American Discipline: Is the United States an Example of Foucault’s Carceral State?

Article by Justin Peng, Harvey Mudd ‘24

  In his 1975 book, Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault details the birth of the modern prison, an evolutionary process that took place from the mid-18th to 19th century.1 Foucault argues that the evolution of punishment and the birth of the modern prison system was not a product of seeking to reform the treatment of prisoners but rather to improve the efficacy of the state’s exertion of power. Replacing the public execution and torture of the previous era, new methods of power sought to maintain power through more discreet methods. To Foucault, the state is the codification of all power relations in society - it is not the source of power, but instead seeks to control all the power in a given society. Foucault argues that this new method of power is formed through the development of discipline, a method in which every single aspect of an individual’s life is controlled, from constant surveillance and knowledge that permeates throughout various societal structures. In this paper, I will argue that the United States exemplifies certain aspects of Foucault’s theory of power and the prison. Specifically, the United States aligns itself Foucauldian paradigm because its goal is not to achieve reform or retribution to crime and its enforcement of the law is oriented toward mass surveillance and methods of self-governing. However, it falls short of a complete classification of Foucauldian carceral state as the United States has reverted to pre-prison forms of power that lessens its efficiency. This paper will explore Foucault’s theories of power and the prison in Discipline and Punish, specifically his analysis of the evolution of power as a violent public spectacle to less violent and more controlled methods, discipline as a means of power, and the concept of the modern prison. I will argue that certain aspects United States legal, penal, and carceral system are exemplifications of certain aspects of Foucault’s theories. I will point to specific examples that show that the United States prison industrial complex does not exist as an institution meant to achieve justice or reform. Rather, the United States maintains its disciplinary power through panoptical 1 social norms and surveillance, and that while the United States seeks to maintain an efficient implementation of power, its plethora of pre-prison punishment resultantly leads to that very same power being challenged.

    In Discipline and Punish, Foucault puts forward a theory of power and the rise of the prison system. Foucault argues that before the mid-18th century, power had been exerted in a public manner, through means of public torture or execution. Gruesome executions of individuals like Robert-François Damiens were designed to inflict the most pain possible in order to inspire fear within the observers. The unintended consequences associated with this exertion of power drove society to the creation of more efficient means of power, first by gentling the punishment from the mid to late-18th century onward. From this evolution arose discipline in the late-18th to early-19th century, a method in which modern institutions control the most precise aspects of the body with complete control over the body’s natural actions, spatial presence, and temporal trajectory. Thus, Foucault argues that the modern prison system arose, an all-encompassing institution that seeks to regulate every aspect of society.

    Foucault argues that prior to the mid-18th century, for the most part, power was exerted violently and publicly.2 Foucault begins Discipline and Punish by describing the gruesome torture of Robert-François Damiens, who was convicted of attempted regicide in the mid-18th century, “the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers.”2 The executions use of “red-hot pincers” to tear flesh from Damiens suggests that leading up to the mid-18th century, retribution for the crime committed was often achieved through inflicting excruciating amounts of pain that ultimately took the life of the convicted. Foucault argues that torture had several intended purposes. It was intended to terrorize the people and existed as a direct means of power, “reveal[ing] truth and show[ing] the operation of power,” extracting confessions, or publicizing the investigation.Torture also made the body of the punished the locus of power, “the place where the vengeance of the sovereign was applied.”However, torture sometimes produced unintended consequences. Oftentimes, the public would sympathize with the condemned and vilify the executioner, and therefore “could express its rejection of the punitive power and sometimes revolt.”5 While torture proved to be the most direct and terrifying means of power, its opportunity cost was too high. Thus, in order for the state to maintain greater stability of power, the system needed to be reformed.

    Foucault argues that this reform came first in the gentling of punishment. This gentling took the form of a public reformation of the convict. Foucault states that in the late-18th century, a reformist movement arose, “generalizing the punitive function and delimiting, in order to control it, the power to punish.”6 Reformists sought to make the display of power more controlled, and thus less likely to incite resistance to that power. Gentler methods like detention became the general form of legal punishment. Foucault provides several examples of this new form of punishment, one of which was the Walnut Street Prison. At the prison, prisoners were subject to a hyper-regulated lifestyle, “life was partitioned, therefore, according to an absolutely strict timetable, under constant supervision.”7 Instead of seeking to reflect the crime directly onto the convict’s body, the convicted would repay society through work that was proportional to and reflected their crimes. Although these methods may have had overlapped legal theory, held their basis in institutions, and employed moral justification, Foucault argues that these new methods of punishment are “modalities according to which the power to punish is exercised.” The beginning of generalized punishment, for Foucault, does not mark the beginning of criminal reform but instead marks the beginning of the optimization of power.

