Foucault in Tocorón

Este artículo se publica en español en Prodavinci.

In the wake of news of yet another extraordinarily violent prison riot, we’re reminded once more that Venezuelan prisons are a kind of hell, but do we know what kind of hell they are?

That’s what I kept asking myself as I watched Jail or Hell, Luidig Ochoa’s hard-hitting animated web series based on his stint as an inmate in Tocorón jail, with its genius rendering of the day-to-day tension, the sense of dread and menace of prison life  with just a few simple graphic elements and killer sound design.

Ochoa shows the kinds scenes we’ve been told about but never get a chance to see – prisons overrun with guns and drugs, where the “authorities” long ago gave up even trying to feign control of the inside. In Luidig’s jails, the Guardia Nacional sticks largely to the perimeter, working as a kind of transport system bringing prisoners into and out of jail and occasionally, very occasionally, going in to do a head-count.

But in a normal inmate’s day-to-day life, the Guardia is just absent. The state is absent. The only mechanism of control around him is the pran and his causas. The habits of mind he learns, the strategies he employs to survive, his whole way of presenting himself and carrying himself to keep himself alive are built on the certainty that there’s nobody “out there” who can see, much less control, what happens “in there”.

Venezuela’s jails are, in a way, the diametrical opposite of the Panopticon. For Michel Foucault, a prison is a mechanism for extending the state’s gaze, for imprinting its power onto the most intimate recesses of an inmate’s mind through constant, unyielding regimentation and, in particular, constant surveillance. Discussing the historical evolution of French jails from the 17th century, he notes a steady migration from penitentiary techniques that target the body – torture – to techniques that target the mind.

In the standard Enlightenment narrative, this abandonment of torture for more subtle mechanisms of monitoring and control is a story of progress, of humanitarian advance. Foucault sees them, though, as a matter of increasing sophistication, refinement and increasingly fine-grained control. Surveillance and regimentation achieve more in terms of getting people to act the way you want them to act than just inflicting physical pain ever could.

Prison reformers flattered themselves in thinking the Panopticon ideal of constant potential monitoring was adopted out of a moral revulsion against torture. In fact, its attraction was purely results-based: the awareness that someone may be watching him at any time does more to bend a criminal’s mind to the prison warden’s will than any amount of physical violence could. That awareness turns the prisoner into his own warden, forcing him to see himself as the guards might at all times, to constantly imagine how his own conduct would look like from their point of view of power and alter it accordingly to escape punishments and attain rewards. In a panopticon, every prisoner is his own prison guard – that’s its chief attraction.

Foucault the political radical certainly imagined himself as describing a hideous system that makes a mockery of western society’s claim to safeguard liberty, especially since he goes on to argue that the systems of control initially developed for prisons, poor houses, schools and hospitals end up permeating all of society. That’s a groovy enough position to write as you sip an espresso on a Left Bank café, for sure. But I wonder if he ever seriously considered the alternatives. I wonder how Michel Foucault might have seen things if he’d been left in Tocorón for a month or two and survived to tell the tale.

My sense is that he very quickly would have realized that the alternative is much, much worse. That the only thing more hideous than a system of intense surveillance and minute regimentation that seeps into the very fabric of an inmate’s consciousness is its total absence, and its replacement with a Hobbesian criminal nightmare of constant, soul saturating fear.

What Foucault took as an indictment is what Venezuelan prison reformers need to take as a blue-print. It’s not enough for the next government to create more of the same kinds of catastrophically anarchic jails we already have. We won’t deal with overcrowding by creating the same jails, only in bigger numbers. Nor are magic shibboleths about decentralization going to do the trick.

We need to be clear on what needs to be done. We need to extend the state’s control beyond the perimeter and into the prisoner’s day-to-day life. We need to create jails regimented enough to be safe, with enough surveillance to spot bad behaviour right away and punish it and spot good behaviour and reward it. We need systems of surveillance fine-grained enough to start to make prisoners internalize the point of view of the representatives of order, to instill the habit of submitting to formal authority in people who’ve never done so.

We need jails that imprint on prisoners standards of law-abiding behaviour, rather than letting gangster ethics run riot. We need prisons that challenge the routine use of violence to solve disputes big and small, not prisons that extend and normalize it.

Venezuela is a country without a death penalty. Without life imprisonment. Every single Venezuelan who goes into jail will eventually have to be re-introduced into the community. We need jails that have the staffing, the resources and the physical infrastructure to give that re-introduction a real chance of success.

Because what’s hell about the system we have now is the way people come out of jail even more hardened, even more socialized-to-casual-violence and more entrenched in criminal lifestyles than they were when they went in.

14 thoughts on “Foucault in Tocorón

  1. I think it’s a bit of a shame to attack Foucault in this way. It’s very misleading to refer to him as the stereotypical intellectual sipping espresso on the left bank. He was very involved with prisoner rights in France, he was frequently on demonstrations and frequently got beat up by the police, not only in France but also when teaching in Tunisia. His theories of power, knowledge, and institutions have roots in his own experience of psychiatry and his father’s work as a doctor, as well various intellectual interests. Yes, a properly functioning Panopticon would be an improvement on what’s going on at present in Venezuela. Even better would be exploration of ways of dealing with crime outside prison. These are not mutually exclusive positions.


