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Beyond the Panopticon:

Mass Imprisonment and the

Law, Culture and the Humanities

6(3) 327340
The Author(s) 2010
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
DOI: 10.1177/1743872110374255

Jonathan Simon

School of Law, University of California at Berkeley

In the 1970s and the 1980s, the role of the prison in modern society was seared into the imagination
of the humanities by Michel Foucaults treatment of the prison in Discipline and Punish: The Birth
of the Prison; his genealogy of the modern soul. At a time when the social sciences had little to
say about the nature of imprisonment as a specific historical practice (rather than a problem
of social organization), the humanities helped define the prison as a contemporary problem.
During this era, ironically, a new model of imprisonment was arising, one based on the mass
imprisonment of whole demographic categories of the population rather than the disciplinary
investment of the deviant individual. The scale of imprisonment has arisen by more than five fold.
Unfortunately the humanities and cultural studies have been slow to reckon with the nature of
mass imprisonment.While a new wave of social science scholarship, partially inspired by the earlier
work of the humanities, is engaging the topic, the absence of the humanities, especially their critical
and normative edge, is significant.

Humanities; cultural studies; mass imprisonment; discipline; panopticism.

I. Imagining the Prison

The humanities and cultural studies (humanities throughout is intended to include
cultural studies) in the United States generally compare rather favorably to the social
sciences in making issues of race, class, and gender inequality central to the discussion
of contemporary life. One glaring exception to that achievement (which is considerable, when one recognizes how conservative a role the humanities have played in most
societies), however, is the humanities relative indifference to that institution perhaps
most implicated in the construction of inequality in American society today, mass

Corresponding author:
Jonathan Simon, School of Law, University of California at Berkeley, 592 Simon Hall, Berkeley,
CA 94720.


Law, Culture and the Humanities 6(3)

imprisonment. Scholarship in the humanities and cultural studies has largely failed to
grapple with the nature of mass imprisonment as that practice has developed in the
United States since the 1980s.
This stands in contrast to the 1970s and 1980s when, following the publication of
Michel Foucaults Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison in 1975 in French and
1977 in English, a wave of humanities scholarship took the prison as a central part of the
production of modern subjectivity.1 Following Foucaults account,2 humanities scholars
interrogated the prison in its modern correctional form as a space of disciplinary power in
which the criminal, the ultimate traitor to disciplinary societies, was objectified by a
penetrating criminological knowledge and subjected to an interiorizing self-examination.
At a time when the social sciences in the United States had largely abandoned serious
reflection on the practice of imprisonment,3 cultural studies kept the practice of imprisonment a central topic in analyzing modern governmentalities.4
During these very decades, however, the practice of imprisonment in the United
States was being transformed. The disciplinary and therapeutic prison of Foucaults
genealogy became the focus of intense criticism and within a decade had lost the epistemological legitimacy it had enjoyed for more than a century and a less focused, more
schizophrenic crime control complex began to arise in its place.5 The war on crime,
launched in the 1960s, began to take hold at the state level in the late 1970s and 1980s,
generating and enforcing tough new laws intended to send a wider variety of offenders
to prison for longer terms, often with no possibility of early release through parole.6
Of course, this also catalyzed a new wave of prison construction. Californias prison
population, which numbered about 20,000 during the height of the prisoners rights
1. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan
(New York: Pantheon, 1977).
2. The prison already seems to have been pressing on the imagination of the humanities before
the publication of Discipline and Punish, see, e.g., Frederic Jameson, The Prison House of
Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press, 1972).
3. Imprisonment formed a major subject of American sociology from the 1940s through the
1970s. In many respects, however, punishment was a secondary interest even in these studies
to questions of community and formal organization. See, Donald Clemmer, Prison Community
(Boston, MA: The Christopher Publishing,1940), Gresham Sykes, Society of Captives: A Study
of a Maximum Security Prison (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958). Ironically,
sociologists began to lose interest in the prison just as mass imprisonment made the experience
of incarceration a more central experience for American society. See, Jonathan Simon,
The Society of Captives in the Era of Hyper-Incarceration, Theoretical Criminology 4, No.
3, 285308 (2000). The great exception to this was John Irwin, see Irwin, Prisons in Turmoil
(Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1980).
4. Michel Foucault, Governmentality, in The Foucault effect: studies in governmentality,
G. Burchell, C. Gordon, P. Miller, (eds.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
5. David Garland, The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Late Modernity (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2001).
6. Jonathan Simon, Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American
Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).



