In his book, Reflections on Hanging (Page 15 in Macmillan Company, 1957) Arthur Koestler notes that,

“sentences of death were passed on children as late as 1833 – when a boy of nine was sentenced to hang for pushing the stick through a cracked shop window and pulling out printer's color to the value of a tuppence, but was respited owing to public protest. Samuel Rogers relates in his Table Talk that he saw “a cartload of young girls, in dresses of various colors, on their way to be executed at Tyburn”. And Greville Describes the trial of several young boys who were sentenced to death “to their excessive amazement” and broke into tears. He laconically remarks: “Never did I see boys cry so.”
In 1801, Andrew Branding, aged 13, was publicly hanged for breaking into a house and stealing a spoon. In 1808 a girl aged seven was publicly hanged at Lynn. In 1831, a boy of nine was publicly hanged at Chelmsford for having set fire to a house, and another aged 13 at Maidstone.

We no longer hang children. One has to admit that this looks like progress. And I suppose it is. Nevertheless what we are seeing is not the movement toward a freer society, but the development of a new “technology of control,” to use Michael Foucault's apt term. While this new technology is less brutal, and perhaps more civilized, it nevertheless promises to make us even less free than were in previous generations. Let me share an example of our new technology of control, from the on-line magazine, Salon.

“Every Wednesday afternoon I find a seat in a windowless basement room, in a circle of 25 people. The chairs are metal, hard and cold, and the level of discomfort far more than physical. There are eight teenage boys and two therapists, and all the rest of us are parents and grandparents. We are bewildered, we are depressed and we are all consigned to this room for months. I am sick for hours beforehand and a day or more afterwards, unable to sleep in peace, to eat, to hold a casual conversation. These boys, including my son, are sex offenders. We, as their parents, are complicit in crimes hard to explain or define. Recently I asked my 14-year-old son what he's learned from the painful events of the last year, and he said, "I've learned sex is bad. I don't want to think about it anymore."

Here we no longer have a young teenage boy on the scaffold as an example of what happens to people who offend the King, or break the rules established by the powers that be. The boy is tucked away in a “treatment facility” that is generally speaking not visible to the general public. Here in one of the many dark and partially hidden places of imprisonment in our current social landscape, the boy and his parents are subjected to an elaborate technology of control. What are the elements of the system of control in the facility that is described in this Salon article?


  • Careful, top-down, hierarchical observation.

  • An environment of clearly formulated, rigid, and unquestionable standards of normality.

  • An ongoing process of examination to determine the degree to which the participants in the environment conform to these standards.

  • The categorization of people by scientific or pseudoscientific labels that indicate the manner in which, and the degree to which, individuals deviate from the standards of normality.

  • A program for micromanaging the behavioral conformity to the norms by the participants in the environment.

  • A system of rewards and punishments that facilitates the micromanagement.

  • A metanarrative, enforced by those in power, in terms of which the behavior of the participants is interpreted.

  • An almost complete disregard for the dreams, desires, curiosities, and aspirations of the participants.

  • A relentless attack on any of the narratives that participants might articulate to interpret their own behavior whenever these narratives are in conflict with the officially prescribed metanarratives.

  • A prohibition against escaping from the institution.

In other words what we see here is an example of what Irving Goffman would call a “Total Institutions” (See his work, Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates, and/or this article:Total Institution).

Foucault refers to this kind of social organization as a “complete and austere institution”. “See his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Foucault suggests that institutions of this kind emerged with the advent of the modern prison – which he dates to be in the middle of the 19th century. He would further suggest that our current treatment facilities and mental hospitals, as well as our prisons, use the prisons that developed at that time as their model. However preferable being detained in such a place might be to being tortured and hanged in a public spectacle, our mental hospitals and treatment facilities are in fact prison-like. The boy described in the salon article was guilty of having become involved in some mutually desired sex play with his younger brother. Whatever one thinks of such sex play, it would appear that imprisoning the boy was something of an overreaction. Nevertheless, one can at least say that the boy had broken a social norm that probably a majority of people in our society feel very strongly about. Although young, he fit, in some sense, our society's definition of a “sex offender.” It is felt by many Americans that such institutions, as ugly as they are, are needed for dealing with people who break society's rules. Whether this is true, at least the other institutions that the children and adults in our societies normally inhabit are not of this nature. Or are they? What about the school that this boy would have been attending with his peers had he not been incarcerated?

