Foucault, Prison, and Human Rights: A Dialectic of Theory and Criminal Justice Reform

Theoretical Criminology, May 27, 2021,

21 Pages Posted: 22 Apr 2021 Last revised: 22 Nov 2021

Date Written: April 21, 2021


Michel Foucault’s advocacy toward penal reform in France differed from his theories. Although Foucault is associated with the prison abolition movement, he also proposed more humane prisons. The article reframes Foucauldian theory through a dialectic with the theories of Marc Ancel, a prominent figure in the emergence of liberal sentencing norms in France. Ancel and Foucault were contemporaries whose legacies are intertwined. Ancel defended more benevolent prisons where experts would rehabilitate offenders. This evokes exactly what “Discipline and Punish” cast as an insidious strategy of social control. In reality, Foucault and Ancel converged in intriguing ways. The dialectic offers another perspective on Foucault, whose theories have fostered skepticism about the possibility of progress. While mass incarceration’s rise in America may evoke a Foucauldian dystopia, the relative development of human rights and dignity in European punishment reflects aspirations that Foucault embraced as an activist concerned about fatalistic interpretations of his theories.

Keywords: Foucault, prison, criminal punishment, death penalty, dignity, human rights, race, Eighth Amendment, United States, France, Europe, Canada, Ancel, comparative law, legal history, Enlightenment, criminal law, criminal procedure, criminology, theoretical criminology, political theory, philosophy

Suggested Citation

Jouet, Mugambi, Foucault, Prison, and Human Rights: A Dialectic of Theory and Criminal Justice Reform (April 21, 2021). Theoretical Criminology, May 27, 2021,, Available at SSRN:

Mugambi Jouet (Contact Author)

McGill Faculty of Law ( email )

3644 Peel Street
Montreal H3A 1W9, Quebec

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