Breaking out of Foucault.

February 5, 2008

I spent the month of January moving and taking care of some unfinished legal business, which meant that I tried my hardest not to think. About anything. It was, in some ways, a glorious month. However, to make up for it, I have embarked on a quest of intellectual ridiculousness.  You probably could see it coming. I have started reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish while Netflixing Season 2 of Prison Break.  

While the issues of the commodification of the body in the prison system are more applicable to Season 1, I don’t care, Michael Scofield is totally my secret boyfriend and I consider all of his be-tattooed activities to be important research.  Also: reading philosophy is sexy as hell. I want someone to dominate the micro-physics of my power economy, oh boy, do I ever.Moving on! Some thoughts thus far!

Chapter 1, The body of the condemned, discusses mostly the pre-Enlightenment policies of public execution.  This, clearly, does not relate to our beloved Fox River crew directly. However, it is interesting to note the change in societal ideals that our executions are now held in the utmost secrecy. What used to be a public display, serving to unite the populace in condemnation for the criminal, is now hidden away from public viewing entirely. The only witnesses invited to an execution are the press and those chosen, not by the state, but by the condemned man himself. (1) It is now considered the highest punishment that the condemned be completely removed from society, rather than having to face its judgement head-on. (2) 

The state has also been removed from the process. Instead of an identifiable executioner, the process is now completely mechanized and sterile. The actual procedure for a lethal injectionis as medically simple as a blood transfusion, except of course, for the end result. Of course, in the case of Lincoln Burrows, it was to be the electric chair – which is a step more gruesome, but still a far cry from the drawing and quartering that was favored for regicide (3) in seventeenth centruy France.  On this move towards sterility in capital punishment: 

 Today a doctor must watch over those condemned to death, right up to the last moment – thus juxtaposing himself as the agent of welfare, as the alleviator, within the official whose task it is to end life.  This is worth thinking about.  When the moment of execution approaches, the patients are injected with tranquilizers. A utopia of judicial reticence: take away life, but prevent the patient from feeling it; deprive the prisoner of all rights, but do not inflict pain; impose penalties free of all pain.  

It is a paradoxical situation that our legal system has created: to avoid becoming murderers by association (for what is capital punishment, really, but legalized murder in the old “eye for an eye” system?), we’ve set up a situation so filled with ritual that it is not unlike any other medical “procedure.” We’ve even got doctors! How bizarre is that!  One of the first things a doctor must pledge is to do no harm, and here they are setting up the system that allows a “patient” (note that the condemned is no longer referred to here as a prisoner, but as a patient, again, as if this were a simple medical procedure) to be put to death. It should be noted that the doctor is not the one who pushes the button to finally kill the prisoner, but that seems like an arbitrary detail in the whole setup.

And, as we know from Lincoln Burrows, a doctor must give a patient a physical before an execution may be performed because the prisoner must be healthy before the state can kill him. A relevant detail in Season 1, where Michael feeds him a pill to induce the stomach flu so that Dr. Tancredi has no choice but to delay the execution for 24 hours, thus giving Michael an extra day to complete the escape plan.

The morality involved is very complicated: it wouldn’t be “humane” to execute someone who was already suffering, since the point of this is to distance the prison system from actual suffering as much as possible. A prisoner can only be executed if he is in good health and not already suffering from any kind of pain – besides, of course, from the mental anguish of his impending death. And that will have to be saved for another post, because it’s time for me to go load up another episode!

1) Yes, I know that women are also capable of crimes that are punished by the death penalty, and that women are sentenced to death, blah blah blah. Until I start analyzing Monster, I am, to my own chagrin, sticking with masculine pronouns.  
2) Or head-off, in the case of the guillotine.
3) Ok, so the President’s brother isn’t exactly regicide, but I think it’s analogously close. Celebrities are the closest we’ve got to aristocracy these days.  Even though the u-SOFA lacks a monarchy proper, our current President is the son of a previous President and one of the leading Democratic candidates this year is the wife of a previous President. C’mon! If that’s not royalty, it’s damn close enough.


