Incarceration and the Incarcerated: Power and Resistance

Book Reviews

Saipin Suputtamongkol

Bangkok: Thammasat University Press, 2002, 293 pp.

Reviewed by Non Arkaraprasertkul (HYI Doctoral Scholar Candidate 2008-2012, Oxford University).

At the very fundamental level, Incarceration and the Incarcerated: Power and Resistance is an attempt to understand the prisoners’ lives and their inevitable process of adaptation to the social and cultural realms controlled absolutely by a set of formal rules and regulations that is by all means different from those of the world outside the prison.

Eye-opening and exhilarating! Incarceration and the Incarcerated: Power and Resistance not only brings back the childish joy of reading, but also presents substantial claims. First, not to be overly critical but it is one of the very few readable works on anthropology in Thailand with real intellectual rigor, especially in its task of scrutinizing both the marginal community of prisoners and the actual situation and showing us the various bodies and forms of tension and resistance that power brings to human beings at work. Second, this bold attempt to divulge the forms of individual and collective resistance in relation to the constructed environment for absolute discipline from an anthropological perspective reveals the social and theoretical mechanisms that undergird changes in the penal system in Thailand. Third, the author Dr. Saipin Suputtamongkol is a lucid writer who has mastered the highest level of academic writing in Thai; this book is straightforward, graceful, and concise. Furthermore, the comprehensive notes at the end of each chapter offer an extremely useful introduction to anthropology and sociology.

This book was the first to come to mind when I was asked to write a review of an important book published in the Thai language. Dr. Saipin Suputtamongkol is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology at Thammasat University, Bangkok. Her degrees include Political Science (B.A.1983) and Anthropology (M.A. 1999) from Thammasat University. After receiving the “Thammasat University’s Best Dissertation Award,” she was awarded a Harvard-Yenching Fellowship to study Social Anthropology at Harvard University with Professor Michael Herzfeld, and received her Ph.D. in 2007. Incarceration and the Incarcerated won the Toyota Thailand Foundation Award for the Best Research in Social Sciences, the most prestigious award for a book on social science written in Thai. Saipin is an international scholar whose linguistic skills in Thai and English (and several other languages) are highest standard. In Incarceration and the Incarcerated, Saipin shows us her love of ethnographic fieldwork through semi-formal narratives about her interviewees. Her ability to be skeptical about rhetoric and tactical prose, while at the same time, faithful to the facts is what has led to these highly-accessible, dynamic, and sophisticated stories of the mechanism of incarceration and the people who are incarcerated. One of Saipin’s major triumphs lies in her use of reflexive anthropology. She makes sure that we always know where the anthropologist is – often through touches of self-deprecating humor – and how her presence affects the scene being described. Here the anthropological method is shown at its best: Saipin really knows these people and their ways. What she tells us here in Incarceration and the Incarcerated is the true portrayal of the exercise of power and its discourse at its most extreme.

From Cesare Beccaria to Herbert Hart to Michel Foucault, scholars have studied the institution of punishment in historical, socioeconomic, and psychodynamic contexts. Foucault, especially, reveals that prison is a place where the exercise of power and the body is seen in its clearest light and that the gist of such exercise resonates in institutions outside the prisons in subtler forms yet still with the same basic concept of surveillance and discipline which is concealed to the general public. Like Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Saipin Suputtamongkol’s Incarceration and the Incarcerated is not a book about prisoners and their life in prison per se. As its heavily conceptual title could also be misleading, it would be short-sighted to think that this book is only suitable for the small group of scholars who are interested in the study of punishment and its corollary process of rehabilitation. In fact, it is a book about people and their connections to everyday-life: Punishment is after all a human institution. Saipin uses prisoners and prison to demonstrate that absolute power engenders a radical response that cannot be repressed. This book is for anyone who is interested in reading the work of a linguistically sensitive ethnographer with unsurpassed passion in unpacking the complexity of the practice of power in prison and its relationship to the world outside.

The literal translation of the title of the book is “Prison and People: Power and Resistance” (Kook kub kon: Um-Naj Lae Karn Tor Tan Kud-Keun). The first chapter of the book discusses the theoretical basis of the work and some history of punishment. Similar to other scholars who study prisons and asylums, Saipin relies on Michel Foucault, David Garland, and Clifford Geertz. Despite drawing on Western ideas and theories, she always ties these into the context of prisons in Thailand. In this chapter, Saipin explains not only the framework of her study but also problems and issues encountered in this research project.

Unlike many books where notes are only important for reference, Saipin’s style of extensive end-noting is another salient feature of the book. Reading each chapter’s notes is a pleasurable walk through core literature and theories in anthropology and the study of contemporary society. Given the extremely dense content of the book – especially the theories – the extensive notes demonstrate the author’s sense of responsibility to her readers at all levels. For instance, in chapter 1 where in the main text Saipin presents her arguments and explains the history of prison and how it became an important component of power and discipline in modern society, the 13-page long chapter notes elaborate literally every single theory and idea discussed in the chapter. In the notes, Saipin combines Foucault’s analysis of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticism with Irvin Goffman’s concept of “total institution” to explain the interesting feature of the so-called social hybrid residential community where the power of the authority determines the status and the mode of confinement down to the microscopic details of everyday activities such as eating, exercising, and sleeping.

As a trained architect, I read Incarceration and the Incarcerated with great interest, especially concerning the irreconcilable relationship between the object of architecture (the prison, the cell, the public space), and the people. The architecture of prison has been a topic of debate and scrutiny for architectural theorists and historians due to its deep psychological impact not only on the incarcerated but also on the world outside. How do we perceive prisons in the context of modern society? From the physical point-of-view, the thematic debate has always been the organization of space and how to define space by the use of power to control prisoners’ activities. Normally the process of familiarization is extremely crucial to architecture; for instance, if an architect is to be commissioned to design a museum, he has to visit museums to understand the desirable quality of space of a museum alongside the requirements of program and mechanical functions. But how much could an architect learn from a few visits to prisons? It would be difficult to see a designer who is willing to spend a week or a month in prison with prisoners to understand how things work in order to design the architecture inside. If the life of prisoners is similar to what has been painted in Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption where the power of the prison guard presides over basically everything; then architects have little role here. Most of the time, the architecture of prison is not a product of architectural creativity, but functionalism: the function of confinement, punishment, and rehabilitation.

In 1785, one of the first prison designs proposed by the renowned Jeremy Bentham was a Panopticon that dismissed the role of architecture in the design of social network space, physical orientation, and aesthetics. However, since the provision of open space as distance between the observer’s tower and the cells are desirable in Bentham’s design, the orientation of physical space at least enables non-tactile social connections among the members of the society. In our time, the orientation of space that facilitates observation of the prisoners has been replaced by surveillance camera technology, which allows prisons to be ‘more separated’ in terms of spatial orientation. Throughout history, prisons have evolved from places for incarceration to instruments of punishment to a humanistic institution for rehabilitation. The latest stage of development – prisons as places for rehabilitation – sparks the most important debate on the relationship between function and form in the recent study of spatiality. This is a place where the sole knowledge of physical space is useless and where Saipin’s work fills in the gap. As an architect, what I learned from Saipin Suputtamongkol’s Incarceration and the Incarcerated is the condition of resistance in the confined environment of a prison, which should play a role in the design of social space. With such understanding, architecture could break new ground in design with an appreciation of anthropological realism. That is to say, even in a distant field of architectural studies, this book serves extremely well as a bridge between two seemingly unconnected realms of knowledge.