Foucault on School-Prison and Prison-School Pipelines

“So successful has the prison been that, after a century and a half of ‘failures’, the prison still exists, producing the same results, and there is the greatest reluctance to dispense with it.” 

Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 277

In my mini-review of Bryan Caplan’s polemic against education, I noted that he partly ignores Foucaultian arguments for schooling-as-discipline. But Foucault’s work is difficult to understand–though it’s actually written quite well–because it redescribes our ordinary world in terms that alienate us from what seems familiar. His understanding of schooling is dependent on his unfamiliar recasting of the prison as a site of innovation in discipline–techniques which ultimately had more value in the cultivation of good workers than in the punishment of transgression or the rehabilitation of criminal deviance. 

Consider these seven principles of penal reform:

  1. The purpose of penal detention is the transformation of an individual’s behavior.
  2. Prisoners should be isolated or housed together by the severity of their crimes, their age, and their progress towards rehabilitation.
  3. Both before and during punishment, penalties should be tailored to the individual prisoner’s progress and relapse.
  4. Prisons should be spaces of educative work, where prisoners are both required and allowed to work productively at learning or practicing a trade.
  5. Both prisoners and societies have a right to an education.
  6. Prisons should be run by subject-matter experts; professionals of high moral character.
  7. Upon release, former prisoners will continue to require supervision and assistance to complete rehabilitation.

These all sound reasonable, don’t they? Compared to our current prison system, they sound humane. And yet these principles were first espoused in the early nineteenth century, and have been reiterated periodically since then as if they were innovations. I pulled them from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (269-70). What’s taking so long? Why don’t we ever seem to achieve these ideals?

Discipline and Punish is a famous work on a major topic: it’s read widely and it’s one of the most-cited books in the social sciences. And yet its insight is both widely parroted and widely ignored–usually by the same people. One way to read the book is as a guide to sociological methodology: “the purpose of the system is what it does.” I also like the longer version from Dreyfus and Rabinow, quoting Foucault:  

“People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” (187)

What ‘what we do’ does

Everything follows from that dictum: we know what we do, sometimes we even know why, but we are remarkably ignorant of what our collective intentions and actions do.

Do prisons reform criminals? No: the five year rearrest rate for prisoners is 76.6%. Even if we correct that for the technical parole violations that are basically a product of the system itself (and I’m not sure we should in this context–the system has to answer for those reincarcerations) the rate is probably around the 43% baseline that RAND uses to assess the efficacy of programs. (College in prison reduces that kind of recidivism.) 

Can prisons themselves be reformed? No: the entire history of prisons is a history of reform after reform, and we’ve been facing the same prison problems–and demanding the same reforms–for centuries. LITERAL CENTURIES.

What then is the point? Prisons produce criminals, and not in the “finishing school for crime” sort of way: prisons produce a whole realm of knowledge about deviance, delinquency, and criminality, but they also produce those deviants, delinquents, and criminals as the subject of research that must exist to justify our inquiry into them. As a byproduct, prisons also produce techniques for managing students, workers, and citizens, techniques that seem to have massively increased productivity and effectiveness, but have the prison both in their genealogy and their current function. In fact, it makes perfect sense from a Foucaultian perspective to say that the technologies of schools, workplaces, and politics are the true product of prisons, and prisoners are the waste byproduct, an unrecycled remainder.


If you want to have some fun in the classroom, tell students that the way schools function is a lot like a prison:

  • Students are grouped by their progress through a fixed curriculum, but can be advanced or held back due to individual assessments of merit or deficiency.
  • Everyone has a “permanent record” that records a mix of talent and achievement (where there is a lot of confusion over whether what’s really being assessed is innate or the product of the training).
  • Many of the most important skills we teach in school are “soft skills” like punctuality, sitting still for long periods of time, deference to authority, and self-monitoring one’s own projects and progress.

Ask an audience in the middle of a class or lecture how many of them have to pee right that moment: we hate being reminded of our embodiment in those moments, but we’ve almost all mastered sitting for long periods of time despite that fact. Urinary continence is a skill that schools can teach, even if there’s not much evidence students will remember their calculus lessons if they don’t use them.

Schools and prisons both produce individuality as a category for praise and blame, wages and good-time credits, centered in a body and a set of behaviors, yet accomplished through a network of interlocking institutions and supports. Schools and prisons make us into the kinds of embodied minds that we are–capable of having a biographical records, capable of taking responsibility for the success or failure of our own careers and rehabilitation. And yet schools are a lot better at this than prisons, which is why we now find ourselves back at the idea that prisons aren’t enough like the schools–the same schools that prisons helped us figure out how to create. You hear now of the “prison-to-school pipeline,” a line I’ve used myself.

This spring, Elizabeth Hinton name-checked Georgetown’s Prison Scholars Program in the New York Times in her argument that we should transform prisons into colleges and restore Pell Grant eligibility for all incarcerated students. I am wholeheartedly committed to those goals–a policy for which I believe there is strong bipartisan support. But the this will not solve America’s prison problem–and in many important respects it is an extension of the logic of the prison itself.

