On the Extraordinary Difficulty of Changing a Man’s Mind

In the first chapter of Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault assesses the transformation of the penal system during the last few centuries: “From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights” (11).  He says that today’s justice system punishes the beliefs of the criminal rather than the crime; the punishments are delegated to a bevy of psychologists and social workers, and sentencing is relative to the beliefs, mental condition, and good behavior of the convicted man: “’We punish, but this is a way of saying we wish to obtain a cure’” (17, 19, 21-22).  M. B. Sampson anticipates Foucault with his account of the radical Eastern State Penitentiary of Pennsylvania which tried to reshape criminals’ minds rather than attacking their bodies (69).  Both writers deny this process is more humane than physical torture; Sampson even says it is more uncomfortable than the old method (76).  M. B. Sampson’s Rationale of Crime and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish agree that psychological punishment is intensely painful because it is an expression of power over a criminal and a direct attack on his beliefs in order to change his soul, strengthening Foucault’s claims about the changes in criminal justice procedures in recent centuries.

The authors state that a warden who holds psychological power over a criminal can completely control his life, leaving the prisoner frustrated, desperate, injured, and helpless.  In Sampson’s example, the jailer controls the people and activities with which a criminal has recourse and can thus manipulate his thoughts and feelings.  The jailer first removes his charge from all sources of negative influence, including his peers, using solitary confinement (69-71).  There, “he is abandoned to that solitary anguish and remorse which his reflection must inevitably produce.”  This tactic starves a prisoner’s mind so much that he accepts anything the warden gives him. He learns to love forced manual labor and contact with “persons duly qualified,” probably priests, doctors, and the jailers themselves (72).  Foucault states that the mental methods are as brutal as the psychological ones because both types are manifestations of the countless power struggles that define human relationships (22-25, 30).  The medieval government punished a man’s body because that’s all he could threaten (25).  In our more sophisticated era, freedom is valuable, so the government tortures criminals by restricting their rights (30).   Prisoners find this loss of autonomy revolting, so they revolt even though modern prisons are relatively comfortable.  When a man loses power over his life, the texts agree, he feels stung, regardless of the extenuating circumstances.

Sampson and Foucault further assert that when a prison attempts to reform a prisoner’s soul, it shocks his identity and thus causes him profound pain.  Sampson’s warden explains: “the most severe pain which can be inflicted upon any offender is precisely that pain which results from a philosophical treatment for his cure” which he will “afterwards remember with mingled feelings of gratitude and terror” (76).  Whereas torture and death merely satisfy a wrongdoer’s love for destruction, psychological punishment completely alters his view of the world (80-81).  The institution notes that it annually addresses cases of dementia as consequences of the treatment (73-74).  Foucault quotes Mably to make explicit the goal of the penal system: “Punishment, if I may so put it, should strike the soul rather than the body.  Is there a diminution of intensity?  Perhaps.  There is certainly a change of objective” (16).  Foucault says that the soul is the recipient of society’s constant imposition of values upon its captive victims, and these assaults on a man’s consciousness are analogous to body blows (29-30).  According to the authors, efforts to help a man by reshaping his values and worldview are as harsh as flogging.

Michel Foucault claims that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a period when prisons shifted the focus of their penalties from the body to the soul, but this did not make them happier or more humane institutions.  M. B. Sampson anticipates and confirms his argument when he lauds the Eastern State Penitentiary for its liberal strategy of scouring and reinventing criminals’ souls.  This method only seems gentler; thanks to its exertion of will over an individual and its effort to change the lynchpins of his identity, it is as painful as the rack, the pillory, drawing and quartering, or any of the other torture devices of antiquity.

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