Imprisonment has always been a technical project. The transition from public executions was a technical mutation. The replacement of chain-gangs by the police-carriage was symbolic of this. The chain-gang was a public spectacle, a traveling fair of crime linked to the tradition of public execution. A kind of mobile panopticon replaced the chain-gang. The panoptic carriage did not last long, but it shows the way in which penal detention centered on reform replaced public execution.

Prison is strangely denounced as a great failure of penal justice. Prisons do not follow a chronology of establishment—a recognition of failure and then reform. In fact the critique of prisons appeared early. It took various forms: one) Prisons do not diminish the crime rate; two) Detention causes recidivism three) Prison produces delinquents by its constraints and very environment; four) Prison encourages delinquents to associate and plot future crimes; five) Prison conditions and condemns freed inmates to future recidivism and later surveillance; six) Prisons produce delinquency by making the prisoner's family destitute.

Critics always argued that prison is not corrective enough, or that, in correcting, it loses its power of punishment. The answer is always the reactivation of penitentiary techniques. The recent (1972–1974) prison riots in France have been blamed on the failure of the 1945 reforms. In fact, the key features of these reforms were unchanged for 150 years. They have seven universal maxims:

1) detention must transform the individual's behavior

2) convicts must be isolated and distributed according to offense, age and stage of transformation;

3) penalties should be tailored to the individual;

4) work is an essential part of the transformation and socialization of convicts;

5) the education of prisoners is necessary for them, and for society;

6) the prison regime must be partly supervised by specialized staff;

7) imprisonment must be followed by supervision and assistance until the prisoner is rehabilitated.

The same fundamental principles are repeated age after age. We should not think of the prison, its failure and reform as three stages, but rather as a system imposed on the juridical deprivation of liberty. The system comprises the discipline of prison, increasing objectivity, the reintroduction of criminality and the repetition of reform. This is the carceral system. Failure is an essential part of the prison. The prison has survived for so long because the carceral system is deep-rooted and fulfills particular functions.

If prison is intended to reduce offenses, then it fails as an institution of repression. Perhaps we should ask what function failure serves. We should see the prison as distinguishing offenses rather than eliminating them. It provides illegalities with a certain economy. The general schema of late eighteenth century reform is related to a struggle against illegalities. The whole equilibrium of illegalities was disturbed. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the danger of new popular illegalities arose. This was divided into three processes:

1) the development of a political dimension to popular illegality;

2) the development of peasant illegality against a new regime of landed property; and

3) criminality became more specialized.

Diverse illegal practices came together to form a new threat.

Popular illegalities had three means of diffusion:

1) their insertion into the general political outlook;

2) the articulation of social struggles;

3) the communication between different forms and levels of offenses.

Although this was not fully developed, it bred fear of a criminal underclass among the administrators of society. This led to a certain polarization or class asymmetry, as the criminal class became identified with the lower orders.

Thus, the prison in fact succeeds. It creates a form of illegality amongst others, which it isolates and organizes as the enclosed world of delinquency. Delinquency is not the most virulent illegality, but rather an effect of penality that makes it possible to supervise illegality. Prison has succeeded extremely well in producing delinquency, a politically and economically less dangerous form of illegality which can be isolated from other offenses. It is so successful that it has survived after 150 years of failures.

Why does prison create the delinquency that it is supposed to combat? There are certain advantages to delinquency: one) delinquency can be supervised because delinquents are a small group; two) it can be directed to other activities and separated from the main group; three) it may be useful in colonization projects; four) delinquents have political uses as informers.

But the organization of delinquency would be impossible without organized police surveillance. Through supervising delinquency, one can control the whole social field. Surveillance works only together with the prison, which creates an organization of delinquency. Prison and the police together create an enclosed world of delinquency. Each part of the system supports another. Unsuccessful attempts were made to separate delinquents from the lower classes. A polemic took place in the workers' press about crime and penality; nineteenth century anarchists attempted to disengage delinquency from bourgeois illegality and legality. They attempted to reestablish the political unity of popular illegalities.


A key theme here is the failure of prison as a remedy. Common sense might see the history of the prison in terms of its establishment, failure and attempts at reform. One could consider the prison as an institution that developed along a straight line. Foucault rejects this model in favor of something like a circle: a system in which one stage follows another perpetually. Every element of the system is unchanging; it is also perfect in its own way. Criticism of the prison for failing to reform delinquency misses the point, Foucault argues, because the carceral system aims to reorganize knowledge about crime, not eliminate it.

Prison, like the psychiatric hospital, marks out and isolates the "abnormal" or illegal elements of society. In doing this it "creates" something that can be controlled and which the state can put to various uses. Foucault does not argue that prison creates crime, merely that without prisons, crime and the criminal would be perceived in different ways. The prison is an essential building block of society. Removing it without changing anything else would not work.

The explanation that Foucault gives for the rise and continued existence of the carceral system centers on illegality:a range of popular behaviors that evade or fall outside the law. Foucault previously analyzed the eighteenth century shift towards a popular illegality of goods. The nineteenth century saw a development of this trend: a move from an illegality centered on property towards political illegality. Foucault is thinking of a shift from peasants stealing chickens and burning their landlords' houses to the widespread political activity of the French Revolution or the European revolutions of 1848. This is an interesting but problematic theory. Political uprisings in general were not the invention of the nineteenth century. However, if they are seen in terms of conflict between social classes, Foucault may have a point.

Foucault argues that illegalities became tied up in relations between social classes, and that the resulting conflict between the upper and lower orders led the administrators of society to transform these conflicts of illegality into the concept of a criminal underclass. But because the lower orders were a large, economically necessary group this presented problems. There was a pressing need to control popular revolts and illegality.

Delinquency was the solution. The delinquent was not someone who broke a particular law, but part of a group whose very existence implied illegality and crime. By creating a sub-class if delinquents who were easy to identify and control using the same techniques that operated in the rest of society, these conflicts of power could be resolved. Ultimately, Foucault sees prison and the carceral system as part of a wider system of discipline that developed from the class and economic conflicts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.