Foucault on School-Prison and Prison-School Pipelines

“So successful has the prison been that, after a century and a half of ‘failures’, the prison still exists, producing the same results, and there is the greatest reluctance to dispense with it.” 

Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 277

In my mini-review of Bryan Caplan’s polemic against education, I noted that he partly ignores Foucaultian arguments for schooling-as-discipline. But Foucault’s work is difficult to understand–though it’s actually written quite well–because it redescribes our ordinary world in terms that alienate us from what seems familiar. His understanding of schooling is dependent on his unfamiliar recasting of the prison as a site of innovation in discipline–techniques which ultimately had more value in the cultivation of good workers than in the punishment of transgression or the rehabilitation of criminal deviance. 

Consider these seven principles of penal reform:

  1. The purpose of penal detention is the transformation of an individual’s behavior.
  2. Prisoners should be isolated or housed together by the severity of their crimes, their age, and their progress towards rehabilitation.
  3. Both before and during punishment, penalties should be tailored to the individual prisoner’s progress and relapse.
  4. Prisons should be spaces of educative work, where prisoners are both required and allowed to work productively at learning or practicing a trade.
  5. Both prisoners and societies have a right to an education.
  6. Prisons should be run by subject-matter experts; professionals of high moral character.
  7. Upon release, former prisoners will continue to require supervision and assistance to complete rehabilitation.

These all sound reasonable, don’t they? Compared to our current prison system, they sound humane. And yet these principles were first espoused in the early nineteenth century, and have been reiterated periodically since then as if they were innovations. I pulled them from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (269-70). What’s taking so long? Why don’t we ever seem to achieve these ideals?

Discipline and Punish is a famous work on a major topic: it’s read widely and it’s one of the most-cited books in the social sciences. And yet its insight is both widely parroted and widely ignored–usually by the same people. One way to read the book is as a guide to sociological methodology: “the purpose of the system is what it does.” I also like the longer version from Dreyfus and Rabinow, quoting Foucault:  

“People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” (187)

What ‘what we do’ does

Everything follows from that dictum: we know what we do, sometimes we even know why, but we are remarkably ignorant of what our collective intentions and actions do.

Do prisons reform criminals? No: the five year rearrest rate for prisoners is 76.6%. Even if we correct that for the technical parole violations that are basically a product of the system itself (and I’m not sure we should in this context–the system has to answer for those reincarcerations) the rate is probably around the 43% baseline that RAND uses to assess the efficacy of programs. (College in prison reduces that kind of recidivism.) 

Can prisons themselves be reformed? No: the entire history of prisons is a history of reform after reform, and we’ve been facing the same prison problems–and demanding the same reforms–for centuries. LITERAL CENTURIES.

What then is the point? Prisons produce criminals, and not in the “finishing school for crime” sort of way: prisons produce a whole realm of knowledge about deviance, delinquency, and criminality, but they also produce those deviants, delinquents, and criminals as the subject of research that must exist to justify our inquiry into them. As a byproduct, prisons also produce techniques for managing students, workers, and citizens, techniques that seem to have massively increased productivity and effectiveness, but have the prison both in their genealogy and their current function. In fact, it makes perfect sense from a Foucaultian perspective to say that the technologies of schools, workplaces, and politics are the true product of prisons, and prisoners are the waste byproduct, an unrecycled remainder.


If you want to have some fun in the classroom, tell students that the way schools function is a lot like a prison:

  • Students are grouped by their progress through a fixed curriculum, but can be advanced or held back due to individual assessments of merit or deficiency.
  • Everyone has a “permanent record” that records a mix of talent and achievement (where there is a lot of confusion over whether what’s really being assessed is innate or the product of the training).
  • Many of the most important skills we teach in school are “soft skills” like punctuality, sitting still for long periods of time, deference to authority, and self-monitoring one’s own projects and progress.

Ask an audience in the middle of a class or lecture how many of them have to pee right that moment: we hate being reminded of our embodiment in those moments, but we’ve almost all mastered sitting for long periods of time despite that fact. Urinary continence is a skill that schools can teach, even if there’s not much evidence students will remember their calculus lessons if they don’t use them.

