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Not Just for Privates’ Eyes:
American Prisons from de Tocqueville to Donald Rumsfeld

by John Vorasangian
May 24, 2004

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Historically, penology has been intertwined with modernity. It was central to the ideological debates started by the European Enlightenment. It was -- and remains -- on the battle lines of separation between discriminatory ideologies and egalitarian principles. It bears on the important issues of social control, social reform, political repression, and the use of discretionary power. The systematic and excessive maltreatment of mostly innocent people by the American occupiers in Iraq must be situated in such a broad socio-historical context.

Last year, Donald Rumsfeld’s sinister barbs about the “Old Europe” were aimed principally at France. Yet in the old days France helped America to gain its independence; sold to it hastily, cheaply, and peacefully a huge area of land; and gave it as a gift the most marketed freedom symbol in the world, the Statue of Liberty. France also sent to a visit here the best long-term public relations agent America has ever had, Alexis de Tocqueville.

It pays to remember that Tocqueville, with his friend Gustave de Beaumont, traveled to America to learn more about the American penitentiary organization and methods. From the start, two centuries ago, it was obvious that the Americans were reinventing penology in a distinctive way. Two years before Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Beaumont and Tocqueville authored On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application to France. Subsequently, Tocqueville remained interested in the subject and repeatedly advised French parliamentary commissions on it. With few exceptions, Tocqueville’s commentators overlook his fateful interest in the darker side of America. Sheldon Wolin has a perceptive chapter in Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: the Making of a Political and Theoretical life (2002). A precursor, focused mainly on the French aspects of the topic, was Seymour Drescher, in his 1968 book Dilemmas of Democracy. But Thomas Dumm, for example, in his good 1987 monograph Democracy and Punishment, fails to mention On the Penitentiary System.

Tocqueville’s interest in the American democracy on the one hand and in American prisons and prisoners on the other was not gratuitous. Prisons are (physical) places and (political) spaces of unopposed exercise of power. Hidden behind walls and shielded from unencumbered examination, they are genuinely constituted into a social realm prone to be chosen by authoritarian individuals as fertile ground for experimentation. In all modern dictatorships the atrocity of arbitrary rule was let loose in the prisons. Through inverse inference, the applied penology of a political regime is indicative of what people in authority would do in the society at large, were they unopposed and unchecked.

In contrast to the spontaneous order generated by freely interacting people, order inside the prisons is deliberately fashioned. The quality of legal and political control over the basis of incarceration and the methods used in prisons are extremely sensitive barometers that show how committed a regime is to the rule of law. The American government accepts as much when it criticizes vociferously other governments for failing to treat prisoners humanely.

The beginning of an American “style” in penology should be traced to Quakers’ abhorrence of physical violence. Killing, mutilation, and all other corporal punishments for crimes were to be replaced by practices supposed to heal the diseased mind and soul of the prisoner, not to persecute him by torturing his body. A quasi-monastic method of imprisonment developed, very different from the internment common in Europe. It was centered on the psychological tenements of solitary confinement, “reformation by reflection,” breaking the prisoner’s resistance to the disciplinary regime imposed upon him, and extirpating both the rebellious tendencies and the eventual solidarity that might have appeared among inmates.

The religious connection in the new American way of dealing with delinquency was strengthened and reflected by the name of the “system,” penitentiary being derived from penitence. This link, however, assured that the practices retained medieval remnants; one was that the “penitent” was worth nothing if (s)he did not yield under the compounded pressure of control and solitude. Wolin observes that in the early modern Europe prisoners were considered to be out of the political domain and were treated as “’natural’ experimental objects.” In segregated America it was even more so, but the American egalitarian ethos superimposed on the religious fervor then sweeping the country was supposed to supersede that deeply discriminatory view.

The organization and management of prisons in nineteen-century America differed from state to state; everywhere, the new penal arrangements had mixed results. Beaumont and Tocqueville were moderately enthusiastic for the innovations they had seen during visits at various facilities. They were hopeful that at least in the northern states, which were “most advanced in civilization” and had improved substantially the “barbarous laws which they have received from England,” further progress would be made in the future.