    Immediately after the late-18th century’s experiment of gentle punishment, further optimization would come in the form of discipline.9 In the early-19th century, discipline became the new basis of criminal punishment, becoming the modern prison’s defining feature and characterized by complete control over the most precise aspects of the body. Discipline seeks to create an individuality of the body, or in other words, regulate where it exists, how it acts, and the order in which an individual performs its acceptable actions. Foucault argues that discipline was constructed so that “each individual has his own place, and each place its individual.”9 This new form of discipline’s purpose was to eliminate any uncontrollable aspects of society, aiming to “establish presences and absences, to know where and how to locate individuals… to supervise the conduct of each individual.”11 Discipline also functioned to control the activity of individuals, determining what actions are “natural” to their bodies. Specifically, discipline determines the correct use of the body and sets “relations that the body must have with the object that it manipulates.”10 The pupil is required to have good handwriting, which in turn requires the proper use of the body in the form of proper posture. The soldier must interact with their rifle in a specific way, manipulating it by flipping and turning it in a predetermined set of steps.12 In addition, discipline also seeks to control the temporal aspects of the body. It seeks to break down time into threads, organize these threads and assign them to a body, orienting it towards a “terminal, stable point,” regulating their time with tasks that mold the individual toward a state of greater controllability.13 Finally, discipline regulates the combination of bodies into one. The body and its temporal regulation are a part of a “multi-segmentary machine” that requires a “precise system of command” that must carefully and methodically apply discipline to create docile bodies and requires disciplinary institutions to constantly observe and monitor the bodies they control to ensure the cementation of individuality.14 Foucault argues that discipline within 19th-century prisons required careful observation and that this observation was exemplified by Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon: to ensure disciplinary control, an institution needed to “induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”15 Discipline at this point can be seen as functioning as the ultimate culmination of power, one that seeks to control every aspect of the individual and requires absolute control.

    Foucault argues that this absolute control required the disciplinary institution to encompass all of society, and thus as the prison developed more efficient means of power, it became a part of a larger societal carceral system. Specifically, Foucault argues that the modern prison or penitentiary exemplifies discipline and power in society, describing the prison as “an institution that is able to control all aspects of the individual.”16 The modern prison isolates the convict from the outside world, completely regulates their time, and quantifies their punishment, that is, the modern prison disciplines its prisoners. Additionally, Foucault argues that the prison, “under the authority of medicine, psychology or criminology,” sought to transform the concept of the prisoner into that of the delinquent, a criminal set apart from society due to social norms rather than legal action.17 The prison system ensured it could not “fail to produce delinquents.”18 Foucault argues that prison was never meant to reform, but instead to produce a criminal class, delinquents, that are associated with the lower orders of society. Unlike the prisoners of the past, delinquents are not meant to be carefully controlled by the prison but instead can be used as a tool of the state. Their small size makes them easy to surveil, they are easily redirected to less dangerous forms of illegality, they can be used in colonization such as in the case of Guiana or New Caledonia,19 and can function as a “sub-police,” working with the police and becoming an instrument of the state as their willingness to inform allows for indirect surveillance of other individuals.20 Foucault thus concludes that the prison has become a part of Foucault’s state, an all-encompassing penal institution focused on the preservation of its power rather than its explicitly alleged purpose of reform and justice.

