Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. A Reflection on the Panopticon

7 July 2016

Since Michel Foucault’s 1975 book ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison was published, it has been met with many criticisms due to the sociologist’s views on an array of subjects. Foucault contends that panopticism, more specifically the Panopticon, is the ideal form of discipline within the prison institution because it creates a setting in which the inmates subject themselves to real or perceived guards and surveillance. After careful analysis of Foucault’s text, 3 questions, the focal point of the present text, are proposed.

First, how should prison guards respond in a circumstance when inmates do not act in accordance with the expected self-policing, docile behaviour that was hypothesized by Foucault? Next, does Foucault take the neglect of self-supervised workers into consideration? Third, can perceived self-control and paranoia be considered to be effective tools when attempting to reintegrate inmates into general society? It is my contention that although Foucault makes interesting points from a theoretical point of view, these hypotheses are not ready for practical application.

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According to Foucauldian theory, the mere architectural structure of the Panopticon, 1 dark tower, centering the surrounding prison cells should trigger a mental response in each prisoner causing them to feel as though they are constantly being watched. Continual observation according to Foucault creates a sequential string of good behaviour, when this behaviour is reproduced over a given amount of time, it is assumed to become permanent part of an inmate’s psyche, eventually being internalized to the point where inmates can be reintegrated back into society.

That being said, the opposite is also a very real possibility. A prisoner can easily assume he is not being watched, leaving him to act almost entirely out of free will. If this same inmate’s actions of free will are not met with consequences, one can safely assume that his potentially unsupervised behaviour may be repeated. Taken one step further, this inmate may orchestrate an escape, obtain access to other inmates and insight a prison riot. In the event that the inmate is once again apprehended, he is now fully aware that he is not under constant

supervision, hence allowing for repeated attempts to escape, arouse a revolt in others and exact revenge on guards. Furthermore, the physical structure of the panopticon seems to favour the inmates, allowing them to potentially surround & descend on the guards. In strictly theoretical terms, the panopticon is pragmatic because of its “all-seeing eye” approach. In terms of practical application, the panopticon is much less interesting because Foucault takes for granted the fact that any given inmate may not be as easily influenced or willing to cooperate with potential prison authority as others should be.

Economy and negligence are also tied into Michel Foucault’s view of the Panopticon. From the guards point of view, they’re fully aware that the inmates have no concrete way of knowing whether they are being supervised or not. In theory, the central panoptic guard tower could be entirely without prison guards. Should the central prison tower/inmates be left unattended without consequence only one time, this may give way to a string of continual negligent acts on the part of the prison guards.

The very definition of the term panopticism entails the few overlooking the many. When taken to the extreme, this definition in literal terms becomes an entire body of people left entirely to themselves. Admittedly, the occasion for an entire prison population to be left unsupervised should never arise. However, it is not entirely implausible to envision a situation where a prison guard or group of guards, knowing the contents of their centralized guard tower to be completely unknown to the prisoners would decide to leave the prison to supervise itself.

Yet another very extreme turn of events could see one prisoner escape the confines of his cell, release the others due to his lack of supervision and within a moments notice, an entire prison population may be exiting the front gates of a prison. These hypothetical events could have effects on the psyche, physical safety and emotional safety of many civilians. Once again, the mystery that lays in the central guard tower has a significant downside when speaking of practical application.

On a final note, the Panopticon puts an increased amount of pressure on a small number of guards to maintain control over a large number of potentially dangerous criminals. The thought of being physically surrounded and not having the strategic advantage in terms of having more guards than inmates is unsettling to say the very least. Prisons are totalitarian institutions. Speaking in general terms, prisons take criminals in, aim to break their criminal spirit and reconstruct their inmates in a societally acceptable fashion.

Foucault’s approach to the prison system fails most in this respect. The panopticon’s structure is set up in such a way that little to no contact is made with any other inmates. That being said, a part of the rebuilding process in a prison is the inmates being given a chance, granted a very controlled one, to be socialized once again. The potential for this second socialization process is eradicated in the Panopticon format of a prison. Also, the fact that inmates would be left to monitor themselves is likely the furthest thing from a real life outside of prison circumstance.

In day to day settings, people are asked to consider a great deal of authorities in varying forms, such as police officers, employers while on the job, security guards, civil servants and the like. Essentially, burdening inmates with the task of policing themselves may do more harm than good once they are reintroduced to society. Without being coached or trained on how to correct the impulses or problems that caused them to go to prison in the first place, it is more than likely that these same criminals will engage in the same if not similar acts that instigated their initial incarceration.

From this point of view, panopticism when narrowed down to a prison population, may be more of a detriment to society than an aid. When extrapolated onto larger scales, panopticism as a whole is definitely not the best ideal to strive for. Power should be more evenly distributed to a larger part of the population until it accounts for the majority of the population and not only a specialized or select few. Michel Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison’ was a pointed analysis of Western society and its penal system.

Although Foucault’s worked is based on France, it is readily applicable to a number of other Western countries that have reached similar points in civilization. Throughout his critical observation of the French judicial and prison system Foucault comes to describe the Panopticon. Foucault’s presentation of the Panopticon seems sound at first, but upon further analysis several viable critiques have been made. Most of the criticism however targets panopticism and not the architectural structure that gave way to the concept of a similar name, the Panopticon.

The following questions are proposed after reading Foucault’s text; how should prison guards respond in a circumstance when inmates do not act in accordance with the expected self-policing, docile behaviour that was hypothesized by Foucault, does Foucault take the neglect of self-supervised workers into consideration and finally, can perceived self-control and paranoia be considered to be effective tools when attempting to reintegrate inmates into general society?

The mere presence of these questions points to gaps in Foucault’s hypothesis, added to the fact that Foucault himself admitted that some of his ideas related to the ‘Discipline and Punish: Birth of a Prison’ book were a bit extreme, this helps confirm that some of his ideas regarding the Panopticon were in fact better suited to theory than practical application.

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Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. A Reflection on the Panopticon. (2016, Jul 02). Retrieved October 11, 2019, from https://newyorkessays.com/essay-discipline-and-punish-the-birth-of-the-prison-a-reflection-on-the-panopticon/
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