movement in the early 1970s, reached a peak of about 173,000 in 2006 (now housed
in 33 prisons).
Compared to the individualized disciplinary focus of the Foucauldian account, the
logic that animates contemporary imprisonment, called mass imprisonment by David
Garland,7 operates very differently in both practice and in discursive imaginary. In contrast
to the penitentiary project that Foucault took to be epitomized by the Panopticon, Jeremy
Benthams dream of a frictionless machinery of surveillance and self-improvement, contemporary prison now functions more like warehouses, or a waste management system.
Disciplinary methods limited to maintaining a population largely kept in forced
docility have been outpaced by a more system-oriented focus on command and control,8
with prison governance and general social organization becoming increasingly more
interlocked. If the penitentiary was designed to turn the self inward upon itself, mass
imprisonment ignores the self to more directly operate on whole segments of the population, especially minorities and the poor, among whom individualization is limited to a
crude form of risk assessment.9
The humanities have largely failed to come to grips with the distinctive features of
imprisonment, in this era of mass incarceration, nor its central role in shaping the meaning
of social stratifications. This is not to say they have been silent. Philosophers have written
extensively on the prison as a vehicle of retribution (an ideology which has itself enjoyed
an upsurge in prestige due to the punitiveness of prison sentences).10 Historians and
scholars of culture have continued to explore the rise of the penitentiary and its global
dispersion.11 Indeed, the death penalty, that other salient feature of American punitive
distinctiveness, has received considerable attention by the humanities.12 Another example
is the post-9/11 re-emergence of torture as a major theme in the discussion of punishment,
state power, and the peculiar prisons created by the US military in Guantanamo, Abu
7. David Garland (ed.), Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences (London:
Sage, 2001).
8. Jonathan Simon, The Ideological Effects of Actuarial Practices, Law & Society Review,
22:771800 (1988).
9. Malcolm M. Feeley and Jonathan Simon, The New Penology: Notes on the Emerging
Strategy of Corrections and its Implications, Criminology, 30:44974 (1992); Garland,
Mass Imprisonment, supra note 7.
10. On the shift of policy makers and academic experts away from rehabilitative penology see
Garland, supra note 5. For examples of the resurgence of retribution among academic philosophers and legal academics see, Jean Hampton, Correction Harms versus Righting Wrongs:
The Goal of Retribution, UCLA Law Review, 39:1659; Jeffrie G. Murphy, Retribution
Reconsidered: More Essays in the Philosophy of Law (Kluwer, 1992); Dan M. Kahan, Two
Liberal Fallacies in the Hate Crimes Debate, Law and Philosophy 20: 175193, 2001.
11. Ricardo D. Salvatore and Carlos Aguirre, The Birth of the Penitentiary in Latin America:
Essays on Criminology, Prison Reform, and Social Control, 18301940 (Austin, TX:
University of Texas Press, 1996).
12. Jennifer Culbert, Dead Certainty: The Death Penalty and the Problem of Judgment (Stanford,
CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); Austin Sarat, When the State Kills: Capital Punishment
and the American Condition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); Stuart Banner,
The Death Penalty: An American History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).


Law, Culture and the Humanities 6(3)

