young Frenchman, Gustave de Beaumont, traveled though America for about nine months. The two friends had procured an assignment from the French government to report on prison reform.


Tocqueville’s larger interest was a grand project to understand and interpret the dynamics of democracy and social equality in the United States. The applicability of this study to hierarchical European societies was of urgent concern in the wake of the French Revolution.

In a letter written in 1835, Tocqueville referred to the study of American penal reform as a “pretext” for the trip. But in January 1831, he and Beaumont did publish the study they promised. The English title is On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France.

What was the nature of the reform that Tocqueville and his friend sought to study? It involved the goal of reforming people in penitentiaries, rather than merely punishing them in prisons.

Today, the prospect of penance in prison is a private matter. But to the reform movement Tocqueville and Beaumont came to study, penance was seen as central to the very purpose of prison. There are still vestiges of this in our retention of the word “correctional” in the phrase “correctional facility.”

After all, “correction” is a secular echo of the religious penance that reformers once promoted. Spiritual transformation is still possible in prison in 2011. But it is not the state’s concern. Indeed, even the notion of rehabilitation is not much favored anymore.

And that raises a spectre that haunts our entire correctional system. The spectre of warehousing.

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