Decentring the African prison

Breaking with the widespread but one-dimensional understanding of the African prison, the authors offer a wide array of insights into the actual plurality of prisons. They join here the call by colleagues Jefferson, Martin, and Bandyopadhavy (2014) to sense the ‘prison climate’, meaning to describe the prison as it is. The contributions’ insights range from historical continuities to paradigmatic breaks in both vertical and horizontal prison rule, from rural to urban manifestations of confinement, from democratic to authoritarian to charismatic expressions of punishment, and from views from the inside and outside to views on the porosity of prison walls. We analyse different architectural logics, as well as the gendered, racial, political, and economic valence of prisons and their symbolic ubiquity in nearly all imaginations of the state.

This plurality of African prisons and their spread across time, space, and form in turn provide for a multiplicity of comparative dimensions. Approaching these various dimensions from multidisciplinary perspectives lends complexity and depth to the emerging field of African prison studies (Morellc and Le Marcis 2015).

The first comparative axis among the various contributions emerges from the fact that these studies have been carried out in both francophone and anglophone parts of the continent. As obvious as it might seem to put studies from these regions together, we all know that actual language barriers, separate research networks, and diverging research cultures often lead to a myopia toward scholarly advances and arguments. In the research project that preceded the publication of this volume, francophone and anglophone scholars have, from the beginning, been regularly meeting and comparing each other’s experiences and insights. As a result, this book offers the first comprehensive discussion of prisons in Africa across language barriers.

A further result of this comparative dimension, cutting across language and regions, is that this volume is able to put South African prison studies in relationship with ‘the rest of Africa’ and more broadly in relationship with different scientific traditions. South Africa, always happy to claim a certain exceptionalism in its scholarship within African studies because of its level of industrialisation and persistence of settler colonialism (Ralph Austen 1987), has also done this with regard to research regarding prisons. South Africa, indeed, has unprecedentedly high numbers of incarceration and, in fact, is the only country on the continent that can claim to have an established body of prison scholarship.1 Yet, these works have rarely been put into relationship with prison experiences and practices in other parts of Africa. They have either remained isolated within a South African paradigm of post-apartheid reform and hyper-incarceration or they have chosen [1]

as theoretical and empirical interlocutor the paradigmatic carceral state across the Atlantic, the United States (see for example Gilmore 2007, Gottschalk 2006). Gillespie’s (2011) much-cited paper, for example, describes the practice of local incarceration in relation to liberal prison reforms in the 1940s in South Africa. Yet, she does not address the relevance of such a question elsewhere in Africa, which is, if one follows Mamdani (1996), not such a far reach; especially when one switches from ‘economic form’ to ‘state form’ as analytical lens. Similarly, Fillipi (2012) discusses inmates’ resistance to incarceration after the end of apartheid. And Kistner (2014) powerfully describes how the confinement practices of Westfort prison and Westkoppies Hospital in the outskirts of Pretoria led them to similarly deal with so-called lunatics, leprosy patients, and criminals through isolation, triage, and segregation. Although these topics would be very relevant for questions of colonial and postcolonial uses of confinement, and more generally of prison and power, the papers do not engage with studies of similar cases elsewhere and tend to write a singular South African story. In this volume, then, we have aimed at integrating studies of confinement in South Africa with analyses of confinement elsewhere, which indeed allows for making a variety of thematic connections, whether on the self-organisation of certain prison spaces, economies of value, the politics and practices of reform efforts for detention, or the plurality of justice rationalities.

In addition to paying attention to the configurations in which punitive practices are deployed and eventually reconfigured, we also wish to analyse the processes that structure the prison experience and the functioning of the institution. However, in doing so, our aim is not only to decompartmentalise South African research and stimulate an inter-African dialogue but also to open up the continent’s prison realities to a broader, global debate and reintegrate into it (Bandyopadhyay 2010, Biondi 2016, Boutron and Constant 2013, Chauvenet et al. 1994, Cunha 2008, Garces et al. 2013, Godoi 2014, Hanna-Moffat 2001, Kaminski 2004, Martin et al. 2014, Reed 2004). This is especially the case, as with our own insistent focus on African prisons, given the risk that one could read this as implying that prisons in Africa are indeed categorically different from prisons elsewhere in the world, especially from prisons in the global North, and require their own unique analytics.

In contrast, we want to do away with African exceptionalism; this book, in fact, rather presents a selection of studies of prisons that happen to be in Africa. While there might be aspects, organisational logics, complicities, histories, contradictions, and interpretations that emerge as particularly pronounced in these chapters, this does not necessarily mean that they are not part of prison politics and prison life elsewhere in the world, including the global North. For example, if prisons in Africa represent a form of delegated power, this has also been critically discussed in the context of US and European prisons (Sparks et al. 1996, Chauvenet 1998, Bosworth 1996, Carrabine 2005). Also, if some of our accounts make clear that prison practices are heavily centred on physical punishment rather than transformation or discipline, then this can be very much related to the criminalising effect of prisons, issues of social isolation, and appeasement through psychotic drugs, and how these are leading to mental illness in many Western prisons (Cohen and Taylor 1972). And indeed, prisons as a racialised form of domination as well as a form of dealing with ‘surplus’ and dominated people - be it street kids or entire populations marked by difference - present a rather more connected than divisive logic of imprisonment across the world. In many ways, it reveals the colonial settler mentality in its contemporary guise in other locations (Mbembe 2017, 2019).

The research process brought out comparative dimensions that were originally unexpected. Having worked together[2] over several years between 2014 and 2019; having met in preparatory' stages and more conclusive stages, before and after fieldwork; and writing and discussing chapters in each other’s presence, the authors of the studies presented here were struck by the diverging approaches regarding methods and ethics that emerged out of an intense engagement with the prison in various African countries. We turn to these in the next two sections, and then lay out the various thematic and comparative focal points.

  • [1] The publications on South African prisons are numerous. See, for example, Naidoo (1982),Lotter (1988), Gift'ard (1997), Dirsuweit (1999), Buntman (2005), Steinberg (2005), Munt-ingh (2007), Roux (2009), Kwela (2014), Moran and Jewkes (2015), Agboola (2016,2017).
  • [2] The project for this book originated during the ECCOPAF research programme co-directedby Frederic Le Marcis and Marie Morelle. The programme, entitled Economies of Punishment and Prison in Africa (ANR-15-CE27-0007), received the support of the FrenchNational Research Agency after a first grant from the University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonnein 2014. It took place from 2015 to 2019 and brought together researchers working in 10countries of the continent (Tunisia, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire,Cameroon, South Africa, Burundi, and Nigeria). In a collective and multidisciplinary manner(history, geography, anthropology, sociology, political science), they examined governanceand prison spaces, prison reforms and its actors, and the matter of punishment and justice.We would like to thank all the participants in this programme, some of whose results appearin this volume: Patrick Awondo, Habmo Birwe, Yasmine Bouagga, Bourna Fernand Bationo,Benedicte Brunet Laruche, Muriel Champy, Christine Deslaurier, George Macaire Eyenga,Sylvain Landry Faye, Sasha Gear, Julia Hornberger, Frederic Le Marcis, Marie Morelle, LionelNjeukam, Musa Risimati, Nana Osei Quarshie, Kathy Rawlings, and Remain Tiquet. We alsosincerely thank Hefone Colineau, Carole Dromer (ICRC), Nicolas Courtin, and Claire Gilettefor their support throughout the project; Eliane Martinez, Clara Grisot, and Bernard Bolze atPrison Insider; and Erin Martineau for her tireless editing work.
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