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Fromm, Foucault, Garland, and prison education


The USA leads all advanced and developed nations in incarceration rates with a total of 2.3 million inmates (US Department of Justice, 2007). Several authors and texts have addressed the issue of mass incarceration and the social repercussion that this incarceration has on communities, especially communities of color (Davis, 2011). Although much has been written on this topic, few authors have addressed the education individuals receive inside detention facilities. Formal correctional educationFootnote 1 first began as an established institution in late eighteenth-century Philadelphia (Roberts, 1975). Today, especially in juvenile detention facilities, schools exist as semi-autonomous entities inside of the larger prison. These schools and classrooms are controlled and staffed by local school districts but are required to abide by the authority of prison staff. Currently, California state laws require all minors under the age of sixteen to attend school whether they are free or incarcerated. This means that approximately 100,000 minors attend correctional schools daily (US Department of Justice, 2009). However, there is no actual confirmed figure for how many individuals receive an education behind bars on a daily basis across the world.

Three authors in particular have made a significant impact on how we understand systems of surveillance and punishment. Starting in the 1920s, Eric Fromm became one of the few members of the “Frankfurt School” of social theory to study crime and punishment (Felluga, 2015). This largely influential group of academics began to lay the foundation for academic thought in various disciplines (Anderson, 1998). The work of Fromm became largely influential in laying the foundation for criminology as a discipline (Felluga, 2015). Michel Foucault and his research on surveillance and punishment became integral in academics’ understanding of how punishment transitioned from a public event (i.e., hangings and floggings in the middle of town squares) to something that took place inside institutions of confinement and away from the public eye (Löwy, 2013). Finally, David Garland has been largely influential in the study of prison and punishment. Garland (1990) argues for treating punishment as a social institution and states that, “Penalties should be seen not as a singular kind of mental relationship rather than social institution which, by definition, entails a kind of complexity of structure and density of meaning which we have come across again and again.” (Garland, 1990, p. 282). Garland proposes that by viewing punishment as a social institution, scholars can look at the complexities and multifaceted nature of punishment. As a whole, these three scholars have been largely influential in arguments addressing prisons and various criminal justice systems. However, they only briefly (if at all) address the education individuals receive while incarcerated. Despite this, these authors provide some historical and contemporary insights into this issue which can serve as a starting point to further understand the role of education in secure confinement. In this paper, I will touch on the arguments of these authors and how they fall short of addressing current correctional education. I will then critique these authors and show how their theoretical and empirical explanations do not explain the peculiar position of correctional education.

Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm was a prominent German Jewish academic that was born during the 1900s. His work covered a wide range of topics, including social theory, psychology, sociology, criminology, and political economy (Felluga, 2015). He worked at various universities across the world and was one of the founders of the William Alanson White Institute (Anderson, 1998). Fromm was also famously associated with the Frankfurt school of critical theory, founded in the 1920s, which hosted world-renowned academics and philosophers (Felluga, 2015). He was the only trained psychologist at the Frankfurt school and one of the few participants to study crime and punishment. (International Society of Erich Fromm, 2021). Fromm first became interested in the study of criminal and criminal justice reform during the 1930s (Anderson, 1998). As a whole, he was fascinated with how public fear of crime and the state repression of criminal acts helped to legitimate the “existing capitalist social order” (Anderson, 1998, p. 667) and helped to prevent an overthrow of said social order.

In one of his earlier works, “The State as Educator: On Psychology of Criminal Justice,” Fromm (1930) begins his discussion by stating the goals of the 1930’s criminal justice system. According to him, the:

Modern criminal justice…renounces the thought of revenge and maintains that its intention is to reform or correct the criminal, and that on the whole its methods are useful means toward reform or correction of the offender. (p. 134)

Fromm believes the criminal justice system (CJS) tries to reform people who commit crimes in two separate ways. Firstly, it tries to deter crime through punishment or the threat of punishment. Secondly, the criminal justice system thinks it can deter crime positively by creating a system of layered rewards for good behavior. These rewards are supposed to “educate the criminal on how to become a socially useful person (Fromm, 1930, p. 134).”

