A History of Constant Reform: Crime and Punishment in the Twentieth Century

A History of Constant Reform: Crime and Punishment in the Twentieth Century

Maurice Cottier / Alix Heiniger, Universität Fribourg
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
06.06.2023 - 07.06.2023
Nicolas Blumenthal, Departement für Zeitgeschichte, Universität Fribourg

This international workshop sought to bring together the history of prisons and the history of crime and criminal justice; two fields of research that have so far mainly been studied separately. In this way, it aimed at promoting the dialogue between historians and scholars from neighboring disciplines working on various aspects of the history of crime, penalty, and the deprivation of liberty throughout the 20th century.

Acknowledging the crucial role of scientific knowledge in the (re-)production of crime, punishment and criminal justice, which was at the center of the first panel, NATHALIE DAHN-SINGH (Fribourg) opened the workshop. Her findings showed an unprecedented expansion in the production of prison statistics in Switzerland from the late 1880s onwards. She pointed to the manifold functions of such statistics: On the one hand, they aimed at unifying Swiss criminal law. Besides producing information on the number of prison inmates and crimes, statistics were used to assess probable causes of crimes. Drawing on categories such as education, family background or wealth should provide the basis for designing more effective measures to combat criminality. On the other hand, surveys that were based on prison inspections focused on the material and financial aspects of the institutions rather than the inmates themselves. In this context, Nathalie Dahn-Singh identified a trend towards less detailed categories which pertained mostly to numbers. This change, which took place between 1889 and the 1930s, was, as she argued, both an expression of pragmatism and the primary goal to manage prisons.

Regarding the first half of the twentieth century, ANOUK ESSYAD (Fribourg) called into question the function of international prison congresses (1872–1950) as “neutral spaces”. As she showed using a biographical approach, people from various fields of the Swiss penal system, including prison directors, chaplains, judges, lawyers, medical doctors, politicians, civil servants etc., took part in the congresses and influenced contemporary prison discourses and practices according to the power and knowledge they had in their respective fields of expertise. In addition, she identified the international prison congresses as a highly male dominated social sphere. Therefore, she considered paying attention to the few women who attended the congresses as a particularly important endeavor to account for gender aspects in the history of prisons.

MAURICE COTTIER (Fribourg) stressed the importance of investigating the social meaning of crime after 1960 in order to fill the research gap in crime and criminal justice history, which has so far focused primarily on the period before 1970. A shift from a medical to an economic gaze on crime, so his argument, took place during this time and gave rise to the “criminal entrepreneur”: an ambivalent cultural figure that normalized and “responsibilized” criminals at the same time. This figure corresponded to new conceptions of “crime as business”. Tracing these neoliberal crime conceptions and their transatlantic trajectories between 1960 and 2000, his research will among other things focus on economic crimes, money-laundering, and drug trafficking. With respect to the latter, Maurice Cottier also referred to the concept of “crimmigration” – a term first devised by scholar of law Juliet Stumpf to refer to the increased association of migration with crime and the resulting stigmatization of migrants as criminals.[1] This, as became evident from the discussion, played a crucial role in the Swiss context, where migrants from the Global South were racialized as drug dealers and addicts from the 1980s onwards.

Feminist movements against violence against women which emerged in the 1970s in West Germany and France together with their debates, politicizations and fights were at the core of the second panel. HANNAH CATHERINE DAVIES (Zurich) depicted how, by the end of the 1970s, feminist critique and activism in West Germany had moved on from offering support and counselling to rape victims and using court proceedings as political stage to demanding legal reforms. She convincingly demonstrated how the West German feminist movement – albeit in a slow and reluctant process – succeeded in asserting its concerns despite resistance from both members of the left and the right, resulting in the reform of the rape clause in 1997. In a similar way, JULIA SPOHR (Kassel) dealt in her contribution with feminist debates of the 1970s and 1980s that led to the criminalization of violence against women. Arguing that both German and French feminists applied a broad concept of violence and challenged the patriarchy, while the latter pursued near-state strategies earlier, Julia Spohr’s German-French comparison offered a fruitful complement to Hannah Cahterine Davies’ contribution.

SARAH FRENKING (Erfurt) focused on coercive practices against women from yet another angle. She showed how state practices against “sex trafficking” often moved very contradictorily between protection and punishment. As she illustrated, regulations supposedly designed to protect women from sex trafficking turned out to be means to control women’s mobilities in the first place. They reified moral discourses and stigmatized women’s mobilities as deviant – a process of criminalization which, as Sarah Franking highlighted, was expressed not least in the deportation of foreign prostitutes deemed undesirable. In contrast to research on the early modern period, little research on the 20th century has focused on marginalized agency so far. While she did not explicitly voice those affected in her presentation, her focus on the potentially severe consequences of state regulations for the women affected may be considered as a step towards writing marginalized persons and their experiences into a contemporary history of crime and punishment. Taking a more traditional approach by focusing on elite discourses, PEIROU CHU (Lyon) displayed how prostitution – influenced by French and German 19th century degeneration discourses and deterministic worldviews – was associated with a particular “female” criminal identity in the first half of the 20th century. The speaker illustrated how the regulation of prostitution in the Weimar Republic took various, often coercive forms, ranging from police surveillance, mandatory registration, sanitary regulations, and medical examinations to laws combating venereal diseases and the possibility of detaining alleged prostitutes.

