The Many Faces of Imprisonment
Crime and punishment is a complex system. For centuries there has always been an attempt to keep a moral code within society. Throughout the centuries punishment for crimes committed has taken on various forms and approaches hoping for a resolve. It has taken from the seventeenth century up to this day to design programs and buildings hoping to meet the needs of the offenders, in balance with the degree of crime committed, with the goal of rehabilitation.
In Meithe Terrance’s, Punishment Philosophies And Types of Sanctions, he explains the “retributive principle of lex talionis, or let the crime fit the punishment” (Meithe). From the seventeenth century continuing unto this day, punishments have ranged from “exile of country, chastity belts, stockades for humiliation purposes and restraint, boycotts, suspended trading, electronic shackles, harnesses control for children, house foreclosures, even censorship of public speaking,” plus more (Meithe ). Punishing the crime was measured by the degree of the crime rather than the offender. Regardless of how elaborate the buildings have become, or how structured the programs are, not everyone has the same experience while incarcerated, nor is rehabilitation guaranteed.
The idea of imprisonment began in the seventeenth century with the mandatory quarantine of the town’s people during a plague. In Michel Foucault’s, Part Three: Discipline 3. Panopticism, he explains Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon design, which seemed to be the ultimate answer to incarceration. His hopes were to build a criminal’s paradise where all convicts, the evil, and the corrupt, could come to rehabilitate into a working-class individual. Bentham said it was going to be a “laboratory,” a machine to carry out experiments. Also, “to alter behavior, to train or correct individuals, and to experiment with medicines and monitor their effect.” The Panopticon would be an alternative solution to the problem of the more barbaric forms of incarceration, possibly a luxury idea (Foucault). It would be a “mechanism to control the masses inside of the building.” The Panopticon was designed “to avoid those compact, swarming, howling masses that were to be found in places of confinement.” It was a circular type of building, where guards who were stationed within and could keep all the inmates in the surrounding cells under constant surveillance, along with one high tower in the middle (Foucault). This was a blueprint dream for prison, punishment, and rehabilitation.
Not everyone is going receive the same mental or emotional benefits from a stretch of incarceration. Not everyone will have an awakening as hoped for by the justice system. Thoreau describes his epiphany while he was incarcerated for refusing to pay his taxes. He talks about having read all of the literature there, like traveling into a far country, and it seemed he had never heard the sounds of the town in which he lived, even the strike of the town clock, until that one night spent incarcerated. He felt like “. . . an involuntary spectator and auditor of whatever was done and said in the kitchen of the adjacent village inn.” The incarcerated experience for Thoreau proved to suddenly have awareness to the life going on around him. He describes feeling almost like a stranger in his own hometown. This was one theory the Panopticon was said to serve. “. . . to induce in the inmate a state of conscience and permanent visibility” (Foucault).
The basic idea of punishment and imprisonment is to detain or to delay the offender from continuing in his or her criminal behavior (Meithe 17-18). There is also the hope for a reformed and productive lifestyle when released back into society. Rehabilitation is accomplished to an extent, but it seems people who are imprisoned may have rehabilitated on the level of prison life rather than the immediate society in which they live, yet making them more aware of the outside world. This seems to be only a utopian theory. Meithe talks about deterrence and the “relationship between sanctions and human behavior” (Meithe 20). He claims that only a small percent result in arrests and convictions. “The typical criminal penalty and civil suits are often imposed or resolved months, if not years, after the initial violation. He also states because of plea bargaining, reducing charges, jury nullification’s, clemencies, pardons, and good time leniency, “the severity of punishment actually received by offenders is often far less than mandated by law” (Meithe 22). Rehabilitation can’t happen unless the offender is incarcerated by the system who administers the programs.
Meithe says that “some degree of moral and spiritual enlightenment was expected of those condemned to those for long periods of solitary condiment.” In Henry David Thoreau’s, Civil Disobedience, after his experience with incarceration, in which he before-hand had been so proud to serve, says, “Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Government, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness. After the first blush of sin comes its indifference; and from immoral it becomes, as it were, unmoral, and not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made . . . Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” (Thoreau). After his experience of solitude in confinement, he’s now questioning again, whether to obey or not to obey laws that he still views as unjust. Many who are paroled soon forget the pain of being locked out of society and soon offend again.
Some are imprisoned to hold them back from accomplishing what might be a threat to a social group or government change. When justice becomes unjust in a clever disguise of the law, it is a violation of power. Meithe talks about “false positive,” which means, falsely labeling someone as a high-risk offender.” After his arrest for leading a peace march, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, he asks of the law enforcement, “In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence.” The government considered him to be a high threat of obtaining his goals of equality for the black race. Martin Luther King Jr. tried to rehabilitate the outside world against the cruel brutality of racial prejudice. He also says, “I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends . . . but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice.”
In H. Bruce Franklin’s, prison writing in 20th-centurty America, he talks about the lighter side of imprisonment and about a collection of African-American convict prison songs, “that shaped the blues tradition at the heart of much twentieth-century American music.” He calls this collection “an astonishing contribution to American and world culture” (Franklin 6). American political prisoners such as “Emma Goldman, Alexander Berman, and Carlo de Fornaro,” to name a few, were authors of books written while in prison, as were most books in the “first two decades of the twentieth century” (Frank 9).
Franks says that when prison literature exploded in the late 60’s, the authors were Americans on the bottom of society. Malcolm X read the entire dictionary while in prison to educate himself, learning how to read and write. From out of prisons, “dropouts, rejects, criminals, and rebels in American society, gained their power for writing” (Frank 13). This may be the largest and most important form of rehabilitation.
However, one absolute is that the acts of crime and punishment are not limited to gender or race, but may be limited to “certain conditions” of the offender such as mental disease, defect, immaturity, or prior offenses (Meithe). Punishment against crime is moral rightness against wrong doing. Meithe says the ultimate goal of incarceration is to restore the convict to a constructive place in society through a combination of treatment, education, and training. To some extent, this combination may be helpful, but it has never been a magic pill for permanent reform.
Punishment and imprisonment has taken on many forms since the plague. Foucault says, “Against the plague, which is a mixture, discipline brings into play its power . . . a whole literary fiction of the festival grew up around the plague . . .” Incarceration is a mixture of minds, emotions and personalities. Discipline brings into play the power of these minds and personalities to create many unusual outcomes, such as books, new rules, new laws, and new awareness not only sometimes to self, but also, sometimes to expose corruptions within the walls of confinement. The Panopticon idea didn’t control the maddening and swarming masses within the prison walls. It didn’t make an ideal society within. However, from the Panopticon idea, the hope for rehabilitation for a better society still remains.
Imprisonment is only the face of what goes on inside behind the construction of a building or institution. The outcome is a birth of new realities, good and bad, not only for those who are on the inside, but for those who are on the outside looking in.
AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER – UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA “Letter from a
Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.], 16, April. 1963. Web. 18, February. 2014.
Foucault, Michel, PART THREE: DISCIPLINE 3. Panopticism, 16 June 2001. Web. 1,
February, 2014. http://cartome.org/foucault.htm
Meithe, Terance, Punishment Philosophies And Types of Sanctions, Web. 1, February. 2014.
prison writing in 20th-century America. Franklin, Bruce H. ed. Penguin Group. New York. 1998.
Thoreau, Henry David, Civil Disobedience, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, [1849, original
title: Resistance to Civil Government] 2002. Web. 17, February. 2014.