Fromm believed these methods were not working for two reasons. First, the criminal justice system cannot prevent people from committing crimes in order to meet their basic needs. Second, Fromm believes these types of crimes could not be stopped because they are rooted in unconscious motives based on previous trauma or unresolved issues (Westwick, 1940). Fromm goes on to discuss his belief that the social systems cannot survive by using raw power alone. In other words, the state cannot successfully maintain power and impose a system of inequality solely. As a whole, Fromm was trying to understand how to combat this psychological state to bring about broader social change.

One of Fromm’s major points was his belief that the state projects itself as a father figure to the masses through the CJS. This is done in a few central ways. First, the CJS can lay out a series of rules that the general population must follow (as a parent would with their children). Second, the CJS has the ability to punish the public just as fathers can punish their children. The justice system also has the ability to do this through the death penalty since capital punishment is still allowed in multiple countries (Hood, 2001). According to Fromm, since the head of the state has the power to pardon individuals from the death penalty, this is symbolic of a father’s dominant authority in the home. He referred to this as “the symbolic embodiment of the paternal authority” (p.126). In its simplest sense, the criminal justice system attempts to use its power to make individuals submit to rules, laws, and regulations (Anderson & Fromm, 2000a, 2000b). Fromm and other critical criminologists would argue that these laws promote the social order, and people were more willing to abide by them if they saw the CJS (and the state) as a fatherly authority instead of an organization tasked with maintaining the current social order (Löwy, 2013).

Finally, Fromm believes that the criminal justice system provides the masses with gratification for their repressed economic and sexual desires by punishing criminals. This helped focus the public’s energy away from the state’s shortcomings and onto the criminals being punished. Moreover, Fromm (1930) believed this helped instill the belief in most people that the “existing social relations are necessarily grounded in the superior wisdom of the rulers.” (p.135). He used this idea to help explain why individuals do not attempt to overthrow the CJS and the larger nation-state.

Although Fromm’s work discusses the prison and criminal justice system in general, he touches on education within this system.

Modern criminal justice system thinks of itself as a type of pedagogy…its intentions is to reform or correct the criminal…It tries to achieve this reform or correction in two ways: negatively, it believes it can intimidate and deter through punishment, so that henceforth the offender will be a quiet, well-behaved citizen; positively, it creates a system of finely-calibrated rewards for good behavior through mandatory work, or through “uplifting” words of encouragement from a clergyman as well as other devices, all in order to educate the criminal on how to become a socially useful person. (Fromm, 1930, p. 134)

Here, Fromm discusses how the modern criminal justice system attempts to reform criminals in two separate ways. First, the CJS attempts to create positive methods that the state uses to attempt to change criminals’ behavior. This takes place when clergy and staff provide words of encouragement and positive affirmations to incarcerated peoples (Löwy, 2013). These uplifting words are supposed to aid criminals in becoming “socially useful” and ultimately help them turn away from a life of crime (Fromm, 2000a, b). In other words, these teachings are supposed to help offenders avoid crime and become productive citizens. Here, Fromm does not specify whether criminals are receiving these uplifting words inside or outside of prison. I suspect these teachings occur in several locations where individuals come in contact with the justice system. He also does not elaborate on what these words actually are or if they are providing criminals with specific instructions that will help them become “socially useful.” While Fromm does not explicitly seek to explain prison education, his writings on the states as educators provide little insight into contemporary prison education.

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault is a French historian and philosopher who strongly influenced philosophy, history, gender studies, criminology, and political science. Born in Poitiers, France, in 1926, Foucault became academically established in 1996 when he became the Professor of the History of Systems of Thought to the prestigious Collège de France until he died in 1984. Additionally, he often lectured at Berkeley and other universities in the USA (Gutting & Oksala, 2018). Foucault’s work focused on power and social change by analyzing texts, images, and buildings to map how knowledge and power changed over time (Pollard, 2020). During his lifetime, he wrote several books—the first of which was his 1961 doctoral dissertation, titled The History of Madness (Kelly, n.d.). However, his most notable contribution to criminology and the social sciences was his work on prisons and punishment called Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison System (Gutting & Oksala, 2018). In the study of politics, Foucault developed novel analytical tools such as “governmentality” and “biopower” when looking at gender and the human body (Kelly, n.d.). Unfortunately, Foucault died from AIDS in 1984 while working on the fourth volume of his history of sexuality (Faubion, 2020).

