The prison dates from before its use in the penal system. The eighteenth and nineteenth century penalty of prison was "new," but was really the importing of mechanisms of coercion from elsewhere into penality. Prison soon became self-evident. Other forms of punishment were unthinkable because the prison was so closely linked to the functioning of society. We can no longer think of "replacing" prison. As our society is built on liberty, prison as the deprivation of liberty is the obvious punishment. The self-evidence of the prison is also based on its role in transforming individuals. It corrects and reproduces the mechanisms found in the social body. Prison always covered both the deprivation of liberty and the technical transformation of individuals. The movement for prison reform is not a recent thing, and did not come from their failure. Prison has always been the focus of debate.

Prison has total power over individuals. It is "omni-disciplinary," a complete reformation of character that takes several forms: one) the first principle is isolation from other prisoners and from the world; two) habit is imposed by the regulation of the prisoner's time and life—work in prisons is problematic, and the subject of debate; three) prison is the instrument for the modulation of the penalty. It assumes the operation of the sentence by executing it. The quality and length of detention are determined by the prison, not by the crime. The prison supervises the morality of the prisoner after the crime; it exceeds detention because it is also a workshop, and a hospital where cure and normalization take place. This combination is known as the penitentiary.

These additions to the prison are not easily accepted, because of the idea that the prison should be no more than a deprivation of liberty. Prison is the place of observation of the individual, a matter of surveillance and knowledge. To achieve this, most prisons are modeled on the panopticon. The offender becomes an individual to know: the penitentiary substitutes the delinquent for the offender. The delinquent's life is more important than his crime; delinquency is defined in terms of a norm, not a law. Criminology as a science is possible because the penitentiary can define the act as an offense and the individual as a delinquent. As the tortured body of the criminal vanished, the soul of the delinquent appeared. But the prison came from elsewhere, from mechanisms proper to disciplinary power. The prison was not rejected because, in fabricating delinquency, criminal justice gained a field of objects authenticated by the human sciences. Prison is the place in which punishment is organized silently as a treatment, which then becomes part of knowledge.


One might think it strange that Foucault only now begins to discuss the prison. But he argues that one can only analyze the prison when preceding developments have been understood. In this section Foucault begins a complex explanation of the rise and fall of the prison that is linked to his own experience of prison reform.

The integration of the prison into society is an important point. Abolishing the prison is unthinkable because it is so deeply rooted in society. In practical terms, Foucault wants to argue that we have developed no viable alternatives: theoretically, the discourse of punishment in which we operate centers on imprisonment. Foucault argues that we have reached the stage where we can only talk about what to do with the prison, and not how to do without it. Given his personal involvement with prison reform campaigns, this might seem strange, but it must be remembered that Foucault campaigned mainly for more information about prison conditions to be made public. In his political life as well as his philosophy, there was no question of abolishing the prison.

Prisons are complicated institutions. In one sense, they are an extension of the mechanisms of observation and examination that operate outside their walls. The prisoner's behavior is recorded, his mental state assessed, and his abnormality catalogued; and, of course, he is constantly observed. The prison's first aim is to take away the convict's freedom. But it also aims to reform his character through exercise, work and training.

In another twist in the argument, Foucault reveals that the modern prison is not a prison at all, but a penitentiary. The penitentiary combines the different functions of a workshop, in which prisoners engage with the world of production and a hospital where medical observation operates. These additions are made partly for economic reasons and partly to increase the efficiency of power in the prison. This change is matched by the redefinition of the subject locked in the prison: the prisoner becomes the delinquent. This category is explored in the next section.

The penitentiary is also a place in which knowledge is important. The observation and classification of delinquents depend on, but also help to create, a new kind of science. This is human science, particularly criminology. Criminals in the pre-modern period were written about in popular literature, but were not known in the sense Foucault means. Knowledge is an organized collection of facts about a subject or individual, obtained by specific technical means. When the prisoner becomes an individual or delinquent, he can become the subject of knowledge. Power justifies the claims that the human sciences make about knowledge, and so the delinquent is caught up in a complicated relationship between disciplinary power and the knowledge that it creates.