Thursday, May 19, 2016

Foucault at the Wake County Jail (Getting Arrested Part 2 of 2)


If there was anything that surprised me about getting arrested it was the sheer bureaucracy involved.

After we were placed under arrest in a legislator’s office (for protesting House Bill 2) the officers transported us to the cafeteria of the NC General Assembly building which had been reconfigured into a police station for processing us. While a few officers patted us down twice as many officers sat in front of a row of networked computers, busily typing, while yet another officer filled out paperwork.

This was just the beginning of the bureaucracy. Arriving at the county jail we appeared before a station where correctional officers entered our information into computers. Then we moved to another station where we sat in front of a row of correctional officers working on computers. (I had no idea what this part was about.) Then we moved to a second room where our information was re-entered into computers. Then we moved to a third room where we waited to see the magistrate.

The third room was in the shape of a long rectangle. Men sat at one end, women at the other. A line of holding cells stretched along one long wall. In the center of the room was a massive administrative area where as many as a dozen correctional officers busied themselves with paperwork. Some sat in front of screens typing. Others sorted paper forms into stacks.

It was at this point that I asked a couple of my fellow arrestees if they had ever read any Michel Foucault. (They hadn’t so the conversation didn’t really go anywhere.)

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a philosopher who critiqued arrangements of power in social institutions. My favorite book of his is Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. In this book he studies the rise of the modern prison. He argues that the modern prison shifts the locus of punishment from the body (on which punishment is written) to the soul (on which discipline is enforced.) In other words, punishment used to delivered in the form of blows, lashes, and scars but is now accomplished through controlling and disciplining the human spirit.

That third room seemed to me to be a fascinating twist on panopticism. Foucault notes that architecture of modern prisons was designed to allow perfect surveillance of all prisoners at all times. (At the Wake County jail there are no bars, only windows.) This third room takes this to another level. The center of the room is not simply the all-seeing eye of the state, but the perfectly disciplined bureaucrat. The dozen correctional officers were performing the discipline the state aspires to normalize.

Here’s a passage from Discipline & Punish:
We are now far away from the country of tortures, dotted with wheels, gibbets, gallows, pillories… The carceral city, with its imaginary ‘geo-politics’, is governed by quite different principles. The prison is not the daughter of laws, codes or the judicial apparatus; it is not subordinated to the court and the docile or clumsy instrument of the sentences it hands out and of the results that it would like to achieve; it is the court that is external and subordinate to the prison. In the central position that it occupies, it is not alone, but linked to a whole series of ‘carceral’ mechanisms which seem distinct enough – since they are intended to alleviate pain, to cure, to comfort – but which all tend, like the prison, to exercise a power of normalization. These mechanisms are applied not to transgressions against a ‘central’ law, but to the apparatus of production – ‘commerce’ and ‘industry’…

Near us in the third room sat a homeless man, hopelessly waiting. He was brought to jail and charged with begging without a license. His “crime” in other words was not conforming to bureaucratic order. And the eleven of us arrested at Moral Mondays? We were charged with violating legislative office rules.


Foucault would have a lot to say about the Wake County jail.