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

Just as David Rothman's revisionist history introduced into the scholarly literature of punishment the concepts of "convenience" and "conscience," Michel Foucault's work coined a number of conceptual phrases that have become part of the modern vocabulary of criminology. To describe how the disciplinary techniques employed in the prison were also applied in hospitals, schools, asylums, factories, and military academies, Foucault created the concepts of the ever-expanding "carceral continuum" and of the "carceral archipelago," which adds islands to the empire of punishment. Both have proven to be powerful images in describing modern developments in corrections. In describing how the boundaries between the prison and the community have become blurred with the development of "community corrections", Stanley Cohen applies Foucault's analysis in this penetrating way:

The segregated and insulated 19th-century institutions made the actual business of deviancy control invisible, but its boundaries visible . . . Whether prisons were built in the middle of cities, out in the remote countryside or on deserted islands, they had clear spatial boundaries to mark off the normal from the deviant. And these spatial boundaries were reinforced by ceremonies of social exclusion: prisoners were sent away or sent down, their "bodies" were symbolically received at the prison gate, then, stripped, washed and numbered -- they entered another world. Those on the outside would wonder what went on behind the walls, those inside would try to imagine the "outside world". Inside/outside, guilty/innocent, freedom/captivity, imprisoned/released -- these were all distinctions that made sense.

In the new world of community corrections, these boundaries are no longer nearly as visible. The way into an institution is not clear (it is just as likely to be via a post-adjudication diagnostic centre as a police car) the way out is even less clear (graduated release or partial release is just as likely as full freedom) nor is it clear what or where is the institution. There is, we are told, a "correctional continuum" or a "correctional spectrum": criminals and delinquents might be found anywhere in these spaces. And so fine, and at the same time so indistinct, are the gradations along the continuum, that it is by no means easy to know where the prison ends and the community begins . . .

The half-way house might serve as a good example . . . their programmes turn out to reproduce regimes and sets of rules very close to the institutions themselves; about security, curfew, passes, drugs, alcohol, permitted visitors, required behaviour and surveillance. Indeed, it becomes difficult to distinguish a very "open" prison, with liberal provisions for work release, home release and outside educational programs from a very "closed" half-way house. (Cohen, at 57-9)

David Garland's Punishment and Modern Society, drawing upon the principal tributaries of social theory concerning punishment, is perhaps the most important scholarly contribution to understanding both the changes that have taken place in the conception and practice of punishment and the reasons why conception and practice remain beset with contradictions. Utilizing Norbert Elias' account of The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners and State Formation and Civilzation (trans. Edmund Jephcott. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994 [original publication 1939]), Garland adopts the concept of "civilization curves" to explain the general developmental pattern in the nature and experience of punishment over the last two hundred years. He prefaces his discussion with the observation that throughout this history there has been a well-developed link between the broad notion of "civilization" and a society's penal system, particularly its prisons. That link has been most clearly expressed in Winston Churchill's declaration that "the mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country" (U.K., H.C., Parliamentary Debates, 5th series, vol. 19 col. 1354(20 July 1910)), and in Dostoyevsky's assertion that "the standards of a nation's civilisation can be judged by opening the doors of its prisons".

One of the "civilization curves" Elias identifies is "the process of privatization whereby certain aspects of life disappear from the public arena to become hidden behind the scenes of social life. Sex, violence, bodily functions, illness, suffering and death gradually become a source of embarrassment and distaste and are more and more removed to various private domains" (Garland at 222). The history of punishment is a primary illustration of this pattern.

In the early modern period capital and corporal executions were conducted in public, and both the ritual of judicial killing and the offender's display of suffering formed an open part of social life. Later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the sight of this spectacle became redefined as distasteful, particularly among the social elite and executions are gradually removed "behind the scenes" -- usually behind the walls of prisons. Subsequently, the idea of doing violence to offenders becomes repugnant in itself, and corporal and capital punishments are largely abolished, to be replaced by other sanctions such as imprisonment. By the late 20th century, punishment has become a rather shameful social activity, undertaken by specialists and professionals in enclaves (such as prisons and reformatories) which are, by and large, removed from the sight of the public. (Garland at 224)

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