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The Panopticon: a structural design for America’s disciplinary society. Image borrowed from:

“But perhaps the most important effect of the carceral system and of its extension well beyond legal imprisonment is that it succeeds in making the power to punish natural and legitimate” -Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975/1995, p. 301)


Throughout the American public there exists a common sense notion that crime and punishment equates to justice. For most, the criminal justice system is a necessary element of society that provides stability and order. However, there is a hidden element of discipline that has become the backbone of America’s criminal justice system. When Foucault describes the disciplinary society, he compares its main architectural design to that of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. The Panopticon is a structural design with a centralized watchtower that is strategically located in the middle of an institution to supervise and survey its exterior surroundings. The central watchtower provides a continual surveillance of prisoners who are singularly placed in cells under the watch of whoever is behind the central tower (1975/1995). As Foucault mentions, “[The prisoner] is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, but never a subject in communication” (p. 200). In other words, the prisoner is completely isolated from other prisoners and as a subject is continuously under the institutional eye.

The peripheral relationship Foucault implies is to “induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (1975/1995, p. 201). The panoptic system becomes a structural machine of power that segregates its subjects into domination. The criminal justice system is the centralized watchtower that assures the function of power between its institutions and its subjects. For African-Americans, the continual surveillance and systematic isolation from mainstream society carries an immense impact on the community and their identity. This dilemma is at the heart of what W.E.B. Du Bois’s asserts in The Souls of Black Folk: “How does it feel to be a problem?” (1903/2009, p. 7). Du Bois would later suggest that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” (p. 16). A problem that still exists today with America’s criminal justice system and racial inequities.

America’s criminal justice system has become the central source of the disciplinary society with African-Americans as its target. Disciplinary techniques of surveilling, containing, and disenfranchising, resembles the racist power structure of white supremacy that terrorized African-Americans throughout slavery and the era of Jim Crow.

Neighbourhoods with heavy surveillance where people are watched without them knowing it. Image borrowed from:

Foucault suggests that Bentham’s Panopticon, as a structure of enclosed discipline, can be extended throughout the rest of society with the same goal at hand. As Foucault states: “There are two images, then, of discipline. At one extreme, the discipline-blockade, the enclosed institution, established on the edges of society, turned inwards towards negative functions: arresting evil, breaking communications, suspending time. At the other extreme, with panopticism, is the discipline-mechanism: a functional mechanism that must improve the exercise of power by making it lighter, more rapid, more effective, a design of subtle coercion for a society to come” (1975/1995, p. 209). Here, it is important to distinguish Foucault’s use of Bentham’s Panopticon as a architectural design of discipline that can be found in prisons versus what Foucault deems “panopticism”–an extension of Bentham’s disciplinary design that pervades society as a whole.

Impoverished African-American communities, particularly inner cities, have long been conditioned to the disciplinary mechanisms that panopticism has established. However, apart from the top-down model of power where the state unilaterally controls its subjects, when it comes to African-Americans and the discipline their communities are subjected to, there is much more going on than a unilateral power structure. In conjunction to this model, there are multifaceted dimensions that shape and justify the unilateral approach, where just like the days of Jim Crow, communities surrounding African-American neighbourhoods tacitly and explicitly condone the panoptic methods of discipline within black and Latino communities. In others words, the American public is conditioned to believe that impoverished black communities are in need of such surveillance and discipline. Such sentiments can be illustrated with American media portraying blacks as criminals in popular TV shows such as Cops. The same can be said with Hollywood movies and America’s larger culture.  

Protestors denouncing the racial profiling of NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk” policing tactics. Image borrowed from:

In illustrating how panopticism functions in society, Foucault suggests there must be a “swarming of disciplinary mechanisms” that are state controlled (1975/1995, p. 211). Foucault immediately refers to the power of police. As Foucault illustrates: “Police power must bear over everything,” it must concern itself with “the dust of events, actions, behavior, opinions–everything that happens” (p. 213). While the police protect property and are seen as necessary agents in white communities, in African-American communities their presence is similar to military occupancy in a war zone. The intense police surveillance is the panoptic functioning of power that Foucault maintains is distinctive to a disciplinary society. The level of visibility is an integral part to the power imbalance that maintains the panoptic system. The interconnectedness of law enforcement, the courts, parole boards, and other government agencies work together to shape the disproportionate levels of monitoring and ultimately, the imprisonment of African-Americans. With high levels of incarceration and geographical monitoring, the criminal justice system functions as the primary source of panoptic containment for African-Americans.

African-Americans are continuously reminded of their social status as people who are fixed on one end of the color-line, as they are subjected to the institutional eye. Whether it’s the warden or correctional officer, judge or district attorney, parole or probation officer, police force or undercover agent, city surveillance technologies, social services and other government agencies, there is a constant bombardment of institutional representatives whose task is to enforce discipline. These measures belong to the longstanding history of discipline and containment that was present throughout American slavery and the era of Jim Crow. With the social standing of African-Americans, the theoretical concepts found in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison become all the more insightful and valuable.


*Video: “Crow Jane” by Skip James






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