In the context of a Foucauldian framework, we may understand prisons, and more generally houses of confinement for the mentally ill, disabled, willfully transgressive and insolvent as among those "dividing practices" (Rainbow, 8) by which a normal community (Foucault might say regime) constructs and maintains its normality. We may understand "dividing practices" as any process of social categorization by which a community achieves this end (one example being the division of human sexual identity into complementary homo- and heterosexual subjectivities), but Foucault often understands dividing practices as exactly those institutional modes of normalization by which the abnormal are put in a given building and kept there - literally divided from the community which finds them unfit. The process by which a regime of normality invents and defines itself against a given abnormality is thus an "exclusion... usually in a spatial sense, but always in a social one" (Rainbow, 8).
This spatial exclusion was most certainly on the minds of Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont while they traveled around America in 1831. The two friends were researching the prison systems of the United States in hopes of providing the French government with hard data which could support or refute the plausibility of building American style prisons in France.
To speak of an American style prison is actually misleading. The America of the 1830s was one in which the style a prison should take, (its architectural plan, the ways in which the inmates would or would not be occupied) was a hotly contested space. At the center of the debate were two systems - the Auburn (named for a town in western New York) and the Pennsylvania. The former stressed solitary cell confinement for sleeping, but group labor performed in absolute silence during the days. The latter maintained that solitary confinement was necessary at all times; Pennsylvania prisoners labored not only in silence, but in the same cell where they slept. While prisoners were allowed to keep a small, walled yard in which they could exercise, they were not allowed any kind of contact with one another.4
While the Pennsylvania and Auburn systems are remarkable for their differences, it is their similarities that they are most important to this project. The two systems arise as different solutions to a common problem. As George Wilson Pierson explains in Tocqueville in America
the early colonists had brought with them to America the rigorous criminal code and harsh practices of England... A multitude (if not the majority) of offences had been punishable by death - a simple and expedious way of getting rid of the individuals whom society found obnoxious... [The penalty for] the other offences had been... flogging, mutilation, branding, or exposure in the stocks, after which they were turned loose (94).Slowly the American came to understand their justice system as inadequate. Pierson holds "religious influences" (95) responsible for this shift. And indeed, the birth of the American prison in western Pennsylvania cannot be understood as disconnected from the strong religious (specifically Quaker) influence over public policy in that region. The pace of reform quickened when the Revolution severed the official ties which had bound American justice to European. And eventually the peniteniary5 came to replace the whipping post as the necessary equipment for justice.
While Pierson's narrative of religious influence may strike modern readers as reductive, it is not so far from the Foucauldian counternarrative as it may seem. Foucault understands the invention of the prison as a thing connected to religion, but does not understand escalating religious fervor as the cause of the reforms; rather, he identifies a shift in the conception of justice and of the criminal without which the intervention of religion would be impossible. The intervention of religion in the system of justice was enabled, Foucault argues, by a shift in the locus of punishment - from body to soul.6 Thus, when "the standard punishment for other offences changed from pain and public humiliation to imprisonment" (Pierson, 95) it was not because of religion's increasing importance in the culture, but rather because a new concept (regime) of punishment's role in justice made possible the expansion of religion's influence on this particular sphere of social life.7