Introduction: The Prison World

Mathieu Deflem
Google Scholar | ResearchGate | ORCID

This is a copy of the Introduction to Punishment and Incarceration: A Global Perspective, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Volume 19. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing, 2014.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2014. "Introduction: The Prison World." Pp. ix-xii in Punishment and Incarceration: A Global Perspective, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Bingley, UK: Emerald.

More than a hundred years ago, French sociologist Emile Durkheim observed that the evolution of punishment in modern society was such that it became less severe, at least in modern societies that were no longer autocratic, and that over time the deprivation of liberty became the most typical form of punishment (Durkheim, 1901). The reason for this generalization of the prison as the ultimate sanction of crimes was according to Durkheim related to its potential to reform the prisoner and thus allow for re-integration of the offender back into society upon completion of a penalty of some duration and a prison stay with some distinct form of transformation.

The conception of the prison as a system of corrections, rather than detention alone, was philosophically inspired by Enlightenment ideas, especially as they were manifested in the utilitarian schools of philosophy and criminology (Foucault, 1975). Based on principles concerning human conduct as guided by an economic rationality principle to seek pleasure and fulfillment while avoiding pain and sacrifice, the notion was defended that punishment should be more lenient only at the cost of greater and appropriate intervention aimed at changing the conditions of behavior. A more efficient economy and technology of punishment was therefore proposed that would allow for a calculable exercise of power over the very soul of the offender. What on the surface appears as greater humanity or civilization in punishment more profoundly betrays a calculation of efficient means. The prototypical expression of this form of punishment was a new form of prison, radically different from the dungeon of old. Jeremy Bentham introduced its architecture as the so-called Panopticon, a technology of incarceration that is based on principles of visibility and economy geared towards reform of the prisoner by means of isolation, work, and an adjustment of the length of the penalty based on behavioral progress.

This 18-century disciplinary prison system was based on the notion that criminal conduct was a choice, the result of an individual weighing of the anticipated costs and benefits of crime (Deflem, 2008). In the historical development of criminology, this idea found expression in the so-called Classical School, whose representatives defended the notion of a prison as a system of corrections that was designed both to deter, by increasing the cost of crime, and to reform, based on self-reflection over the prisoner’s choices (penitence). Over the course of the nineteenth century, the ideas of the Classical School were criticized by the emergence of a new, scientific approach to crime and criminal justice. In this so-called Positivist School of criminology, criminal behavior is conceived of as having certain identifiable causes (biological, psychological, and/or social) that had to be considered to deal with crime as an effect. Based on these new ideas rooted in the sciences of crime, the prison system as a system of corrections came to be redesigned in order to cure or rehabilitate on the basis of a treatment of the causes of crime.

The history of rehabilitation in the modern prison is by now well known (Garland, 2002; Simon, 2001). While the ideal of rehabilitation became increasingly popular after World War II, it would soon be sharply criticized and gradually dismantled, especially following fiscal crises in the 1970s along with the appearance of a new politics of crime and crime control based on populism and, arguably most importantly, a new culture of punishment that is oriented at retribution based on the notion that crime is the result of a choice. What appears under the influence of this neo-Classical culture of control is an exponential growth of the prison as a system of detention --and virtually nothing but detention. The panopticon has been replaced by the maximum-security prison.

The rise and rise of the prison, typically discussed (and criticized) under the heading of ‘mass incarceration,’ has especially affected the United States, where incarceration rates are of incomparable magnitude, even though an increase in imprisonment rates has also marked other (Western) societies. There are good reasons, therefore, to concentrate our penological focus on the United States. Yet, what this hyper attention among scholars towards the US has also brought about is a relative lack of concern for or at least knowledge of the conditions of punishment and incarceration in other parts of the world. This book is therefore most centrally conceived in terms of its aspiration to bring together in one volume a series of analyses on the conditions of prisons and imprisonment in a variety of countries around the world. At the same time, these country-specific investigations also unravel a variety of mechanisms, conditions, and implications of punishment from different and informed social-science perspectives.

