Constructing Penal Modernity: A Comparative View of Twentieth-Century Prison Systems

AHA Session 13
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Dartmouth Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Klaus Mühlhahn, Indiana University
Stephen Andrew Toth, Arizona State University West

Session Abstract

What does a modern, progressive penal system look like and how can we construct it? This was the question posed time and again by penal reformers around the globe in the twentieth century. Attempting to put legacies of barbarism, colonialism, backwardness, warfare, totalitarianism, or simple apathy behind them, penologists, policy makers, and prison officials embarked on a host of reformist projects designed to bring modernity into the realm of judicial punishment. Due to the long-standing tradition of international collaboration in the prison reform movement, the details of such projects were often quite similar in nature. A near-global consensus that transcended ideology emerged, professing the overarching goal of rehabilitating convicts. This aim, though hardly new, came to dominate penological discourse and in many countries became the central organizing principle of penal institutions (at the expense of other fundamental concerns such as security, retribution, deterrence, and labor extraction). Prisons were renamed correctional facilities, living conditions for prisoners were ameliorated, vocational training and educational programs became widespread, community corrections programs such as probation and parole expanded rapidly, group and individualized therapy sessions were instituted, self-governing organizations for prisoners arose, and all of this was accomplished with the backing of scientific investigation into deviancy and in the name of social progress. Although such reform movements ebbed and waned over the course of the past century, virtually no prison system emerged unchanged. And the impact of these reforms extended beyond the penal sphere, influencing (and being influenced by) discussions on nationhood, modernity, democracy, race, and social welfare. Thus, penal discourse and reform is interesting both intrinsically and as a way of examining the broader society and political system. Seizing on the international scope of penal reform in the twentieth century, this panel is designed to explore how reform was expressed and instituted by three very different regimes: the late Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union, and California. The broad geographical scope of the papers make this session inherently comparative, and two of the essays are explicitly transnational in nature. The expertise of the chair and discussant, who specialize in the criminal justice systems of France (including its imperial possessions) and China, will provide additional points for comparison during the discussion period.

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