Schools and prisons both produce individuality as a category for praise and blame, wages and good-time credits, centered in a body and a set of behaviors, yet accomplished through a network of interlocking institutions and supports. Schools and prisons make us into the kinds of embodied minds that we are–capable of having a biographical records, capable of taking responsibility for the success or failure of our own careers and rehabilitation. And yet schools are a lot better at this than prisons, which is why we now find ourselves back at the idea that prisons aren’t enough like the schools–the same schools that prisons helped us figure out how to create. You hear now of the “prison-to-school pipeline,” a line I’ve used myself.

This spring, Elizabeth Hinton name-checked Georgetown’s Prison Scholars Program in the New York Times in her argument that we should transform prisons into colleges and restore Pell Grant eligibility for all incarcerated students. I am wholeheartedly committed to those goals–a policy for which I believe there is strong bipartisan support. But the this will not solve America’s prison problem–and in many important respects it is an extension of the logic of the prison itself.

Prospects for Reform

The other major claim of Foucault’s work is that prisons are unreformable–they literally subsist on prospects of reform rather than ever actually getting reformed. And when we do “improve” prisons, we mostly do so by developing new techniques for controlling prisoners’ bodies and cultivating docility and compliance in them. As punishment has become more gentle, it has become more generalizable!

Foucault’s argument suggests that the motivations of early reformers like Beccaria and Bentham was less to make the corporal punishment common in that era gentler than it was to make it more effective at social control. I think this is generally unfair: Beccaria clearly has civic republican goals in mind, and is a forerunner of so many different civic republican and contractualist positions that he deserves the benefit of the doubt. But again one can be ignorant of the purposes to which our efforts are ultimately put. And on Foucault’s view the gentler punishments of work, solitude, and surveillance all create new techniques and disciplines for managing all sorts of people: soldiers, factory workers, students, and patients, for instance.

Instead of seeing the ultimate end of the punishment reformer’s work as creating more liberty by restraining the cruel sovereign, Foucault argues instead that reform steals the domination from the sovereign–who after all is using her power inefficiently–and appropriates it for the reformer. The reformer promises to do better–and creates an expertise and a field of knowledge with which to chart his success.

So to recap: reformers don’t fix prisons, they’ve been offering the same complaints for centuries. (The same ones we offer today!) Reformers argue for smoother and gentler punishment techniques. They promise to be punish better and thereby steal the sovereign’s monopoly on violence for themselves. They install themselves as experts and create a field of expertise to justify their exproporiation of punitive power. And they thus increase the dissemination of punitive and carceral logics, making both criminals and non-criminals worse off.

This Thing Called Abolition

Angela Davis and Joy James are my go-to writers on abolition, but Allegra McLeod’s essay on abolition is really useful for understanding the terrain, responding to various objections, and showing the reasons why “abolition” has a valence that “reform” and even “decarceration” lack. But it’s Davis who takes up the specific preconditions of prison abolition:

“In thinking specifically about the abolition of prisons using the approach of abolition democracy, we would propose the creation of an array of social institutions that would begin to solve the social problems that set people on the track to prison, thereby helping to render the prison obsolete. There is a direct connection with slavery: when slavery was abolished black people were set free, but they lacked access to the material resources that would enable them to fashion new, free lives. Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery. They cannot, therefore, be eliminated unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population.”

Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy, page 96.

So long as we want the kind of bureaucratized social control that depends on the various carceral techniques Foucault details, we won’t ever reform prisons. Short-lived reform efforts will give way to long periods of basic comfort with detention as the primary mode of punishment, just as they have reliably done throughout the era of the nation-state. Build a society that doesn’t require docility and we won’t need to have zones for warehousing the least docile among us. But until we do, prisoners will always be with us.