Certainly in school systems we have a top-down ongoing hierarchical system of observation, and an environment of clearly formulated and somewhat rigid standards of normality. Also very much in evidence in our schools is an ongoing process of examination, not only to measure academic achievement, but also to assess behavioral conformity. Many people question the scientific validity of most of the diagnostic labels that are placed upon children in our public schools. Some do not, but it is hardly debatable that “mental health” labeling takes place, and that the intent of this labeling is to indicate the individual's deviation from “normality.” The primary system of rewards and punishments by which children are molded is the grading system, but in addition to this there are many other rewards and punishments for desired or undesired behavior. Whenever a child is “in trouble” it is the narrative of the administrators, or of mental health workers, and not the child's narrative that is given credence in interpreting the child's behavior. The child's narratives are written off as simply “excuses.” Perhaps a hypothetical example will clarify this point.

Teacher: “The child lacks discipline and motivation.”

Mental health worker: “The child has attention deficit disorder.”

Child: “The things you're trying to teach me have nothing to do with what I'm really interested in.”

The fact is that the prearranged curriculum that is enforced both on students and teachers betrays a total disregard for the interests and natural curiosities of the children in the school. Finally, going to school is not something from which a child can escape, nor can s/he decide what kind of school s/he wants to attend. Our normal schools actually look very much like what Goffman would describe as “total institutions”. To the extent that this is true, they are prison-like.

The kind of discipline exercised over people in the branches of our military forces obviously fit our description of what happens in total institutions. The same could be said for traditional religious orders. I suspect that if one examined very carefully the workplaces in which most people spend the major portion of their waking lives, one would find a similar story. The fact is that our society is organized in terms of large bureaucracies in which the decision-making and control is entirely top-down, and which use a technology of power that is very similar to that which is used in prisons, mental hospitals, the military, schools and religious orders. Of course in the case of work there is no overt prohibition against “escaping”. However for most people, escaping from their job will either put them in a situation of dire financial crisis, or force them into another worksite which will be much the same as the one they left. To summerise, while we believe ourselves to be living in a “free society” in fact most of us spend our lives in bureaucracies and within other social organizations in which we have nothing at all to say about their purposes, the way in which resources are distributed, or the norms that guide the interaction of their members. This is not a free life.

With the advent of the women's liberation movement, families have made some progress. The desires and thoughts of both parents must be taken into consideration with regard to decision-making. Yet it never occurs to most parents that for the children the family is still a total institution. It is simply headed by two authorities, rather than one. An example of this is the total disregard of the child's wishes when parents separate. Typically there is an extended debate and struggle between the adults with regard to whom the child will live with. A child's wishes in this regard are generally ignored. The obvious solution to this is simple. Unless there is an overwhelming reason to prevent him or her from having what s/he wants, the child should be able to decide for him or herself with whom he wants to live. A similar disregard for the children's wishes is in evidence around decisions about moving, or school attendance. In fact if a child lives in a traditional authoritarian family, and goes to the typical public school, his or her aspirations are almost totally irrelevant to what happens in his or her life. Increasingly children are observed and micromanaged from the moment they get up in the morning until they go to bed at night.

It is not just that our government has been co-opted by a tiny group of the very rich – though I do not minimize the importance of this fact. The larger problem is that a prison mentality and prison-like structures dominate every sphere of our society – our families, our schools, our churches, our businesses, our mental health and social service systems, and of course our huge military organizations our banks and the multinational corporations.

When we realize that the society in which we live is very much like a prison it is easy to surrender to the temptation of despair. What action is possible in the face of an imprisonment that is so profound and extensive – so deeply ingrained into the fabric of our lives? The situation in which we find ourselves is undoubtedly fraught with danger. The wealthy elite at the top have established a social/economic/political system that works exclusively for their own interests and does not need to take into consideration the needs of the imprisoned majority. In doing so it has created a system that is radically unsustainable. The need to produce quick profits for the already wealthy trumps all other considerations. Even the need to maintain an intact ecological balance is ignored. Ultimately the viability of the human species is in doubt. And even if those in power succeed in maintaining a system that does not totally melt down, increasingly we will find ourselves living in a 1984 type of dysphoria – a human ant-heap in which we are no longer free human beings. Many of us feel powerless to do anything relevant to prevent the realization of these bleak prospects for the future.

