Conference: “The World of Prisons. The History of Confinement in Global Perspective, Late Eighteenth to Early Twentieth Century”, University of Bern

Publish Date: Aug 19, 2015

Deadline: Sep 30, 2015

Event Dates: from Sep 07, 2016 12:00 to Sep 10, 2016 12:00

Conference: “The World of Prisons. The History of Confinement in Global Perspective,

Late Eighteenth to Early Twentieth Century” September 7 – 10, 2016

Department of History

The prison has a global history. The emergence of the modern state and, at least in Europe and the United States, the expansion of political rights involved a transformation of penal systems. At the centre of this development was the prison which evolved from a means of detention into the principal instrument of sanction. Between the early nineteenth and early twentieth century, imprisonment became the dominant form of punishment on a worldwide scale. But what exactly did this mean? And how can we explain this farreaching transformation of penal systems? Beyond broader historiographical turns and more specific conjunctures within the field – as the one triggered in the 1970s by the socalled “revisionist” accounts of the “birth of the prison”– the interest of historical scholarship in penal systems was ultimately based on a stable sense that research into penal regimes promised substantial insights into the changing power relations within societies, transformations of the exercise of authority, the development of statehood and dominating concepts of the relationship between the individual and the community. Accordingly, a lot of research has been done on the modern prison in Europe and the United States and, at least since the 1990s, also increasingly on confinement in Latin America, Asia and Africa. This notwithstanding, very basic questions about the prison as a global phenomenon remain unanswered.

How and why did the prison succeed as the prevalent form of punishment around the globe? What exactly did “global” mean, considering the often immense diversity of existing penal regimes not only between but also within empires, nation states and colonies? And what do we actually refer to when we are talking about the prison, given the wide variety of institutions of confinement and penal regimes all over the world? How was the development of the prison interwoven with and separated from other forms of punishment? To what extent and in which ways were the transformations of penal regimes throughout the world interconnected with each other? What was the actual significance of cross-border transfers of knowledge about criminality and punishment for these local processes? How multidirectional were the knowledge transfers within and between continents? And, finally, how do we have to think about decentring the history of the prison in a global context? Forty years after the publication of Michel Foucault’s seminal work Discipline and Punish, it can be argued that the integration of the history of the prison into the perspectives of global history remains the last discernible promise for a fundamental innovation in the field.

The conference The World of Prisons. The History of Confinement in a Global Perspective, Late Eighteenth to Early Twentieth Century aims at discussing such questions and thereby making a first broadly based contribution to combining the research about prison history with the approaches of global history. The focus lies on the similarities and differences of transformations of penal regimes in different regions and continents as well as on the interconnectedness between them; on the mutually dependent processes of the universalisation and the particularisation of ideas and practices of imprisonment; on the production and circulation of knowledge about penal regimes on a global scale; and on the significance of far-reaching cross-border transfers for local developments. On an analytical level, the conference aims not only to transcend the established internalist modes of understanding and explaining the historical transformations of penal regimes. It also treats the centrality of Western European and US-American developments in the field as an object of research and not as its premise. The conference, therefore, generates a global perspective on the history of the modern prison not by accumulating and juxtaposing accounts of local or regional developments of penal systems from all over the world, but by discussing contributions that are based either on the reconstruction and analysis of long-distance transfers and interconnections across borders or on systematic comparison. The historical period under consideration spans from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. “The world of prisons” to be studied comprises the whole range of possible analytical levels as well as their entanglements, from the intercontinental circulation of knowledge about the prison and the international fora of expert communities in penology to the regimes and the everyday life in penal institutions.

The discussion at the conference will be structured along the following seven sections:

Section 1: Historiographical Concepts

Section 2: Early Modern Developments

Section 3: Knowledge and Practices

Section 4: Imprisonment and the Law

Section 5: Actors of Transfers

Section 6: Entangled Histories of Prison Systems

Section 7: Imprisonment in Penal Context

Contact Info: 

Thomas Hirt

Historisches Institut, Universität Bern
Länggassstrasse 49

3000 Bern 9, Switzerland

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