The chapters can be briefly summarized to offer a comprehensive overview of what this book as a whole has to offer. Starting with countries from the European continent, Zelia Gallo discusses the role of judicial actors in the case of contemporary punishment in Italy. Zalo reveals that the judiciary in Italy has had a dual role in fostering both punitiveness as well as moderation in punishment. Turning to the situation in Turkey, Serkan Tasgin focuses specifically on the juvenile justice system. Tasgin argues that the leniency of the Turkish juvenile justice system is associated with high rates of recidivism. For England and Wales, Mary Corcoran adopts an economic-criminological perspective to concentrate on the market rationalities in the contemporary penal administration. She concludes that the drift towards increased privatization places additional strains on an inadequate regulatory system. Turning to the situation in Belgium, Tom Daems invokes the work of René Magritte to examine the recent history of strip searches in the prisons of this small country in the European Union. Based on the work of Stanley Cohen, Daems shows how Belgian prison administrators can circumvent legal restrictions on strip searches.

Turning to the American continent, co-authors Rose Ricciardelli, Hayley Crichton, and Lisa Adams unravel the evolution of Canadian corrections up to its current punitive rhetoric and the concrete impact the system of corrections has on conditions of confinement and program implementation. The authors show that punishment in Canada has been greatly shaped by social and political pressures of increasingly more punitive ‘tough on crime’ policies. Elena Azaola analyzes the confinement conditions that women doing time for federal offenses nowadays face in Mexico. Based on interviews with female inmates, Azaola shows that anti-drug policies have increased the female imprisonment rate with very little positive consequences.

Three chapters of this book deal with punishment in the United States. Focusing on the historical condition, Ashley Rubin uncovers different periods of prison development over time. She shows that the penal landscape especially developed in diverse directions after the Civil War years. Roy Janisch subsequently focuses on the special problems faced by native American prisoners. Janisch argues that federal laws and bureaucratic actions have contributed to a disproportionate incarceration of this historically important minority category. Also focusing on a special category of inmates, Aleksandr Khechumyan adopts a human rights perspective to analyze the conditions faced by inmates who are terminally ill. Conceiving of terminal illness as an element related to the principle of proportionality of punishment, Khechumyan suggests that terminal illness of the offender should be observed not only when sentence is passed but also during imprisonment.

Covering yet more parts of the world, the final three chapters of this book take us to Africa and Asia. In the context of newly democratic South Africa, Willem Luyt examines the influence of sentencing practices on the inmate population, especially since the end of Apartheid. The author is hopeful that scholars in other emerging democracies can learn from the South-African situation. In Japan, Shinichi Ishizuka discusses how the increase in reported crime over the past years has brought about a tightening of the criminal justice system. However, Ishizuka argues, changes in reported crime actually reflect changes in Japan’s crime control policies. Finally, bringing in the issue of gender, Maggy Lee and Karen Laidler examine Hong Kong’s prison system from its colonial past to its contemporary state as an autonomous region of China. The authors reveal the peculiar problems that are placed on Hong Kong’s prisons because of a sharp and rapid growth in female imprisonment. Collectively, then, these chapters will shed an important light on the realities of punishment and incarceration across the world.

Mathieu Deflem, Editor


Deflem, M. (2008). Sociology of law: Visions of a scholarly tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Durkheim, E. ([1901] 1983). The evolution of punishment. In S. Lukes and A. Scull (Eds.), Durkheim and the law (pp. 102–132). New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Foucault, M. ([1975] 1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon.

Garland, D. (2002). The culture of control: Crime and social order in contemporary society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Simon, J. (2001). Fear and loathing in late modernity: Reflections on the cultural sources of mass imprisonment in the United States. Punishment and Society, 3(1), 21-33.

Check the synopsis and table of contents of the book.