Prison: Punishment, Correctional System or Means of Using Power?

Keshab Sigdel

This brief article discusses the social scientific perspectives on the development of prisons and their effects on individuals and society. The purpose of this article is not to objectively study the current state of prisons in Nepal or worldwide. Instead, it aims to discuss the issues raised by Michel Foucault and other thinkers regarding why and how the prison system has developed and how those in power have utilized it. There is no evidence that the prison system has reduced the number of crimes in the world. Additionally, with few exceptions, those released from prison are not reintegrated into social life, as advocates of the need for a prison system. If this is not the case, this article has also tried to answer the question that the prison is still strong and widely used.

Michel Foucault’s explanation in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) is noteworthy for its exploration of how the tradition of punishment, initially focused on publicly torturing the prisoner, evolved into a covert process aimed at disciplining the thoughts and behaviors of offenders. This evolution is particularly significant from a sociological perspective as it sheds light on broader changes in societal norms and power structures. He has interpreted the prisoner’s body and prison as a means of exercising power while analyzing social relations. Understanding something requires observing its nuances, and this produces knowledge about that person, thing, or process. And his analysis is that by using this knowledge power is exercised over that person or process. Power itself is not a product or commodity that can be owned. Power can only be experienced through its use. He believes that prisoners and prisons are a means of using that power.

To maintain control over others, it is necessary to obtain information about others. Observation is one method for that. On the one hand, observation of a person or process creates information or knowledge about it, while it creates fear in the person or group involved in the process. The presence of surveillance can create a psychological effect that influences individuals or groups, which is evident in various practical applications. For instance, devices used by traffic police to monitor vehicle speed and widely utilized CCTV systems exemplify this phenomenon. Such technology serves multiple purposes, including protecting financial assets, ensuring road safety, monitoring work compliance in industries, and overseeing school activities. The awareness of being monitored fosters discipline among those within its scope, reinforcing the authority of supervisors responsible for these areas.

In the early stages of social development, control over individuals involved in what was considered a crime at the time often relied on exerting power over their bodies. Serious offenders were taken to public places to confess their crimes and subsequently either tortured or sentenced to death. Public displays of such corporal punishment instilled fear in the rest of the population and exerted psychological control over them. In that case, the prisons were just places to wait for punishment. The jail itself was not considered a punishment at that time. However, as society progressed through different stages of development, these traditional forms of punishment came under criticism. Humanitarian concerns emerged, and over time, such punishments were increasingly viewed as unfair from a human rights perspective. After various scientific researches disproved the Christian myth prevalent in Western society at the time that people are born sinners, a new approach emerged to transform prisons into reformatories (Foucault 29).

Advocates of prison reform after the 18th century have also explained that prison is a training ground for self-discipline or self-control. Emphasizing this in contemporary prison practices, exercise, meditation, and other productive activities have also begun to take place inside prisons. However, Michel Foucault has indicated that discipline is wielded by those in authority not through direct coercive power from the top down, but rather through the inherent flow of power that emanates automatically from the structural forms of discipline. He cites as an example the use of the panopticon by British social reformer Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. Panopticon means a physical structure built in a circular style with a tower in the middle as a guard house and can be observed from there. Even in the absence of a guard in the central tower, prisoners in the surrounding cells controlled their behavior under the psychological impression that they were being watched. According to Michel Foucault, individuals are profoundly influenced by the mechanisms of supervision and control prevalent in society. State surveillance structures treat people as objects or bodies that can be easily subjected to power. As a result of constant surveillance, analysis, and the fear of punishment, Foucault argues that what remains in humans defines their identity and behavior. And, what remains in humans due to that surveillance, analysis, and fear of punishment, is what we are. This conclusion also reinforces the argument that the exercise and manifestation of power occurs primarily through disciplinary practices.