Ghraib, and undisclosed locations in Asia and Eastern Europe. Political theorists have
explored these phenomena and the conceptions of the subject that drive them.13
All of these philosophical and historical explorations of punishment are largely
continuous with the humanities earlier treatment of the prison, with its focus on the
investment of power in the individual subject and the production of distinctly individualized power dynamics and truths. Ironically, the death penalty is the one part of
contemporary American society that continues to view itself as a deep inquiry into the
criminal as an individual social, psychological, and even biological subject (this is in
part the product of 1970s constitutional jurisprudence in such as Gregg v. Georgia,
428 US 153 (1976); Furman v. Georgia, 408 US 238 (1972); see also McClesky v.
Kemp, 481 US 279 (1987). Likewise the creation of prisons as part of the war on terror
has made the extraction of information from the imprisoned subject a central aspect of
the political rationality of detention. Though this is a bit different from the way the
penitentiary and its successors surveyed the truth of the penal subject, the focus on the
individual prisoner is clear.
In short, no longer engaged in investing the individuality of the penal subject with
power and truth, the contemporary practice of mass incarceration holds little interest to
humanities scholars, many of whom remain enthralled with the genealogy of the modern
soul. This literatures lack of focus on mass incarceration is striking and consequential.
As both a mode of governance and a penal philosophy, the war on crime and the explosion in prison populations it has driven have been the defining features of American
penality during the past few decades and continue to order many aspects of American
social and political life.
Today, instead, it is the social sciences that have become attentive to the distinctive
features of contemporary penality and to mass imprisonment in particular.14 Ironically
(or should one say, dialectically), the rekindling of interests by social scientists in imprisonment might be said to owe a substantial debt to the humanities and cultural studies
scholarship of the 1970s and 1980s. Not only Foucault, but scholars like David Rothman,
E.P. Thompson, Stuart Hall, Stephen Schlossman, Thomas Dumm, Peter Spierenberg
and Edward Ayers helped reframe the context in which practices of imprisonment were
In the remainder of this article I want to reckon with both the contribution of the humanities and cultural studies to the formation of a critical reflection on penality in the 1980s
13. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1998); Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Judith Butler (2004) Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence
(London, UK: Verso).
14. Jonathan Simon, Poor Discipline: Parole and the Social Control of the Underclass, 18901990
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Garland, Mass Imprisonment; Bruce Western,
Punishment and Inequality in America (New York: Russell Sage Foundation 2006); Marie
Gottschalk, The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America
(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Todd Clear, Imprisoning Communities:
How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worst (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2007); Loic Wacquant, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of
Advanced Marginality (London: Polity Press, 2008).



and since, and elaborate further on the consequences of the failure of that scholarship to
seriously grapple with mass imprisonment.

II.Then: 1970 to 1990

Dates are arbitrary. These roughly describe a period in which an intellectual and political
mobilization around the problem of the prisoner coincided, in the United States, with a
continuing drop in the prison population. A prisoners rights movement emerged in the
1960s in both the United States and France. In France, Foucault, along with Jean Genet,
Jean-Paul Sartre, and others, formed a support group of intellectuals in support of the
prisoners. In the United States, a legal rights movement for prisoners which paralleled
the development of a quasi revolutionary struggle inside prisons for control of the
broader radical left during Vietnam was epitomized by radical prisoner or ex-convict
writers like Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and George Jackson.15 Prisoners and intellectuals in both societies condemned the rehabilitative penology that dominated prison
regimes as a cover up for racism and brutality, and a source of totalitarian efforts to
penetrate the psychological interior of the penal subject.16
One starting point is the Attica rebellion, in September of 1971, which began with
prisoners taking over a yard and seizing guards as hostages in response to growing anger
over medical care in the prison, and sparked by the death, a few days earlier, of California
prisoner leader, George Jackson. Two days later, in the midst of a negotiating process
involving journalists and lawyers, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller authorized
the retaking of the prison with an undisciplined mob of correctional officers and state
police, many armed with irregular weapons, resulting in the deaths of 39 men, including
10 of the 33 hostages. Coming after decades of rehabilitative penology, the rebellion
confirmed for many intellectual observers, that the forms of power expressed by the
modern prison were problematic not just in their failures of implementation, but in the
very regime of truth they sought to constitute over prisoners, including compulsory
psycho-therapy. The ferocity of the riot and the states violence shocked many among
liberal academic and media elites and may have led prison managers to be more concerned about prison conditions, but to the general public, it was confirmation of the
necessity to intensify punitive control over prisoners in the United States.
The humanities and cultural studies took up the problematic nature of the rehabilitative
prison in the 1970s. The whiggish tale of the prison and the modern asylum as great
triumphs of humane and enlightened social policy began to be challenged by historians
and philosophers at a time when most sociologists and criminologists either actively
began participating in the experiments of the rehabilitative penal state, or focused on the
distinctive features of prisoner society.17
15. Eric Cummins, The Rise and Fall of Californias Radical Prison Movement (Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press, 1994).
16. Struggle for Justice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1971).
17. Important exceptions were Erving Goffman, Asylums: Notes on the Social Situation of Mental
Patients and Other Inmates (New York: Anchor, 1961); John Irwin, Prisons in Turmoil; and
Sheldon Messinger, Strategies of Control (unpublished Phd Dissertation, UCLA, 1969).