Specific practices of incarceration were the focus of the fifth panel. With different temporal, geographical and thematic emphases, two speakers discussed detention in more detail. Looking beyond Western Europe, PAVEL BALOUN (Prague) emphasized the function of workhouses in the Czech lands as “semi-penal institutions”. Contrasting the research from German-speaking countries in the first half of the 20th century, he argued that these correctional facilities were an expression of antiziganism that contributed significantly to the criminalization and marginalization of Roma and Sinti deemed “lazy” and “unproductive”. Highlighting the lived experiences of Roma and Sinti as one of his research’s key questions, he gave some insight into the everyday life in such workhouses, where internees were subjugated to a harsh disciplinary regime that included long hours of forced labor, physical punishment and very limited opportunities for resistance.

NICOLAS BLUMENTHAL’S (Fribourg) contribution showed some parallels with the Czech example as he referred to so-called “workers’ colonies” – penal institutions established in Switzerland at the turn of the 20th century for the re-education of “vagabonds”, but later also used for the internment of migrants who could not be deported. In line with the workshop’s goal to bring together different fields of research, he called for the necessity to write the detention and deportation of migrants into the history of crime and punishment. Drawing on approaches from Carceral Geography, Nicolas Blumenthal suggested a broader concept of carcerality that moves beyond prisons and considers other coercive state measures, such as immigration detention, as punitive. He supported his argument by laying out the multiple negative consequences of labelling and normalizing immigration detention as a mere bureaucratic, non-punitive act – some of which unfolded in the deprivation of basic rights, and the massive discretionary power of state authorities. In line with other participants, he argued for an approach that refrains from a purely state-centric perspective and instead takes account of the agency and contestations of those affected. As he showed, from time to time, detainees voiced their concerns in letters addressed to authorities.

Bringing together Blumenthal’s and CÉZANE BERETTA’S (Fribourg) topics revealed how carceral institutions, such as the one in Witzwil in Switzerland, sometimes constituted whole complexes that figured as workhouses and prisons at the same time. Situated at the intersection of the history of psychiatry and prisons, she readdressed the question of knowledge production. Against the background of a newly emerged collaboration between prisons and psychiatric institutions in the early 1940s, she emphasized the significant role of the psychiatrist in the production of knowledge about inmates. Consistent with Nathalie Dahn-Singh’s or Sarah Frenking’s observations, she concluded that the knowledge produced to develop new prison policies was not primarily concerned with the well-being of inmates. Rather, she argued, it was about “managing” inmates more efficiently and maintaining law and order within the prison.

Taking a broader look at the use of scientific knowledge in the prison context, KLARÁ PINEROVÁ (Prague) spoke about the professionalization of Czechoslovak socialist prisons after 1960. Her thesis stated that societal developments were reflected in prisons, with times of political liberalization and democratization leading to humanizing tendencies during the 1960s. She found that between 1960 and 1980, the Penology Research Institute (1967) and the Scientific Council of the Ministry of the Interior (1965), which was composed of experts from law, pedagogy, psychology, sociology, doctors etc., most notably contributed to the expertization of the prison system. However, the changes that were set in motion during the 1960s and were directed towards the education of prison staff, the differentiation of convicts, the improvement of their education and the lowering of the use of violence in prisons were only short-lived. As the speaker explained, these newly created research bodies were dissolved and replaced by the return of more repressive measures in the course of the 1970s and 1980s.

Closing the fourth panel, JONAS GLOOR (Zurich) stood out in that he moved beyond the 20th century, thus applying a more present-oriented historical research. His contribution highlighted the increased and more restrictively reinforced practice of indefinite incarceration of offenders categorized as “dangerous” in Switzerland since the early 1990s. To borrow the speaker’s words, this development reflected a new “desire for punishment” that resulted in the formation of new norms and techniques to assess and deal with high risk offenders. Focusing on criminal law, forensic psychiatry and criminal policy, his main argument revolved around the idea of a shift away from traditional purposes of punishment. In this process, rehabilitation and reintegration were gradually replaced by new principles oriented towards risk-management of offenders considered as “dangerous” and “incorrigible”. In addition, Jonas Gloor pointed to the ambiguous role of the media, which fueled debates about more restrictive measures while at the same time playing a crucial role in restoring public trust in penal authorities and the justice system.

As part of the workshop’s closing panel, GÉRALDINE BUGNON and JOËLLE DROUX (Geneva) discussed major reforms in the field of Swiss juvenile justice. Drawing on a more sociological-historical approach, which includes conducting qualitative interviews, they called for a history from below that considers front-line agents and practitioners whose daily actions and practices have driven and shaped constant reforms and innovations. The two speakers exemplified how juvenile justice has evolved in directions different from ordinary court proceedings. For example, juvenile judges are in charge of the whole process – not only the judgement, but also pre-trial and follow-up investigations – and wave extensive discretionary power in light of the often absent lawyers in the decision-making process.

