Discipline and Punish is a history of the modern penal system. Foucault seeks to analyze punishment in its social context, and to examine how changing power relations affected punishment. He begins by analyzing the situation before the eighteenth century, when public execution and corporal punishment were key punishments, and torture was part of most criminal investigations. Punishment was ceremonial and directed at the prisoner's body. It was a ritual in which the audience was important. Public execution reestablished the authority and power of the King. Popular literature reported the details of executions, and the public was heavily involved in them.

The eighteenth century saw various calls for reform of punishment. The reformers, according to Foucault, were not motivated by a concern for the welfare of prisoners. Rather, they wanted to make power operate more efficiently. They proposed a theater of punishment, in which a complex system of representations and signs was displayed publicly. Punishments related obviously to their crimes, and served as an obstacle to lawbreaking.

Prison is not yet imaginable as a penalty. Three new models of penality helped to overcome resistance to it. Nevertheless, great differences existed between this kind of coercive institution and the early, punitive city. The way is prepared for the prison by the developments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of the disciplines. Discipline is a series of techniques by which the body's operations can be controlled. Discipline worked by coercing and arranging the individual's movements and his experience of space and time. This is achieved by devices such as timetables and military drills, and the process of exercise. Through discipline, individuals are created out of a mass. Disciplinary power has three elements: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment and examination. Observation and the gaze are key instruments of power. By these processes, and through the human sciences, the notion of the norm developed.

Disciplinary power is exemplified by Bentham's Panopticon, a building that shows how individuals can be supervised and controlled efficiently. Institutions modeled on the panopticon begin to spread throughout society. Prison develops from this idea of discipline. It aims both to deprive the individual of his freedom and to reform him. The penitentiary is the next development. It combines the prison with the workshop and the hospital. The penitentiary replaces the prisoner with the delinquent. The delinquent is created as a response to changes in popular illegality, in order to marginalize and control popular behavior.

Criticism of the failure of prisons misses the point, because failure is part of its very nature. The process by which failure and operation are combined is the carceral system. The aim of prison, and of the carceral system, is to produce delinquency as a means of structuring and controlling crime. From this perspective, they succeed. The prison is part of a network of power that spreads throughout society, and which is controlled by the rules of strategy alone. Calls for its abolition fail to recognize the depth at which it is embedded in modern society, or its real function.