Sincronía Spring 2002

Theorizing Aging and Prisons



This article provides a philosophical critique and analysis of the development and consolidation of prison officer power in the United Kingdom. It fundamentally questions the philosophical assumption that the role of the prison officer has evolved benevolently and independently, uncontested in their work and unbiased in their penal practices. Indeed, in the past fifteen years, penal policy in USA, UK and Australasia has focused on the management of prisoners with particular emphasis on the reform of the prison apparatuses (Woolf 1990). In the case of the UK, the process of Lord Woolf’s report was imposed by central government backed up by appalling prison conditions (Sim 1992; Sim and Ryan 1996). Woolf’s (1990) reforms offered the promise of greater autonomy for both prison workers and prisoners through the introduction of neo-liberal strategies of the ‘social contract’ and ‘responsible prisoner’ into policy areas traditionally directly controlled and subsidised by the U.K Home Office.

Indeed, the nature and fundamental principle of such prison provision for inmates has been the central cornerstone in debates within critical criminology in recent years. The continuing euphony of this question, and the powerful consciousness which it generates, is inextricably associated to the perceived role of the prison officer as a bulwark against an encroaching tide of criminality (Sim 1990). A distinctive feature of the prison system in the 1990s has been the systematic introduction of managerialism. Thus, John Clarke (1994) points not only to the substantial increase in the number of people working in welfare organisations with the title 'manager'; but also to the transformation of many formerly professionalised roles, into 'hybrids', where a significant aspect of the occupational identity is managerial. This is increasingly the case, for example, with head teachers, general practitioners, care managers and prison officers. Prison managerialism constitutes a move away from direct control towards ‘monitoring’ budgets associated with prison social relations. It was created as an economic solution looking for a social problem: prison life.

In the USA, UK and Australasia, the transition from a ‘top down’ penal policy that managed dependent prisoners to a neo-liberal politico state has gained momentum in recent years. Currently, social regulation and surveillance occur more ‘bottom up’: central control has been replaced by local power; management systems are inspired by consumer and markets models to prison life; and there is a reliance on risk assessment. Hence, at such a ‘bottom up’ level in the UK, prison managerialism is a technology put in place to promote social relationships of partnership and trust between professional prison officers and older prisoners.

Prison management is a technology aimed at transforming social relations within a mixed economy of prisons: public and private provision. The technology of prison management has become a space for the surveillance of prisoners. It is argued here that such a managerial mechanism is not of instigating trust, but is a technology for individual prisoner regulation and collective control. Hence, there are two dimensions which are particularly important to this paper. Firstly, there is the use of a Foucauldian perspective to locate the discontinuities in the relationship between professional power and older prisoners. Secondly, there is the question of power itself and its relevance to the emergence and consolidation of a discourse articulated by professional prison managers who assess, probe and inspect a distinct populational group: an ‘elderly prison population’.

Foucauldian studies

Michel Foucault’s scholarly work has been acclaimed as ‘the most important event in thought of our century’ (Veyne 1984 quoted in Merquior 1985: 33). Throughout his work, he has attempted to develop perspectives on psychiatry, medicine, punishment and criminology.

Foucault (1977) has demonstrated (1996) the challenges to 'criminological disciplines' impinges upon the 'power/knowledge' axis. Crucially, such an axis permeates all formal and informal discourses, their language, logic, forms of domination and classification, measurement techniques and empiricism as essential elements in the technology of discipline and the process of normalisation. 'Professionals' such as prison officers are key interventionists in societal relations and in the management of social arrangements pursue a daunting power to classify with consequences for the reproduction of knowledge about 'prison' culture and simultaneous maintenance of power relations.

Yet whatever the quality and implications of professional agency, their recognition and legitimacy are rooted firmly in the determining contexts of 'structure' and their manifestation in the professional ideologies of control, regulation and power/knowledge (Powell 1998a). This article seeks to draw upon the insights of Foucault (1977). We critically engage with a number of sites of the disciplinary web of surveillance, power and normalisation and how these impact on both prison officers and older prisoners.

