Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Michael Ignatieff's 'A Just Measure of Pain'

Michael Ignatieff's career may have taken him to the Canadian parliament and back, but for criminologists and penal historians he will remain entrenched in the mind as the author of the seminal 'A Just Measure of Pain'. The text, published in 1978, emerged contemporaneously with many classic 'revisionist' works from the likes of Michel Foucault and David Rothman - all presenting a retelling of the development of penal and coercive institutions. These authors took the period from the mid-eighteenth-century to the mid-nineteenth-century and attempted to account for the emergence of institutions of confinement and, for Foucault and Igntieff especially, the birth of the penitentiary.

Ignatieff seeks to explain the emergence of the penitentiary, epitomised by the opening of Pentonville Prison in 1842 as the first 'model prison', in the context of the Industrial Revolution and the dramatic societal upheaval this sparked. Ignatieff presents a comprehensive exploration of the period 1750 to 1850, incorporating social history and the biographies of key persons, such as penal reform entrepreneurs John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, to weave together a convincing argument to explain the place of the prison in history. Ignatieff argues that the prison emerged primarily as a result of middle-class fears of men displaced by the coming of the Industrial Revolution, which supplanted an earlier age in which strong bonds of allegiance and fealty held people together in rural communities.

He also suggests the presence of an ulterior motive behind the continued success of the prison as the default solution to crime. Despite the emergence of voices critical of the penitentiary project, going back as far as the mid-1800s, including claims that it could not rehabilitate nor did it reduce crime, the institution has persisted and thrived. This leads Ignatieff to question its purpose, stating that it may have served other ends than those official goals stated. He argues that the extension of democracy in the period was paralleled by increasing state power and control, and a decreasing tolerance for those members of society considered 'deviant'.

The comprehensive nature of the exploration in 'A Just Measure of Pain' is successful partly because it is built around 'levels of why', and an awareness that it was the interplay of myriad contingent factors which contributed to the emergence of the prison. These factors include the importance of the role of individuals, sudden crises sparked by over-crowding as a result of wars and the cessation of transportation, military demobilisation, a fear of 'masterless men', as well as broader philosophical ideas.

Ignatieff's work is perhaps best viewed as a history of ideas, and in this guise it succeeds wonderfully, presenting a history of the prison with a firm cultural grounding and as a product of the confluence of a variety of schools of thought. Ignatieff explores the religious philosophies of Quakerism and sects of NonConformist Protestantism and the importance of this ethos in an emerging approach to industry and social control. He delves into the idea that men could be improved, if subjected to carefully weighted influences, hard work and self-restraint. Enlightenment philosophy and utilitarian ideas also came together in this time - advocating rationality and scientific method - and evident in the work of thinkers like Bentham and Beccaria.

What becomes clear from the work is that the question of how do you punish humanely has been a perennial. Many of the measures designed to remould criminals were at first designed as civilised responses to the earlier implements of punishment, such as shackles and chains and expressive punishments like whipping and branding - however it was not long before the detrimental effects of many of the more progressive means of control were also exposed as harmful. For example, in this litany of 'humane cruelty', the use made of solitary confinement was criticised by many, including John Howard who saw the ill-effects it could unleash on individuals. Likewise, the early institutions used work as a means to numb the prisoner, rendering them malleable to benign influence. The departure from this approach evidenced by the current practicalities of prison work, intended to up-skill and prepare a prisoner for life on the outside, is interesting and speaks to the initial goal of prison as a place to capture men's hearts and minds. 'A Just Measure of Pain' is a stark reminder of the impossibility of eliminating the prospect of cruelty from places in which people are confined and subject to the care of others.

Also evident in the writing is the absolute importance of architecture, the period of prison building of the early nineteenth-century has little parallel in history, something akin to a modern period of castle-building. The architecture of confinement constructed throughout the nineteenth-century proved lasting, and very difficult to dispense with. Of such permanence was the architecture that it may go some way to explaining why today the concept of prison seems inevitable. However, the asylums which had emerged in the same period as the penitentiary, have now largely been supplanted by more modern means of dealing with their populations. This again raises the question of the ulterior motive of the prison, the idea proposed by Ignatieff to explain the continuance of the prison despite its seeming failure to deter or reduce crime.

Lucia Zedner, writing in 'Women, Crime and Custody in Victorian England' argues that Ignatieff's rose-tinted view of pre-Industrial Society was something he later qualified. Ignatieff posits that prior to the Industrial Revolution, the communitarian nature of justice allowed for the informal resolution of disputes, and the hierarchical structure of society meant that masters often handled crimes committed by their employees or peasants living on their land in a way which dealt with the matter effectively. In 1983, Ignatieff did indeed roll back on some of his arguments from 'A Just Measure of Pain':

"the history of the institution between 1780 and 1840 can be described as a passage from squalid neglect to hygienic order… Foucault’s work (and my own as well!) remained captive of that Weberian equation of the ancien regime with the customary, the traditional and the particularistic, and of the modern with the rational, the disciplined, the impersonal and the bureaucratic" ("State, Civil Society and Total Institutions: A Critique of Recent Social Histories of Punishment" Social Control and the State, Ed. Stanley Cohen and Andrew Scull, Oxford, Robertson, 1983, 75-105)

Zedner argued that the penitentiary project had not been completed by the opening of Pentonville in 1842, something which Ignatieff seemed to accept in 1983. Zedner and Mary Bosworth have both argued that the 'revisionist' texts, including 'A Just Measure of Pain', also neglect the position of women within the penitentiary system. Another notable absence in the book is any mention of Norbert Elias' concept of the 'civilising process' as well as the lack of reference to Emile Durkheim's work on the consensus of the majority, and the imposition of this consensus.

The final chapter of the book is certainly the weakest. Lacking the masterful use of historical and cultural detail which is evident elsewhere, it presents propositions which seem unrelated to the central thesis, lacking evidential backing or coherent argument.  His argument throughout, that the prison emerged partly as a response to middle-class fears of this new class of 'masterless men', the threatening working-classes, is coherently constructed however, and provides the depth of social context lacking from a purely Marxist interpretation, such as the work of Rusche and Kirchheimer, for example. Ignatieff's comprehensive overview of the period is absorbing and adds welcome historical details to the phenomenon, details which were largely omitted by Foucault; rather, 'A Just Measure of Pain' provides an awareness of the importance of the distinct factors which prompted the emergence of the prison.

This month's blog was written by Lynsey Black.

The views expressed herein are those of the author's alone.

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