Discipline and Punish

by Michel Foucault

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison was written by the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. It was published in 1975 and is an examination of the penal system in the West, in particular in France and England. The book is split into four parts: Torture, Punishment, Discipline, and Prison.

In the first two parts, Torture, and Punishment, Foucault examines the transition from torture and execution as a mean of punishment, to imprisonment. Up until the late 1700s, punishment was public torture or public execution. These were usually carried out by the monarch of the country, as a crime was seen as a direct attack against them. In the early 1800s, punishment started to shift towards imprisonment—taking the criminal away from the public rather than displaying them to the public. Reform rather than retribution.

In part three, Discipline, Foucault looks at methods of discipline, not only in the prison system but also in schools and in military units. There was a belief that if people think they are being observed, they will behave correctly. The prison system adopted the panopticon design—an architectural idea developed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The panopticon design comprised a central tall tower that looked over the prison cells which were laid out in a circle around it. A guard would be in the tower watching the prisoners at all times, but the prisoners would not be able to see them.

In part four, Prison, Foucault examines the emergence of the prison system as the main form of punishment. He also looks at "delinquency," criminals as objects, and prison as a way of controlling crime rather than reducing it. He notes that this control can also be seen across other social institutions. He claims that we now live in a carceral society that targets people who vary slightly from what is considered normal, and that the differences between prison and the outside world are very slim.

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