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NEH award recipient to research history of crime and punishment

May 09, 2008

For ASU associate professor Stephen Toth, his recent recognition as a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Award recipient amounts to being paid to play. After all, the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences modern European historian will receive a summer stipend to do what he enjoys most – researching and writing about the history of crime, punishment and violence in France.

“This is a real honor,” says Toth, whose work has appeared in such peer-reviewed journals as History of the Human Sciences, Journal of European Studies, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, and Crime, Histoire & Sociétés. “The funds provided through this endowment afford me the opportunity to get a two-month head start on my year-long sabbatical this summer, so it is very much appreciated.”

Toth is one of 149 applicants selected nationally in 2008 to receive $11.9 million in awards and offers extended by the NEH. He will use his endowment to fund archival research and writing in Paris and Tours, France, for his forthcoming book, “Rural Redemption: The Mettray Agricultural Colony for Boys, 1840-1939.” The study will examine life inside the controversial, privately operated Catholic institution for juvenile delinquents and the process by which it acquired a national and international reputation as a supposed exemplar of moral education, despite its harshly punitive tactics.

“This is a real testimony to the high quality of Stephen’s research,” says Elizabeth Langland, ASU vice president and dean of the New College.

“This is the type of work that typifies the best interdisciplinary research of the New College.

“His study of Mettray connects 150-year-old practices and beliefs that juvenile criminals can be rehabilitated through the power of the land to our own beliefs today and our practice of using rural, military-type facilities as a mode of juvenile rehabilitation.”

Toth says his upcoming exploration of Mettray has modern applications.

“Many states, including Arizona, and an untold number of for-profit and nonprofit groups opened – and continue to operate – rural, military-style camps to house and rehabilitate juvenile criminals. While proponents believe that such facilities are an innovative way to deal with a social malady seemingly unprecedented in scope, the idea and practice are actually rooted in a 150-year history that can be traced to Mettray.”

The Mettray study, says Toth, contributes to the humanities by helping to understand and contextualize contemporary debates surrounding juvenile crime and punishment in the United States. In recent years, social scientists, politicians and the mass media have focused on what they believe to be the growing problem of juvenile crime in America. Spurred in part by extreme forecasts that projected significant increases in juvenile crime rates, warnings of an impending “teenage crime storm,” particularly among young black and Hispanic males, predominated during the 1990s.

“The issues surrounding juvenile crime that were critical in 19th-century France bear a remarkable resemblance to many of those in the United States in the 21st century,” says Toth.

“In both eras – one beset by the material hardships associated with industrialization, the other by segments of the population mired in a seemingly insurmountable cycle of unemployment and poverty – there is a somewhat misplaced fear of a rising tide of juvenile crime. In this regard the agricultural colony has re-emerged as a means of addressing this perceived problem. Given that many of these institutions have, not unlike Mettray, also been accused of prisoner abuse and mismanagement, we need to understand the historical legacy of this correctional practice.

“In this regard, my work appeals to scholars of history, cultural studies, crime and criminology, as well as to policymakers who might seek a cultural and historical perspective on the topic.”

Toth notes his fascination with the French penal colonies, and particularly Mettray, was cultivated by French moral philosopher Michel Foucault, who authored “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Modern Prison.”

“I was always struck by the fact Foucault traced the birth of the modern prison to Mettray and that he believed Mettray represented the disciplinary form in which the art of punishment had been perfected,” says Toth, whose most recent work, “Beyond Papillon: The French Overseas Penal Colonies, 1854-1952,” was published in 2006 by the University of Nebraska Press as part of its “France Overseas” series.

“Foucault never really discussed the institution in any real depth, and there was very little published on the subject.

Located in the bucolic Loire valley, Mettray inspired the establishment of some 50 new institutions during the 1840s which made the agricultural colony the most common form of incarceration for juvenile delinquents in France. In fact, colonies based on the Mettray model were opened in Great Britain, the Netherlands and the U.S.

Mettray’s founders aimed to rehabilitate criminal youths through agricultural work, basic elementary schooling, and strict military discipline.

Delinquent children were removed not only from the common adult prisons where they were typically housed, but also from the perceived evil influences of the city. Toth’s research indicates that while Mettray promised benevolent reform it was not all it was reported to be. In fact, by the early 20th century, it had devolved from the reformist vision of its founders to a brutal custodial care facility.

“There was a shared belief that industrialization and urbanization had corrupted morality and was to blame for crime among adults and children,” Toth says. “Both the overseas penal colonies and the agricultural colonies shared a Rousseauian belief in the power of the land to rehabilitate the man. Whether tilling the soil of the Loire or clearing the jungle in French Guiana, this was a reaction to the birth of economic and social modernity in 19th-century France.

“Once it became clear that this romantic belief was untenable, however, both the overseas penal colonies and Mettray became criminal dumping grounds.”