Violence, Mystification and the Politics of Coercion – The Other Side of Prison Life.

By Catherine Griffin

A Story

Experience was a brutal teacher here. It prized your eyes open and made you look – and everywhere you looked there was a fence with a barbed-wire flick-blade head, and walls. She wondered what the walls would say if they could talk. You had to be like a wall – solid, stone, silent, cold. You had to grow cold. Oh the head babbled on … the face held the gaze, but the body grew cold. That was “the way”. “I am The Way, The Truth and The Life” Jesus cried. Sometimes she saw Jesus here. Of course it wasn’t the regular crucifixion-style – nothing so obvious, it was more in the eye.

Louis was dreaming. It had been a rough night. Fitful sleep. Lock-up. Locks checked. Double checked. Keys jangling. Eyes peeping. Every hour eyes peeping. Sometimes the walls seemed to cave in. Memory crawled up them and back down again. Time was measured in seasons. Twelve years had passed – it seemed like three. He was dreaming about his wife, green grass, the world outside. His cell was an altar to Progress, Knowledge, Unconditional Love. This was his world. Here he had control. Here he thumbed the pages, he learned, he grew, larger than the whale, broke beyond the walls, the hate, the gaze.

Sometimes they laughed at him. He knew it was fear. He walked on but he felt it. Lately, the sneers were everywhere – in the walls, in the lights, in sleep, inside. Inside – he craved rest. His body was tired. The filth he felt inside was showing outside, in his hands, his face, everywhere. Panic reared in his eyes. Nothing helped. Panic, death, destruction, burial. It would be over. It would be over to begin again to be over. “You have to take your medication” they said. He wouldn’t! Grow fat and stupid and lazy. He wouldn’t! But nothing worked now. The days were strange. The gaze remained. “Madness” was whispered along the landing. Laughter. His soul was torn. Its hurt fell open and nothing helped. Meditation, classes, fantasising, denial. He had talked so much to make it stop, but it wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. Hurt gone autonomous was a monster in his house. It devoured his mind, crawled the walls at night, stole away his pride. No more masks and plays and pride swaggering across the stage. No! Reality razed these fantasies, destroyed the meticulous craftsmanship that compensated his abject isolation.  Love – really wasn’t anywhere.

This burden had become part of his stare, his voice, his weight-loss, his thoughts, his walk, his way. He was prepared to do his time all those years ago, but it seemed unfair that Justice had also become a soul-slayer. He remembered what someone said once: “You have to be strong, settle down, get along, but it sucks you in.  It sucks everybody in – eventually.” And remembering, he felt sucked in. Jesus was a preacher!

He could preach. He could show another road! He could “be” human. Insanity laughed inside his head – roared over and over. Human! What was that? What did that mean here? He didn’t fit the military dream-machine. He had moved beyond the might of another history, another time, another life. The Buddha called beyond the walls, visited his imagination. The Breath measured moments. But lately there was nowhere to go, no space for his mind. Fantasy seemed to collapse inside, and laughed unraveled the devastation outside. Outside there was only time, routine, eight by six. He couldn’t carry it anymore. The whale stared in his eyes. The other fighters fled. A wounded warrior could not be healed here.

The battle had to go on. No defeat. No time to stop, to wait. Not here in this place of rules and orders, discipline and routine. This tomb of truth that played to the gallery outside, where normality loved retribution, craved rehabilitation, demanded order, built a bubble. Tragedy and Terrorism were peddled to the punters. Compassion was only celluloid. Anyway – Jesus was only a guy on a donkey-ride, another punter passing through. (Excerpt from Dancing Around Strange Tides, an unpublished study of prison life)

Images of prisons and practices of incarceration summon up feelings of dread – dread of the power and purpose of such institutions, and dread of those individuals who are imprisoned there. Typically these individuals are conceived either as “poor” victims of social and economic disadvantage, or as “dangerous” types who have committed monstrous deeds and who must be banished to the territorial edges of the normal and good society, where they are punished and “rehabilitated” before re-entry to society. Practices and discourses that seek to ascribe meaning exclusively in terms of people’s deeds, and which ignore dimensions of personal experience reify and depersonalise. The continuity and proliferation of stereotypical representations of prisoners attests to such

Further – the dread engendered by such powerful representations successfully deflects attention not only from the “human being” who has committed the crime, but from the covert political violence that forms the “normal” context of experience for persons living in Total Institutions such as prisons.  A violence that is in truth institutionalised.