Unlike Fromm, Foucault directly addresses the issue of education in prisons in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison System more explicitly. However, he does not make prison education a central issue in his book. Instead, Foucault (1977) focuses on how imprisonment and executions have shifted from being public acts to being largely hidden from public view. Moreover, he believes the goal of the prison system is to punish and discipline inmates.

The transition from the public execution, with its spectacular ritual, its art mingled with the ceremony of pain, to the penalties of prisons buried in architectural masses and guarded by the secretary of administration, is not a transition to an undifferentiated, abstract, confused penalty; it is the transition from one art of punishing to another, no less skillful one. It is a technical mutation (Foucault, 1977, p. 257).

For Foucault, the primary goal of prisons is to control human behavior and make inmates obedient.

Although Foucault does not make education in prison a central component in his academic work, he does provide insight into this topic. He says this about education in prison:

It must be the most powerful machinery for imposing a new form on the perverted individual; its mode of action is the constraints of a total education: ‘In prison the government may dispose of the liberty of the person and of the time of the prisoner; from then on, one can imagine the power of the education which, not only in a day, but in the succession of days and even years, may regulate the time of waking and sleeping, of activity and rest, the number and duration of meals, the quality and ration of food, the nature and product of labor, the time of prayer, the use of speech and even, so to speak, that of thought, that education which, in the sort, simple journeys from refectory to workshop, from workshop to cell, regulates the movement of the body, and even in moments of rest, determines the use of time, the time-table, this education, which, in short, takes possession of man as a whole…( Foucault, 1977, p. 236).

Here, Foucault talks about education within the prison and describes it as a “total education.” He not only refers to the education that one receives in prison classrooms, but he also refers to the all-encompassing power of the institution. The education they receive within these institutions breaks down prisoners’ actions and replaces them with the desired actions of the institution. Thus, Foucault provides us with some insight into the education prisoners receive. Several of these insights are still pertinent in contemporary correctional classrooms.

As a whole, there has been little work connecting Foucault’s ideas of surveillance and incarceration to prison education. Collins (1988) is the exception when applying the concept of the panopticon to explain the purpose and function of education behind bars. He argues that most facets of prison education are meant to promote surveillance and compliance of incarcerated peoples (Collins, 1988). Additionally, he notes that most education during the time was independent and self-guided. Thus, when individuals failed to do well in their self-guided educational studies, it became their own fault and not a lack of educational supports provided by their respective detention centers (Collins, 1988). As a whole, this work and other research related to Foucault and prison education argue that education behind bars primarily serves to discipline, monitor, and coerce individuals (Flores & Barahona-Lopez, 2020; Flores et al., 2020; Collins, 1988).

David Garland

David Garland is a Scottish American Professor of Sociology and the Arthur T. Vanderbilt Professor of Law at New York University. He is considered to be one of the world’s leading sociologists of crime and punishment (New York University School of Law, n.d.). Garland’s research focuses on comparative explanations of America’s distinctive use of punishment (New York University School of Law, n.d.) and the history of social control through the welfare state, lynching, and capital punishment. His books on these subjects have won him multiple awards from the American Society of Criminology and other associations. Before moving to the USA, he was a professor and founding member of The Edinburgh Law Review at the University of Edinburgh (New York University, 2016) and has been a visiting professor at a variety of other universities across the globe (Garland, 2021). Garland is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Punishment & Society, a peer-reviewed journal covering criminology and penology (SAGE Publications, n.d.), as well as a Professorial Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy, New York University, American Society of Criminology, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh (Garland, 2021).

David Garland’s Punishment and Modern Society analyzes and critiques canonical works in social theory. Garland (1990) argues that prior work on the penal system provides a narrow understanding of this system. He advocates for treating the social justice system as a social institution: “Penalties should be seen not as a singular kind of mental relationship rather than social institution which, by definition, entails a kind of complexity of structure and density of meaning which we have come across again and again” (Garland, 1990, p. 282). Garland (1990) believes that by viewing punishment as a social institution, we can look at the complexities and multifaceted nature of punishment.