Re-applying Foucault to power/knowledge manifestations

Foucault’s (1977) work has significance to the analysis of prison officers in two aspects. First, his analysis of punishment and discipline and medicine and madness has relevance to the experiences of prison life. Foucault describes how subjects of knowledge such as the stereotypical 'criminal' is constructed through disciplinary techniques, for example, the notion of the expert 'gaze' (1973: 29; 1977).

Secondly, Foucault (1977) makes it possible to analyse both the official discourses embodied in penal policies and those operating and implementing within the walls of prisons: prison officers and older prisoners:

'It was a matter of analysing, not behaviours or ideas, nor societies and their 'ideologies', but the problematizations through which being offers itself to be, necessarily, thought - and the practices on the basis of which these problematizations are formed' (Foucault 1980: 11).

The diverse works of Foucault (1967, 1976 and 1977) has problematised issues of madness and illness, deviance and criminality, and sexuality. These issues are conceptualised as socially constructed 'problems'. In these specific social issues, Foucault has problematised the role of the 'expert', social institutions, social practices and subjectivity that seem 'empowering' but are contingent socio-historical constructions and products of power and domination. The relevance to the power of prison officers is the recognition that social practices 'define a certain pattern of 'normalization'' (Foucault 1977: 72). Such social practices are judged by 'experts' such as prison officers who problematise the behaviours of inmates. Prison officers are pivotal to Foucault's (1977) analysis of 'panoptic technology'. In addition, they probe and 'normalise judgement' on prisoners:

'The judges of normality are everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the 'social worker'-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements. The carceral network, in its compact or disseminated forms, with its systems of insertion, distribution, surveillance, observation, has been the greatest support, in modern society, of the normalizing power' (Foucault 1977: 304).

For Foucault (1977) 'normalizing power' involves the dimensions of physical and biological discourses and how these are inserted on the body. Both the aging prisoner and prison officer are located in a political field saturated with power relations which 'render [both prison officers and older prisoners as] docile and productive and thus politically and economically useful' (Smart 1985: 75). Hence, the prison officer plays a key role in such power relations as s/he takes responsibility for ensuring that older prisoners needs are regularly reviewed, resources are effectively managed.


The powerful role of the prison officer can be understood as a 'system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements' (Foucault 1980: 133). Furthermore, for Foucault (1980: 133) '‘truth' is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it'. Here we can see his power/knowledge explication. All strategies that attempt to control prisoners involve the production and social construction of ‘true’ knowledge. Historically and before the prevalence of managerial prison systems, bio-medicine played a key role in articulating ‘truths’ about the social condition of older prisoners (Katz 1996).

The relevance of this to Foucault's work is the way in which the 'gaze' of truth constructs people as both subjects and objects of power and knowledge. In The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault illustrates how such a 'gaze' opened up 'a domain of clear visibility' (Foucault 1973: 105) for doctors for allowing them to construct an account of what was going on inside a patient, and to connect signs and symptoms with particular diseases. The space in which the gaze operated moved from the patient's home to the institution or the 'hospital'. This became the site for intensive surveillance, as well as the attainment of knowledge, the object of which was the body of patients. Both historically and contemporaneously, the identities of elderly people and old age have been constructed through expert discourses of ‘decay’ and ‘deterioration’ and the 'gaze' helps to intensify regulation over older people in order to normalise and provide treatment for such notions (Stott 1981; Foucault 1977; Katz 1996). Medical discourse, under the guise of science, was part of a disciplinary project orientated to:

‘create a model individual, conducting his life according to the precepts of health, and creating a medicalized society in order to bring conditions of life and conduct in line with requirements of health’ (Cousins and Hussain 1984: 151).

The way in which bio-medicine has interacted with other older people is a subtle aspect of control and power (Katz 1996). This legitimises the search within the individual for signs, for example, that s/he requires intense forms of surveillance and ultimately processes of medicalisation. This permeates an intervention into aging lives because practices of surveillance befit older people because of the pathological discourse permeation of 'its your age'. Surveillance of older people enabled bio-medicine to show 'concern' for their health and acquire knowledge about their condition. It, hence, constructs them as objects of power and knowledge:

'This form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorises the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognise and which others have to recognise in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects' (Foucault 1982: 212).

