From rehabilitation to collective transformation

Natalia Laino Topham

rehabilitate… rehabilitate oneself… rehabilitate ourselves…. transform ourselves…

Thinking of security, and consequently, of prisons, refers us –in the best-case scenario– to the concept of rehabilitation. And it is in the best-case scenario because still today the punitive common sense approach is widely valid; as Eugenio Zaffaroni (2012) says, we are still in the Middle Ages, “it is not the past that is back but a past that has never gone, because there lies punitive power, verticalization as its role, its expansive trends, its lethal outcomes”. [1]

The shift from torture –the art of unbearable sensations– to imprisonment –the economy of suspended rights– was apparently a proof of evolution of our punishing methods, a supposed “humanization” that left behind the atrocity of such punishments.[2] However, Foucault says that this would be more a new economy of punishment than an evolution, and that it is not about punishing less but about punishing better, of introducing the power to punish more deeply into the social body but with an attenuated severity. “Why would society eliminate a life and a body that it could appropriate? (...) far more telling than death would be the example of a man who is ever before one's eyes, whom one has deprived of liberty, and who is forced to spend the rest of his life repairing the loss he has caused society”.[3]

This new economy implied the transition from punishing an act to punishing a life; being more specific, it implied the construction of a biography, leaving aside what the individual did and focusing on who the individual is and will be capable of doing in the future. Then, the new target of punishment will be the correction and remedy of the criminal; concomitantly, new extrajudicial stakeholders will come out to turn the subject into an object of knowledge. In this scenario, the experts –psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers– will play a privileged role in the study of abnormality, in the explanation of behavior and also in prognosis and prediction. In this sense, rehabilitation involves the alleged "humanization" and conceals the punitive sense which made it valid. Concealed, the punitive will now operate through the penitentiary technique –assisted by treatment techniques– thus transforming the offender into a criminal.

Within the framework of the penitentiary reform and with the creation of the National Rehabilitation Institute, Uruguay has tried to leave behind the strictly custodial approach to promote one that succeeds in developing rehabilitation and social inclusion of the imprisoned population: “Today, we all know that the complexity of rehabilitation lies in the fact that crime is the outcome of a social circumstance where interaction occurs among education, community, employment, relationships with others, family, health, social and affective capabilities, and the values that form or deform us through different means”. [4]

"Rehabilitation" has multiple meanings, and not much discussion and agreement exist about its origin. What we can realize, in general, is that this policy is approached from the idea of treatment, work and study, id est., it is linked to an image of thought [5] that generates the conditions of possibility of certain subject-formation.

Many different stories mix together in the underlying reasons for imprisonment: serving a sentence, being punished, “paying a debt to society”, “letting them rot in jail”, getting an intimidating effect, changes in subjective positions, achieving recognition of responsibility and remorse, acquiring productive life habits, among others. Through this approach, prison is seen as a means of accomplishing the technical and disciplinary transformation of individuals, and in the best-case scenario, “their rehabilitation”. In the best-case scenario, is this the best we have managed to accomplish collectively? And if it is the best… in what sense?

Although the notion of rehabilitation implies an approach to punishment other than the punitive approach, from its very conception it advocates correction: it is assumed that a “somebody” exists –and from this notion– this “somebody” should be corrected. In this way, the biographical acquires an essential place in punishment: it will make the criminal exist before committing the crime. To place the issue in the biographical sphere implies exposing the criminal behavior as an individual feature of people –a legacy from the positivist criminology– thus ignoring the productive place of the penitentiary technique that transforms offenders into criminals. The fiction is exposed of the subject as determination, creation, forgetting that subject formation may be an effect of production rather than truth formation.[6]

The place of rehabilitation will be linked to the measure of relapse, that is to say, the construction of a biography and of a life history. And rehabilitation will only be possible to the extent a change in the individual occurs, but not as a transformation that challenges subjects as such, the ways in which we have been objectivized, constructed, produced, but as correction and acknowledgment of a responsibility that will allow to assume individuality and existence as a criminal. [7]

Critical criminology has contributed elements to shift the focus from individuals to problematization of practices, to ask ourselves who are considered deviated from the norm, who labels, how is labeling made, and what it is done for that network to work, rather than to ask ourselves who the criminal is.[8]  The object of study of criminology will no longer be the offender but the circumstances that create and manage delinquency; the study of criminology will give room to the study of criminalization processes.

