Prisons & Surveillance (not)

This is the text of my contribution at the Consented ‘Rethinking Race, Science & Surveillance’ event on the 14 October 2018 held at Birkbeck, University of London. I had been asked to speak about Prisons and Surveillance …

‘The native is always guilty’ (Frantz Fanon)

The influence of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, combined with Michel Foucault’s deployment of it in his highly influential book, Discipline & Punish, have made the existence of an intimate link between the prison and surveillance accepted wisdom.  I am not convinced.

In attempting to understand our world we need to appreciate that it is largely a creation of colonialism and capitalism, which as Stuart Hall has highlighted, were inextricably linked parts of the same project. They both required a reconfiguration of social structures and utilised techniques of domination that drew on class (capitalism) and race (colonialism). Both required the development of political, legal and social structures that facilitated the extraction of the last drop of value/surplus whilst simultaneously maintaining an unjust social order.

It was as part of the colonial/capitalist project that the modern prison emerged in this period. However, Bentham’s panopticon was never built, and although it became a useful metaphor for Foucault, it did not reflect penal reality. In practice punitive imprisonment had multiple functions, for example, in England, it was initially used to discipline the homeless (through Vagrancy laws) and keep workers subjugated (through Master and Servant Laws). In Jamaica prisons developed originally, not for punishment, but to confine escaped enslaved Africans pending their return to enslavement and punishment by those whose property British law deemed them. In England, for felony, transportation remained the preferred state sanction throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Transportation was also central to the penal system of British India and it continued to be used until independence.

For the British state punishment has always been about expulsion and exclusion rather than surveillance. Penal imprisonment, by ensuring it is experienced as pain, in conditions worse than those experienced outside its walls, has served to discipline those who could potentially disrupt or resist the capitalist/colonial state’s violently imposed social order. State punishment in general, and imprisonment in particular has never been about getting to know the incarcerated in any meaningful way, or indeed reforming or rehabilitating her or him. Indeed, real knowledge of the individual criminal has been resisted and the prison’s focus has been on generated the stereotype of the criminal – a state sponsored strategy intended to divide its population – separate the ‘criminal’ or ‘undeserving’ from the honest and compliant subject.

Let us look briefly at the ‘crisis’ in Britain’s prison today. The liberal prison reform narrative is that things are going badly wrong. Prisons are failing to perform their rehabilitative function, they require more staff, and a range of other reforms.  Government, academics and reformers agree: prison isn’t working. But what if prison is working? I have written previously about the real function of prison – not reformation, deterrence or even retribution, but the maintenance of an unjust social order. Could such a perspective help us understand today’s ‘crisis’? Is a situation being engineered where we are being encouraged to believe that prisoners are inherently violent, beasts that require their guards to be armed with tasers and pepper spray. Is a culture in prisons being manufactured that promotes violence and creates divisions within the prisoner community along geographical, faith and ‘race’ lines? If the state wanted to introduce the worse characteristics of United States prisons, can you think of any strategy that would be more effective than current prison policy?

Surveillance is a technique of ‘knowing’ its targeted individual or population. But there are many different ways of knowing. How we ‘know’ is determined by why we want to know and the categories of knowledge at our disposal.  To read the penal philosophy of Bentham and his Euro-American predecessors I am struck by how they ‘knew’ their criminals. For these thinkers criminals were not the ‘other’, but rational beings motivated by exactly the same forces and influences as anyone else. For Bentham the key to stopping, or at least minimising, crime was to ensure a combination of a high probability of someone getting caught and the certainty of receiving an appropriate punishment. This approach, they believed, would lead the ‘rational’ potential criminal to weigh up the pros and cons and refrain from crime.

After Bentham penal theory changed, the criminal as the ‘other’ emerged. Initially the criminal was morally defective, a damaged creature requiring reformation. Hence the references in mid-nineteenth century to prisons as ‘moral hospitals’. The focus had moved from discovering the appropriate police arrangements and penal sanctions to deter all from crime to an attempt to ‘know’ the criminal and the particular regime of treatment they required. This search was to lead to the discovery by Lombroso, and other early criminologists, of the ‘born criminal’ an incurable primitive being, beyond reform, sub-human and entirely unlike the ‘normal’ person.


born criminal skull

In the preceding century Europe was engaged in invasion, genocide, slavery, asset stripping and a myriad of other oppressive and exploitative activities across the globe. With respect to the cultures it sought to crush, and the people it sought to subjugate, Europeans were not interesting in knowing them in any way that did not facilitate their domination. But empire, colonialism, and domination required justifying. The mechanism which we Europeans adopted was racism. The concept of ‘race’, which Europeans deployed was, despite being devoid of any scientific justification, justified by science. It was a fabrication invented to facilitate domination by creating difference, undermining the idea of a universal humankind and enabling the inhumanity of European colonisation. Invented in the metropole and deployed in the colony, ‘race’ (or more accurately racism) enabled the creation of the ‘racial other’, the subject without the rights and liberty of the liberal ‘white’ citizen.

race early_class

Colonial domination required humanity to not be universal. Some of us were inherently superior. To be Black or Brown was to be less than human. European science legitimised this racism, claiming to have determined ‘real’ differences between races. Was it anthropology’s invention of the racial ‘other’ that provided the scientific space to create the criminal ‘other’ in the metropole? Was it more than coincidence that criminology was launched as ‘criminal anthropology’? When the Indian legal Scholar K S Pillai, in his 1924 Principles of Criminology, observed that: ‘The African Negro reminds us of several characteristics of Lombroso’s born criminal …’ his association of the criminal and the African was no coincidence. Lombroso’s ‘other’, the born criminal, could only be discovered because of the racial ‘other’ that anthropology had invented to legitimise colonialism.

The prison does not exist as a tool of surveillance, it is about the infliction of pain; the maintenance of an unjust social order and the manufacturing of the criminal ‘other’. The over representation within criminal justice of Black and Brown people in the UK, and indigenous populations in the settler colonies, is no coincidence. The creation of the criminal ‘other’ by the pseudoscience of criminology utilised the intellectual tools developed by European science to invent the racial ‘other’; a subject undeserving of rights.

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