It is easy to take prisons for granted. For those who manage to stay out of trouble with the law, prisons and punishment occupy the marginal place in the social awareness reserved for facts of life. Recurrently in history, however, prisons have forced themselves into the center of public attention. At such moments they cease to be taken for granted and become problematic.
Within the last decade the question of punishment has returned once again to the forefront of public debate. At such close range, it is difficult to account for the sudden "visibility of incarceration, yet some reasons can be suggested. The rise of crime rates in most Western countries since 1960 has renewed the ever-recurring doubts about the effectiveness of incarceration as a deterrent. At the same time, the increasing pressure of numbers has acted to aggravate living conditions in often outmoded and decrepit institutions. Into overcrowded facilities have been cast a new generation of prisoners, more insistent on their rights than any in recent memory. In response to these pressures, reform-minded administrators have liberalized the security and custody of many institutions, arousing intense antagonism and overt opposition among guards. This combination of population pressure, public disillusionment, fumbling reform, prisoner militancy, and guard intransigence has broken the fragile order inside the prison. From this breakdown there has followed nearly a decade of hostage-takings, demonstrations, and full-scale uprisings. At first an American phenomenon, the prison revolt has spread to prisons in Spain, France, Canada, Britain, and Italy. It is still not clear whether such revolts have wrested anything more than token concessions. Yet undoubtedly, for the watching public, they have at least jolted prisons out of the realm of the taken-for-granted.
The uprisings and their suppression have also brought home the central role that coercion plays in the maintenance of the social order. This has come as a shock to many. When the American journalist Tom Wicker went to Attica and crossed the no-man's-land dividing the state troopers from the insurgent inmates holding D yard, he was acutely conscious . . . that he was leaving behind the arrangements and instruments by which his civilization undertook to guarantee him order and safety -- the law with its regulations, officers and guns. At the moment he stepped from under their protection, he realized not only how much he ordinarily assumed their presence, without acknowledging or even recognizing it, but also how much, even in a civilization, law seemed to assume in the same unspoken manner, its dependence, at bottom, upon guns.
As Wicker realized, prisons raise the issue of the morality of state power in its starkest form. Force being necessary to the maintenance of any social order, what degree of coercion can the state legitimately exert over those who disobey? Every debate about prison conditions and prison abuses is ultimately about such questions. Attica raised these old questions in new and urgent form.
At a time when the morality and tactics of punishment are under renewed scrutiny, it makes sense to return to the moment in eighteenth century Europe when John Howard, Jeremy Bentham, and Cesare Beccaria first placed prisons on the agenda of social concerns of their class. Out of their rethinking of the legitimate rights of the state over the confined came the reformative and utilitarian justifications of punishment that order our thinking to this day. Out of their attack on the abuses of the old institutions came the ambiguous legacy of the modem penitentiary. These late eighteenth century reformers continue to define the terms with which we encounter the dilemma of punishment. In current debates, for example, there are influential voices urging us to return to the classical Beccarian verities of certainty and economy in punishment, while others seek to discredit the classical heritage by pointing to its major institutional legacy, the penitentiary.
This book describes the new philosophy of punishment as it emerged in England between 1775 and 1840. It is a social history of these new ideas, focusing upon the fight to embody them in the penitentiary, the resistence they aroused among prisoners and political radicals, and the ironies of intended and unintended consequences that followed their triumph in the 1840s. The book concerns itself with the emergence of the modem norms governing the exercise of power within prisons. It tries to establish why it came to be considered just, reasonable, and humane to immure prisoners in solitary cells, clothe them in uniforms, regiment their day to the cadence of the clock, and "improve" their minds with dosages of scripture and hard labor. Between 1770 and 1840 this form of carceral discipline "directed at the mind" replaced a cluster of punishments "directed at the body" -- whipping, branding, the stocks, and public hanging. What new exigencies, what new conceptions of pain explain this decisive transformation in the strategy of punishment? The appearance of a new style of authority within the walls obviously must be linked to changes in class relations and social tactics outside the walls. Hence a study of prison discipline necessarily becomes a study, not simply of prisons, but of the moral boundaries of social authority in a society undergoing capitalist transformation. Ultimately, therefore, the book is an effort to define where the rich and powerful of English life placed the outer limits of their power over the poor, and how these limits were redrawn during the making of an industrial society.