location: publications / books / Justice Behind the Walls / Sector 1 / Chapter 1 Change and Continuity in the Canadian Prison: Lessons from Scholarship

It is not only theories and attitudes that have vied for ascendancy within the penitentiary; there are competing histories of the penitentiary itself and of its role as an institution of punishment. As Stanley Cohen has observed in his masterful summary of these histories -- broadly divided into the categories "traditional" and "revisionist" -- "these are not just competing versions of what may or may not have happened nearly 200 years ago. They are informed by fundamentally different views about the nature of ideology and hence quite different ways of making sense of current policies and change" (Stanley Cohen, Visions of Social Control: Crime, Punishment and Classification [Cambridge, Mass: Polity Press, 1985] at 50).

The dominant "traditional" historical accounts are essentially the history of progressive reform. As described by Cohen:

The conventional view of correctional change in general and of the emergence of the prison in the early 19th-century crime control system in particular, is based upon a simple-minded idealist view of history . . . All change constitutes "reform" (a word with no negative connotations); all reform is motivated by benevolence, altruism, philanthropy and humanitarianism, and the eventual record of success of reforms must be read as an incremental story of progress. Criminology and other such disciplines provide the scientific theory (the "knowledge base") for guiding and implementing the reform program. Thus, the birth of the prison in the late 18th century, as well as concurrent and subsequent changes, are seen in terms of the victory of humanitarianism over barbarity, of scientific knowledge over prejudice and irrationality. Early forms of punishment, based on vengeance, cruelty and ignorance give way to informed, professional and expert intervention . . .

Not that this vision is at all complacent. The system is seen as practically and even morally flawed. Bad mistakes are often made and there are abuses such as overcrowding in prisons, police brutality, unfair sentencing and other such remnants of irrationality. But in the course of time, with goodwill and enough resources (more money, better trained staff, newer buildings and more research), the system is capable of being humanized by good intentions and made more efficient by the application of scientific principles. Failures, even tragedies, are interpreted in terms of sad tales about successive generations of dedicated administrators and reformers being frustrated by a prejudiced public, poor co-ordination or problems of communication. Good intentions are taken entirely at their face value and are radically separated from their outcomes. It is not the systems professed aims which are at fault but their imperfection realisation. The solution is "more of the same" . . . As a view of history and a rationale of the present policies [this] is by far the most important story of all. (S. Cohen at 15, 18)

In contrast to the traditional and largely administrative histories stand the "revisionist" accounts that Stanley Cohen has divided into two models, one being the "we blew it" version of history and the other the "it's all a con" view of correctional change. Cohen summarizes the "we blew it" version (under the subtitle "Good [but Complicated] Intentions -- Disastrous Consequences") in this way:

Roughly from the mid-1960's onwards, a sour voice of disillusionment, disenchantment and cynicism, at first hesitant and now strident, has appeared within the liberal reform camp. The message was that the reform vision itself is potentially suspect. The record is not just one of good intentions going wrong now and then, but of continual and disastrous failure. The gap between rhetoric and reality is so vast, that either the rhetoric itself is deeply flawed or social reality resists all such reform attempts. (S. Cohen at 19)

The best-known exposition of this model is in the work of the American historian David J. Rothman. In his books The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Boston: Little Brown, 1971) and Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and Its Alternatives in Progressive America (Boston: Little Brown, 1980), Rothman tracks the history of prison reform and its organization around a cyclical pattern of brief inspirational reforms, led by dedicated individuals, followed by a slow process of displacement of the originating ideals by more mundane organizational imperatives. To explain the distance between the originating ideals and the subsequent practice, Rothman coined the terms "conscience" and "convenience". As summarized by Stanley Cohen, the story underlying Rothman's account flows along these lines:

In Rothman's account, the asylum, which links the concept of rehabilitation to the practice of incarceration, emerged in Jacksonian American in response to social changes which began at the end of the 18th century. Up to that point, the criminal justice system had much more limited purposes -- petty offenders were deterred, punished, shamed into conformity by the stocks, whipping, fining or banishment. The more serious offender was sent to the gallows. These punishments were directed at the body, and they took place in public. Starting in the period after the War of Independence, attitudes and programs changed dramatically. An inchoate anxiety developed about the new restless, socially mobile population, together with the sense that all reforms of social control (family, community, religion) were decaying and becoming outmoded . . . Deviants were seen as the products of an anomic social order, and attempts to control or change them came to involve segregating them away from the corrupting influences of the urban society. The asylum was conceived as a microcosm of the perfect social order, a utopian experiment in which criminals and the insane, isolated from bad influences, would be changed by subjecting them to a regime of discipline, order and regulation.

This goal of changing the person was born of an optimistic world view . . . The pessimistic Calvinist view of inmate depravity was replaced by a more optimistic post-Enlightenment view of people as plastic creatures who could be shaped by their environment. The prospects of reform seemed bright and these institutions proliferated, eventually dominating the social-control repertoire. Soon, though, there was failure: by the 1870's, and clearly by the 1890's, it was obvious that asylums had degenerated into mere custodial institutions -- overcrowded, corrupt and certainly not rehabilitative . . .

As closed institutions degenerated further, a new wave of reform energy devoted itself to the search for alternatives, administrative flexibility, discretion, a greater choice of dispositions. The ideal of individual treatment, the case-by-case method and the entry of psychiatric doctrines produced a whole series of innovations -- attempts to humanise the prison, probation and parole, indeterminate sentencing, the juvenile court, . . .

But again the gap between promise and fulfilment was enormous. None of the programs turned out the way their designers hoped. Indeed, so "diluted" became the ideas, that practice bore no relationship to the original text. Closed institutions hardly changed and were certainly not humanised; the new programs became supplements, not alternatives, thus expanding the scope and reach of the system; discretion actually became more arbitrary; individual treatment was barely attempted, let alone successful. Once again, however, failure and persistence went hand in hand: operational needs ensured survival while benevolent rhetoric buttressed a long discredited system, deflected criticism and justified "more of the same" . . .

For Rothman then, an appreciation of the historical origins of the original reform vision, the political interest behind them, their internal paradoxes and the nature of their appeal, creates a story far more complicated than terms such as "reform", "progress", "doing good", "benevolence" and "humanitarianism" imply. And an appreciation of how reforms are implemented, shows that the original design can be systematically, not incidentally, undermined by managerial and other pragmatic goals. This is explicitly a history aimed at raising our consciousness. (at 19-21)

This revisionist view does not deny the possibility or the necessity for reform, but suggests that the warning from history is that benevolence itself must be distrusted. In understanding the historical process of 'reform' it is necessary to keep in mind constantly the ways in which "convenience" can, and if history teaches us anything, will undermine a reform vision based upon "conscience".

Page 5 of 9

Kingston Pententiary, contemporary photo