The main elements of a revisionist perspective on the origins of imprisonment

In this paper I aim to look at some of the main features and elements associated with the revisionist perspective on the origins of imprisonment. Throughout the paper I will be looking at some key writers of the revisionist view including one of the key revisionist thinkers Michel Foucault. I will begin however by looking briefly at some of the other perspectives on the origins of imprisonment as it is these reformative histories that are to be criticised by the revisionist thinker.

The origin of imprisonment has been a largely studied area especially in the fields of criminology and sociology and as a result a number of particular theories and beliefs relating to the various changes that have occurred over time within the prison and justice system have evolved. One of the main issues which has brought about interest in the history of imprisonment is the transition over time from forms of barbaric punishment including torture and public hangings to more humanitarian forms of punishment including imprisonment which itself as a form of punishment has gone through a number of significant changes over time.

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One of the key assumptions made by liberal thinkers and Whig historians is that such changes in forms of punishment due to the work of philanthropists, growing enlightenment and altruism are all seen as reforms. This is a very important aspect when looking at the origin of imprisonment from a revisionist perspective as it is on these grounds that criticism is made.

Revisionist advocates believe that it was not merely the work of humanitarian reformers that has lead to the dramatic changes seen in forms of punishment and imprisonment rather that it is the wider social, economic and political factors which have been instrumental in seeing the reformation of the prison and judicial system. Therefore when looking at particular stages of reformation it is necessary to look at the particular social, economic and political climate in order to see how such reforms came about.

This can be seen in a number of cases over the years where it is clearly evident according to such thinkers as Foucault, Marx, Rusche and Kirchheimer and Ignatieff. Each of these writers has put forward a number of key factors which correlate changes in imprisonment with aspects of society at a particular point in time. I will now look at some of these intrinsic factors in more detail by looking at the writings of some of the key revisionist thinkers I have mentioned.

Perhaps one of the most influential advocates of revisionist histories is Michel Foucault who has put across a number of important and influential elements which can have an extremely powerful effect on the issue of imprisonment. When looking at the transition from the more barbaric forms of punishment to the more so called humanitarian form of imprisonment in the 18th and 19th centuries Foucault saw it not as an altruistic move to punish less but as a move to punish better (Matthews 1999).

This transition also brings into play the belief that the form of punishment being administered has also changed focus in terms of what the punishment is aimed at doing. In times when torture, mutilation and death were common place it seems that punishment was aimed at the body as this related to the time when religious beliefs were strong and the belief in crimes against god stemming from the commandments was a dominating ideology.

As public executions and torture disappeared so did the body as a target for penal repression (Foucault 1977). What Foucault also believed however was that the body as the focus of punishment did not entirely disappear rather it serves as an instrument when imprisoned or made to work in that the person is deprived their liberty and thus the body is caught up in a system of constraints, obligations and prohibitions. From this it can be seen that the actual pain suffered by the body is no longer a constituent of the penalty (Foucault 1977).

In can be considered then that the aim of punishment shifted to the mind and soul (Foucault 1977, Matthews1999), although punishment still had an effect on the body in terms of hunger and sexual deprivation (Foucault 1977). Another key assumption of the revisionist perspective is that the nature of punishment is determined by the form of productive relations at any period of time (Rusche and Kirchheimer 1968). Strong support for this claim can be seen in the days of transportation when criminals were sent on ships to the new colonies in order to provide labour where it was needed (Rusche and Kirchheimer 1968).

In addition to this Marx and Engels (1975) stated that the increasing number of vagrants and thieves in the 17th and 18th centuries was due to the increasing amount of goods available. Furthermore the changing organisation of production and labour are determinants of the type of prison and punishment system. This can be seen in a number of cases most noticeably with the onset of capitalism replacing religious ideologies (Melossi and Pavarini 1981) in terms of values which meant the increased use of prisoners as workers who became to know the importance and value of work (Melossi and Pavarini 1981).

Secondly the commodification of time (Pashukanis 1978, Lefebvre 1991) due to the emergence of capitalism (Giddens 1981) further created changes in the prison system as the value of time was made apparent as it could be taken away, traded or gained (Matthews 1999). Furthermore the taking away of time as a punishment can be regarded as universal and independent and therefore can be attributed equally for the rich and poor (Matthews 1999). Foucault believed that to maximise the use of time was to create an increased level of productivity (Foucault 1977).

In later years from the end of the 19th century to around the time of the Second World War it was believed that new forms of production and manufacturing such as Fordism and Taylorism led to a reduction in the number of those imprisoned (Rusche and Kirchheimer 1968). When considering the revisionist perspective it is also important to look at the social aspects especially the role of class. For Michael Ignatieff (1981) prison reform was dependent upon wider social conflicts and struggles between classes.

This can be illiterated in the belief that the poor could be cured through such institutions as the prison (Ignatieff 1978) as such institutions were seen as disciplining and regulating the working classes into a submissive workforce (Rusche and Kirchheimer 1968) with the conditions in the prison having to be much worse than those experienced by the poor outside in order to have a deterrent effect (Melossi and Pavarini 1981). In other words it was the proletariat being increasingly controlled by the bourgeoisie (Melossi and Pavarini 1981).

It was this notion of control that Foucault was interested in as he saw prisons producing new techniques for controlling individuals through surveillance, classification and examination (Foucault 1977). This aspect of control through surveillance can be seen in the design of the panopticon prison developed by Bentham 1791 in which there was a central tower allowing for maximum surveillance without the prisoners knowing whether they are being watched and so the prisoners were under control at all times. One final thing which should be considered especially when looking at the work of Foucault is the element of power and knowledge.

Foucault believed that power and knowledge is created through the institution whether it be a prison or a hospital and through the various practices and effects of the institution new subjects and discourses are created (Smith 1998). Then as Foucault sees it the prison like other institutions as a new institutional space in which offenders or ‘subjects’ can be studied and analysed along with the relations of power. In conclusion when looking at the origins and development of the prison system and the notion of imprisonment itself it is necessary to incorporate the revisionist perspective for a number of significant reasons.

Firstly because imprisonment should not be considered just as a continuous notion of improvement or reform but as a reflection of the social, political and economic elements acting at a particular point or period of time including class differences and dominating ideologies. Secondly because the revisionist perspective incorporates the notion of power and control which are both important and influential aspects when considering how imprisonment and the prison has developed over time.