For a long time we have been realizing that the notion of rehabilitation is insufficient; it has been exhausted in its own conception; we should change the way we set up problems; we should force thought, we should look for new images. We are facing the great challenge of setting up other ways of thinking that allow shifting from the logic of the individual to a relational network. It is necessary to leave aside the concept of subject originated in a hegemonic model in which "the individual as a prototype of the singular, and the union between individuals separated from each other as a prototype of the plural", prevail. "In this way, the pattern upholding individual and the sum of individuals as an expression of the relational is perpetuated".[9]

To accomplish this we should pay attention to Spinoza's philosophical claim as a contribution to collective, relational and affective transformation, for, as Manuel Delgado says "we are not human beings building relationships, we are the relationship between human beings, and of human beings with things, joining together from a vast number of lines, trajectories, movements."[10] The attempt to correct, to "rehabilitate" the "individual", is still having a failed, frustrating outcome; perhaps this is the reason why we have the solutions we deserve to the problems we have managed to expose. Focusing on collective transformation implies a new way of setting up the problem. It will no longer be a transformation in terms of the sum of corrected subjects, because the very idea of subject has been exhausted, but a collective transformation capable of approaching the mess, the network, the relational issues, the power of impacting and being impacted.

Spinoza proposes a new image of thought where it is possible to think of ourselves as a potential –what we are capable of and leave behind the idea of thinking of subjects in terms of their essence –what they are–. Thinking of ourselves from the standpoint of "what we are" implied the construction of a world with different characters that believe what they are: as well as criminals are produced, children, women, men, heterosexuals, homosexuals, lunatics, normal people, deviants, psychopaths, perverse individuals, female snatchers, murderers, experts, judges, psychologists, female doctors, teachers, female professors, are produced. As Guattari says "the subject is not necessarily the individual, not even one individual. We should go and unbury the subject from the heart of his alienation, reopen the potentiality of his history in the dullness of his situation". [11]

This new image proposed by Spinoza is essential to embark ourselves in a collective transformation that, from the standpoint of an anti-hierarchical philosophy, implies building new ethical encounters. And the construction of ethical encounters allows us to pay attention to what we are capable of correcting and of giving up what we should be. It is a different way of thinking ourselves, no longer based on biographies (construction of a life history, of what we are) but on encounters and the unfolding of our power, what we are capable of doing.

We should not forget the images of thought involved in the notion of rehabilitation of incarcerated people; perhaps this allows us to shift from the logic of correction to transformation modalities, to singularizing processes, but no longer of them but of each one of us.
Natalia Laino, psychologist. Teacher at the School of Psychology of Universidad de la República. Master degree in Social Psychology. She is engaged in prison-related work.

[1] Zaffaroni, E. (2012). La cuestión criminal. Buenos Aires: Planeta.

[2] Foucault, M. (2002). Vigilar y Castigar. Nacimiento de la prisión. Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno, Editores Argentina.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Ministerio del Interior. (2014). Los caminos a la libertad. Montevideo: Ministerio del Interior.

[5] Deleuze, G. (2009). Diferencia y repetición. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu.

[6] Foucault, M. (1983). El sujeto y el poder (Epílogo). Translation: Santiago Carassale and Angélica Vitale. In H. Dreyfus, & P. Rabinow, Michel Foucault: beyond structuralism and hermeneutics (pp. 1-31). Chicago. Chicago University Press.
[7] Laino, N. (2015). Producciones Peligrosas. Miradas y palabras sobre la delincuencia femenina en el estudio para la libertad anticipada. Master Thesis in Social Psychology. Montevideo: UR, FP

[8] Deligny, F. (2015) Lo arácnido y otros textos, Cactus. Buenos Aires.

[9] Lee Teles, A. (2010). Política afectiva: un aporte filosófico a la cuestión de la subjetividad. Espacio Pensamiento. Retrieved from

[10]Lee Teles, A. (2010). Política afectiva: un aporte filosófico a la cuestión de la subjetividad. Espacio Pensamiento. Retrieved from
[11] Guattari, F. (1976). Psicoanálisis y transversalidad. Buenos Aires: Siglo veintiuno.