Crime, Punishment, and Surveillance

“Where do prisons come from?
Practically Everywhere.”
– Michel Foucault

What purpose does surveillance serve? A critical, personal reflection

Many students at UNO see prisons as distant and unfamiliar spaces, assuming they will have minimal interactions with law enforcement throughout the rest of their lives. Contrary to these common attitudes toward prisons and the criminal justice system, Michel Foucault, a French social philosopher who lived from 1926 to 1984, asserted that the prison is merely an extension of modern society. In the interview that appears earlier in this chapter, Foucault claimed that prison is not unique because this institution is one part of the society of generalized surveillance in which we live.”

For examples of surveillance, Foucault pointed to forms of measurement and identification used by education, medicine, and the government. Throughout your career as a student, you have been tested and observed by teachers and administrators. At the doctors office, your physical developments have been observed and you have been tested for certain illnesses. Many of you were assigned a social security number by the federal government, a unique figure that enables you to do things like work and apply for financial aid. When you became a UNO student, you were assigned an additional identification number, and if you were to go to prison, you would receive a number there as well.

While most people accept these kinds of record-keeping as tools designed to help society function, Foucault proposed that they are methods used to control individuals. He theorized that surveillance is a technology that made possible exact, day-by-day power over bodies (Foucault page). Look no further than your own neighborhood for a popular example of a widespread civilian surveillance. You probably have neighbors or family members who have doorbell cameras. Do these cameras make you feel safer? What do you think? Does the perceived safety that comes from the use of doorbell cameras outweigh the potential negatives that come from a constant state of neighborhood surveillance?

In this paper, you will critically examine the role of surveillance in your life. Who or what has watched or recorded you and in what way? What good do you think has come out of the ways you have been observed? In addition to the positives you might have experienced, consider when surveillance has been either strange or uncomfortable. Do you feel, like Foucault did, that we should be concerned about how and how often surveillance occurs?

After you consider the role of surveillance in your experiences, think about how it is used in prison and the larger justice system. Consider its use across multiple readings or videos and think critically again. How did surveillance affect the lives of the convicted individuals you have read about this semester? How was it used in prisons, according to what you have read or watched this semester? In convictions? In life after prison? What do some of the individuals you have met in this unit have to say about surveillance?


Contain a thesis that makes a claim about the effects that surveillance has had on you, society in general, and currently incarcerated individuals specifically.
Refer to at least two texts from class

– Employ an organizational structure that helps the reader follow your train of thought.
– Address your audience: a member of the UNO academic community, but not necessarily a member of this class, and not necessarily a person familiar with the essays in this unit.
– Begin with an introduction that hooks the reader.
– Close with a conclusion that does not simply restate the argument of the paper. Instead, the conclusion should give a sense of why the papers argument is significant.
– Cite any sources that you use in MLA style, including those assigned in class.
– Be written in clear, concise prose with few or no mechanical errors.
– Be 4-5 pages long (AT LEAST FOUR FULL PAGES, plus the list of works cited)