This question may appear curious if not ill-formed. Many of us certainly associate prisons with the minute and pervasive exercise of power over the inmates who inhabit them, but we are also more accustomed to using “totalitarian” to describe dictatorial governmental regimes and sociopolitical movements. As a result, we may be inclined to think that the term is not of the same category as the institutions that, in this instance, it purports to describe.
At the height of the Cold War, however, a number of scholars posed the question of prisons’ totalitarian character in all seriousness and with considerable urgency. And not uncommonly they answered it in the affirmative. One of these was the Princeton sociologist Gresham Sykes, who conducted archival and field research at the New Jersey State Maximum Security Prison in Trenton in the early and mid 1950s. The book that resulted, The Society of Captives (1958), is one of the classics of modern criminology.
Sykes has the following to say about prisons near the beginning of his treatise:
The detailed regulations extending into every area of the individual’s life, the constant surveillance, the concentration of power in the hands of a ruling few, the wide gulf between the rulers and the ruled—all are elements of what we would usually call a totalitarian regime. The threat of force lies close beneath the surface of the custodial institution and it is the invisible fist rather than Adam Smith’s invisible hand which regulates much of the prisoner’s activity. The prison official is a bureaucrat, but he is a bureaucrat with a gun.
The combination is a fearful one, for it is the basis of the calculated atrocities of the concentration camp and the ruthless exploitation of the Soviet lager. It is true that the American maximum security prison is different from these in terms of the nature of the tasks which the prison seeks to perform, the characteristics of the officials who direct these tasks, and the matrix of the democratic community in which the prison is embedded. The prison is not planned with an eye to annihilating its captive population—either physically or psychologically—nor is it designed to wring the last ounce of effort from an expendable labor force. Instead, it pursues an odd combination of confinement, internal order, self-maintenance, punishment, and reformation, all within a framework of means sharply limited by law, public opinion, and the attitudes of the custodians themselves. None the less, attempts to exercise total social control through the use of a bureaucratically organized administrative staff would all seem to be cut on much the same pattern and the prison appears to offer many clues to the structure and functioning of the new leviathan (pp. xiv-xv).
In formulating his argument in this manner, Sykes takes a stance on prisons that resonates with the ideas of another noted sociologist, Erving Goffman. Goffman’s work on “total institutions,” much of it collected in his 1961 book Asylums, also likens psychiatric hospitals, boot camps, and prisons to Nazi concentration camps.
Significantly, Sykes bases his characterization of totalitarianism on articles by Norman Polanski and David Riesman as well as the 1954 volume Totalitarianism edited by Carl Friedrich. He also makes reference to Bruno Bettelheim’s work on the social psychology of the concentration camp. Yet in the entirety of his book, Sykes never refers explicitly to Arendt, although his comparisons practically beg for some consideration of her writing. This omission is telling, for Arendt was deeply skeptical of any effort to apply the concept of totalitarianism to superficially similar practices and institutions in other historical contexts. By her lights, such extrapolation denied the distinctive, indeed unprecedented nature of concentration camps under the Nazi and Soviet regimes, just as it banalized totalitarianism’s departure from other modes of tyrannical and authoritarian rule. Sykes’ qualifications (“It is true that…”) were not minor caveats that could be quickly passed over (“None the less…”), but fundamental objections that vitiated his argument. It was precisely this kind of conceptual and historical imprecision that, for Arendt, fatally compromised the bulk of social science scholarship. (For more on Arendt’s objections, see my post on Peter Baehr’s book Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences here.)
But Sykes’ argument can be questioned not merely on these broad theoretical grounds, for his own empirical material and close analysis challenge the notion that prisons wield “totalitarian” power. First, the efforts of prison staff to exercise control are undermined by the contradictory imperatives to which they must respond. Penal institutions are commonly justified on the basis that they punish convicted offenders and (ostensibly) deter potential criminals, but since the nineteenth century they are also supposed to rehabilitate inmates so that they forego crime and productively rejoin society at large. These tasks, as Sykes notes, are “not easily balanced in a coherent policy” (p. 12), and they tend to result in inconsistent procedures and practices.
