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Rock Street, San Francisco
Rock Street, San Francisco

The Panopticon, an architectural project developed by Jeremy Bentham, was constructed on the principle of omnipotent surveillance. Its structure is a circular building whose periphery is an annular wall. Cells are placed around the building’s circumference and at its center stands a tower. The tower features wide windows that view the surrounding ring of cells. The cells have two windows, one at the rear allowing light to enter, one facing the tower. Each of these cells may be viewed from the tower as light filters through the rear set of windows, but a system of shutters blocks a reciprocal view for the inhabitants of each cell.

Within the enclosed cubicles, nothing may be hidden from the central valence point of the tower; therefore, all is transparent, and all may be scrutinized. In a science of surveillance the panoptic apparatus locates each individual, atomizes and sequesters him, and initiates an order the likes of which call forth a “semblance of God. “[1] Panopticism has been marked a penological ideal in that its powers are genuinely productive of an ever-present, all seeing, omniscient eye, the effect of which, is an unparalleled subjection.

This subjection is accomplished when without the knowledge of precisely when one may be observed, such observation may be discontinuous. It is therefore the case that the surveilled subject ultimately produces h/er own surveillance, sustaining and ensuring an inward scrutiny independent of the observer. However, Jacques Alain-Miller has remarked, “The Panopticon is not a prison. It is a general principle of construction, the polyvalent apparatus of surveillance, the universal optical machine of human groupings.

“(italics added)[2] That is, the panopticon must be seen as a code for the capture of the body whose interpretation is the division, the segmentation, and the regulation of human populations. In short, the panoptic principle is one of totalitarian control. Guided by a maxim of utility, all elements in its construction are accounted for and have their place. As a political dream the panoptic device seeks to eradicate disorder, compartmentalize all subjects, and regulate the discipline of a mechanized society. Here normality must be separated from abnormality, good from evil, truth from falsity.

In contemporary society the prison institution is a primary instrument of this power. It has taken center stage as the penultimate stop (the final being exclusion/separation by state sanctioned death) on a course of disciplinary measures designed to distribute and distinguish illegalities. Here again, however, its form of penality ought to be understood as an instrument of socio-political control that separates individuals, subgroups, and populations while ordering their disciplined roles in society. Incarceration is a political act which produces “political prisoners.

” Inmates are politically captive in the sense that “their incarceration is directly related to oppressive conditions within our society. “[3] Prison remains the most popular mechanism of such exclusion, a widely used instrument in the regulation of the masses. Most recently many prison facilities have been sold into private control. While the state has essentially had sole responsibility for the management of local prisons and jails, we are now seeing that authority transferred to corporate interests with an eye to turning a profit on building prison facilities, managing their operations, and selling inmate labor.

As a result of this transfer, we are confronting the commodification of both the panoptic precepts of our society–regulation, control, surveillance–and the human bodies whose control that apparatus has been hired to secure. If we agree that incarceration is a political act–one that sustains a measure of power for a specific segment of society–then we must acknowledge that the political prisoners captured by this practice are now facing conditions nothing short of slavery. This essay argues that the privatization of the prison institution constitutes an exploitation of its historical failure: to repress societal illegalities.

Accordingly, I claim that in transferring the responsibility for incarceration to corporate entities, we produce markets and demand for crime itself. As prison has been historically trusted to transform the soul of the delinquent and secure his moral rehabilitation, my analysis suggests that in locating the problem of crime in the criminal subject, we not only assign our prisons the task of “culturally reconditioning” the bodies we send them, we also encourage private interests to make a profit from this venture.

In short, the project of privatizing prisons elects capital as its primary objective in a political enterprise that seeks to eradicate (though not abandon) those subjects deemed extraneous to its utilitarian axiomatic. Michel Foucault has written the history of discipline and social control emerging in sixteenth-century France. In this history he has described a perverse and pervasive confinement, the compliment of a police apparatus, the surveillance of populations, and a “science” of criminals.

These elements have all contributed to a type of power-knowledge that has ordered and distributed both individuals and illegalities into a general economy; one that is fixed firmly in the texture of our society and has performed very specific functions. These functions have directed the law and the penal apparatus, the first finding its proper domain in defining offenses against society, the second functioning through the prison to decrease these offenses.

The penal system, the maintenance of which allows one to speak of “justice,” has situated our current forms of legal punishment but curiously endured a bitter and violent critique over the last 180 years. Curious because the arrangement of the penal system terminating in confinement was recognized as early as 1815 as a threat to the healthy functioning of society, though it has remained the punishment of choice since its inception into the penal code in 1810.

[4] Among the criticisms leveled at the system was the complaint that it fostered and enabled a class of convicts: isolated individuals unified potentially in and out of confinement. Such a class, it was supposed, could only pose a perennial threat to civil order. Additionally, delinquents subject to confinement had access to improved conditions (food, shelter, often work) inside prison as opposed to those outside its walls struggling to obtain a standard level of subsistence. It was feared that delinquency was rewarded then, since there was more of a reason to be confined if this state provided preferable living conditions.

Lastly, it was thought that the effects of practices and habits of confinement, instead of aiding one to live well upon release, would doom individuals to a life prepared for little else but additional crime. And yet, even as these critiques have all proven to be accurate, prison sentences have not only been the primary means of legal punishment in this century, but prison institutions have accumulated more bodies per capita in this decade, than all previous decades before it. Those illegalities that prison was accused of causing have now become an inevitable set of delinquencies that prison is expected (and required) to treat.

That is, illegality is an expected feature of society, and laws have been written that Foucault suggests distribute and order this disorder in meaningful and manageable ways. “Punishment in general,” he argues, “is not intended to eliminate offenses, but rather to distinguish them, to distribute them, to use them; that it is not so much that they render docile those who are liable to transgress the law, but that they tend to assimilate the transgression of the laws in a general tactics of subjection.

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