Letters

Autumn 2009
Discipline and Publish

To the editor:
Heather Mac Donald’s article [“The Jail Inferno,” Summer 2009] is interesting and well researched, but her obvious ignorance of Michel Foucault’s argument about prisons makes many of her criticisms come across as misplaced. In her concluding paragraph, Mac Donald writes: “The order that the lobbyists, academic critics, and neo-Foucauldians see as oppressive is inmates’ only hope for safety and even, perhaps, rehabil­itation.” As most first-year students of the French philosopher could tell you, Foucault’s analytic approach is based on the notion that knowledge and power are co-productive—that power influences the production of knowledge, and knowledge influences the production of power; that they have given rise to each other throughout history; and that modern power, far from being repressive, is productive of identity. Attributing the opinion that jails and prisons are “oppressive” to neo-Foucauldians demonstrates an impoverished understanding of the basic Foucauldian principle that modern liberal power primarily operates to create good citizen-subjects, rather than punish infractions.

In fact, the notion of “rehabilitation” is exactly the point of Foucault’s argument about power (rather than “oppression”), though he takes an ambivalent and frequently negative position on the matter. He argues that power revealed in such ways is neither good nor bad but merely “dangerous,” as one can see from the fashioning of “good subjects,” say, under neo-fascist or heavily militarized liberal regimes. Foucault’s work in Discipline and Punish is less of an argument about prisons themselves and more about the nature of modern power itself as manifest through discrete apparatuses.

Mac Donald’s peripheral jabs at the work of a man who is a strong candidate for the most important thinker of the twentieth century detract from her otherwise incisive analysis, which is, ironically, much more in line with Foucault’s ideas than she has taken the time to understand.

For any reader of Discipline and Punish, the similarities seem greater than the differences, except for her unwarranted outpouring of sympathy for jail administrators and guards, a perspective that itself seems to go astray as she depicts the terrible conditions and violence to which mentally ill prisoners are subjected. Other than this bizarre authorial perspective, Mac Donald might well be branded a neo-Foucauldian herself for her approach to this subject matter. In the future, she should study her subjects of critique before launching pointless barbs.

Edmund Zagorin
Washington, DC

To the editor:
Nowhere, during this nearly 8,000-word article, does Heather Mac Donald quote from Discipline and Punish, or accurately identify any Foucauldian arguments (which she nearly stumbles over)—such as his assertion that the penal system was increasingly functioning through the science of management. Mac Donald writes that Rikers officials “will analyze [inmate] criminal records, intake questionnaires, medical examinations, and current behavior. Such inmate classification is the cutting edge of jail management.” She misses another Foucault observation, that power is fluid instead of static, when she writes, “Like surveillance, power in jails flows between officers and inmates in multiple directions.”

None of these oversights bothers me as much as her unwillingness to interrogate the prison system apart from guard abuses. Maybe she should try to tackle questions such as: Why does the wealthiest nation in the world have the highest prison population? Or: How has the growth of prisons served to fill in the gap left by the decline in social programs such as welfare by hiring thousands of guards, wardens, psychologists, and specialists?

Eric Ranz
Portland, OR

Heather Mac Donald replies:
Mr. Zagorin and Mr. Ranz seem to be saying that I have appropriated Foucault’s alleged insights into penal management without offering a rebuttal of them. Foucault, however, clearly regarded policies for order maintenance (to the extent that anything in his self-indulgent, mannered prose is clear) as illegitimate efforts by some never-defined locus of social and economic power—call it the bourgeois regime—to repress some other never-defined locus of power—call it the authentic, spontaneous, noncapitalist masses. I, by contrast, see the imperative of order maintenance in a jail as triggered by a very specific reality: the majority of criminals lack self-control (self-control being a good and necessary thing, not a mere tool of Foucauldian “disciplinary mechanisms”) and are prone to preying on others. The need for information-gathering and regulation in jails does not result from a larger agenda of social control but from the localized imperative of protecting other inmates and guards from inmate violence. Disastrous experiments in prisoner self-governance in the 1970s and 1980s put the lie to the Foucauldian notion that penal oversight has a conspiratorial rationale beyond preventing anarchy and predation.

Mr. Ranz implies that my observation about the two-way nature of surveillance and power in jails is also derivative of Foucault. Nowhere in Discipline and Punish is there any suggestion that incarcerated criminals retain power over their guards or one another; Foucault presents the hierarchy as strictly top-down. Mr. Ranz faults me for failing to quote Foucault. So here’s some of what possibly “the most important thinker of the twentieth century” has to say on the one-way nature of penal power:

The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.
It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up. . . . The efficiency of power, its constraining force have, in a sense, passed over to the other side—to the side of its surface of application. He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

In an article that was intended to provide a concrete sense of jail life, I may perhaps be forgiven for not including more of the above.

As for “interrogating” the prison system, I have done so elsewhere (“Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist?,” Spring 2008) and have found that data-driven policing and incarceration are the most reliable means for reducing crime that have yet been discovered. Crime was skyrocketing in the 1960s and 1970s, the same time that Mr. Ranz’s “social programs such as welfare” were growing by leaps and bounds.

Would we be better off subjecting criminals to gruesome, cruel torture rather than incarceration? A reader of Discipline and Punish could certainly be forgiven for thinking that Foucault toyed with that notion, without ever taking responsibility for it. I see the evolution of Enlightenment liberal reform regarding punishment as a clear win for humanity, one that the jail administrators whom I wrote about continue to advance.