And now, suddenly, in full view of the world, the “experimental objects” stage a disturbing comeback in the photographs released from the huge collection taken inside Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. Abu Ghraib is not in the U.S. but the imaginative practices we see are certainly not new and not restricted to Iraq. A horribly rich history must exist behind them. In all likelihood, these practices were taught and rehearsed at home.

The long way from beginnings worthy of Tocqueville’s attention to today’s world-wide gulag of American prisons and American-sponsored places of torture was traveled under the stimulus provided by the expanding turpitude of the American officialdom. Today, the public and the politicians it elects into offices are indifferent to political principles fundamental to the ideology of freedom. The American message of human dignity, continuously lectured to the world, has never been more hollow. Over the last decades the rhetoric of human rights spilled over from America to the rest of the world. Yet, just as the rhetoric became strident, a growing band of unscrupulous thugs has permeated the government, especially in departments responsible for the production, use, and merchandising of arms and violence. This portends unprecedented danger for the civil order in America.

The allure of despotism is so powerful for the ever good and righteous people who devised and promoted the organized humiliation of Iraqi prisoners that, in favorable conditions, they will not hesitate to exert their trade on Americans. The extension of organized torture methods from covered actions limited in scope to large operations meant to instill mass fear and submission may well be attempted here. The incarcerated population in the U.S. is in the millions, forming a small and insulated nation inside the nation. The record of abuse already disclosed suggests that, conditions permitting, the masterminds of the Iraq experiments will waste no time in attempting to transform a serious social problem into an opportunity to be used toward their totalitarian dreams.

After more proof of the bestialities perpetrated by American soldiers and mercenaries in Iraq will inevitably surface, worse will follow. Gradually, not only the notorious champions of journalistic extremism will argue that the abuse is not outrageous, but also the central newspapers and the television networks. It is likely that the governments of some civilized countries will also endorse, grudgingly or enthusiastically, the latest means of promoting civilization. The mainstream press and the political elite of the free world will simply adjust to the grim reality that many Americans are ready to condone aggressive policies toward other countries and tyrannical tendencies in their own. The lackeys of truly perverse political regimes rejoice in transforming appalling issues into appealing ones. Part of the revulsion provoked by the latest scandal is hypocritical, since the Iraq bombing and invasion had strong popular support in America. Just as the ugliness that comes with war was discounted last year, the indirect consequences of the manipulated show trials just started are ignored now. But the ideas about prison abuse that will prevail are as important as the exact attribution of guilt. If the responsibility is not assigned to all who were involved, a clear message will be conveyed to the world: permissiveness is rife in the American military and political intrusion corrupts the American standards of justice.

This whole affair confounds some officials. Senators and representatives are clearly baffled and unable to act meaningfully and effectively. Other officials - the Machiavellians of the American politics - understand perfectly well that the long-term implications go far beyond the immediate aspects of rights abuse and damaged propaganda effort. They are ready for an all-out battle on a large front; the prison scandal only precipitated an open confrontation that they had planned anyway, for more fortuitous circumstances. For them, the stakes are high. They aim to turn upside-down public sensibilities and entrenched standards of conduct proper to the sovereign powers. And they pursue this battle as part of one grand collision underway in America between a vision of patronizing, secretive, and mischievous government as opposed to a vision of open, responsive, and accountable government. This huge ideological encounter also includes the disputes surrounding the state of the environment, taxation, corporate sponsorship of politics, gay marriage, security versus liberty, the relationship between church and state, etc.

Most disquieting in the Iraq prison scandal is the uncertainty over how much of the abuse was accidental experiment, no matter how wicked, and how much was part of calculated theorizing to be used later. Official secrecy over covered programs only fuels suspicion. In prisons, more goes on than is possible to photograph and record; it is reasonable to suppose that the reality of abuse is grimmer than it was relayed to the public. In any case, it is now undeniable that the American government is embarked on a vast inhuman enterprise that goes farther than the physical elimination of its adversaries. In Iraq, in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay, and in many other places spread around the globe, sophisticated study of refined methods of torture is taking place under the American military direction. This bodes ill for the rights and liberties the Americans enjoy at home and for people everywhere.

John Vorasangian is an independent researcher. He can be reached at

Other Articles by John Vorasangian

* Two Up From the Tomb: The Skulls and Bones of Bush and Kerry