Closing the workshop, VIVIANE TRINDADE BORGES (Florianópolis) pointed to the long historical continuity of criminalizing racialized groups and the corruption, conflicts and injustices that inmates have experienced as a result. Based on the collection of the Florianópolis Penitentiary, which was preserved with the support of the Marginal Archives Project, she also presented various visual material, ranging from photographs to prisoners’ records or letters, and stressed the importance of archival documentation and preservation.

Taking the idea of constant reform in crime and punishment as a starting point, this international workshop finally succeeded in drawing a more nuanced picture of the twentieth century, as participants contrasted moments of change with historical continuities, unchanging power structures, and ongoing processes of criminalization. Participants agreed on the necessity to focus more on the lived experiences of criminalization and punishment rather than solidifying state-centric perspectives. Carceral Geography offers promising approaches to this goal.[2] While initial discussions during this workshop have confirmed the potential of thinking of crime and prison as intertwined histories, research that combines the two fields remains in its infancy. In addition, a future goal will be to seek dialogue with other neighboring fields, such as Deportation and Detention Studies, to further advance interdisciplinary research on coercive measures.[3]

Conference overview:

Opening Remarks

Panel 1: Scientific Knowledge, Justice and Penal Reform
Chair: Regula Ludi (Fribourg)

Nathalie Dahn-Singh (Fribourg): (In-)Visibilizing Punishment: The Construction of Categories for Prison Statistics in the Context of Criminal Law Reform (Switzerland, 1889–1942)

Anouk Essyad (Fribourg): Producing, Relaying, and Depoliticizing a Science on Prison and Criminals. A Collective Biography of the Swiss Participants in the International Prison Congresses (1872–1950)

Maurice Cottier (Fribourg): Morals and Markets. The Chicago School of Economics’ Conceptions of Crime

Panel 2: Feminist Movements and Penal Reform
Chair: Anne-Françoise Praz (Fribourg)

Hannah Catherine Davies (Zurich): Feminist Critiques of the Criminal Law in West Germany and its Influence on Crime Policy, 1970s/1980s

Julia Spohr (Kassel): Debates on Violence against Women in the Federal Republic of Germany and France (1970–1990) – A Comparative Perspective

Panel 3: Sex Work and Exploitation
Chair: Anne-Françoise Praz (Fribourg)

Peirou Chu (Lyon): Regulating Urban Prostitution in the Weimar Germany: Collaboration and Collision between Justice and Science

Sarah Frenking (Erfurt): Women on the Move: Sex Trafficking and the Criminalization of “Deviant Mobilities” in the Interwar Period

Panel 4: Psychiatry, Prisons and Criminal Justice
Chair: Maurice Cottier (Fribourg)

Cézane Beretta (Fribourg): The Psychiatric Expert as a New Actor in the Execution of Sentences in Switzerland in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Klará Pinerová (Prague): Science between Repression and Humanity: The Use of Psychology in Prison System in Czechoslovakia in the Years 1960–1992

Cristina Ferreira (Lausanne): The “Therapeutic Value of the Sentence”. A Look back at the Controversial Role of the Psychiatric Expert in the Penal Field (1970–1980)

Jonas Gloor (Zurich): (Un)treatable Offenders? (In-)Calculable Risks? Contested Knowledge about the Dangerousness of Sex Offenders in Switzerland (ca. 1993–2017)

Panel 5: Prison Reform in Practice
Chair: Alix Heiniger (Fribourg)

Pavel Baloun (Prague): A History of the Workhouse in the Czech Lands in the First Half of the 20th Century

Géraldine Bugnon and Joëlle Droux (Geneva): Reforming Juvenile Justice from Below: Professional Collaborations and Hybridizations in the Field of Juvenile Justice in Switzerland (1970–2000)

Nicolas Blumenthal (Fribourg): Internment of (Non)Deportable Subjects in Switzerland between the 1950s and 1970s: No Punishment?

Viviane Trindade Borges (Florianópolis): Marginal Histories: Archives and Prison History in Latin America (1930–1980)

[1] Juliet Stumpf, The Crimmigration Crisis. Immigrants, Crime, and Sovereign Power, in: American University Law Review 56/2 (2006), S. 367–419.
[2] Dominique Moran u.a., Conceptualizing the Carceral in Carceral Geography, in: Progress in Human Geography 42/5 (2018), S. 666–686.
[3] Martin Lemberg-Pedersen, The Contours of Deportation Studies, in: Russell King / Katie Kuschminder (Hrsg.), Handbook of Return Migration, Cheltenham 2022, S. 122–136; Mary Bosworth, Immigration Detention, Punishment and the Transformation of Justice, in: Social & Legal Studies 28/1 (2019), S. 81–99.