Civilizing Prisons: Contradictions in the New Penology

Phenomena surrounding the historic movement in European societies and societies of European origin over the last two hundred years from punishments bent on corrupting the body to correctional measures emphasizing the transformation of offenders into law-abiding citizens captured the imagination of philosophers, historians, and social scientists in the twentieth century. David Rothman’s The Discovery of the Asylum (Little, Brown, 1971) Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (Vintage, 1977), Michael Ignatieff’s A Just Measure of Pain (Pantheon, 1979), Robin Evan’s The Fabrication of Virtue (Cambridge, 1982), Stanley Cohen’s Visions of Social Control (Blackwell, 1985), and John Bender’s Imagining the Penitentiary (Chicago, 1987) are a few of the more notable works exploring the transformation of punishment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

John Pratt’s Punishment and Civilization: Penal Tolerance and Intolerance in Modern Society

Employing a theoretical framework adapted from German sociologist Norbert Elias, John Pratt’s Punishment and Civilization represents a twenty-first century attempt to theorize the transformation of punishment in the English-speaking world (England, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and Canada).

In The Civilizing Process, published in 1939, Elias theorizes that the internalization of civilized sensibilities, what began as etiquette rules in courtier society, led to an enhanced sympathy for the suffering of others among elite and masses alike and the virtual disappearance of physical force in everyday interactions. A new “habitus” (a term used by Mauss, Bourdieu, and others for the collective psyche and behavioral responses of a people) emerged with capitalism—a rational and reflective mode of thinking and acting. Highlighting the rational sensibilities expressed in prison reports on policy and practices, Pratt argues that changes in penal thought and practices result from the “civilizing process” Elias identifies. 

With this logic in mind, Pratt sets out to accomplish two major things in this book. First, he aims to document how elites established a paradigm of punishment during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that reflected qualities generally understood as civilized. To these ends, Punishment and Civilization represents a catalog of historic trends in the civilizing process manifest in the replacement of harsh physical punishments with rehabilitation and discipline regimes, as well as the shift from public to private punishment.

Elites are shown dissimulating the existence of a large-scale punishment system by removing prisoners and prisons from the public gaze, creating more humane prison conditions by improving food and hygiene, and sanitizing the language of punishment by shifting from a rhetoric imbued with moral passion to an impersonal, objective system of classification. In place of condemnatory proclamations now stood an official discourse and practice that emphasized scientific knowledge, bureaucratic authority, and public indifference.

In a fascinating account of the decline in the use of the death penalty, for example, Pratt shows how English retentionists, initially seen as the rational voices for their appeal to the deterrent effects of death in justifying the continuing advocacy of capital punishment, slowly came to be seen as excessively emotional and irrational in the face of evidence indicating a contrary effect. At the same time, the excessive sentimentality initially attributed to the abolitionists faded, as they took over the role of the rational voice in penal policy. 

Second, and more critically, Pratt explores what happens when trend and conjuncture combine in such as way as to cause the civilizing tendency to become unstable. In this way, Pratt’s approach to the study of the civilized habitus is more critical than Elias’. Incorporating the radical edge one finds in the works of Zygmunt Bauman (Modernity and the Holocaust) and Nils Christie (Crime Control as Industry), wherein the idea that humane treatment of others naturally accompanies the rise of civilization is rejected, Pratt approaches the question of civilization and barbarism less certain that the former transcends, negates, or is even inconsistent with the latter. Both the Holocaust and the phenomenon of mass incarceration are seen from these standpoints not as exceptions to civilization but as outgrowths of it. With these lessons in mind, Pratt is thus skeptical that Elias’ invention of “decivilizing tendencies” effectively explains contradictions in the progress of civilization.  

Pratt contends that, since 1970, the civilizing process, at least in the domain of punishment, has been undermined by a countermovement back towards retribution. A public that believes the state has failed to adequately protect them is a major impetus generating the shift towards law and order rhetoric and practice. The masses have come to believe (with the encouragement of political elites and conservative intellectuals) that the practice of the courts coddles criminals and that the rehabilitation regime as little more than a program for pampering inmates.

Pratt identifies several problems internal to the penal system that spurred public outcry. First, by civilizing the prisons, the state made prisoners more aware of their rights as citizens. At the same time, because of their position at the bottom of the prison hierarchy, prisoners had limited channels to legitimately pursue grievances. Disorder emerged in the prisons, dramatically symbolized by the Attica prison uprising of 1971.

Second, because of the public clamor in response to greater levels of societal disorder during the 1960s, as well as the shift in elite attitudes (especially in the United States) towards the crime control model, prison populations began to expand. The structure that had grown up under the reformist regime was ill equipped to handle the trend in mass incarceration.

Third, because of high profile failures and scandals, public sentiment turned against the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s. The legitimacy of the rehabilitation regime was cracking. The public grew increasingly intolerant of criminal offending. Whereas a sensibility had emerged previously that held society to be partly responsible for crime, the focus returned to the problem of individual criminality. The reintroduction of the death penalty in the United States is emblematic of the trend towards retributionist policy and practice.

