Detain & Exploit


I had two questions in seminar. They were these:


Foucault outlines some specific methods of disciplining and reconditioning the soul of prisoner into a state of “docility-utility” (eg. separation in space, panopticon, examinations). To what extent are these methods and this process even ethical?


While the term “docility-utility” might describe a state of mind that is sometimes necessary, it is a supremely ugly one to attach to a prisoner. It implies two things: 1. that the subject in question is to be used as a tool and 2. that a submissive mindset must be fostered to achieve this. This concept makes sense when applied to the military. Military units must work together as a whole to carry out operations that serve to protect society. For such a large number of people to work together effectively a certain level of conformity must be instilled in soldiers. (I once met a vet who served in Afghanistan who told me that “if the captain tells me to kill someone, I kill someone. If he tells me to pick up shit, I pick up shit. I don’t even think about it.”) The implications are absolutely in no way applicable to prisoners. The idea that prisoners are tools to be used is completely unethical. Believe it or not, the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution says that no one may be forced to do slave labour except as punishment for a crime. Aside the from the reality of the War on Drugs, mandatory minimums, private prisons and other prison profiteering schemes this has a hideous implication that criminals are public property to be used at will by the rest of society. Criminology should really be about deterrence, rehabilitation and prevention–it should work to help criminals become functioning members of society. Your rights do not just get thrown out the window because you committed a crime. To deal with the second implication, most crimes are probably not committed due to a lack of obedience on the part of the criminal. Sure, maybe if some kids commits vandalism then what they probably need is some discipline, but crimes like murder, fraud, theft, domestic abuse, etc. stem from much more complicated issues. Breaking people down into numbers and reprogramming them to spend their every moment in productive subservience does not benefit anybody except the people profiting from their labour.


Foucault talks about switching the emphasis of the criminology from the body to the soul. He writes “the question is no longer simply: has the act been committed and is it punishable” but instead we take into account motivations, psyche, tendencies and probability of reoffense. How are we to balance judgment based on criminal actions and criminal thoughts? Could we be justified in imprisoning someone solely based on their soul even if they had not committed a crime? Are we already doing so?

Ignoring some of the more obtuse aspects of this question like “what is a soul” or “what the definition of the word “is” is, this question seems fairly straightforward to me. I think straight utilitarian calculus works here. Does the harm we could save by acting before crimes are committed outweigh the indignation that people and their families would feel at being taken away without having done anything wrong. Probably, yes. The funny thing is when you run with this idea far enough you basically end up back at the starting point: will the act be committed and is it punishable? What I thought was more interesting was what Christina brought up that Foucault seemed to think that we are already doing this. We allow society to discipline us into a certain range of behavior, and anyone who deviates too far from this range gets tossed in the slammer. But I haven’t thought too terribly hard about that last part.

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