Law, Culture and the Humanities 6(3)

David Rothmans The Discovery of the Asylum18 was one of the first to explore the
social context around the emergence of specialized institutions of confinement in the
United States in the Jacksonian era. Rothman depicted the prison and asylum as responses
to the crisis of authority in formerly colonial societies produced by the revolution.
Among moral philosophers, the status of rehabilitative imprisonment, and in particular,
the indeterminate sentence, which left the actual length of imprisonment dependent on
the discretion of a supposedly expert administrative board, came under critical scrutiny.19
Punishment as the delivery of a justly deserved sanction based on past bad acts was
embraced as a rights-based approach to criminal law and an alternative to the potentially
totalitarian claims of an administrative security state.
The growing use of penal repression in both the US and the UK drew attention from
historians like E.P. Thompson and his students at Warwick University who began to
explore a historical epoch with striking parallels, the rise of the gentry class and the Whig
Party in 17th-century England.20 As new property rights destroyed traditional collective
rights, a wave of crimes of popular resistance broke out with masked bands of men hunting deer in restricted estates, or destroying fishponds. The emerging Whig Party defended
this new capitalist rural regime with a wave of penal repression, including the adoption
of over 100 new capital crimes in the so-called Black Act of 1723.
England in the 1960s had its own cultural panics about delinquency and crime. Stuart
Hall and his collaborators produced one of the foundational texts of contemporary cultural studies, Policing the Crisis21as a study of how police and media constructed an
ambiguous series of low level crimes into a wave of muggings as a major threat to
social order.
Michel Foucaults genealogy of the penitentiary stands as the most influential and
generative contribution from the humanities and cultural studies.22 Foucault, a philosopher and historian, comes as close as anyone to being an icon for the humanities and
cultural studies in the last quarter century. The book offered an extraordinarily provocative reframing of rehabilitative incarceration in its first fifty pages. Rather than an enlightened and humane alternative to the gruesome rituals of scaffold execution, the penitentiary
represented a whole new mode of power, one far more comprehensive and effective in its
capacity to produce compliance. The modern penitentiary, with its methods of therapy
and medical discourse of treatment, promised to help the individual offender, but only on
the condition that it exercise almost totalitarian administrative power.
For Foucault, the prison was both the most florid and the most compromised site of
an expanding political technology of disciplinary control over the individual body as an
18. David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: social order and disorder in the new republic
(Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1971).
19. Andrew von Hirsch, Doing Justice: The Choice of Punishment (New York: Hill and
Wang, 1976).
20. E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: Origins of the Black Act (New York: Pantheon, 1975);
Albions Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in 17th Century England (New York: Pantheon, 1975).
21. Stuart Hall, et al. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (London, UK:
Palgrave Macmillan, 1978).
22. Foucault, Discipline and Punish.



anatomo-physical entity. These disciplinary techniques were also at the center of the
emergence of the industrial factory, the common school, and the mass inscription
military, all institutions central to the making of modern societies, as they were still
understood at the start of the last third of the 20th century. The prison was far from the
most technically advanced of these institutions, but its link to the states power to punish
the subject, left a trace of cruelty, and stigma, and blame.
The disciplines, according to Foucault, were methods that allowed a simultaneous
expansion of the scale of governance over larger and larger ensembles of forces, and a
deeper and deeper penetration into the individuality of the subject. The deep interior
subject of romantic and modern sensibilities was, in fact, the by-product of this new
regime of punishing. The most revealing schema of disciplinary power, according to
Foucault, was Jeremy Benthams proposal for a private prison he called the Panopticon.
The import that Foucaults genealogy of the penitentiary had for the humanities was
captured with great precision and force by Leo Bersani in his 1977 review of both
Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison and, Vol. 1 of Histoire de la Sexualite La
Volont de Savoir, as well as a third volume by another author on prisons and romantic
Prisons provide a gaudy display of a societys disciplinary intentions; in a sense, they merely
bring a supplementary degree of intensity to the normalizing power at work elsewhere in

The prison is then a pathway to discerning the crucial elements of a disciplinary archipelago that runs through contemporary society, and one rather problematic in its distinctive features. The disciplinary technology revealed in these practices leads to what
is really valuable to the humanities and cultural studies, a history of the preconditions
for the formation of a modern soul, or self.
But his map of the awesomely neat coordinations between the exercise of power and the
production of knowledge includes effects which neither of those abstractly active verb-nouns
pouvoir and savoir can perhaps wholly account for. The sustained impersonality of his work
turns the analytic light on the confession-producing mechanisms rather than on the psychic
contentthe delectably troubled desires of an individual soulwhich those mechanisms pursue.24

It is primarily (but not exclusively) through Foucault that we find the prison a central
image and analytic scheme for the humanities from the late 1970s on. Paul Bovs 1980
article on Kierkegaards then recently translated letters and the complete text of his book,
Two Ages, draws on both the metaphor of the penitentiary and Foucaults account of
Panopticism in describing Kierkegaards analysis of the objectivizing gaze of contemporary society.