The depth of public reaction has depended in part upon the collective position of the public with respect to the prison system. Pratt argues that the most civilized Western penal systems are in Northern European states (Scandinavia) and the most primitive in the southern United States (Georgia is representative).

In the Northern European countries, even though there is centralized bureaucracy (given the scope of the government apparatus), there is a greater level of participation of the public in the process of governance, which translates into a public perception of a measure of control over punishing. In those states lying towards the other end of the continuum, the bureaucracy is depicted as aloof from the public. Under these circumstances, the masses feel less in control over state functions. Here, the punishment systems tend to be harsher.

With the emergence of neo-liberalism in the 1970s, and especially after the 1980s, the punitive populism of the masses became more pronounced as the distance between the bureaucracy and the masses closed. Yet, Elites did not abandon the emphasis on rational organization and practice, hallmarks of civilization. Rather, the result was a retreat from due process and rehabilitation and a new emphasis on efficient law and order tactics.

Pratt forecasts two future possibilities. Either Western society will move towards the gulags described in Christie’s work, or its will conjure something worse (although it is not clear what this something worse might be). It depends, Pratt suggests, on whether the expansion of the prison system can absorb public hostility.

A lack of critical sociological depth in Punishment and Civilization constraints Pratt’s ability to follow up on this provocative question. Indeed, the major weakness of Punishment and Civilization is that the analysis remains too narrowly focused on internal changes in the penal system and fails to move beneath the surface level of societal change.

Inadequately explained is the shift to law and order rhetoric and practice that corresponds to large-scale transformations in the economics and demographics of the period. The question of what has unleashed the punitive public sensibilities remains vague. The United States, for instance, experienced as upheaval in the racial caste system in the 1960s with the overthrow of de jure apartheid, the exhaustion of the post WWII economic boom, and widespread popular revolt against the state’s imperial practices (for example, in Vietnam). Given the dramatic increase in the disproportionate numbers of blacks in US prisons and jails after 1970, one suspects that mass incarceration is, at least in part, another phase in the unfreedom of African Americans.

And what of the cycle between retribution and rehabilitation closely associated with the long swings of capitalist development identified in the work of such scholars as Christopher Adamson? Is the present historical phase a qualitative and secular movement towards efficient retribution or does it represent a temporary pendulum swing to harshness due to fall back the other way with the return of robust economic expansion and labor shortages.

Pratt touches on some of this by noting that the weakening of the state during the 1970s and the rise of neo-liberal hegemony unleashed populist sentiments among the masses and enabled them to make their collective voice heard on the matter of punishment. But the “get tough” approach—the reappearance of prisons, the deterioration of prison conditions, and a return to harsh law and order rhetoric—remains undertheorized at the deeper layers. By staying on the surface level, Punishment and Civilization remains too loyal to Elias’ framework, which, because of the problematic of civilization, limits its theoretical horizons. 

Had Pratt infused his theory with the logic Foucault develops in Discipline and Punish, arguably the definitive twentieth century work in this area, greater depth could have been achieved. Foucault builds upon the critical political economy of Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer in Punishment and Social Structure (1939) by exploring the ideological and bureaucratic structures attendant to the bourgeois historical epoch. Developing a modified historical materialist framework, Foucault theorizes that the needs of French elites to reconfigure social control methods to align with the rise of liberal capitalism drove the shift from physical punishments to architectural and behavioral control over mind and sentiment. Punishment became discipline in the production of docile bodies—bodies suited for economic exploitation and political manipulation.

Thus, while the facts of modernity that Pratt and Foucault attempt to explain are substantively the same—restrained citizen involvement in punishment regimes, governmental monopoly over the legitimate use of violence, extensive deployment of scientific methods and classification systems, an architecture of control, bureaucratic organization, and emphasis on impersonal interpersonal relations—the end products of their respective efforts are quite different. Whereas Foucault’s analysis probes the surface forms of punishment to reveal the structural imperatives that lay beneath, Punishment and Civilization stays on its face, explaining not so much why punishment became civilized, but how elites civilized it. 

This criticism should not however detract from the importance of the Pratt’s work. The story Pratt tells is worth telling, and he tells it in a cogent manner producing important insights along the way. The thinking employed in Punishment and Civilization is more critical than that of Elias, and this makes the book an important corrective to the positivistic conflict theoretical character of figurational sociology.

When Pratt emphasizes that civilized forms of punishment do not necessarily bring about civilized consequences, that moral indifference may result from the civilized norm of self-restraint, indeed, that the conditions of civilization do not preclude the exercise of violence, he takes the Eliasian approach into unexplored territory. For this reason, along with his careful analysis of historical documents detailing the reform of the criminal justice system, Punishment and Civilization is fine work and is sure to become the basis for many future sociological investigations of the transformation of punishment in the world bourgeois epoch.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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