However, prisons face significant challenges. Can individuals who have spent long periods incarcerated for serious crimes truly undergo rehabilitation? How can they acquire the skills and abilities necessary to reintegrate into society and participate meaningfully in economic and social activities after serving their sentence? These questions are vital to understanding the human impact of incarceration and the prospects for meaningful rehabilitation. But the solution is not straightforward. It’s essential to consider that releasing individuals from prison should not lead to a cycle of reoffending and further crimes. The use of prisons to render individuals who commit crimes ‘docile’ and controllable by the state, as well as to categorize crimes and enforce power, raises serious concerns about the legitimacy of this process. Today, we frequently witness and experience instances where actions such as singing or performing arts are criminalized when they are anti-government. This highlights the problematic nature of using incarceration as a tool for state control and the questionable legitimacy of such practices. There are also examples where the state has granted immunity to heinous crimes, including killing, under the ‘political’ category. However, offenders who have committed similar crimes but lack political protection remain in prison, viewed as threats to society. So Foucault is also skeptical. Rather than prison reform, it appears that the state is moving towards creating a legitimate structure to stratify its opponents through knowledge of the types, methods, and possibilities of crime. However, its acceptance as an easy means of maintaining discipline in society seems to be more than that of other penal systems.

The modern model of the jail is found in various other institutions and structures of society. Observing or keeping individuals under surveillance, gathering knowledge about them, and using the power derived from this knowledge is a method not only used in prisons but also in schools, hospitals, families, and other public institutions. Rather than encouraging critical thinking, our educational structure appears to prioritize discipline as the primary objective. It is also a way of teaching individuals to be structurally self-disciplined, to obey rules and laws, and to be committed to authority. Instead of imposing discipline directly, nation’s bodies have created a situation where self-control is achieved automatically through the flow of power.

Looking at the origins of the prison system, its use begins with the end of public corporal punishment and appears to have evolved as a mechanism to limit freedom. For example, in 1765, a prison reform law was passed in France, which was named ‘Rules for the House of Young Prisoners in Paris’. It laid down the rules that prisoners had to follow in prison. Compared to the inhuman punishment system of public torture and execution, this regime appeared almost humane. However, the rules of public display, such as having to wear a certain type of clothing to identify the prisoner, shave their hair, clean the city with handcuffs or work on public works, remained the same. This changed only around the beginning of the 19th century and the activities of the prisoners were limited to the prisons. It made punishment subject to curtailment of certain rights by physical torture. However, even within such a prison stay, the prisoner’s physical body continued to be punished through forced labor, restricted food quotas, deprivation of sexual activity, use of handcuffs or other physical torture, and solitary confinement (Foucault, p. 16).

The subsequent efforts made to improve the jail were directed towards reducing or eliminating the physical torture. French philosopher Gabriel Bonnot de Mably has analyzed that the focus of the punishment system has shifted from the body of the prisoner to the soul of the prisoner. He notes that prison reform processes are now oriented toward reducing cruelty and physical suffering while increasing kindness and respect (Foucault, p. 16). Michel Foucault has called this transformation from a public spectacle to an era of faceless, hard-to-understand farce. Where the penal system once focused on the soul of the prisoner for the sake of disembodied truth, new methods of controlling his mind, behavior, and thinking without physical movement have emerged. Knowledge and power are now the means of constructing truth (Foucault, p. 194).

Now, different dimensions have started to develop within the punishment system, evolving from a situation where punishment was determined solely based on knowledge of the crime, knowledge about the person involved in the crime, and legal knowledge. What were the specific reasons for the person committing the crime? Was it solely their criminal attitude, or was the crime committed unconsciously? Questions also began to arise about whether hereditary qualities influenced criminal behavior or whether the economic and social climate of the time played a role. With these questions, the focus of punishment or correction shifted away from the prisoner to other causes of crime. Along with these questions, there was a growing recognition of the need to end physical punishment and an understanding that reform should focus on other aspects. For example, if a crime was committed because of mental illness, that crime is no longer considered a crime. Additionally, the person was not even guilty of the incident. However, this new approach was gradually used for other purposes as well. It can be said that crimes committed to achieve political objectives nowadays are a continuation of this practice. Debates on transitional justice have evolved from this concept. Likewise, those who advocate for immunity in cases involving crimes with political purposes argue that these actions were influenced by the political, economic, and social environment of the time.