23. Leo Bersani, Review: The Subject of Power, Diacritics, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Autumn, 1977),
pp. 221, 2.
24. Bersani, Subject of Power, p. 5.


Law, Culture and the Humanities 6(3)

Kierkegaard identifies the social equivalent of the panopticons internalization of regulation

and authority as the means by which his reflective age extends itself. This fact is evident not
only from Kierkegaards adoption of the penitentiary as a metaphor to describe the entrapment
of even the individual who hopes to rebel against the forces of alienation and oppression, but by
his recourse to visual metaphors in his discussion of how society can regulate itself and
homogenize its misfits.25

Examples abound as the penitentiary, mostly as metaphor or schema, worked its way
through the imagination scholars in the humanities and cultural studies. Donald Preziosi
noted the resemblance between the Panopticon and the position of art history criticism.26
D.A. Thomas analyzed the persistent trope of homosexuals as men with female souls
trapped within them, in 19th-century sensation novels as constructing an essentially
carceral narrative of homosexuality.
For if what essentially characterizes male homosexuality in this way of putting it is the womanin-the-man, and if this woman is inclusa, incarcerated or shut up, her freedoms abridged
accordingly, then homosexuality would be by its very nature homo-phobic: imprisoned in a
carceral problematic that does little more than channel into the homosexuals ontology the
social and legal sanctions that might otherwise be imposed on him. Meant to win a certain
intermediate space for homosexuals, Ulrichs formulation in fact ultimately colludes with the
prison or closet dramaof keeping the woman well put awaythat it would relegate to the
unenlightened past.

While in most of these references, the prison serves as little more than an evocative
example of the technologies of the self in modern societies and some work also attended
to the prison as an ongoing site of social interaction. Writing in the Theatre Journal
in 1983, Timothy Murray saw a patriarchal Panopticism as the underlying target of
Getting Out, a play about a contemporary womens prison.27 By then references to the
Panopticon were legion, but would the play, and its content regarding the highly sexualized domination of female prisoners by guards have ever been written about for the
theory audience of an academic theater journal if not for what Bersani aptly called
Foucaults dazzling display of controlled power in his studies of the prison and
Other work pursued the history of the prison and its relationship to the American
state, building on Foucaults analysis of the prison as a disciplinary institution, but
extending its power by focusing it on historically specific and systematically studied
25. Paul Bov, The Penitentiary of Reflection: Sren Kierkegaard and Critical Activity, boundary
2, Vol. 9, No. 1, A Supplement on Irony (Autumn, 1980), pp. 23358 , 254.
26. Donald Preziosi, That Obscure Object of Desire: The Art of Art History, boundary 2, Vol. 13,
No. 2/3, On Humanism and the University II: The Institutions of Humanism (WinterSpring,
1985), pp. 141, 15.
27. Timothy Murray, Patriarchal Panopticism, or the Seduction of a Bad Joke: Getting out in
Theory, Theatre Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3, The Poetics of Theatre (Oct., 1983), pp. 37688.
28. Bersani, Subject of Power.



examples. Thomas L. Dumms book, Democracy and Punishment: The Disciplinary

Origins of the United States, is among the strongest examples.29 Dumm studied two
quite real and distinct regimes in the US, Pennsylvanias separate system of labor in
silence and total isolation, and New Yorks congregate system of group labor in silence
followed by isolation. While strikingly similar in some regards, Dumm suggests that
the more imitated congregate model was a far more disciplinary model aimed at producing useful and docile ensembles of men, while the separate system retained a commitment to the individual as a sovereign and self governing body. Dumms analysis showed
how the historic victory of a liberal capitalism over a more republican and agrarian kind
of polity owed to disciplinary technologies like the congregate model. Other important
historical work on the prison emerged from sources independent of and by the 1980s in
some critical dialog with Foucaults.30
Most of the audience for this work in the humanities and cultural studies found the
prison at best a helpful model for thinking about the forms of power and subjectivity with
which their disciplines were becoming more engaged. However, an unexplored role of
this literature was in helping to rejuvenate the sociology of punishment.
The sociology of the prison had flourished in the United States (and in Europe as well)
during the 1950s and 1960s. Ironically, most of this sociology had little to say about the
distinctive qualities of the disciplinary prison. Instead, it was largely preoccupied with
the larger theoretical questions of organizational sociology. Does the organization (here
the prison) produce the culture of personal behavior and beliefs one finds among prisons,
or is it a product of the external environments that shaped them before they entered, was
the primary focus of research.31 The access of sociology to prisons was itself a function
of the peno-correctional establishment and its need for social science research as part of
its regulation of the prison (a Foucauldian power/knowledge story).
By the 1980s that was ending32 and the problem of prisons was disappearing in social
science behind a new category of research on sentencing and governmental discourses
focused on punishment and deterrence that could be given epistemological heft through
economics rather than empirical research. When the sociology of punishment began to

