Foucault in Tocorón

Este artículo se publica en español en Prodavinci.

In the wake of news of yet another extraordinarily violent prison riot, we’re reminded once more that Venezuelan prisons are a kind of hell, but do we know what kind of hell they are?

That’s what I kept asking myself as I watched Jail or Hell, Luidig Ochoa’s hard-hitting animated web series based on his stint as an inmate in Tocorón jail, with its genius rendering of the day-to-day tension, the sense of dread and menace of prison life  with just a few simple graphic elements and killer sound design.

Ochoa shows the kinds scenes we’ve been told about but never get a chance to see – prisons overrun with guns and drugs, where the “authorities” long ago gave up even trying to feign control of the inside. In Luidig’s jails, the Guardia Nacional sticks largely to the perimeter, working as a kind of transport system bringing prisoners into and out of jail and occasionally, very occasionally, going in to do a head-count.

But in a normal inmate’s day-to-day life, the Guardia is just absent. The state is absent. The only mechanism of control around him is the pran and his causas. The habits of mind he learns, the strategies he employs to survive, his whole way of presenting himself and carrying himself to keep himself alive are built on the certainty that there’s nobody “out there” who can see, much less control, what happens “in there”.

Venezuela’s jails are, in a way, the diametrical opposite of the Panopticon. For Michel Foucault, a prison is a mechanism for extending the state’s gaze, for imprinting its power onto the most intimate recesses of an inmate’s mind through constant, unyielding regimentation and, in particular, constant surveillance. Discussing the historical evolution of French jails from the 17th century, he notes a steady migration from penitentiary techniques that target the body – torture – to techniques that target the mind.

In the standard Enlightenment narrative, this abandonment of torture for more subtle mechanisms of monitoring and control is a story of progress, of humanitarian advance. Foucault sees them, though, as a matter of increasing sophistication, refinement and increasingly fine-grained control. Surveillance and regimentation achieve more in terms of getting people to act the way you want them to act than just inflicting physical pain ever could.

Prison reformers flattered themselves in thinking the Panopticon ideal of constant potential monitoring was adopted out of a moral revulsion against torture. In fact, its attraction was purely results-based: the awareness that someone may be watching him at any time does more to bend a criminal’s mind to the prison warden’s will than any amount of physical violence could. That awareness turns the prisoner into his own warden, forcing him to see himself as the guards might at all times, to constantly imagine how his own conduct would look like from their point of view of power and alter it accordingly to escape punishments and attain rewards. In a panopticon, every prisoner is his own prison guard – that’s its chief attraction.

Foucault the political radical certainly imagined himself as describing a hideous system that makes a mockery of western society’s claim to safeguard liberty, especially since he goes on to argue that the systems of control initially developed for prisons, poor houses, schools and hospitals end up permeating all of society. That’s a groovy enough position to write as you sip an espresso on a Left Bank café, for sure. But I wonder if he ever seriously considered the alternatives. I wonder how Michel Foucault might have seen things if he’d been left in Tocorón for a month or two and survived to tell the tale.

My sense is that he very quickly would have realized that the alternative is much, much worse. That the only thing more hideous than a system of intense surveillance and minute regimentation that seeps into the very fabric of an inmate’s consciousness is its total absence, and its replacement with a Hobbesian criminal nightmare of constant, soul saturating fear.

What Foucault took as an indictment is what Venezuelan prison reformers need to take as a blue-print. It’s not enough for the next government to create more of the same kinds of catastrophically anarchic jails we already have. We won’t deal with overcrowding by creating the same jails, only in bigger numbers. Nor are magic shibboleths about decentralization going to do the trick.

We need to be clear on what needs to be done. We need to extend the state’s control beyond the perimeter and into the prisoner’s day-to-day life. We need to create jails regimented enough to be safe, with enough surveillance to spot bad behaviour right away and punish it and spot good behaviour and reward it. We need systems of surveillance fine-grained enough to start to make prisoners internalize the point of view of the representatives of order, to instill the habit of submitting to formal authority in people who’ve never done so.

We need jails that imprint on prisoners standards of law-abiding behaviour, rather than letting gangster ethics run riot. We need prisons that challenge the routine use of violence to solve disputes big and small, not prisons that extend and normalize it.

Venezuela is a country without a death penalty. Without life imprisonment. Every single Venezuelan who goes into jail will eventually have to be re-introduced into the community. We need jails that have the staffing, the resources and the physical infrastructure to give that re-introduction a real chance of success.

Because what’s hell about the system we have now is the way people come out of jail even more hardened, even more socialized-to-casual-violence and more entrenched in criminal lifestyles than they were when they went in.

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