...As mass incarceration is falling out of fashion -- it's been denounced by figures across the political spectrum from Eric Holder to Newt Gingrich -- a whole slate of "alternatives to incarceration" has arisen. From electronic monitoring and debilitating forms of probation to mandatory drug testing and the sort of "predictive policing" that turns communities of color into open-air prisons, these alternatives are regularly presented as necessary "reforms" for a broken system.
It's worth remembering, however, that when the modern prison emerged in the late eighteenth century, it, too, was promoted as a "reform," a positive replacement for corporal or capital punishment. Early prison reformers -- many of them Quakers bent on repentance and redemption -- suggested that cutting people off from the rest of the world would bring them closer to God. (The word "penitentiary" comes, of course, from "penitence.")
An oppressive version of surveillance played a central role in this vision, as in British reformer Jeremy Bentham's famed Panopticon, a model prison in which inspectors would be able to view prisoners at any moment, day or night, while themselves remaining invisible. If the ultimate Panopticon never quite came into existence, Bentham's idea profoundly influenced the development of the prison as a place in which, for the prisoner, no time or space was inviolable and privacy was a fiction.
As an idea, the Panopticon remains embedded in our notion of state discipline. Now, it is spreading out of the prison and into the neighborhood and the home, which is hardly surprising in a society in which surveillance and monitoring are becoming the accepted norms of everyday life. Like the plans of the early reformers, many current prison "reforms" share a common element: they perpetuate the fantasy that new forms of confinement, isolation, and surveillance will somehow set us all free.