In general, medical power took its place alongside prison officer power in correcting, disciplining and normalising ‘decaying’ older prisoners. Nevertheless, the prison managerial gaze has come to rival the medical gaze. The power of the prison officer as an agent of control has supplemented medical power.

Prisons, risk and consumerism

Scientific dominance may have helped shape the construction of age identities, though it was not economical enough in its reach. Science has been bound up with 'risk' (Beck 1984) and what Giddens (1991) calls the process of 'reflexivity': this manifests because of the loss of faith in the exercise of scientific power/knowledge. The focus on risk has led to a situation in which 'science' has been slowly supplemented with financial discourses, and what we see, in relation to punishment, is an intensification towards management models and consumerism. Hence, the pervasive move to a ‘mixed economy of punishment’ has produced an extraordinarily powerful discourse and impacts upon treatment of older prisoners as 'consumers' that has come to accompany and supplement medical discourses of old age.

Indeed, the suspicion of scientific power/knowledge as manifested in ‘bio-medicine’ is mirrored by suspicions against welfare models as a means of finding a legitimised place for older people. The language of ‘choice’ to erode dependency has been colonised by both medical and health discourses. Indeed, the social regulation and surveillance of older prisoners can be seen as economically productive for central and local government. The Woolf Report (1990) centres upon a 'mixed economy of punishment' which highlights the incorporation of market forces to the construction and delivery of imprisonment (Ryan and Ward 1992). Hence, the mixed economy of punishment arguably fabricates representations of empowerment for older people. For example, many older prisoners needs have not been met due to power relations and ageism (Bytheway 1995; Powell 1998b). In this case, punishment provide schemes for the 'conduct of conduct' (Foucault 1976) dominated by power/knowledge and characterised by the discretionary autonomy of prison officers of the state.The relevance to older prisoners is that prison managerial power can intensify the ordering of aging identities through the processes of prison institutions and penal policies of the state. Hence, this evidence highlights the numbing consequences are 'docile bodies' (Foucault 1977) drained of empowered energy, reinforced by the attitudes of prison officers to aging that it is just that, 'your age', which requires an inspecting 'gaze' and assessment of needs from prison officers to older prisoners.

Coupled with this, Foucault's (1977, 1976) genealogical analyses of punishment and discipline and of sexuality, Foucault (1977) describes how 'techniques of surveillance' which occur in the 'local centres of power/knowledge' (for example, in the relationships between older people and care managers), have an individualising effect:

'In a disciplinary regime...individualisation is 'descending'; as power becomes more anonymous and more functional, those on whom it is exercised tend to be more strongly individualised...In a system of discipline...(older people become more individualised than younger people)' (Foucault 1977: 193).

Techniques of surveillance are so calculated, efficient and specific that 'inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is everywhere' (1977: 195). Foucauldian ideas can identify two related mechanisms of surveillance: panopticism; normalisation and the probe of assessment. These mechanisms have helped shape and mould many of the experiences of older prisoners.


Surveillance and old age

In Foucault's (1977) work 'Discipline and Punish', he presents the contrasting example between the execution of Damiens and the timetable of activities of 'young' offenders. The description of Damiens devastating and savage death serves to remind us of the strategy of torture upon the 'body' and the multiplicity of pains a body can endure. The timetable, by contrast, is specific, elaborate and a disciplinary technology which trains and organises individuals for their daily routines.

Foucault (1977) sees Jeremy Bentham's panoptican as the dominant example of disciplinary technology. For Foucault, the panopticon integrates power and knowledge, the control of the 'body' and the control of space into a technology of discipline. Bodies of people can be made productive and observable. Foucault remarks 'Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons' (1977: 44). In the context of British punishment, prison life has a pre-occupation with monitoring and surveillance and this is crystallised in official discourse.

The perfect disciplinary apparatus, according to Foucault (1977: 173) 'would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything perfectly'. Foucault (1977) views the mechanism of panopticism as both efficient, since surveillance was everywhere and constant, and effective, because it was 'discreet', functioning 'permanently and in silence' (1977: 177). It also provides the scope for the supervision of those who were entrusted with the surveillance of others.