    Now that we have established the characteristics of discipline and punishment in Foucault’s carceral state, it is evident that many modern institutions embody these characteristics. I will next explore the prevalence of Foucauldian characteristics of one of these such institutions, the United States of America. First, I will examine the role of the prison system of the United States and disciplinary ethos will help demonstrate this point. The United States Department of Justice, and the mission of the Federal Bureau of Prisons more specifically “is to protect society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons… provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.”21 However, according to a 2011 Pew Center report, the United States has a 43% recidivism rate.22 Additionally, a third of prison admissions in 1997 were parole violations.23 Evidently, the United States prison system is ineffective at prisoner reform, creating a class of pseudo-delinquents by trapping criminals within the control of the state. If the goal of justice is to achieve retribution proportional to the crime committed, then the United States does not achieve it in many instances. Additional examples of failures of the proportional dispensation of justice include mandatory minimums for drug offenses that often provide disproportionate punishments for the crimes committed. Consider, for example, that a large majority of drug cases involve low-level offenders and distributing as little as 1 gram of LSD or 5 grams of crack cocaine carries a minimum five-year sentence without parole.24 The United States prison system functions similarly to Foucault’s penitentiary: the length of detention is not determined by the severity of the crime but instead by the power dynamics that function within the prison-industrial complex. The United States prison system fundamentally fails at its advertised goals to reform prisoners and achieve justice.

    Although the United States prison system appears to be an institution with Foucauldian motivations, it falls short of success, reverting to pre-prison forms of power in certain instances. Foucault directly emphasizes the move away from violent punishments directed on the body in the modern prison. To Foucault, modern punishment and discipline were obtained through the coercion of the prisoner’s mind and body to obtain complete control rather than physical punishment. The complete control of the prisoner’s behavior and life is prioritized over exceedingly inhumane conditions and conspicuous physical punishments. However, prison conditions in the United States create an environment that is filled with these inhumane conditions and violent punishments. In the United States, the prison system fails to protect its inmates from physical harm and sexual assault. More than half of prisoners in the United States have some form of mental illness and prison officials frequently fail to provide proper services, instead of resorting to physical punishment from violent correctional officers and psychological torture in the form of prolonged solitary confinement.25 Although the United States prison industrial complex does not seem to be successful in its advertised correctional goals, it also does not align with all of the characteristics of Foucault’s coercive power. The prison perhaps fails to effectively implement Foucault’s discipline, giving up on subtle coercive power and relapsing back to violent and less sophisticated forms of punishment. Rather, it exists as a direct symbol of the state’s power, aligning itself with premodern methods that focus on isolation and physical punishment more than the mental manipulation of Foucault’s modern prison.

    According to Foucault, the modern prison is a component of the carceral state, an encompassing-societal system that functions utilizing the discipline of its citizens, extending beyond the prison walls and into schools, hospitals, and other institutions. Next, I will examine methods of discipline in the United States, and their ability to deter certain behavior in citizens. A social norm that has held great and lasting influence over the lives of individuals within the United States is the concept of the American dream, the ideal that within the United States that great socioeconomic mobility exists as long as an individual is willing to work hard enough to achieve it. Much like Foucault’s theory of control over the activity of the individual, within the American land of opportunity, for most individuals, it is natural to display hard work and productivity within legal economic systems. Those who are deemed unproductive to these legal economic systems are relegated to the lowest ends of society, where the state is better able to exert its influence on them. For example, in the United States, adults living in poverty are three times more likely to be arrested than those who are not and individuals whose income is less than 150% of the Federal poverty guidelines are fifteen times more likely to be charged with a felony.26 The American dream exists not necessarily to demonstrate the plethora of opportunity for economic growth within the United States but to serve as an efficient ideological means of disciplining its citizens. The system is designed to form productive bodies, relegating its delinquents to an area where it will have greater control over them. In addition to social norms, the United States employs methods of observation and the threat of observations to prevent them from breaking laws or behaving undesirabely, conducting surveillance akin to the Foucauldian panopticon. A significant portion of crime deterrence in the United States comes as a threat of observation. For example, grocery stores greet you with a message informing you that you are being recorded. Legal authorization from the Patriot Act and Protect America Act facilitates the government’s panoptical monitoring of phone calls and internet activity of its population to prevent any activity deemed dangerous by the state.27 In an effort to control its citizens, the United States exercises methods of surveillance, deterring them more easily from acting undesirable and thus preserving their controllability.

