With Mishana Hosseinioun
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
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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