According to Garland (1990), Durkheim believed that the criminal justice system and the rituals that took place in this system (trials, executions, passing judgments against offenders) were a formalized embodiment of societies’ “conscience collective.” Although Durkheim never fully explains this term, it more or less embodies societies’ collective consciousness. According to Garland (1990), Durkheim believed that:

In doing justice, and in processing criminals, these procedures are also giving formal expression to the feelings of the community—and by being expressed in this way those feelings are both strengthened and gratified. Penal Rituals are thus, for Durkheim, a means of representing and reinforcing morality that already exist. (p. 67)

Here, Garland discusses Durkheim’s views of the criminal justice system. Durkheim believes the justice system is the embodiment of the community’s expressions and beliefs. Due to this, when the CJS punishes someone for a crime, it symbolizes the community’s disapproval and punishment of their actions. For Durkheim, the justice system is necessary in order to reinforce social norms and morals. Unlike Foucault and Marxist criminologists, Durkheim believes crime and the criminal justice system are necessary to maintain order in society.

Garland (1990) analyzes Weber’s work and his belief that the criminal justice system will become increasingly bureaucratic and value-neutral. This increased bureaucratization of the justice system will result in a non-discriminatory institution. Garland (1990) says this about Weber:

In the modern network of penal institutions and bureaucracies, ‘punishment’ has come to approximate a rational form of action, conducted routine, matter-of-fact sorts of ways, and represented in morally neutral, managerial terms." (p. 188)

Weber believed that the increase in a value-free criminal justice system would result in the general public being less opposed to its existence. Furthermore, he believed it was necessary to inform the public of this “neutral” shift in the penal system because “the failure to educate the public systematically and actualities of punishment… [will leave] the liberal, civilized professionals complaining about the punitive public and the unreasonable demands which it makes…” (Garland, 1990, p. 187). In other words, a failure to inform the public of this shift would result in the continued opposition to the justice system.

In his text, Garland also addresses the work done by Marxist criminologists. When discussing Punishment and Social Structure, he states, “it represents the most sustained and comprehensive account of punishment to have emerged from the Marxist tradition, and one that owes the least to other traditions of interpretation” (Garland, 1990, p. 89). After making this statement, Garland lays out the arguments made by Rusche and Kirchheimer in great detail. He provides a succinct summary of their work here:

Rusche and Kirchheimer’s specific arguments relate almost entirely to the ways in which the operation of the labour-market comes to influence the methods of punishment and the ways in which penal sanctions are used… (Garland, 1990, p. 93)

Here, when discussing Rusche and Kirchheimer, Garland states that the severity of the punishment practiced by the criminal justice system changes according to economic conditions. More specifically, when the labor market is flooded with workers, conditions inside of prison become worse (Mellossi, 2008). Moreover, during times where labor power is scarce, conditions in prisons will improve.

Garland (1990) does an adequate job of outlining these authors’ arguments as they relate to the justice system. Along with outlining their arguments, he also critiques their work. Garland believes Durkheim overemphasizes the importance of morals and socializing individuals in his analysis of crime. For Weber, Garland focuses on how he lacks a unified understanding of the larger social world. He states, “Weber, quite as much as Foucault, insist upon analyzing social relations and social institutions without positing any essential or unified conception of social world.” (Garland, 1990, p. 178). For Garland, Weber overemphasizes the importance of the bureaucratic transformation of the CJS and fails to acknowledge economic and political factors in his analysis. Finally, Garland critiqued Punishment and Social Structure. Garland believes Rusche and Kirchheimer’s work focuses too heavily on the effects the economy has on the justice system. In other words, he accuses them of having a material reductionist approach to analyzing punishment. Although he acknowledges that Marxist criminologists make a valid contribution to the study of punishment, he feels that their emphasis on economics and the CJS as a tool of the ruling class is one-sided.