Prospects for Reform

The other major claim of Foucault’s work is that prisons are unreformable–they literally subsist on prospects of reform rather than ever actually getting reformed. And when we do “improve” prisons, we mostly do so by developing new techniques for controlling prisoners’ bodies and cultivating docility and compliance in them. As punishment has become more gentle, it has become more generalizable!

Foucault’s argument suggests that the motivations of early reformers like Beccaria and Bentham was less to make the corporal punishment common in that era gentler than it was to make it more effective at social control. I think this is generally unfair: Beccaria clearly has civic republican goals in mind, and is a forerunner of so many different civic republican and contractualist positions that he deserves the benefit of the doubt. But again one can be ignorant of the purposes to which our efforts are ultimately put. And on Foucault’s view the gentler punishments of work, solitude, and surveillance all create new techniques and disciplines for managing all sorts of people: soldiers, factory workers, students, and patients, for instance.

Instead of seeing the ultimate end of the punishment reformer’s work as creating more liberty by restraining the cruel sovereign, Foucault argues instead that reform steals the domination from the sovereign–who after all is using her power inefficiently–and appropriates it for the reformer. The reformer promises to do better–and creates an expertise and a field of knowledge with which to chart his success.

So to recap: reformers don’t fix prisons, they’ve been offering the same complaints for centuries. (The same ones we offer today!) Reformers argue for smoother and gentler punishment techniques. They promise to be punish better and thereby steal the sovereign’s monopoly on violence for themselves. They install themselves as experts and create a field of expertise to justify their exproporiation of punitive power. And they thus increase the dissemination of punitive and carceral logics, making both criminals and non-criminals worse off.

This Thing Called Abolition

Angela Davis and Joy James are my go-to writers on abolition, but Allegra McLeod’s essay on abolition is really useful for understanding the terrain, responding to various objections, and showing the reasons why “abolition” has a valence that “reform” and even “decarceration” lack. But it’s Davis who takes up the specific preconditions of prison abolition:

“In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete. There is a direct connection with slavery: when slavery was abolished black people were set free, but they lacked access to the material resources that would enable them to fashion new, free lives. Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery. They cannot, therefore, be eliminated unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population.”

Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy, page 96.

So long as we want the kind of bureaucratized social control that depends on the various carceral techniques Foucault details, we won’t ever reform prisons. Short-lived reform efforts will give way to long periods of basic comfort with detention as the primary mode of punishment, just as they have reliably done throughout the era of the nation-state. Build a society that doesn’t require docility and we won’t need to have zones for warehousing the least docile among us. But until we do, prisoners will always be with us.

I find little hope in these prescriptions. But I think it’s worth noting that the entirety of mass incarceration in the US post-dates the publication of Discipline and Punish. Whatever has gone wrong in the US (and to a lesser extent in Great Britain) was completely off the table when Foucault was writing–and thus we could eliminate the “mass-” or “hyper-” modifier, set most prisoners free, and still probably preserve our carceral society unhampered by the deeper anarchist impulses that seemed to motivate Foucault.

Keep the social control, jettison the prison. It’s not abolition–but I agree with James Forman, Jr. that it’s taken forty years of concerted local efforts to build the racialized mass incarceration of 2.2 million people, and it’s precisely the history of those seemingly reasonable decisions that provide a roadmap for mass decarceration. We should be so lucky to have Foucault’s problems.

Foucault on Education and Human Capital

From Foucault’s Collège de France lecture on March 14th, 1979 (in what the publisher has misnamed The Birth of Biopolitics despite the fact that that year’s lectures basically spelled the end of Foucault’s work on biopolitics and focused on the limitation of state control over the market):

What does it mean to form human capital, and so to form these kinds of abilities-machines which will produce income, which will be remunerated by income? It means, of course, making what are called educational investments. In truth, we have not had to wait for the neo-liberals to measure some of the effects of these educational investments, whether this involves school instruction strictly speaking, or professional training, and so on, But the neo-liberals lay stress on the fact that what should be called educational investment is much broader than simple schooling or professional training and that many more elements than these enter into the formation of human capital? What constitutes this investment that forms an abilities-machine? Experimentally, on the basis of observations, we know it is constituted by, for example, the time parents devote to their children outside of simple educational activities strictly speaking. We know that the number of hours a mother spends with her child, even when it is still in the cradle, will be very important for the formation of an abilities-machine, or for the formation of a human capital, and that the child will be much more adaptive if in fact its parents or its mother spend more rather than less time with him or her. This means that it must be possible to analyze the simple time parents spend feeding their children, or giving them affection as investment which can form human capital. Time spent, care given, as well as the parents’ education because we know quite precisely that for an equal time spent with their children, more educated parents will form a higher human capital than parents with less education-in short, the set of cultural stimuli received by the child, will all contribute to the formation of those elements that can make up a human capital.

The echos of Heidegger on standing-reserve are quite strong here, but I also think we see one problem with my attempt to resolve the teleological paradox in education yesterday.

