Revisiting Foucault`s discipline and punish: is the idea of rehabilitation doomed to failure?

After reading Foucault’s discipline and punish as part of the discussion about how law can be related to the human body, I got an insight in our modern penal system and the way we punish people, and why we do this the way we do, from a different perspective. Foucault’s main points, which have been argued throughout his book are well-known: from the 18th century on, one can notice a shift in the way of punishing wrongdoers. Cruel, public executions, celebrated as a public events, yielded to prisons, more precisely to the idea of locking perpetrators up in order to change their mind and cure their “soul”. The new aim was to reform them to law-abiding citizens and there was a growing interest in analysing their intellectual world, with the result of shifting the focus from the crime to the criminal. This is all well-known and Foucault embeds this development in a deep analysis of punishment being a complex social and political phenomenon, which is characterized by various dynamics, such as power, knowledge and discipline. But the longer I thought about his ideas and his emphasis on this new aim of punishment, namely to turn the offender into a “better” person, the more sceptical I became about it. This purpose, which is nowadays called rehabilitation or, in some jurisdictions, resocialization, turns out not to be realistic. I started to think about why it might not work in practice. There are many statistics about the number of inmates reoffending once they have served their sentence, which made me seeing prisons, as the common type of punishment, in an even more critical way: I am sure that the high number of recidivism (the statistics reveal numbers from 40 to 60 percent) has many different reasons, which depend on the particular perpetrator, offence and jurisdiction.

But in my opinion rehabilitation itself is doomed to failure, or to put it in other words cannot work, due to the following reasons: the way our modern penal system operates, and Foucault describes this quite to the point when he illustrates the daily routine in a French prison at the beginning of his first chapter, is everything but self-determined. Not only does rehabilitation mean to “reform” the offender, it also aims at preparing him for a life in freedom, a life without criminal offences and criminal environment. But how should inmates ever be self-determined again, if they are deprived of their freedom in nearly every aspect of their life? They have strict timetables about when to eat, when to sleep, sometimes even when to shower. They are permanently being controlled and treated as objects of huge governmental powers. Prisons as an institution to segregate and “hide” offenders from the society create a parallel society which has nothing in common with the “real world”. The second aspect is the wording of rehabilitation in itself: in order to rehabilitate a person, one necessarily has to label it as being “different” in comparison with the social standard. Instead of reintegrating these “criminals” in the society one intentionally stigmatizes them as “not being in line with the required standard”. And as it is with stigmas, one can never get rid of them again.

Due to these reasons, prisons on the one side, and the idea of rehabilitation on the other side, end up in being contradictory. Unfortunately there is no convincing alterative to prisons at the moment, but one has to wait what the future holds in times of on-going debates about alternatives to incarceration, such as restorative justice.



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