If the current direction of history continues unabated, then perhaps there is no hope. Yet history is not a simple mechanical thing that we can predict with certainty. It takes unexpected turns, and moves off in directions that no one would have predicted. We don't know what the possible effects of our efforts might be. We do know that, whatever mechanisms it uses, evolution is real. More complex organisms, capable of richer and more satisfying experiences, have in fact emerged from simple organisms. Although the process is not straightforward and uninterrupted, the evolution of culture is also a reality. When one country defeats another in a war, it no longer rushes in to murder all of the adult males, and take the females and children into slavery. Slavery as it existed a mere 150 years ago in the United States has become unthinkable. Gays have rights. Women have rights. People of color have rights. Although we do little about it, an ecological consciousness is emerging in humanity. However insensitive, repressive and even brutal our treatment of children who have broken social norms still is, we at least do not hang them in public squares. That too has become unthinkable.

All of this is not to suggest that we've solved all our problems. Our technological evolution has far outstripped our spiritual and cultural evolution. We are like a tribe of chimpanzees who have been able to arm themselves with revolvers. Yet because history is unpredictable, and evolution is real, there is reason to hope and to make efforts. The outcome of the human experiment hangs in the balance. Our refusal to give in to despair could be pivotal with regard to the eventual success of this enigmatical and destructive, yet exquisitely beautiful species that is us.

It is not as though democratic alternatives to the prison-like social forms that now dominate our lives have not been developed. I would mention a few just to illustrate this point. One example is found in programs and ideas that radically increase the participation of developmentally delayed individuals in the decisions that determine the course of their lives. The philosophy behind such programs is well expressed in a groundbreaking article entitled The Dignity of Risk. The application of this point of view requires the full participation of both staff and residents in decison making as explicated in this article on participatory administration. It is also now understood that programs and policies for people with physical disabilities must include everybody in the planning and decision-making processes. See for example, Nothing About Us Without Us. Very successful nonauthoritarian residential alternatives to mental hospitals for people with problems in living have been implemented in the past. Also, people with psychiatric labels have organized themselves in a progressive, democratic and laudable advocacy group. For information on this organization and on alternatives to traditional psychiatry, check the Mind Freeom site.  Worker owned businesses have a history that demonstrates their viability. For example, see this article.  Progressive schools that take into account the children's interests and curiosities, and that include them in the decision-making processes, have been tried with success For a very brief introduction to the philosophy behind this approach to schooling, see this article. Progressive homeschooling – especially when this is done by a group of families to avoid social isolation – as been shown to be a more enlightened and happier alternative to public school for many children. It is true that these efforts are small in comparison to the massive bureaucracies of the mainstream, yet they do provide us with models to build upon. A small wealthy elite, in collusion with people who feel more secure in an authoritarian environment, presently seems to have a stranglehold on human development. For the moment it appears that progressive and democratic experiments in most spheres of life must grow in the cracks and crannies of the larger society. Yet in spite of the obstacles they face, many thrive.

People have a variety of reasons for supporting prison-like arrangements in our social institutions. With some, it is simply a matter that such arrangements are familiar, and therefore they feel secure with them. Some are motivated by authoritarian religious commitments, and want to impose what they believe to be a divinely ordained order of things on the rest of us, and, of course, this requires a variety of arrangements for the incarceration of dissenters. Others equate democracy with chaos and disorder. The most powerful group that is interested in maintaining a prison based society is the wealthy elite – the small minority of people who run the banks and the multi-national corporations. Whatever the motivation that leads people to support a prison-like organization of society, the prison mentality leads to the erection of walls between people – walls that are unhealthy for humanity and ultimately for the earth itself. These walls are typically gated communities on the one hand and imprisoned populations on the other. It is no longer just that we have a few prisons scattered around the landscape. Prison systems increasingly define the landscape.

Israel is an extreme example, but is atypical only in the degree to which it has instituted the prison model. Within the Gaza Strip there are what we normally think of as prisons, for dealing with those who have opposed the stealing of their land and the atrocities that Israel has imposed on them. Within these prisons are even tighter prisons – places of more intense control and privation for those who remain unruly even in prison. We have a pattern of concentric circles of ever increasing control and privation as one moves toward the center. But in a situation of this kind, one never gets out of prison. The whole of the Gaza strip is a prison. The most that “good behavior” can provide is a somewhat more comfortable cell. Then, within this imprisoned land, one finds the “settlements.” Here are the gated communities of the powerful and privileged minority – there for the purpose of overseeing a continuing process of slow genocide, and the theft of what little land remains to the Palestinians. Israel itself has become a gated community. Ironically, gated communities themselves gradually become prison-like. The walls keep the dangerous underprivileged people out, but they also enclose and isolate the people within from the rest of the world.