What happens to care and affection when they are analyzed in terms of their human capital-formative effects? This is the other reason that humanities advocates decry the instrumentalism of education: the fear that things like art and history which have previously stood as pure teloi [telê?] will subsequently become mere means to an end. We have to be very careful if we are to keep the instrumentally-reflective stage from infecting or polluting the genuineness of the commitments and relationships that we learn on reflection are best-suited to achieving our guiding or ultimate ends.

And perhaps, too, being “very careful” will not prevent instrumentality from colonizing the life-world. The “helicopter parent” has simply taken the neo-liberal realization about care-as-investment to heart, and is “saving up” for the future.

Dom and I drop some more “science” on crime

Sentiments of Rationality is at it again. Dom seems to have convinced himself that conservatives are actually right about criminal justice, since they care about victims and safety more than liberals, and trust their authority figures. He goes on to suggest electric shocks in order to speed punishment and reduce incarceration time. Here’s the gist:

If we want to deter crime, then, we can do so effectively by viewing it as an educational problem that requires cultivation of the proper habits, ones which are pro-social and lead to fuller self-development of individual, i.e., more freedom in a positive sense.

I’m glad Dom continues to push this line of argument vis-à-vis  conservatism and criminal justice, because it’s clearly fruitful. I’ve gotten two posts out of it, myself! However, anyone who’s really fascinated by modern crime and punishment should read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Though I often suspect Foucault of just the critically-edged nostalgia that troubles some of Dom’s interlocutors, it’s still the first book to differentiate the modern situation from the same old conversations that philosophers have been having since Socrates demanded a full pardon and a daily coolness stipend. Then, if you want to keep at it, take a look around the internet at prison statistics and the sorts of things that generally trouble “corrections officers” and prison reformers. I recommend the Prison Policy Intiative, this neat blog, or what the man himself says on the subject.

With nearly 80,000 inmates in the NY State system, (which is the only system I’ve encountered professionally) much of the concern surrounds costs and efficiency, as well as the injustices that efficiencies create. As with any discourse, getting your head around general moral principles won’t help you much when you’re faced with a rusty, decrepit system with out-of-control costs. It’s more fun to talk about in the abstract, though….

So: in Arendtian fashion, I take issue with the paternalization of the state. Unlike schools, prisons generally deal with fully-formed adults. Much of what Dom says might apply to juvenile detention, except that we generally assume that more leniency is required for minors. (Maybe that’s the root of the problem: if we could only draw and quarter a few teenage rapists, perhaps the rest would fall into line… but I’m just kidding, really.) Dom actually uses an elementary school example to make his point:

Some children have a nervous tendency to repeatedly tap their pen or pencil on their desk, making it difficult for others to concentrate. The most effective approach to dealing with this behavior would probably be a (literal) slap on the wrist, but even if we avoid corporal punishment entirely, it still seems the most reasonable response would be to punish the children in some other way (maybe even just telling them to stop, which puts a social pressure on them).

However, what some teachers have begun doing is giving the students drinking straws to tap instead. The problem is taken as some inflexible given, a natural disorder which requires educators to accommodate students rather than vice-versa. But this is bad for everyone involved. The child is reinforced in a bad behavior that, outside of the protective school environment, could lead to other bad consequences. Meanwhile, we have to take extra time and effort to see to the children’s “special needs”.

This pencil-tapping analogy threw me for a loop. I guess it’s meant to be an exemplar of our impotent, libertine educators, but I think that it’s a fatally bad example in this conversation. To go from that to “regularly administering electric shocks to prisoners over the duration of their sentence” seems like a major jump. (They are used, and inevitably cruelly and for the inappropriate enjoyment of the corrections officers) It suggests to me that he might be letting the examples do some of his reasoning for him.

Yes, I agree we should spank our children. But should we spank our adults? It seems to be poorly argued to say that the one follows from the other. We spank children in order to make them into responsible subjects; having become responsible subjects (who refuse to respond to authority), adults require different treatment. Just think about your own habits, and how much more difficult they are to change than they once were. Many claim that criminals put themselves in this diminutive position vis-à-vis the state by committing crimes. Yet they cannot argue this, through syllogistic and valid reasoning, so instead they talk around the problem, through the analogies Dom describes. They attempt to enforce a paradigm of criminal juvenality by constantly asserting the primacy of examples drawn from parenting and education. Meanwhile, the state gains tremendous powers to discipline and control the lives of its citizens, and becomes increasingly paternalistic.

I meant what I said in my last post: the truly criminal are lost to us. Lock them up, torture them, kill them, it doesn’t matter, because they won’t ever become good. But let’s not for a second pretend that the state is so trustworthy that it won’t find a way to extend its oversight of criminals to increasingly banal parts of our everyday lives. Drug use, sexual deviance, political dissent, whatever strikes the political fancy: the capacity of the legislature to criminalize activites is unlimited. We’d best be sure that the pseudo-criminals that bad governments produce aren’t tortured along with the bad people we’d like to see punished.