A consideration of Michel Foucault’s work yields important insights into the ways Knowledge and Power are used in the production of “the dangerous type”, and in the production of a rationality that sustains the continuity of the penitentiary process and prisons as institutions within society. He describes prison as “that darkest region in the apparatus of justice, is the place where the power to punish, which no longer dares to manifest itself openly, silently organises a field of objectivity, in which punishment will be able to function openly as treatment, and the sentence be inscribed among the discourses of knowledge”. (Foucault: 1979; 194). He argues that the penitentiary process not only covers the deprivation of liberty, but the technical transformation of individuals through the application of disciplinary technologies which seek to reform or “normalise” prisoners.

The normalisation process is sustained in prisons through the application of disciplinary technologies of observation, isolation, the control of body in time and space, and through the construction of discourses about the offender that describe him or her as being perpetually “delinquent” or “dangerous”. Foucault describes the actual architecture of prisons (Panoptican) as the most direct way of expressing the intelligence of discipline in stone – “in the centre of the yard there is a tower with wide windows that make visible the whole of the surrounding buildings. The cells in each building have two windows: one on the outside wall allows light into the cell, while the one facing the tower makes the inmate visible to the keeper in the tower who cannot in turn be seen by the inmates.” (Shumway: 1992; 133).

The Panoptican substitutes for force or other violent constraints the gentle efficiency of total surveillance. The possibility and illusion of constant surveillance allows power to operate automatically. Further – the inmate is not only observed constantly, but isolated as a “type” or “case” to be studied by the observer. Thus – the Panoptican allows for the compilation of documentary knowledge about the inmate which is a fundamental part of the penitentiary process.

The accumulation and documentation of knowledge about the whole life of the “dangerous type” affirms the moral responsibility entrusted to the prison authority, and upholds the penitentiary process. As Foucault states – “The delinquent [or dangerous type] is to be distinguished from the offender by the fact that it is not so much his act, as his life, that is relevant in characterising him. The penitentiaty operation, if it is to be a genuine re-education, must become the sum total existence of the delinquent, making of the person a sort of artificial and coercive theatre in which his life will be examined from top to bottom.

“The punitive technique must reconstitute all the sordid details of a life in the form of knowledge, fill in the gaps of that knowledge, and act upon it by a practice of compulsion.” (Foucault: 1979; 219).

Foucault suggests that the merging between penal and psychiatric discourses functions in the creation of the “dangerous” individual. Viewed this way the offender is not simply one who has committed a crime but one who is produced by the very discourses, practices, and procedures that define the penitentiaty process. The normalising “gaze” of professional bodies whom Foucault describes as “the Judges of Normality”, and the discourses they produce, identifies and establishes the permanence of the “dangerous type”. Further – such dehumanising social and discursive practices produce the very behaviours that sustain the continuity of prisons as punitive repressive regimes within a wider punitive repressive social regime.

He states, “if there is an overall political issue around the prison, it is not whether it is to be corrective or not; whether the judges, the psychiatrists or the sociologists are to exercise more power in it than the administrators or supervisors; it is not even whether we should have prison or something other than prison. At present, the problem lies rather in the steep rise in the use of these mechanisms of normalisation, and the wide-ranging powers which through the proliferation ofnew disciplines, they bring with them.” (Foucault: 1979; 306). A consideration of Louis’ experience brings the consequences of such dehumanising social and discursive practices very much into focus.