Garland’s (1990) main point is his desire to advocate for a multi-dimensional approach to studying the penal system. He calls for a form of understanding punishment that explores the relationships between punishment and society. He wants individuals to view punishment as a social institution and refers to this as the sociology of punishment. Garland believes that by viewing punishment as a social institution, we are able to understand the complexities of its existence. He also believes other theorists that study the CJS have not achieved this.

Although Garland’s (1990) work may seem out of place in my analysis of correctional education, his attempt at a holistic analysis of the CJS is important. Furthermore, he is the only author to incorporate the role of probation and parole departments in his work. While Garland points out the shortcomings of several authors’ arguments on the penal system, he does not address correctional education. This is particularly disappointing given his desire to produce a multifaceted understanding of this system. While analyzing prison education was not the primary goal of this text, Garland should have dedicated a portion of his work to the study of education within prisons.

Discussion and conclusion

Correctional education has changed dramatically since its inception in 1798. During this time, correctional education was very similar to what Foucault describes. It was a method of providing inmates with a highly structured daily regimen. During this time, prison education consisted of a priest teaching inmates how to read bible scripture through the bars in their cell after their daily activities and during inmates’ “free” time (Roberts, 1975). Similar to the late 18th-century prison classrooms, the students in these classes often have a rudimentary grasp of traditional educational knowledge (Iasevoli, 2007). Moreover, they have a history of poverty, neglect, and abuse that often stems back to their parents’ and grandparents’ downtrodden positions (Friedman, 2003).

Today, correctional classrooms look more like traditional classrooms. The classrooms are located inside correctional facilities, but they exist as semi-autonomous entities. Although they must adhere to the rules and regulations of the prison, schools have the flexibility to teach and behave as they please within their own school and classrooms. Students and teachers in these classrooms often have better resources than classrooms in marginalized urban areas (Flores, 2012). In my research, I have found that several teachers in this setting have adopted a caring and compassionate approach to teaching behind prison walls (Flores, 2015). The instructors I spoke with have not done this in order to manipulate their students or push the prison's “total education” model. They have adopted this teaching approach in order to attempt to empower their students and prevent them from returning to these detention facilities.

Although I believe the teachers are resisting detention facilities, it is probable that their efforts can be explained away by some of Foucault and Fromm’s concepts. For example, the compassionate nature of instructors could be explained by Foucault’s notion of pastoral power. This is the more caring and nurturing component of modern forms of power. Despite its compassionate veneer, pastoral power ultimately is a part of the larger structure that seeks to subordinate and punish inmates. For Fromm, teachers’ efforts could be explained by his concept of the state as a father figure. Providing incarcerated individuals with an education and showing this population compassion could be a “reward” for inmates' good behavior. Ultimately, these actions could help legitimize the justice system in the eyes of the general public.

While Fromm and Foucault’s notions of pastoral power and the state as a father figure are essential, I do not believe they thoroughly address the possibility of agency and resistance within prison walls. With this being said, I believe some correctional educators use their classrooms as temporary autonomous zones within the greater prison complex (Flores, 2015). As defined by Hakim Bey (1985), temporary autonomous zones are places that allow individuals to elude formal structures of control. From their classrooms, educators embody a teaching philosophy that actively resists the punitive practices of these institutions. Furthermore, the authors do not theorize the possibility of staff inside the prison attempting to empower their students from behind prison walls. Therefore, Fromm, Foucault, and Garland’s theories do not explain contemporary prison education in California.

Although I do not believe the authors can fully explain away the possibility of resistance from within prison walls, there is no way to verify this. As long as a prison system exists and individuals work inside of it, there will always be the possibility of acts of resistance and compassion being co-opted by the hegemony of the prison system. The only way to completely resist this institution is to abolish it and all other systems that enable its existence. However, I believe my work helps to expose a small fissure in the CJS that will hopefully lead to its downfall.


  1. 1.

    Correctional Education and Prison Education will be used interchangeably in this paper.


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Flores, J. Fromm, Foucault, Garland, and prison education. Curric Perspect 41, 231–236 (2021).

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  • Correctional education
  • Qualitative research
  • Juvenile detention
  • Teacher education