Understanding the Second Great Confinement: ... to Be "Tough on Crime" Is a Very Easy Sell These Days, and Few Seem to Care That We Are Equally Tough on Civilization

By Snider, Laureen | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Second Great Confinement: ... to Be "Tough on Crime" Is a Very Easy Sell These Days, and Few Seem to Care That We Are Equally Tough on Civilization


Snider, Laureen, Queen's Quarterly


LAUREEN SNIDER teaches sociology at Queen's University, where she specializes in issues of criminal justice and corporate crime. She is the author of Bad Business: Corporate Crime in Canada.

UNDER the guise of protecting the public from crime and disorder, Western societies in recent years have embarked on a criminalization crusade. While rates of violent crime fall, incarceration rates continue to soar. It is bizarre indeed that in an era of massive state downsizing, with public expenditures in free fall, state machinery to stigmatize and punish, and budgets for policing and criminal justice, have gone up. Controlling risks generated by the cupidity of corporate capital has led to deregulation, dismantling governmental machinery to detect and monitor illegal acts (from dumping unsafe substances to falsifying the results of experiments on the safety of new chemicals and drugs to manufacturing faulty medical devices); controlling risks generated by the cupidity of individuals - thieves and muggers - has led to increased state intervention, more and tougher laws, preventive detention, and boot camps. No lack of faith in government remedies here, no campaigns against government interference!

And in an era when democratic politics is marked by increasing incivility and instability, with regional and linguistic splits and ongoing battles between social movements, there is general agreement on penality. Moreover the United States, one of the most violent and disordered countries in the developed world, and certainly among the least successful in controlling criminal behaviour, has become the world-wide model. Its customs, fears, and practices drive penal policy everywhere else. The purpose of this article is to examine the drive to incarcerate, asking why systems of punishment have come to be seen as just about the only legitimate government function.

This is not an argument that crime does not matter, or that serious interpersonal violence should be ignored. On the contrary, I think it is essential to examine the criminogenic potential of policies now widespread in Western democracies, policies creating populations that are increasingly desperate, economically, socially and psychologically; policies driven by the transformation of citizens - with roots, allegiances and regional identities - into consumers, driven by the need to consume the maximum possible amount at the lowest possible (monetary) price. (1) It is an argument that present-day responses to crime are rooted in beliefs that are inaccurate, and benefit interests that have not been critically examined.

THE urge to incarcerate lawbreakers is not new, but its present scope and intensity is. This is not because the will to punish was absent in the past. The first "great confinement," in the eighteenth century, was linked to the early stages of the industrial revolution, when owners of land and capital began taking back rights and privileges historically granted to the landless. Thus land was reclaimed for sheep grazing (the infamous clearances), labourers were forbidden to take crops left in the fields after harvest (a practice known as gleaning) or to take fish and game on the lord's lands (poaching - nominally illegal but generally allowed). The closing off of all legal means of subsistence meant that the rural poor were forced off the land to seek jobs in the new mills and factories. Over the ensuing 200 years the rural peasant populations of Europe were transformed into an urban proletariat, a more or less disciplined working class. Indeed penitentiaries, invented early in the nineteenth century, were hailed as part of that process, institutions that would, it was hoped, reform the profligate, immoral, vice-ridden underclasses of Manchester and London, and the Irish immigrants (refugees of crop failures such as the potato famine) who worried the respectable classes in Toronto, Halifax, and New York. Penitentiaries, then, were seen as places where defective human beings would become, literally, penitent. …

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