The Gaza Strip is a humanly created hell in its own right, but I present it here as a metaphor of what we are seeing everywhere in the world. Everywhere we are building taller walls against each other – sometimes literal walls like those across the southern border of the United States, and sometimes less visible walls like those that separate our populations into areas for the haves and areas for the have-nots without the use of literal walls. Perhaps the important principle to keep in mind is that when we imprison the other, we also imprison ourselves. Our gated communities are also prisons. To lock others out, we must lock ourselves in.

This structure of things – with the wealthy in their gated communities and the poor imprisoned in their slums and in the literal prisons created for them – is not healthy for the earth. For one thing it supports a minority of people who consume far more of the earth's resources than is sustainable. The earth cannot afford billionaires. Then it supports a system in which this small minority of people are able to make decisions that do not have to take into consideration the consequences for the imprisoned majority. So we pollute and endanger our ecological substrate, we create the conditions that will in all likelihood lead to nuclear war, we make economic decisions that further enrich the already wealthy and impoverish the majority of people, and they widen the gap between the rich and the poor, a gap that will create enormous social unrest within counties. It is inevitable that this unrest that will increasingly manifest itself in violence.

Let us not be deceived by all this. Prisons are part of a system that has the primary purpose of protecting the wealthy again the poor. This has long been the purpose of the punishments meted out by our legal systems. Consider, for example, this statement delivered by a man on a scaffold, just before he is to be hanged in 1738, as described by Arthur Kessler in “Reflections on Hanging”.

My friends, you assembled to see – what? A man leap into the abyss of death! You see what I am – a little fellow. My Redeemer knows that murder was far from my heart, and what I did was through rage and passion, being provoked by the deceased. You'll say I killed the man. Marlborough killed his thousands, and Alexander his millions. I'm a little murderer and must be hanged. Marlborough and Alexander plundered countries; they were great men. I ran into debt with the Alewife. I must be hanged. How many men were lost in Italy, and upon the Rhine, during the last war for settling a king in Poland. Both sides could not be right! They are great men; but I killed a solitary man”.

Indeed, Reagan was a great man, as were both Bushes, as is Obama, though they have killed their thousands and millions. Never mind that they have broken international laws over and over – including laws such as the Nuremberg Accords, that the United States helped create. Never mind that they assassinate whomever they wish whenever they wish – that they torture people, overthrow democratically elected governments etc. etc. The law was never intended for the rich and powerful. We have refined our technologies of power, but that principle remains intact.

If we are to solve the problems that face us as a species, it will happen only by working together – by establishing systems that equitably distribute the world's goods, that provide access to the basics needed for a decent life to everybody, that involve everyone in the decision-making, and that create sustainable environments. A prison model for social organization and control does none of these things. It invariably operates in the service of the powerful few. We need to convert not just our nation states, but our businesses, our social service organizations, our schools, our hospitals and our homes into democracies. That means sharing both resources and decision-making authority with everybody.

We are witnessing the unraveling of the present order of things. We see this in the breaking away of many countries from the American World Empire. We see it in the huge economic crisis that “neo-liberal” economics has created for the entire world. We see it in the ecological crises that are visibly and dramatically affecting the lives of billions of people. The center cannot hold. The old order is breaking down. Efforts to maintain it with more intense forms of repression and violence are inevitable, but the success of these efforts is not certain. A breakdown as massive as the current one is a time of both danger and opportunity. People may seek the security of authoritarian leaders who will attempt to impose even more rigid forms of unfreedom on the people of the world. The world could become even more prison-like – and more dangerously out of balance. On the other hand as the unraveling proceeds there may be more and more crannies and cracks within which new and more democratic forms can take root. And this could lead to a freer and more equitable world. It is at least possible that our spiritual and cultural evolution will catch up with our technological evolution in time to prevent either the extinction of the species, or our conversion into a rigidly controlled ant-heap.