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  • Cultures of Confinement: A History of the Prison in Africa, Asia, and Latin America
  • John R. Pincince
Cultures of Confinement: A History of the Prison in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Edited by Frank DikötterIan Brown. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007. 384 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

Incarceration, as the primary form of punishment, deterrence, reform, or rehabilitation of criminal offenders, has a life history of some two hundred years. At various times and in various places, the modern prison supplanted premodern forms of punishment such as bodily mutilation, banishment, slavery, fines, and execution. This collection of essays, which emerged out of a series of workshops in 2005, explores the ways in which the modern prison emerged in a global historical context but was articulated, situated, and informed by local conditions. The contributors aim to examine the projected disciplinary goals of governing authorities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, while questioning the reality of an ordered and rigid penal system evident in Michel Foucault’s influential work on the genealogy of the modern European prison, Discipline and Punish (1977).

In the introduction, Frank Dikötter explains that the modern state evinced by Foucault, symbolized by the penetrating gaze of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, was far less a certainty in the real-life discursive practice of incarceration in realms other than modern Europe. Instead, Dikötter and the other six contributors to this nine-essay volume explore the “messy realities of incarceration” and the “limits of the state” (p. 9). The reality of social relations at the level of the prison reveals a system at odds and out of sorts with the discourse of modern state rationality. Moreover, the work of Foucault and that of other [End Page 556] social theorists such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim was focused on Europe, thus not only were the workings of colonial or non-European states ignored, but prisoner agency, violence, resistance, and convict-warder relations remained notably absent in concerns about the relationship between the modern state and the transformation of rationalizing discourses and practices (e.g., discipline and punishment) evident in the modern prison. Proposed in the eight essays is a global consideration, though regionally located, of the history of the prison in the modern era.

One of the main themes apparent in all the essays is the degree to which the modern prison lived up to instrumentalist visions and otherwise of incarceration. Each essay considers the role played by the prison over a period of two hundred years in deterring, punishing, reforming, or rehabilitating criminal offenders. Significant to such an understanding is the intersection between disciplinary institutions like the prison and the emergence and the consolidation of the modern state. How pervasive was state authority in creating a rational social order, inside and outside the porous walls of the modern prison? For the most part, the authors show that the prison essentially reinforced societal inequalities and served as laboratories for scientific research into the behavior of prisoners who were deemed representative of their communities outside the prison walls. This is reflected in Carlos Aguirre’s “Prisons and Prisoners in Modernising Latin America (1800–1940),” and Florence Bernault’s essay “The Shadow of Rule: Colonial Power and Modern Punishment in Africa,” both of which cover the longue durée of the prison, incorporating colonial rule and the emergence and development of modern independent nation-states.

In his essay “Regulation, Reform and Resistance in the Middle Eastern Prison,” Anthony Gorman examines the evolution of the modern prison from the 1830s in Algeria, Egypt, and the Ottoman Empire (and after 1923, the Republic of Turkey). The central themes are similar to those found in all the essays, exploring how the modern prison and incarceration became the primary mode of punishment for criminal offenders. Modern prisons, however, failed to exist as systems of reform or rehabilitation, and like modern prison systems globally, reproduce entrenched societal inequities.

The next two essays are situated topically in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. David Arnold’s “India: The Contested Prison” looks at the historical transformation of the prison in British India from the 1790s to the 1940s. By the twentieth century...


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