The Matter of Penal Standards: The Material Politics of Penal Government in Haiti and Nunavut

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Brisson-Boivin, Kara Jeanne




This dissertation examines the role of the prison within projects of state formation by way of the instrumentalization of punishment in accordance with penal standards: these aim to measure, manage, and steer the conduct of penal governments, practitioners, and prisoners. My research contributes to the fields of governmentality studies, critical criminology, and post-colonial studies through an analysis of penal standardization as the primary means through which states enact moral sovereignty, or the manufacturing of democratic penal institutions. By using penal standards as an analytic of government, and an amalgam of critical document analysis, semi-structured interviews, and participant observation, this study examines the application of penal standards within two cases of penal government intervention: Canada’s role within the penal aid and justice reconstruction effort in Haiti; and the investigation into sub-standard penality in Nunavut, Canada. The unique contribution of my dissertation, emerging from my empirical focus on the material politics of penal standards, is that penal standards matter as evidenced by the matter (or materiality) of penal standards. In studying the matter of penal standards my research makes three core arguments: first, that penal standards promote technicization in penalty (or penal technē), rather than the actualization of ethical punishment or prisoner human rights; second, that penal standardization aims to disembed a penal government’s relationship from a specific locality or culture, recasting this relationship as a universal, normalized, and primarily carceral response to punishment; third, in both of the cases of penal standardization that I study (in Haiti and in Nunavut) penal agents must contend with the paradox of punishing inequality—how to maintain the monopoly over the authority to punish, or penal legitimacy, without subjecting prisoners to patently inhumane conditions and practices within contexts of significant marginalization and inequality. I argue that penal standards, as they are currently imagined, are part of the problem rather than a solution to abnormal forms of punishment, and that the only failures within penal standardization are those ideas and practices which are systematically discounted by the normative assumptions ingrained within penal standards—the failure to imagine punishment as anything other than carceral.






Carleton University

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