I find little hope in these prescriptions. But I think it’s worth noting that the entirety of mass incarceration in the US post-dates the publication of Discipline and Punish. Whatever has gone wrong in the US (and to a lesser extent in Great Britain) was completely off the table when Foucault was writing–and thus we could eliminate the “mass-” or “hyper-” modifier, set most prisoners free, and still probably preserve our carceral society unhampered by the deeper anarchist impulses that seemed to motivate Foucault.

Keep the social control, jettison the prison. It’s not abolition–but I agree with James Forman, Jr. that it’s taken forty years of concerted local efforts to build the racialized mass incarceration of 2.2 million people, and it’s precisely the history of those seemingly reasonable decisions that provide a roadmap for mass decarceration. We should be so lucky to have Foucault’s problems.

Talking Leadership with Grad Students

Logo for the Graduate Student Congress at the University of Kentucky.Today I had the honor of having been invited to speak at the University of Kentucky’s Graduate Student Leadership Conference. My talk was called “Democracy and Leadership in Higher Education: A Talk for Graduate Students.” I seconded some of the prior speaker’s remarks, which concerned the value of networking, including online and via social media. One student had expressed her aversion to social media. I explained that at least one wants to have a good Web site, as people do want to look you up some when getting to know you. One avenue that can help are social media profiles, but a good Web site can do wonders too. I would encourage some of the same things. He had said that Facebook isn’t a great medium, but that’s because he was thinking of one’s personal Facebook profile. And obviously he hasn’t read my post about why scholars need Facebook author pages (and since I wrote that piece, my author page following has grown from ~2k to ~141k).

Eric Weber delivering a different talk years earlier, not the one mentioned in this post.

Photo of the paperback and hardback editions of 'Democracy and Leadership.'I wasn’t there today to talk about social media, though. Instead, I spoke mainly about my 2013 book, Democracy and Leadership, and showed what I think we still have to learn from Plato, even if it needs updating for the modern and democratic era. I find a lot of value in reminding myself of what Plato’s Socrates says in the first book of the Republic. There, Socrates says that good people won’t be willing to lead. They’d rather others do it. But, some compulsion weighs on good people, inspiring them to be leaders against their inclinations. That compulsion is the fact, in his way of thinking, that worse people will lead. In the democratic era, the language of good people and bad people generally rings as unpleasant at best. My translation for democracy is to say that the compulsion could be instead that good people care about problems, injustices, that could be ameliorated with effort. Good people don’t want to be at the top for its own sake, but accept positions of responsibility because of what would happen if other people would not stand up to address key problems.

Bust of Socrates.


After that, I explained how and why I think it’s important that we continue to learn about leadership from Plato, even while we disagree with and let go of his authoritarian outlook. In other words, how he characterizes the virtues of leadership is problematic, but there’s no doubt that wisdom is important for leadership, for example, including in the democratic era. It just needs to be understood, pursued, and embodied democratically. So, I talked about what I take that to mean in many contexts of leadership today, but focusing on prime challenges for grad students. After all, good people will need compulsion in grad school too. Leadership is generally thankless, or worse. Plus, it takes a great deal of time and effort, which generally means a distraction from one’s other work. As such, engaging in leadership efforts as a grad student may well mean taking longer to finish one’s program. That’s something serious to accept. To want to lead despite that may well take some compulsion. Even if it does, however, grad student leaders would be wisest if they engage in democratic practices, acknowledging the dangers, challenges, and harms that can come from leading. They should also beware not to carry the world on their shoulders, as time is short, even at its longest, in graduate school (or we generally want it to be), and colleges and universities are slow-moving, relatively conservative institutions. So, at best one can make incremental change and pass on to the next group of leaders their chance to make a further difference.

As such, leadership in the grad school context should stay humble and stoic about what’s possible, want to lead for the right reasons, and be award of the costs, challenges, and reasons not to lead, all while going after it anyway in those cases that truly call for such a sacrifice.


P.S. Of course there was more detail in the talk, but this is the gist of what I had to say this morning, and the people in attendance seemed to appreciate thinking through these matters with me, raising some very thoughtful and valuable questions. My thanks go out to James William Lincoln and the Graduate Student Congress for the invitation.