Class Issues in Prison Break.

November 26, 2007

NOTE: I am watching the first season of Prison Break on Netflix. Please consider any comments carefully to AVOID SPOILERS.

The television drama Prison Break is set up on the premise of a successful engineer (Michael Scofield) who commits a crime to end up in prison and assist his death-row inmate brother (Lincoln Burrows) (1) escape. I was hesitant to watch this show as my thoughts tend to run along the lines of “So, then what’s going to happen when they actually escape? Is that going to be the end of the show? And if they don’t escape? What’s the point of that?” But then again, I am a big fan of Lost, which also can not go on forever, so I stepped up to the plate and swallowed my disbelief. (2)

One issue that comes up over and over again in the first season is the disbelief of the secondary characters that someone like Michael would end up in prison in the first place. What would trigger an engineer with a clean record to commit a violent crime? (3) In the world where crimes are not committed to aid in getting one’s brother out of jail and one does not get blueprints of state penitentiaries tattooed all over one’s torso to aid in this scheme, engineers with clean criminal records and no history of mental illness are not at all likely to commit violent crime, and what’s more is that if they do, they are not likely to serve hard time in prison.

Howard Zinn writes a concise summary of the American prison system in A People’s History of the United States (4):

The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system itself: the stark life differences between rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless “reforms” that changed little. Dostoevski once said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

It had long been true, and prisoners knew this better than anyone, that the poorer you were the more likely you were to end up in jail. This was not just because the poor committed more crimes. In fact, they did. The rich did not have to commit crimes to get what they wanted; the laws were on their side. But when the rich did commit crimes, they often were not prosecuted, and if they were they could get out on bail, hire clever lawyers, get better treatment from judges. Somehow, the jails ended up full of poor black people.

Not only did Michael Scofield not fit the class profile of someone who committed a violent crime, but he certainly did not fit the profile of someone who ended up in prison for said crime. He certainly had a “clever lawyer” in Veronica Donovan, he could afford whatever fines were placed on him, and certainly, a judge would be predisposed by his previous clean record to offer him lighter sentencing than that which is advised. He wasn’t only the type of person who wouldn’t normally end up in prison, but as Michel Foucault (5) argues, he isn’t the type of person for whom prisons are designed in the first place. As he puts it, prisons are built by the bourgeoisie to separate the lower class “other” in incrementally more isolating mechanisms depending on the severity of the infraction: mere displacement from society for minor offenses, solitary confinement for more serious crimes, and the ultimate punishment – destruction of the individual for those offenses that are totally egregious.

So called “White collar” criminals don’t end up in prison merely because their crimes are non-violent, but because the prison system was designed to keep the rich, white elements on the outside and the poor, non-white elements on the inside. Scofield, as a rich white man, had no business being in prison and in a non-television drama, his place in society would have probably kept him from serving any time for a failed bank robbery in which no one was injured. He would have faced probation and some serious fines, but those elaborate tattoos would likely have been for naught.


1) It is explained somewhere mid-season that the two characters who are biologically full-brothers have different last names because their father left while Michael was still in utero and in light of this, their mother chose to give him her maiden name, thus conveniently setting up a scenario in which the criminal justice system would neglect to realize that these two inmates were of relation.

2) Actually, I started watching it because my boyfriend got it on Netflix. But that’s not really as impressive sounding.

3) He robbed a bank and discharged a gun. No one was hurt, but the firing of the weapon classified the crime as “violent” on which basis the judge – an older African-American woman, just to continue the world of statistically unlikely occupations – made the ruling that she felt “incumbent that [he] see the inside of a prison cell,” which is a pretty awesome sentence. Not often do you find “incumbent” cropping up in an sentence.

4) My current bed-time reading. See what college does to you? Beware kids, you too will be reading serious social criticism for fun.

5) Yes, I’ve read Foucault. In my spare time. In French. This is what college does to you! I’m telling you, it’s dangerous!