29. Thomas L. Dumm, Democracy and Punishment: The Disciplinary Origins of the United
States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).
30. David J. Rothman, Conscience and Conveniene: The Asylum and its Alternatives in Progressive
America (Boston, MA: Little Brown, & Co., 1980), Pieter Spierenberg, et al., The Prison
Experience: Disciplinary Institutions and their Inmates in Early Modern Europe (New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991).
31. There were some exceptions. One was John Irwin, whose study, The Prison in Turmoil, was
the most important book after Foucaults to show how much the correctionalist prison whose
genealogy so interested Foucault, was now being replaced by a different kind of prison altogether. Another was Stanley Cohen, whose book, Visions of Social Control (London: Polity,
1985), began to understand forms of penal surveillance beyond the panopticon.
32. When I was doing my dissertation research in 1987 I got access to parole in California (and
through that to some prison-based parole hearings) through my adviser, Sheldon Messinger,
a sociologist of that golden era, and his contacts in the parole division which is where the
remnants of that earlier establishment with ties to academia remained.


Law, Culture and the Humanities 6(3)

re-emerge with David Garlands 1990 book, Punishment and Modern Society33the
influence of the humanities is clear. It was Foucault, Michael Ignatieff, E.P. Thompson,
Douglas Hay, Pieter Spierenberg, and other historians that are integral (along with social
theory) rather than American sociology that is central.34 By the end of that decade, this
humanities-infused sociology of punishment was discovering the emergence of a new
kind of prison, one that operated more like a warehouse or a waste management35 facility
than a hospital, and new practice mass imprisonment.

III. Now: 1990 to the Present

Today, there is a vital and increasingly empirical sociology of punishment that is concerned with the transformation of the peno-correctional prison into the greatly extended
system of mass incarceration.36 Although this literature is indebted to work in the humanities, there is an absence of current engagement between the two fields today, one that
raises a question of intellectual history, but also one that gives reason for concern.
Here is the irony. When the humanities and cultural studies found the prison a really
important mirror for society, during the 1970s and 1980s, incarceration was first shrinking, and then its renewed growth remained largely invisible for a long time. In 1977, Leo
Bersanis insightful review of Surveiller et punir begins with the now startling sentence,
The era of prisons may be nearly over.37 It was an opinion that many sociologists
would have agreed with.38 Yet by the end of the next decade, it would become abundantly clear that America was in the midst of a radical expansion and transformation of
its use of imprisonment; one with large and ominous consequences for all the forms of
inequality with which the humanities and cultural studies have been normatively much
concerned. Yet the passage to mass imprisonment has been largely ignored.
There are important exceptions to this, including Alex Lichtensteins study of the
convict lease system in Georgia between the Civil War and the progressive era.39 Marxist
rather than Foucauldian, and concerned with an overtly racialized penal system that
made little pretense of rehabilitation, Lichtensteins study of convict lease may have
primed him to respond to the coming of mass incarceration. Another important exception
is the work of Wahneema Lubiano on ideology, gender and race formation in
33. D.A. Thomas, Cage aux folles: Sensation and Gender in Willie Collinss The Woman in
White, Representations, No. 14, The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Society in
the Nineteenth Century (Spring, 1986), pp. 107136.
34. In my own 1993 study of parole and prisons, the influence of Foucault, Dumm, Thompson
and others is profound. Simon, Poor Discipline, p. 17.
35. Simon, Poor Discipline, p. 260.
36. Garland, The Culture of Control; Western, Punishment and Inequality in America; Clear,
Imprisoning Communities; Gottschalk, The Prison and the Gallows.
37. Bersani, Subject of Power, p. 1.
38. Andrew Scull, Decarceration: Community Treatment and the Deviant, a Radical View (Upper
Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1977).
39. See, Alex Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict
Labor in the New South (London: Verso, 1995). See, Alex Lichtenstein, The private and the
public in penal history, in Garland, Mass Incarceration. This article is one of the few by
historians to have taken up the problem of mass imprisonment.



