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Politics & Views

His convictions

The Penitentiary System
« Perhaps you do not know what the penitentiary system is. . At least you know that it is a subject that has nothing political about it and concerns nothing other
than the well-being of society
in general. »
(Letter to Charles Stöffels,
November 4, 1830)

Although Tocqueville had probably become aware of the issue of France's penal institutions during his time as an apprentice magistrate at the Versailles court, it was only in 1830 that he became specifically interested in the problem, when he was preparing for a hoped-for mission to America on this very topic that he would undertake with Beaumont. In particular, after a visit to the house of detention at Poissy on September 2, 1830, he drew up a disturbing report on the French penitentiary system. He felt that the overwhelming disorganization and laxness in prisons, which turned them into freewheeling schools of crime, did not sufficiently prevent the risk of recidivism. This in turn posed great danger to civil society, which the penal system was supposed to protect. On the other hand, the voyage to America would allow him to study a veritable penal laboratory that, in addition to being economical, specifically adapted detention conditions to the inmates.
Of course, the visit to American prisons made him see that France would be unable to exactly reproduce the solutions adopted by the United States, and that it would not be able, like at Auburn, to achieve discipline through the lash. However, he held to certain convictions for a long time, such as the virtue of solitary confinement, which was invented in the United States. Upon his return to France, he let Beaumont take care of the writing of The Penal System in America qwhich he simply annotated, but this text, which was awarded the Monthyon Prize, brought him his first public recognition.
For Tocqueville, before he became the author of Democracy in America the question of penal systems was above all a springboard to fame. Later, it became one of his parliamentary specialties. On two occasions during his career as deputy under the July Monarchy, in 1840 and then in 1843-44, he was appointed rapporteur for bills concerned with prison reform. These bills were constantly amended and postponed, until a law was finally adopted in 1847, although a lack of time and resources kept it from being applied. Nevertheless, it gave him the chance to take part in the recurrent Chamber debates on the subject, and to defend his point of view.

« An intelligent society will always believe that whatever it spends usefully on its prisons will be repaid in tranquility and even wealth. »
(Report of the Commission on Prisons, 1843)

He thus became the sworn enemy of the philanthropist party, headed by Charles Lucas, by defending the severe measure of solitary confinement, which presented a number of advantages to his way of thinking. It prevented promiscuity and communication between inmates, it reduced surveillance costs and lessened the risks of recidivism by making imprisonment more difficult to bear, and it encouraged prisoners' moral reform by leaving them alone with their consciences. it should be pointed out that for Tocqueville the goal of the penal system was not so much to give a prisoner the chance to mend his ways, but to protect society from elements that threatened it. Only children, who Tocqueville felt were more unfortunate than guilty, were exceptions to this. He thought that society should protect them by isolating them from other prisoners, and help rehabilitate them by providing special institutions. This is why in 1839 he agreed to be one of the founders of the Mettray agricultural and penal colony, which intended to reform young delinquents through farm labor. This establishment, although founded on idealist principles, has the sorry reputation of being the ancestor of the child labor colonies that would appear in fifty years' time, at a time when France had only begun to adopt the principle of cellular confinement that Tocqueville had so often advocated. We don't know what he would have thought of the results obtained, but he was nevertheless one of the first to see that the penal universe, far from being a marginal place, was a guarantor for civil society, and even a barometer of its ills.

Political Figures

Interior of a multi-level prison by Steinlen

Interior of a multi-level prison, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen ; Paris, musée du Louvre
© RMN / Thierry Le Mage


Project for a cellular penitentiary for 586 inmates

Project for a cellular penitentiary for 586 inmates, A. Blouet, architecte © CHAN

Prison bill

Resolution by the Camber accompanying the postponement of a prison bill © CHAN

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