The technique of 'panopticism' was incorporated into prison relationships in the twentieth century so that older prisoners could be observed by professional power. Prison life for older people has elements of this kind of surveillance. Supervision is hierarchical in the sense that many older prisoners are accompanied by management discretionary power which embraces monitoring, assessing and calculating older people. Prison Wardens need to kept informed of progress of older prisoners in order to communicate this at formal review meetings to establish resource allocation to institutional spending planning. Surveillance of older prisoners does not stop at this point, as a network of reciprocal power relationships has been created:

'this network 'holds' the whole together and traverses it in its entirety with effects of power that derive from one another: supervisors, perpetually supervised' (Foucault 1977: 176-177).

Older prisoners who require services are the objects of scrutiny within society, but for such clients requiring financial services, the gaze reaches further. This evidences a strategic shift towards the policing of punishment and away from the post-war welfare consensus relationship to old age.

Normalising aging

Foucault observes how the 'norm' entered social science disciplines by 'imposing new delimitations on them' (Foucault 1977: 184). While this standardised social science it also had an individualising effect 'by making it possible to measure gaps, to determine levels, to fix specialities and to render the differences useful by fitting them to one another' (1977: 185). This promoted the homogeneity of old age.

The identities of many older people are defined in relation to issues of abnormality and normality. The 'cut off' point were an old individual is or not deemed to be 'frail' is in no sense clearly defined and variations in levels of assessment is of increasing concern for prison managers. In a climate of resource constraints, distance from the norm has become valued amongst older prisoners who do not conform to discourses of 'slow' and 'deterioration' (Katz 1996).

The process of observation objectifies particular older prisoners as ‘diagnoses began to be made of normality and abnormality and of the appropriate procedures to achieve... to the norm’ (Smart 1985: 93). In this way studying and examining the body and mind of older people was and is intrinsic to the development of power relationships:

‘the examination is at the centre of the procedures that constitute the individual as effect and object of power, as effect and object of knowledge. It is the examination which ... assures the great disciplinary functions of distribution and classification’ (Rabinow 1984: 204).

The 'probing' technique, argues Foucault, combines panopticism and normalisation and 'establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates them and judges them' (Foucault 1984: 184). The 'assessment' is a function of a disciplinary technique. Foucault (1977) argues an individual is established as a 'case' and may be 'described, judged, measured, compared with others, in his very individuality. This individual may also have to be trained or corrected, classified, normalised, excluded' (Foucault 1977: 191).

Foucault (1977) sees the ‘assessment’ as central a technique that renders an individual an object of power/knowledge. In the assessment leading the opening for medical services, the statement of an 'aging body' is established in relation to normalised standards of rights and risks. Thus, older prisoner will be probed for social, psychological and economic factors such as 'frailty', 'financial resources' and expected levels of 'supervision'. This probe of assessment:

'indicates the appearance of a new modality of power in which each individual receives as his status his own individuality, and in which he is linked by his status to the features, the measurements, the gaps, the 'marks' that characterise him and makes him a 'case' (Foucault 1977: 192).

Following a prison medical assessment, certain aging identities are marked out for surveillance throughout the remainder of his/her sentence. Prison officers also come under the scrutiny of the continuous review of older prisoners needs. All are caught by a gaze which is 'always receptive' (Foucault 1977: 89) and the very existence of the discourse of 'frailty' provides a further rationale for the control of the 'elderly population' in prisons.


This paper has problematized the explanatory insights from Foucauldian theory and philosophy. Once older prisoners are established as a socially significant object of power/knowledge, prison managerial techniques deem it necessary find the 'truth' about their needs, to analyse, describe and to understand. The focus towards issues of elder abuse in prisons takes place in a process in which attention is being directed towards individual bodies and control of 'aging populations'. The aging prisoner is part of a machinery of power, a power that creates the body, isolates it, explores it, breaks it down and re-arranges it. A knowledge of the aging body therefore requires a mechanism of discipline, that is, a machinery of power that is part of the managerial production of knowledge (Powell 1998). Discipline was the 'political anatomy of detail' (Armstrong 1983), that is to say older prisoners become known and understood as a series of useable bodies which could be manipulated, trained, corrected, controlled and to legitimise managerial professions. The outcome in relation to imprisonment is a cumulation of increasingly detailed observations that simultaneously and inescapably produce knowledge of older prisoners.




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Sincronía Spring 2002

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