contemporary literature.40 Perhaps the most telling exception of all is a special theories
and methodologies section of the newsletter of the Modern Language Association,
PMLA, devoted to Incarceration and Social Justice.41 The section which contains provocative and insightful essays by a range of veteran and recent humanities scholars
addresses mass imprisonment in its distinctive features in a tone that reflects the sense
of breaking a long silence.42
This is not because of the absence of work in the humanities and cultural studies on
the panoptic prison. When I searched a selection of humanities and cultural studiesrelated journals on the JSTOR digital library, from 1970 to 1990 for articles and book
reviews with the terms, prison or penitentiary, and, disciplinary or panoptic, I turned up
over 700 separate hits. I expected it would fall off of that impressive total in the next
twenty years. But in the shorter time period of 1991 through the most current information
(JSTOR is at least two years behind current releases), the same search terms generated
over 1700 hits. It is also not because of the lesser quality of scholarship of this genre.
Some of the most important and revealing studies of the panoptic prison, like Michael
Meranzes study of the Eastern State Prison in Philadelphia,43 and Charles Brights study
of Jackson prison appear in this period.44
Indeed, some of the strongest most influential work in the humanities and cultural
studies continues to be very concerned with questions of punishment, surveillance, and
detention. The study of capital punishment, historically45 and in terms of political
theory,46 has flourished and has explored the distinctive features of Americas modern
capital punishment system. The Bush administrations creation of a system of extraterritorial prisons in which torture and detention without trial have been constitutive
parts of the regime, has received powerful treatment by influential critical social and
political theorists. Indeed, Agambens remarkable study, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power
and Bare Life seemed to almost anticipate the war on terror.47
40. See, Black Ladies, Welfare Queens, and State Minstrels: Ideological War by Narrative
Means, in Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power, edited by Toni Morrison, 32363 (1992);
Black Nationalism and Black Common Sense: Policing Ourselves and Others, in The
House that Race Built, ed. Wahneema Lubiano, 23252 (1997).
41. PMLA, Vol. 123, No. 3, May 2008, 632702.
42. See, e.g., H. Bruce Franklin, Can the Penitentiary Teach the Academy How to Read? 634;
Avery F. Gordon, Methodologies of Imprisonment, 651; Jody Lewyn, Academics Belong in
Prison: On Creating a University at San Quentin, 689;
43. Michael Meranze, Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), pp. 17601835.
44. Charles Bright, The Powers that Punish: Prison and Politics in the Era of the Big House (Ann
Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996).
45. Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American Story (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 2002; Randall McGowen, Civilizing Punshment: The End of Public Execution in
England, Journal of British Studies 33: (1994) p. 257.
46. Sarat, When the State Kills; Banner, The Death Penalty; Culbert, Dead Certainty; KauffmanOsborne, From the Noose to the Needle: Capital Punishment and the Late Liberal State (Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002).
47. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press).


Law, Culture and the Humanities 6(3)

Unfortunately this discourse has thus far failed to discern any link with Americas
mass incarceration regime in part because of its failure to observe the post-Panoptic
career of the prison.48 For example, Agamben insists at the outset of his analysis on the
difference between the camp and the prison and the distinctive relationship of the former
to the state of exception.
The campand not the prisonis the space that corresponds to this originary structure of the
nomos. This is shown, among other things, by the fact that while prison law only constitutes a
particular sphere of penal law and is not outside the normal order, the juridical constellation that
guides the camp is martial law and the state of siege.49

In a brilliant analysis of what she calls the new war prison (the Bush administrations
prisons in Iraq, Guantanamo, and Afghanistan), Judith Butler recognizes their centrality
to the distinctive forms of contemporary government:
The prison presents the managerial tactics of governmentality in an extreme mode. And whereas
we expect the prison to be tied to lawto trial, to punishment, to the rights of prisonerswe see
presently an effort to produce a secondary judicial system and a sphere of non-legal detention
that effectively produces the prison itself as an extra-legal sphere.50

Yet Butler emphasizes the differences with the prison, the absence of legality, rather than
the commonalities, e.g., the commitment to community security through mass incapacitation of dangerous subjects.
Slavoj Zizek reads Abu Ghraib as a window into American society that requires Americans to
acknowledge an underlying barbarism to their civilization. Bush was thus wrong: what we are
getting when we see the photos of the humiliated Iraqi prisoners on our screens and front pages
is precisely a very direct insight into American values, into the very core of the obscene
enjoyment that sustains the US way of life.51

