Reading Godwin, Puar, and Sullivan: Caleb Williams (1794), Terrorist Assemblages (2007), and Prison Religion (2009)

From William Godwin’s Things as They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794):

Among my melancholy reflections I tasked my memory, and counted over the doors, the locks, the bolts, the chains, the massy walls, and grated windows that were between me and liberty. ‘These,’ said I, ‘are the engines that tyranny sits down in cold and serious meditation to invent. This is the empire that man exercises over man. Thus is a being, formed to expatiate, to act, to smile, and enjoy, restricted and benumbed. How great must be his depravity or heedlessness, who vindicates this scheme for changing health and gaiety and serenity, into the wanness of a dungeon, and the deep furrows of agony and despair!’

‘Thank God,’ exclaims the Englishman, ‘we have no Bastille! Thank God, with us no man can be punished without a crime!’ Unthinking wretch! Is that a country of liberty, where thousands languish in dungeons and fetters? Go, go, ignorant fool! and visit the scenes of our prisons! witness their unwholesomeness, their filth, the tyranny of their governors, the misery of their inmates! After that, show me the man shameless enough to triumph, and say, England has no Bastille! Is there any charge so frivolous upon which men are not consigned to those detested abodes? Is there any villainy that is not practised by justices and prosecutors? But against all this perhaps you have been told there is redress. Yes; a redress, that it is the consummation of insult so much as to name! Where shall the poor wretch reduced to the last despair, and to whom acquittal perhaps comes just time enough to save him from perishing,—where shall this man find leisure, and much less money, to see counsel and officers, and purchase the tedious dear-bought remedy of the law? No; he is too happy to leave his dungeon, and the memory of his dungeon, behind him; and the same tyranny and wanton oppression become the inheritance of his successor.

For myself, I looked round upon my walls, and forward upon the premature death I had too much reason to expect: I consulted my own heart, that whispered nothing but innocence; and I said, ‘This is society. This is the object, the distribution of justice, which is the end of human reason. For this sages have toiled, and midnight oil has been wasted. This!’ (Penguin Classics ed, 188-89)

From Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (2007):

Coexisting with practices of torture, the crafting of corporeal affectivities is a central tenet in the accommodation and recognition of cultural difference. Forms of corporeal practice, more insidious and less overt than torture, groom the detained body. The detainee defies the distinction between life and death, bringing biopolitics and necropolitics into crisis. The detainee is not left to die, but mandated to live. It is crucial that he or she remain alive to impart his or her knowledge of terrorist secrets to the outsourced corporate counterterrorism interrogators. How is the detainee not only left for dead, as it were, but also primed for life, primed to live through his or her dying?

Incarcerated detainees at Guantanamo Bay undergo a full (intrusive) medical examination (for some, purportedly the first ever), are assessed for mental illness and depression, and gain an average of thirteen pounds within the first three months of arriving. They are given individual copies of the Koran in Arabic and English (on which guards have been accused of urinating) and are able to pray five times a day next to arrows inscribed with the number of kilometers of distance between Camp X-Ray and Mecca. These bodies are not only being commanded to the restoration of the properly visible. (The name of the detention site, Camp X-Ray, suggests in itself a profound yearning for the transparency of these bodies, the capacity to see through them and render them known, taciturn, disembodied.) It is the reterritorialization of the body that must be performed through the ritual of cutting and shaving hair.

As a regulatory mechanism of population, the “detainee”—not legal or illegal, but un-legal—is a machination of ceremonial scrutiny and sheer domination, disallowed from the rehabilitating forces pressed upon and adopted by others. (157-58, endnotes removed)

From Winifred Sullivan’s Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution (2009):

Notwithstanding the common acceptance of the prison as the preferred form of punishment in the modern West, lingering questions remain: “Why imprison?” Does prison work? Under what circumstances should a modern democratic state restrict the freedom of one of its citizens or of any person under its control? The existence of the U.S. Detention center at Guantanamo Bay is a daily reminder of the unsettled nature of this issue. But the millions of Americans  who are confined in state and federal prisons throughout the United States are no less a matter of concern. A commonplace among scholars of criminology is that little or no data or theory of human behavior or society exists to support reliance on the prison as the answer to crime. No theory of justice, and no theory of how best to prepare prisoners for return to society, can justify the many lengthy sentences meted out by U.S. courts. Furthermore, given the meager resources dedicated to the rehabilitation of prisoners in the United States, there is little hope for addressing the needs of those prisoners; 90 percent of them suffer from substance abuse and 50 percent from mental health problems and a substantial number are nonliterate. Under these conditions, what can imprisonment hope to accomplish other than the temporary removal of some of society’s members and emotional satisfaction for those who fear them? (6-7, endnotes removed)


In the United States today more than 7 million people, or 3.2 percent of the population, are incarcerated or on parole or probation, the highest per capita rate in the world. Russia is second. [. . .] In 1972 the incarceration rate in the United States was approximately 110 per 100,000 and had been for most of the twentieth century. In 2007 the rate was 737 per 100,000. Recidivism is a serious problem, as high as 70-80 percent in some places in the United States. Costs have increased dramatically, while funding has increased at a lower rate, resulting in substantially strapped state and federal correctional systems. Federal and state systems have cut back on in-prison courses and rehabilitation programs. Meanwhile, there is tremendous ambivalence about prison reform, and law-and-order populism continues, largely unabated. (95-96, endnotes removed)


Compressing a large body of research, his own and that of others, [David] Garland lists twelve signs of the dramatic transformation in American penal culture over the past few decades:

* The decline of the rehabilitative ideal as the result of critiques from the right and the left that have demolished the optimism of the “penal-welfare” framework.

* The re-emergence of punitive sanctions and expressive justice, the reappearance of “just deserts” language and an authorizing of discourse.

* Changes in the emotional tone of crime policy resulting in a new focus on fear.

* The return of the victim such that the victim is no longer an unfortunate citizen but is now a representative member of a class.

* The primacy given to the protection of a population that is increasingly risk-averse.

* The politicization of crime and populist politics evident in such policies as three strikes you’re out laws and zero-tolerance.

* The reinvention of the prison as a place of incapacitation and punishment rather than rehabilitation.

* The transformation of criminological thought from treatment to control.

* The expanding infrastructure of crime prevention and community, including community policing.

* The commercialization of crime control through the privatization of security.

* New management styles and working practices characterized by managerialism.

* A perpetual sense of crisis in which expertise is discredited and disregarded in favor of lay solutions. (96-97, endnotes removed)

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