Second, prisons are simply unable to discipline inmates in any exhaustive way, even as they impose heavy restrictions and deprivations on the people subject to their regulation. On the one hand, prisoners do not typically regard prison guards and other staff members as figures of legitimate authority, and the staff members lack an effective system of rewards and punishments that might encourage inmates’ conformity in the absence of a felt duty to obey. On the other hand, the very conditions of prison life—the severe limitations on inmates’ autonomy, the absence of physical security, the material impoverishment, the curtailment of heterosexual relations—tend ironically to encourage behavior that defies institutional rules and norms. As a result, “the prison official…is caught up in a vicious circle where he must suppress the very activity that he helps cause” (p. 22).
And third, prison guards in particular are in close contact with the inmates they supervise, and they are subject to a variety of pressures that inhibit their ability and willingness to exercise power as fully as they might. In order to manage their everyday duties, Sykes finds, they commonly refrain from reporting infractions they have witnessed, neglect basic security requirements, and even pass forbidden information to inmates (about, say, upcoming searches for contraband). In the end, most corrections officers can “insure their dominance only by allowing it to be corrupted. Only by tolerating violations of ‘minor’ rules and regulations can the guard secure compliance in the ‘major’ areas of the custodial regime” (p. 58).
Based on my admittedly limited insights as a Bard Prison Initiative faculty member, I find much to commend in Sykes’ analysis of the structural tensions that define American penal institutions. Judging from my interactions with incarcerated students, many of his observations remain relevant to present-day correctional facilities in New York State. But it is precisely Sykes’ insights on these matters that lead me to doubt the notion that American prisons represent total(itarian) domination. As his detailed analysis of “prison argot” indicates, prisons do not destroy inmates’ sense of personhood, spontaneity, and collective solidarity, and his closing account of rioting highlights how they can mount serious opposition to prison authorities.
All of this might lead us to wonder why Sykes and other social scientists even entertained the question of prisons’ potentially totalitarian character. What were the circumstances that made such an inquiry intelligible? On this count, we would do well to recall the Cold War context in which Sykes’ book was written. For many Euro-American commentators in the 1950s and ‘60s, totalitarianism was the overriding problem of their time, and one that was all the more disturbing because it had seemed to emerge so abruptly and unexpectedly. There was thus a keen interest in attempting to comprehend what totalitarianism was or at least might be. This interest led a fair number of scholars to seek out cases that could illuminate the concept, including ones that ranged beyond the paradigmatic instances of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
At the same time, totalitarianism was widely perceived as a mortal hazard to Euro-American liberal democracy and Western civilization as a whole. As Carl Friedrich suggests in his introduction to Totalitarianism (1954), however, the perceived threat could come not merely “from without,” but also “from within” (p. 3). His implication was that the U.S. and other “free” societies could harbor their own forms of brutality and terror—and that the line separating them from “totalitarian” states was not as bright as often presumed.
I would suggest that Sykes turned to the concept of totalitarianism, in no small part, to lend moral and rhetorical force to his critical analysis of American penal institutions. Even as he professed that he sought to avoid value judgments, he also admitted that like other skeptics, “I too believe that attempting to reform criminals by placing them in prison is based on a fallacy” (p. vii). We might therefore read his recourse to totalitarianism in the light of the subversive questioning of American ascendancy that was beginning to coalesce in the U.S. in the late 1950s. Such recourse is all the more striking given that “totalitarianism” became one of the chief weapons that conservatives used to denounce leftists and other critics as “pro-Soviet” sympathizers. In the end, then, Sykes’ book speaks not only (and directly) to the nature of prison as a modern institution, but also (and more obliquely) to the wider cultural and political ferment that defined Cold War America.