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The Prison before the Panopticon

The Prison before the Panopticon

Incarceration in Ancient and Modern Political Philosophy

Jacob Abolafia

ISBN 9780674290631

Publication date: 07/09/2024

A pioneering history of incarceration in Western political thought.

The prison as we know it is a relatively new institution, established on a large scale in Europe and the United States only during the Enlightenment. Ideas and arguments about penal incarceration, however, long predate its widespread acceptance as a practice. The Prison before the Panopticon argues that debates over imprisonment are as old as Western political philosophy itself. This groundbreaking study examines the role of the prison in the history of political thought, detailing the philosophy of incarceration as it developed from Demosthenes, Plato, and Philo to Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes, and Jeremy Bentham.

Jacob Abolafia emphasizes two major themes that reappear in philosophical writing about the prison. The first is the paradox of popular authorization. This is the problem of how to justify imprisonment in light of political and theoretical commitments to freedom and equality. The second theme is the promise of rehabilitation. Plato and his followers insist that imprisonment should reform the prisoner and have tried to explain in detail how incarceration could have that effect.

While drawing on current historical scholarship to carefully situate each thinker in the culture and penal practices of his own time and place, Abolafia also reveals the surprisingly deep and persistent influence of classical antiquity on modern theories of crime and punishment. The Prison before the Panopticon is a valuable resource not only about the legitimacy of the prison in an age of mass incarceration but also about the philosophical justifications for penal alternatives like restorative justice.


  • This eloquent, learned, and highly readable book offers a new and exciting account of Western theorists of imprisonment, from Demosthenes and Plato in democratic Athens to Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes, and Jeremy Bentham. Uncovering unexpected convergences as well as sharp turns, Abolafia demonstrates that ancient and early modern thought bears directly on scholarly and policy debates today. His conclusion, that popularly authorized imprisonment can and should aim at strict punishment of criminal activity by the wealthy and powerful but leniency toward the poor and powerless, offers a salient challenge, both to advocates of prison abolition and to defenders of the carceral status quo.

    —Josiah Ober, Stanford University


  • Jacob Abolafia is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Book Details

  • 256 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press