    If the United States reflects Foucault’s theories of power and the prison, then displays of previous power should serve as a deterrent to the power-driven goals of the state. That is, misapplications of power should have negative consequences for the efficiency of the state as Foucault’s theory predicts. I will next examine misapplications of power within the United States, specifically direct punishments of the body, and their consequences for the state. The simplest example of this misapplication is that of capital punishment. The death penalty is one of the only legal forms of direct punishment to the body. It is thus no surprise that due to questions surrounding the ethicality of executing a prisoner, there exists a large movement to abolish its practice. Many states in the United States have already succumbed to these demands, removing them from their catalog of legal punishment and thus weakening state power. Another salient example of these direct punishments of the body is that of police brutality. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an African American man was killed when Derek Chauvin, a police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. The killing of George Floyd holds similarities to executions of the past: a public spectacle in which punishment is directed toward the body of the convicted for the crime the convicted had committed.28 This application of power directed toward the body demonstrated the inefficiencies that Foucault described. George Floyd became a focal point of sympathy and admiration. Stories were shared about his personality, family, and other elements of his life before death. Like the revolutionary uprising against public violence of the past, Derek Chauvin was immediately vilified, with many calling for his arrest along with the three other officers. Protests erupted around the nation, calling for the defunding or even abolition of police forces. Similar behavior of the populace occurred previously and continued to occur with the killings of individuals like Eric Garner or Breonna Taylor, thus providing evidence in favor of Foucault’s theory of torture and portraying its nature and consequences.

    The United States displays many characteristics of the Foucauldian carceral state. Legal methods and social norms can produce docile bodies that are easily controlled by the state. Power is most efficient when the state employs methods for its citizens to control themselves, not through forcible instillation of behavior. Misapplications of power in the form of torture as a public spectacle have disadvantageous consequences for those in power, as public executions like that of George Floyd have led to calls to dismantle systems of power within the United States. Although the prison system may not necessarily be designed to reform its prisoners, it also fails to do what Foucault deems a necessary characteristic of the modern prison: the coercion and training of the prisoner.

    Although the United States holds many similar characteristics to Foucault’s description of the prison, its disciplinary power is not yet optimized as Foucault’s theory predicts. Specifically, while the United States government functions like a codification of power that seeks to control the systems of power within its borders, violent actions by those who work within the prison industrial complex compromise the efficiency of the control. The United States functions as a pseudo-carceral state, one which can discipline its citizens but cannot do so efficiently. Society is blind to these efforts to optimize its power, intimidated by the threat of observation, unaware of the secretive punishment within the prison system, or coerced by disciplinary power. To create real change within the systems of power, one must learn to recognize instances of the carceral state's attempts to improve the efficacy of its power. We only see the egregious misapplications of power, not the forces that control the way we operate our bodies and interact with the world around us.


1.  The panopticon is a prison first devised by Jeremy Bentham, composed of a guard tower surrounded by cells in which the guard could see into every cell but the prisoners could not see into the tower. Foucault uses the panopticon as an exemplification of surveillance: the prisoners must behave themselves as they will never know if a guard is watching.
2.  Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan, 2nd ed. (Vintage Books, 1995), 11.
3.  Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 55.
4.  Ibid., 55.
5.  Ibid., 59.
6.  Ibid., 101.
7.  Ibid., 124.
8.  Ibid., 131.
9.  Ibid., 143.
10.  Ibid., 143
11.  Ibid., 152
12.  Ibid., 153.
13.  Ibid., 160.
14.  Ibid., 166.
15.  Ibid., 201.
16.  Ibid., 235.
17.  Ibid., 256.
18.  Ibid., 268.
19.  Foucault states that the colonization of territories like Guiana and New Caledonia was facilitated through the deportation of criminals. Ibid, 279.
20. Ibid., 278-280.
21.  “Organization, Mission and Functions Manual: Federal Bureau of Prisons,” August 27, 2014,
22.  “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” June 11, 2014,
23.  Paula Ditton and Doris James Wilson, “Truth in Sentencing in State Prisons,” n.d., 16.
24.  Eric Sterling, “Drug Laws And Snitching - A Primer,” n.d.,
25.  “Prison Conditions,” Equal Justice Initiative, accessed April 2, 2021,
26.  Bailey Gray and Doug Smith, “Return to Nowhere: The Revolving Door Between Incarceration and Homelessness,” February 2019.
27.  “What Is the USA Patriot Web,”  United States Department of Justice Archive,; “What Is the Protect America Act?,” United States Department of Justice Archive,
28.  In this case, the punishment was disproportionate to the crime, contrary to Foucault’s analysis