Mugambi Jouet on When Foucault Meets Ancel

Annotating Criminology
3 min readJul 18, 2021


Mugambi Jouet

“Foucault has often appeared as a philosopher of the impossible. However, by juxtaposing his theoretical writings and activism, we see another Foucault, perhaps even a philosopher of the possible”

In Foucault, Prison, and Human Rights, Mugambi Jouet reveals a side of Foucault’s perspective on prisons that often gets eclipsed by his seminal work, ‘Discipline and Punish’. Jouet shows that the abolitionist sentiment underlying Discipline and Punish might be the most highlighted, but is not the only approach that Foucault adopted in his approach towards prisons and human rights:

In Discipline and Punish, prisons and rehabilitation systems are just reimagined forms of state’s “insidious means of repressive social control”. However, Jouet points out that Foucault’s own interviews reveal his other side, that of a “reformist”, believing that practices within should be reformed. This is where Marc Ancel steps in:

“This article analyzes how Foucault grappled with the tensions between theoretical scholarship and practical reform… (it) casts doubt on the existence of a one “true” reading of Foucault.”

The Convergence or Foucault and Ancel

There is a dialectical framework, Jouet says, to explain how criminal justice reforms evolved in Western Europe — The thesis of Ancel, the antithesis of Foucault, and the emergent synthesis that continues to influence the penal policymaking. Despite their apparent contradictions, Jouet argues, Ancel and Foucault did converge:

“Ancel and Foucault approached imprisonment from opposite premises but eventually found common ground… (their) perspectives ultimately shed light on the evolution of criminal justice, dignity, and human rights in the West”.

Jouet points out that, unlike Foucault, Ancel believed that prisons can be used as institutions to “rehabilitate” and “humanise” prisoners. Echoing the principles of “individuality” and “liberal democracy”, Ancel gave pragmatic solutions for a “social defence” focused on crime prevention.

However, Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and the school of thought the book engendered, critiqued this “humanist approach” as “insidious rationalisation” of another form of social injustice:

“Hence, the ruling classes strategized more insidi- ous means of control with the birth of modern prisons and their depersonalized, routinized, and regimented ways of overseeing the lower classes in an allegedly benevolent, humanistic spirit”.

Jouet shows that Foucault’s pointed critique, despite being monist (interpreting things from just one line of thought), did push Ancel to rethink some of his own views:

“In the third edition (1981) of La Défense sociale nouvelle, Ancel disavowed proposals in the first (1954) and second (1966) editions of his book. Back then Ancel had suggested support for preventive detention against insanity, vagrancy, beggary, prostitution, drug addiction, alcoholism, and even sloth as socially dangerous statuses”

The Reformist Foucault

While Foucault's critique did make Ancel rethink his unflinching belief in the rehabilitative characterisation of prisons, Ancel discourse on “human rights in prisons” also reflected in Foucault’s “activism”:

“Foucault wrote Discipline and Punish partly because of his concern about prisoners’ predicament. The book offers a radical critique of their repression but avoids prescribing solutions. Conversely, as an activist, Foucault sought to transcend theory by advocating practical solutions to improve prisons. This effectively brought him closer to liberal thinkers like Ancel who pragmatically incorporated concrete reform proposals in their theoretical scholarship”

Jouet argues Foucault’s interviews suggest that his pragmatism drew him closer to the “implementation failure” as a plausible cause of his dystopian idea of prisons. Therefore, Jouet submits, that transcending the “fatalistic aura of Discipline and Punish”, Foucault advocated systemic reforms to treat prisoners more humanely.

Complement this with David Garland on Punishment and Modern Society, and Bernard E Harcourt on Critique and Praxis.



Annotating Criminology

I’m Karan Tripathi, a researcher, writer, and this is my one man labour of love exploring Criminology & Penology