48. An important exception is Joshua Comaroffs article, Terror and Territory: Guantanamo and
the Space of Contradiction, Public Culture, 19: (2007), pp. 381405. Comaroff criticizes
those who saw in Abu Ghraib a playing out of Agambens state of exception without noticing
that the famous torture techniques were imported, at least in part, from the American prison
system, at 385. However, Comaroff himself never really reflects on the logic of domestic
imprisonment that foments techniques of torture. Concluding that Guantanamo operates primarily ideologically to constitute a geographically coherent enemy, to create a territorial trap
for a mobile enemy, at 400, Comaroff ignores the link to domestic mass imprisonment in
which the previous logic of incarcerating and transforming dangerous individuals is replaced
by the promise to incapacitate whole segments of a criminally dangerous class.
49. Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 20.
50. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004),
p. 70.
51. Slavoj Zizek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), p. 176.



But a link to the more than two million Americans that find themselves incarcerated in
prisons and jails is not part of this insight.
Ironically much of the powerful critique that political theorists have developed against
the practices of war on terror applies as well to the vast system of mass imprisonment
in the United States. It is a system of legality only in the most formal sense. A great deal
of the criminal procedure decisions of the past several decades have weakened the
panoply of constitutional rights against which many of the critics of the war on terror
imagine they are comparing the enemy combatant procedures. More important, aggressive expansion of new crimes that penalize the status of being a high risk subject, and
which allow administrative imprisonment, like parole revocation and immigration
detention, have eliminated the traditional requirement of a substantial bad act.

IV. Conclusion
There is a lag in the way the humanities and cultural studies today imagine the practices
of imprisonment.52 Ironically, it may be a function of the rhetorical power of Foucaults
account of the panoptic prison. Those of us who have tried to describe mass imprisonment have not succeeded in bringing the same level of analytic power to begin to shape
theory development in the humanities and cultural studies. It may also be that the very
nature of mass imprisonment, with its reduction of the subject to a thin risk calculus,
annihilates the self that remains the primary interest of the humanities. But if so, this
crisis of the self facing millions of our citizens, especially the poor, minorities, and the
young (whereas Foucault had noted that disciplinary practices actually invested those at
the bottom of power hierarchies with individuality, history, a deep interior truth), one that
calls out for response by the humanities and cultural studies.
No doubt there are important insights to be gleaned from continuing to explore the
penitentiary project in all its historic and global variations, but in clinging to the Foucauldian
moment of Panoptic incarceration, cultural studies runs two risks. First, in so far as this
scholarship fails to grapple with the disappearance of the disciplinary project in the
correctional system generally and in domestic (not just terrorist) prisons, its basic account
of the contemporary subject may be open to question (fealty to Foucaults methodology
requires abandoning his genealogy of the disciplinary prison as not particularly relevant
to understanding our own warehouse variant). Second, and of bigger concern here, in
their contemporary role as the repository of critical theory and the parrehesiastic tradition
in western philosophy, the humanities and cultural studies have a distinctive role to play
in calling the prison to account with our contemporary values that stands in clear contrast
to predominant tendency in American criminology.53
52. This may be beginning to change. A recent issue of the Boston Review was devoted to
mass imprisonment including an article by sociologist Bruce Western, and a review essay
by Robert Perkinson of several recent books on mass imprisonment. See Bruce Western,
Reentry: Reversing Mass Imprisonment, Boston Review, July-August 2008, and Robert
Perkinson, Guarded Hope: Lessons from the History of the Prison Boom, Boston Review,
July-August, 2008.
53. Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech (Semiotexte, 2001); Jonathan Simon, Parrhesiastic


Law, Culture and the Humanities 6(3)

While scholars from the humanities and cultural studies have helped defined American
capital punishment and the post-9/11 detention centers set up outside the United States to
interrogate and control terrorism suspects as dangerous aberrations from American values there is no comparable indictment of mass imprisonment. Indeed, one fears that it is
possible to read the condemnation of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as an implicit endorsement of mass imprisonment which has been largely carried out under constitutional
The author is grateful to Jack Bouboushian (Berkeley Law class of 2011) and Omari French
(Berkeley Law class of 2011) for research assistance and to an anonymous reviewer for helpful

Accountability: Investigatory Commissions and Executive Power in an Age of Terror,

Yale Law Journal, 114: (2005), pp. 141957.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.