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Imprisoning the People

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In his book, "Reflections on Hanging" (Page 15 in Macmillan Company, 1957) Arthur Koestler notes that,
"Sentences of death were passed on children as late as 1833 -- when a boy of nine was sentenced to hang for pushing the stick through a cracked shop window and pulling out printer's color to the value of a tuppence, but was respited owing to public protest. Samuel Rogers relates in his Table Talk that he saw 'a cartload of young girls, in dresses of various colors, on their way to be executed at Tyburn.' And Greville describes the trial of several young boys who were sentenced to death 'to their excessive amazement' and broke into tears. He laconically remarks: 'Never did I see boys cry so.'
"In 1801, Andrew Branding, aged 13, was publicly hanged for breaking into a house and stealing a spoon. In 1808 a girl aged seven was publicly hanged at Lynn. In 1831, a boy of nine was publicly hanged at Chelmsford for having set fire to a house, and another aged 13 at Maidstone."

We no longer hang children. One has to admit that this looks like progress. And I suppose it is. Nevertheless, what we are seeing is not the movement toward a freer society, but the development of a new "technology of control," to use Michael Foucault's apt term. While this new technology is less brutal, and perhaps more civilized, it nevertheless promises to make us even less free than we were in previous generations. Let me share an example of our new technology of control, from the on-line magazine, Salon.

"Every Wednesday afternoon I find a seat in a windowless basement room, in a circle of 25 people. The chairs are metal, hard and cold, and the level of discomfort far more than physical. There are eight teenage boys and two therapists, and all the rest of us are parents and grandparents. We are bewildered, we are depressed and we are all consigned to this room for months. I am sick for hours beforehand and a day or more afterwards, unable to sleep in peace, to eat, to hold a casual conversation. These boys, including my son, are sex offenders. We, as their parents, are complicit in crimes hard to explain or define. Recently I asked my 14-year-old son what he's learned from the painful events of the last year, and he said, 'I've learned sex is bad. I don't want to think about it anymore.'"

Here we no longer have a young teenage boy on the scaffold as an example of what happens to people who offend the King, or break the rules established by the powers that be. The boy is tucked away in a "treatment facility" that is, generally speaking, not visible to the general public. Here in one of the many dark and partially hidden places of imprisonment in our current social landscape, the boy and his parents are subjected to an elaborate technology of control. What are the elements of the system of control in the facility that is described in this Salon article?

  • Careful, top-down, hierarchical observation.

  • An environment of clearly formulated, rigid, and unquestionable standards of normality.

  • An ongoing process of examination to determine the degree to which the participants in the environment conform to these standards.

  • The categorization of people by scientific or pseudo-scientific labels that indicate the manner in which, and the degree to which, individuals deviate from the standards of normality.

  • A program for micromanaging the behavioral conformity to the norms by the participants in the environment.

  • A system of rewards and punishments that facilitates the micro-management.

  • A meta-narrative, enforced by those in power, in terms of which the behavior of the participants is interpreted.

  • An almost complete disregard for the dreams, desires, curiosities, and aspirations of the participants.

  • A relentless attack on any of the narratives that participants might articulate to interpret their own behavior whenever these narratives are in conflict with the officially prescribed meta-narratives.

  • A prohibition against escaping from the institution.

In other words what we see here is an example of what Irving Goffman would call a "Total Institution." (See his work, Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates, and/or this article: Total Institution).

Foucault refers to this kind of social organization as a "complete and austere institution." (See his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.) Foucault suggests that institutions of this kind emerged with the advent of the modern prison -- which he dates to be in the middle of the 19th century. He would further suggest that our current treatment facilities and mental hospitals, as well as our prisons, use the prisons that developed at that time as their model. However preferable being detained in such a place might be to being tortured and hanged in a public spectacle, our mental hospitals and treatment facilities are in fact prison-like.

The boy described in the salon article was guilty of having become involved in some mutually desired sex play with his younger brother. Whatever one thinks of such sex play, it would appear that imprisoning the boy was something of an overreaction. Nevertheless, one can at least say that the boy had broken a social norm that probably a majority of people in our society feel very strongly about. Although young, he fit, in some sense, our society's definition of a "sex offender." It is felt by many Americans that such institutions, as ugly as they are, are needed for dealing with people who break society's rules. Whether this is true, at least the other institutions that the children and adults in our societies normally inhabit are not of this nature. Or are they? What about the school that this boy would have been attending with his peers had he not been incarcerated?

Certainly in school systems we have a top-down ongoing hierarchical system of observation, and an environment of clearly formulated and somewhat rigid standards of normality. Also very much in evidence in our schools is an ongoing process of examination, not only to measure academic achievement, but also to assess behavioral conformity. Many people question the scientific validity of most of the diagnostic labels that are placed upon children in our public schools. Some do not, but it is hardly debatable that "mental health" labeling takes place, and that the intent of this labeling is to indicate the individual's deviation from "normality." The primary system of rewards and punishments by which children are molded is the grading system, but in addition to this there are many other rewards and punishments for desired or undesired behavior. Whenever a child is "in trouble," it is the narrative of the administrators or of mental health workers, and not the child's narrative that is given credence in interpreting the child's behavior. The child's narratives are written off as simply "excuses." Perhaps a hypothetical example will clarify this point:

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Write for Politics of Health and work with David Werner on issues of health. Worked in the field of "Mental Health" all my life. Am now retired. Jim
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