Sunday, 20 January 2008

Review - The Prison and the Factory (1981) by Dario Melossi and Massimo Pavarini

this is the version translated by Glynis Cousin and published by Macmillan

This book is a useful study in the development of the forms of punishment under capitalism. For marxist criminologists, how punishment and other methods of crime control cam into existence and developed is an important question, particularly given as marxists would theorise that the forms of the criminal justice system depend on the stages of economic development to an extent.
Others have studied the development of prisons as punishment too, and Melossi and Pavarini draw on both Rusche and Kircheimer as well as on Foucault in their analysis.

They start with asking why imprisonment is the dominant form of penalty under capitalism. pretty much every punishment under modern capitalism is either imprisonment, or non-compliance is backed up by it (which is the case for probation, home detention curfews, fines, community sentences etc.) The only major exception being the death penalty, but even this requires imprisonment to hold people on death row.

They also point out thatunder feudal regimes prisons were only used to hold debtors and not as punishments themselves which in those times, Foucault points out in Discipline and Punish, were corporal rather than carceral. This they link to life, physical condition and money being of more value to a person, than "human labour measured in time" (pg3)

Another theme running through this work is the influence of religion. The authors note the existence of a distinction between 'good poor' and 'bad poor'. Both were out of work, but the 'bad poor' were wicked because they'd been forced to resort to crime and had to be forced to work, whereas the 'good poor' hadn't and should be given assistance.

The work then goes on to argue that the development of prisons and workhouses were places "for the teaching the discipline of production" (pg 21) and thus are closely realted to the formation fo the proletariat from the landless, workless ex-peasant masses created by the enclosure of pastures. Indeed, they also speculate that the intensity of repression depended on the availability of labour during the period.

The development of the prison in Italy is then discussed, considering the specific economic development of that country. There is one question that they tunr to that deserves special mention, social banditry. This occurs becuase of the explusion of peasants from the land, some trun to banditry to survive. The authors view it as a form of class rebellion, and to them some sort of proto-revolutionary action. However, whilst I recognise the class nature of the banditry, their actions were incredibly destructive, either robbery or destruction of property, and thus it is a backwards looking, reactionary course of action. For me, it's like rioting, whilst we understand that social conditions have caused it, such acts will get the oppressed carrying them out nowhere.

Similarly, the development of prison in the early USA is examined. One of the interesting things that the authors note is the introduction of the 'Philadelphia model' of prisons (which was based on the strict isolation and observation of prisoners - like Bentham's panopticon) happened at a time when prison labour was uneconomical. When this changed due to a shortage of labour, gradually the 'Auburn model' was adopted which saw inmates working communally during the day.

The final chapter of the book is a sort of conclusion to the book. In it they state their central thesis - that when there is high unemployment prison takes on a destructive punitiveness, but when unemployment is low it takes on a re-educative, rehabilitative form, partially to lower wages. Personally, I think this simplifies things too much and certainly makes little sense when applied to Britain and other neo-liberal countries over the last 20 years or so. Furthermore I'd question what they mean by discipline - I could see prison having a physically controlling/coercive effect but they seem to mean some sort of mental effect to produce 'disciplined proletarians' or un-thinking slaves. the prisoners rights movements that developed around the 1960's and 1970's show this as being inaccurate. Moreover if prison is supposed to be this wonderful invention for creating 'disciplined proletarians' how come recidivism is so high (above 60%). Melossi and Pavarini's theory is an interesting one, but it's full of holes.

1 comment:

Rob said...

I've never read the book, but still intend to do so at some time. The problems you identify though seem to stem from M and P's reliance on certain Foucauldian conceptions. In some ways this is fine, because I would argue (and in fact will do at some point) that Discipline and Punish is quite a Marxist book, and it relies on a lot of Marxist periodisations/concepts.

But the Foucauldian notion of 'discipline' is about the production of disciplined subjects. In this respect I wouldn't necessarily say that the prisoners' rights movement contradicts such an assertion, it might merely indicate a struggle against the function. What I think is interesting is that ultimately Foucault rejects this disciplinary role for prisons, since if the ultimate rationale is creating disciplined subjects then why is recidivism so high. It is at this point that Foucault proposes something quite different:

‘Can we not see here a consequence rather than a contradiction? If so, one would be forced to suppose that the prison, and no doubt punishment in general, is not intended to eliminate offences but rather to distinguish them, to use them, that it is not so much that they render docile those who are liable to transgress the law, but they tend to assimilate the transgressor of the law in a general tactics of subjection.’

So in this respect, Foucault seems to have moved from his position of subject creation to a more 'deviancy theory' oriented one. The point with this sort of analysis is that it moves completely away from the transformative model of prison that M and P seem to outline. But the problem with this for D and P is of course that it tends to undermine their analysis. This being said, I don't doubt that there is a significant connection between the prison and the factory, and there is definitetly something to the M and P style analysis.