It also raises explicitly the issue of responsibility on the part of professionals within the system for the production of the “criminal mind” manufacture. For Foucault the weaving of Power and Knowledge in the production of the “dangerous” individual expresses a particular kind of domination – one that “establishes marks of its power, and engraves memories on things, and even within bodies. It gives rise to the universe of rules, which is by no means designed to temper violence, but rather to satisfy it.” (Foucault: 1979; 224).

The perception of the inmate as object to be transformed or dominated forms a significant part of the interpretative scheme that governs the round of life – i.e. the roles, rituals, rationalisations, practices and culture in total institutions such as prisons. The need to depersonalise in order to produce an “ideal” type of inmate illustrates a theory of human nature that is a fundamental part of the interpretative scheme. Generally, the theory that underpins the official aims of the institution identifies the “good” and “bad” possibilities of inmate behaviour, the forms that breaking the rules take, the instructional value of rewards and punishment and the essential difference between staff and inmates.

The translation of inmate behaviour into moralistic terms suited to the institution’s avowed perspective (in prisons – incapacitation, retribution, deterrence, reformation), rationalises activity, provides a subtle means of maintaining social distance from inmates, and a stereotyped view of them, and justifies the treatment accorded them. R. D. Laing identifies total institutions and the experience of imprisonment as instances where the person “more completely and more radically than anywhere else in society is invalidated as a human being.” (Laing: 1967; 100). This assertion is echoed by Erving Goffman who says, “total institutions defile precisely those actions that have the role of attesting to the actor, and those in his presence, that he is a person with adult self-determination, autonomy and freedom of action.” (Goffman: 1968; 47). Whilst Foucault’s work gives us important insights into the mind, imagination and rationality of violence, Goffman highlights the manner – more specifically, the behaviours that flow from these assumptions about persons. He describes the round of life in total institutions, such as prison, as a kind of coercive drama in which “the boundary that the individual places between his being and the environment is invaded and the embodiments of self systematically profaned.” (Goffman: 1968; 37).

Significantly the rationality that underlies such practices is to be found in the principle of deference – inmates must learn to defer to the norms of the institution and to internalise in their thoughts and behaviour the view of human nature espoused in the interpretative scheme of such places. Goffman employs the metaphor of rape to describe the stripping, penetration and mortification of Self that the individual experiences upon entry to total institutions such as prisons. The mortification is ritually enacted, initially by the removal of all personal possessions and their replacement by those deemed suitable by the institution.

The “breaking” of persons is sustained by a continuous exposure to depersonalising social practices and rituals: rituals of enforced deference – e.g. where one must address a member of staff as “Sir” or “Ma’am”; enforced searches of one’s body and one’s possessions; the exposure to insults or behaviours that are injurious to the Self; the penetration of one’s private relationships, through the censorship of mail, and through the observation of exchanges during visits from family members; the control of body in time and space; enforced collective slopping-out and sleeping arrangements; the perpetual “gaze” of the authority through the “peep-hole”.

These are just some of the ways in which the territories of the Self are systematically profaned in prison. The behaviour of the inmate is constantly open to sanction, regulation and judgment by the staff. Goffman asserts that this process of social control defines the nature of the relationship between inmate and authority and holds the inmate totally in the experience – not only physically, but also emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. The curtailment of “movement” on all of these levels attacks those capacities that define the person as separate, autonomous, adult and, by implication, deliberately reduces the person to a state of infantilism and dependency.

R.D. Laing in considering the problem of widespread cultural depersonalisation observed, “it is not enough to destroy one’s own and other people’s experience, one must overlay this devastation with a false consciousness inured to its own falsity. Exploitation must not be seen as such. It must be seen as benevolence. Persecution preferably should not need to be invalidated as the figment of a paranoid imagination – it should be experienced as kindness.” (Laing: 1967; 49). A society that is split between idealised testimonies of what it does, and its actual practices, must create displays, fictions, to hold itself together and ensure its continuity lest it fall into the void it has itself created. The mystification of experience and the mystification of violent practices against persons is achieved in total institutions by rituals of institutional display. These are “institutionalised practices through which staff and inmates, the institution, and outside society come close enough together to get a somewhat favourable image of the other, and to identify sympathetically with the other’s situation. These practices emphasise unity, solidarity, and joint commitment to the institution rather than differences between the two.” (Goffman: 1968; 95).