Thus, the ‘soul’ targeted for reform within the penal system became not only a subject of correction but also an instrument influenced by the political structure and its sphere of influence. The physical body of the captive now becomes the captive of that controlled soul (Foucault 30). However, the concept of prison itself has been criticized as wrong recently. Opponents of this viewpoint have raised four main arguments. Firstly, critics of the prison system argue that it is not feasible to objectively determine prison sentences based on the nature of the crime. Secondly, critics argue that the prison system does not guarantee rehabilitation and a return to positive behavior after release. Thirdly, it is contended that the prison system fails to significantly alter the behavior of ordinary individuals. Fourthly, critics argue that prisons are costly for governments to maintain. There is also concern that prolonged periods of idleness in prison may increase criminal thoughts among prisoners. Philosophers such as Charles Chabraud have raised the issue of whether prison is the right form of punishment for all crimes. The prison system has also been criticized for resembling a situation where the same specialist treats every illness with the same medicine (Foucault, p. 117). Some critics have also described prisons as a system designed to keep criminals secure.

However, the opponents of the prison system are equally powerful. They have argued extensively about public safety issues and the implications of impunity. Following this principle, to improve prisoner behavior, a schedule involving exercises, meditation, group activities, and labor and production work has been implemented. In particular, they believe that activities that generate income from labor inside the prison will encourage them to integrate into society, engage in productive work after being released from prison, and bring a difference in their behavior inside the prison. Advocates of this universal pedagogy of work have praised it. The American Penitentiary Act of 1779 explicitly identified work habits as one of the rehabilitative goals of prisons (Foucault, p. 123). But to initiate the correctional process, it was necessary to understand the conditions, habits, interests, and so forth, of the prisoners in jail. Thus, it appears that systems for surveillance and gathering information or knowledge about them have also developed.

It was argued that over time, these measures would enable the discipline of the guilty individuals. There are two ways of understanding discipline. The first involves structures that are somewhat isolated from society, like prisons, which serve a primarily negative purpose. These structures aim to control wrongdoing, sever communication and contact, and regulate the passage of time. Another panopticon-like model emphasizes supervision for self-directed and effective reforms. This approach is now being adopted and developed in other parts of social structures as well. In a sense, the development and utilization of prisons in modern times serve the second purpose mentioned above. Pellegrino Rossi views prisons as integral to the penal system of a civilized society. It is equally applicable to all and can function as an independent institution, rather than being based on the personal discretion of the ruler (Foucault, p. 231). Supporters of prisons have employed two models to justify their use. In Auburn’s prison model, the emphasis is on developing habits and fostering reform. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s prison model suggests that solitary confinement can lead to enlightenment and self-reflection, guiding individuals toward the right path. However, the question of whether such a spiritual model will lead to fundamental improvement in prisoners is equally serious.

However, it is undeniable that the concept of prisons as centers for reform, rather than for torture, inhumane treatment, or execution, is relatively more humane. Nevertheless, to examine how rulers utilize prisons as instruments of power and control. Therefore, there is a risk that rulers may redefine crimes, potentially categorizing government opponents as criminals based on these new definitions. On the other hand, there is an increased risk that rulers may grant amnesty to prisoners who confess to favorable behavior based on supposed reform, using them again for economic and political gain. Therefore, instead of solely punishing criminals or reducing crime rates through reform processes, it appears that prisons are increasingly being utilized as a tool for exercising power.


Newton, Michael. Criminal Justice: The Prison and Penal System. Chelsea House Publishers, 2010.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books, 1995.

Mayer, Andrea. Prison Discourse: Language as a Means of Control and Resistance. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Roth, Michel P. Prison, and the Prison System: An Encyclopedia. Greenwood, 2006.

(The writer is the former Vice Chairperson of Amnesty International Nepal and Deputy Professor of English Central Department, Tribhuvan University.)