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With Mishana Hosseinioun

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Grime and Punishment: from Guillotine to Gitmo

By Mishana Hosseinioun

August 25, 2005

Prison is not so much the boxed-up notion it's made up to be. French philosopher Michel Foucault, in his astute and cutting edge work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977), illustrates the many incarnations undergone by incarceration throughout Western history before becoming what we either cherish or despise today as our contemporary penitentiary system. While in the past, the condemned human body has endured a battery of gaudy noontime executions by public dismemberment in city piazzas, the last couple of centuries have paved the way for a brand new, albeit haunting locus of imprisonment and punishment -- the psyche or soul.

While presently, in some parts of the world, old fashioned public hangings are not entirely a thing of the past, most punitive practices have since tiptoed their way behind closed doors and out of the public eye, but not without seeping under the prisoners' skin in the process. Everything from the sporadic abuse scandals that get leaked once in a blue moon to the foul play potentially taking place in prisons and detention centers at this very moment, might all still pale in comparison to the once commonplace, exhibitionistic abuse or downright, theatrical murder of prisoners; nevertheless, even what today would appear to be the most unremarkable of prison practices of all time, can just as soon be the most soul-wrenching and psychologically traumatic of the bunch.

Why we unflinchingly refer to prisoners as persons deprived of their freedom, for instance, is for the simple reason that any punishment involving the removal of an already elusive concept such as freedom from so-called 'hardened' criminals and 'cold-blooded' killers sounds like a pretty generous and compassionate bargain. It is precisely such relatively harmless sounding spiritual shackles, however, that impede prisoners in their personal journey toward character reform or eventual assimilation, if ever, back into society.

Ironically enough, it looks like in the throes of its own transformation over the years, the penal system has also single-handedly masterminded its proper mental breakdown, as it were, having at once been convinced of its self-professed virtues, and all the while been riddled to the point of madness with internal contradiction. There is no telling where along its evolutionary path the prison might come to recognize this self-defeating dichotomy and consequently meet its outright institutional downfall. In the meantime, we have only to wonder whether our descendents will ever, in turn, reach for a dusty volume of The Death of the Prison (City Lights Press, San Francisco, CA).

Mishana Hosseinioun is the Program Director of International Convention on Human Rights (ICHR), a non-profit dedicated to drafting a legally enforceable international human rights document. She is a longstanding intern in Mayor Gavin Newsom's office in San Francisco and a recent graduate of Rhetoric and Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Email Mishana at Mishana@ichr.org


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