Individuals or groups visiting institutions are generally greeted by such displays which are calculated to give an “appropriate” image of the establishment, and to allay visitors’ dread of involuntary establishments. Such displays mark a reversal in the usual social drama – the staging of grim social distance.

They avert their eyes from the stark reality of self mortification procedures outlined earlier, beautify the language of depersonalisation with accolades of humanitarian concern, and engage in roles that are the complete reversal of the forms of interaction that characterise the usual round of life. Instead, these displays seek to present the “perfect environment”, the “perfect inmate”, the “perfectly humane” rehabilitative practices, the “perfect staff” to the institution itself, to the inmates, to the outside agencies to whom the institution is nominally accountable, to the staff who work there, and to society at large.

The inability to openly respond to the brutalisation and mortification of human beings invokes institutional displays which have the comic and tragic components of the “emperor’s new clothes”. Comic – because the display is essentially empty and the language hollow; tragic – because the drama unfolds with the collusion of “emperor” and “audience” out of fear and coercion. “But the Emperor has nothing at all on,” said a little child… and what the child had said was whispered from one to another. “But he has nothing at all on,” at last cried out all the people. The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right, but he thought, “the procession must go on now.” And the Lords of the bed chamber took greater pains than ever to appear holding up a train, although in reality there was no train to hold.” (Andersen: 1964; 89).

“Then something strange our soul touches. The black edge of fury, the blue rim of sorrow, the bruised shadow of the world. Through the glass darkly we suddenly see the heartrending truth of our lives. We learn that beyond the splendours of the soul there is also a darkness, dangerous to deny, where often blows a wind of crushing madness.”  (Cousineau: 1995; 88).

A consideration of Louis’ experience raises serious questions about what actually happens to people upon committal to total institutions such as prisons. His story highlights the “blue rim of sorrow” that is his experience and also the “bruised shadow of the world” (the institution and the society) that surrounds him. The “Way”, the “Truth” and the usual round of “Life” in prisons has remained largely unchanged since their inception two hundred years ago – despite the bulk of evidence which attests to their failure as places of “rehabilitation”.

The ritual and continual debasement, humiliation and stereotyping of persons who have committed crimes, veiled in a rationality of “Justice” and “Humanitarian Concern” highlights a profound disrespect for human life and personal agency. Further, it highlights “a darkness dangerous to deny”, a form of violence inured to its own falsity, and one that remains largely unchallenged and institutionalised. There is a strange aura of normality “inside” – an emptiness and lifelessness that can go unnoticed in the ordinary public arena of prison life. Yet the world turns… This way of being becomes and is “normal”. Those individuals who “break” register the disappearance of “Life” in the ordinary and normal, and are presently relegated to statistical categories of “insane “, “suicides”, “drug O.D’s” – they remain objects and as long as the carceral imagination lives they will continue to remain so.

“Louis” and “Catherine Griffin” are pseudonyms and the editors respect their anonymity. The writer of this article has considerable experience of working within the prison system.


Andersen, H. C, 1964, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in The Modern Children’s’ Library of Knowledge, London, Odhams Press Limited.

Cousineau, P., 1994, Soul an Archaeology, London, Harper-Collins.

Foucault, M. 1979, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan, New York, Vintage.

___________ , 1980, Power and Knowledge, (ed. Colin Gordon), Hertfordshire, The Harvester Press limited.

Goffman. E., 1968, Asylums, Middlesex, Penguin.

___________ , 1990, Stigma, London. Penguin.

Laing, R D., 1967, the Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise, Middlesex, Penguin.

Shumway, D. R. 1992. MichelFoucault, University Press of Virginia.