  2. Whatever happened to the “Instituto Universitario Nacional de Estudios Penitenciarios” (National Institute for Prison Studies)? No, I’m not making this up:
    The IUNEP began in 1992. However, only 23 out of 962 IUNEP graduates were hired by the government to work in prisons. Why? Because in the end, it’s all about business. The GN Mafia profiteers from it, and the government cannot risk upsetting them. So, let’s them do whatever they want. Entre ladrones te veas…


  3. Ministra Iris Varela confirma más de 20 muertos en cárcel de Yare I
    “Vía telefónica con el canal del Estado, la ministra de Asuntos Penitenciarios, Iris Varela, informó que tras el enfrentamiento de dos grupos “fuertemente armados” en el Internado Judicial Yare I, se manejan cifras preliminares de al menos 21 fallecidos. ”

    Other reports put the death toll at 25.

    The problem, as I see it, is the open system of Venezuelan jails. There are no cells. I understand that other Latin countries like Mexico also have similar jails if the movie is correct (Get the Gringo, 2012, Mel Gibson –

    How can you control anything with this kind of system? You need cells to control these prisoners along with a trained guard system where penalties for smuggling drugs & arms are severe. Until this happens nothing will change.

    By the way the Gibson movie is a great chronicle of life in a Mexican jail if it is accurate.


  4. As a criminal lawyer, I regularly work with inmates. They will tell you that the worst possible system is for the state to create a black box into which outsiders cannot see, and psychopaths given free reign. Unobservable corners of the prison become shakedown spots, or worse. If the state forces a person into one of these locations, for ten days or ten years, the least it can do is watch over the safety of the recluse.


    • When was the last time an inmate was actually charged for crimes committed while in prison? That sort of thing just doesn’t happen. Furthermore, we need to seriously think about the possibility of life imprisonment in Venezuela. There are certain people that should never, ever be let out.


      • Agree, but you need first to have prisons, I mean, where no cell phones are allowed, no weapons, no drugs, etc. Only then it could sound like punishment and protect the other inmates and society. Now, it is like a bad joke. Probably it would be better for the final result not having prisons at all, as they are the place where clans are built, knowledge distributed an operations planned. Has Capriles a plan for that?


  5. BTW. It was the English philosopher, Jeremy Benthan, an utilitarian, the one who though and even designed the panopticon. Foucault worked on his ideas to trace the history of power relations in modernity.


  6. Probably the most immoral aspect of Venezuelan prisons is whom they really reward and the ones they punish. This types of prisons become a paradise for the most violent, dangerous and well connected gangsters and hell for the most powerless and least dangerous criminals who are there for mild or non violent crimes. And then they preach about socialism and the domination of one class over another!


  7. Francisco,
    Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is not only about prison, but about all other 19th century social control institutions, giving power to the State to control every single movement of people, a micro control over bodies far effective than Ancien regime’s one . The main institution for this control is not the prison but the school. These disciplinary institutions were a basic element for industrial revolution, allowing a large mass of people to be able to follow precise instructions in factories or armies. In some way, development came after a massive and successful domestication of peoples. This process wasn’t painless and was imposed by violence.
    Venezuela, as other Latin American countries, tried to copy all the disciplinary institutions, without real success. In this sense, prison’s situation is a strong caricature of the failed social control implementation; we are an incompletely ‘domesticated’ people, i.e. unable to massively follow precise instructions. Of course, you can find some cases of strong and well organized social behavior (for instance, ‘smoke free zones’ law, or Caracas’ metro), but my intuition is that it shows some deep social consensus that precede the law and State.
    Our relative inability, as society, to act in a disciplined and well organized way implies, of course, several big problems (violence, corruption, low productivity, etc.) but in the same way a (unfounded?) feeling of unrestricted personal freedom could explain why Venezuela is usually well ranked in several ‘happiness index’.
    Coming back to prison’s issue, I guess if our prisons are a catastrophically anarchic hell, it is because there is maybe a deep social consensus about what a prison cannot be: a highly disciplined prison, with limited visit rights (no conjugal visit, no food or clothes from outside, etc.) and strong schedule to respect could be worst considered than the current violent nightmare but that allows you, as inmate, to spend your week-ends with your family. I think that any reform of prisons have to take into account this, and avoid the copy-paste method that have failed for schools, for instance.


  8. I really like this post because it really highlights the contradictions in modern Venezuela: The country never really went through an Enlightenment a-la Europe and while certain ideologues and leftist intellectuals who support Chavismo espouse radical, deconstructionist theories, the nation and its institutions are stuck very much in a pre-modern, Hobbesian state of nature.

    I think Francisco’s critique of Foucault is actually fairly apt, at least in the Venezuelan context simply because Foucault was fighting within a very different set of parameters. France had passed through the Enlightenment, through a series of iron-fisted dictators and endured overwhelming state power in citizens’ daily lives. Venezuela on the other hand put the cart before the horse. The radical laws which PSF’s tout as making Venezuela a progressive nation have no teeth considering the State can’t enforce any of its laws even within its own prisons. A back-to-basics approach is needed whereby the State asserts its dominance and obligates individuals to give up some of their own rights and form part of the social contract. If this all sounds like basic eighteenth century stuff it’s because it is.


  9. This is the first time I have ever read anything about Venezuela prisons. They are exactly like the Gulags as described in infinite detail by Victor Herman, the American, who was in them for 10 years under extremely hard labor. The criminals policed the political prisoners there. They were the insider police. Sounds the same.


    • Umm, no. The GULAGs were completely under the control, of the state, Guards and observation were omnipresent. The criminal inmates were allowed to prey on the political inmates, but only as permitted by the authorities. The guards would do whatever was necessary to maintain their authority, including killing gangster prisoners who didn’t know their places.

      There was no large-scale smuggling, nor effective control by inmate gangs.

      Also, the GULAGs were slave labor camps – all inmates were forced to work long hours at grueling tasks.


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