Building the fieldwork: From inside to outside the prison walls

While ethnography might have been what was on most contributors’ minds when they embarked on their respective research endeavours, the diverse methods underlying the contributions here are probably as numerous as the chapters. One of the most productive lines of discussion about methodology surfaced along the lines of a pivotal question: should one study the prison from within or from outside, and what kind of insights would one gain doing the one or the other? While often this was less of a question of choice than of what was possible, it is important to understand this not just as a pragmatic decision but as a methodological path with epistemic consequences.

Prisons are often centred on the idea of ‘putting people away’, making sure that they can’t easily access the outside world. In turn, this means, that it is proportionately difficult to enter the prison from outside. This separation and the fact that the inner spaces of prisons exist beyond the public’s purview, then, lends any research into these concealed worlds an obvious rationale. The objective here hardly needs clarification: to find out and witness what goes on behind the walls where, in an institution aspiring at total control, humans rule over other humans. Prisoners live together in such spaces in abnormally close intimacy - eating together, sleeping together, washing themselves together, breathing together - against their will. How is such rule enforced, and how does life take shape within such constraints? What shape does human life take under these exceptional, deprived, and coercive conditions?

In fact, ‘being there’ always bestows great authenticity. Things can be vis- cerally felt and observed without the censorship of prison authorities. Aspects that are too mundane or too familiar to both inmates and wardens, such as spatial arrangements, language conventions, and daily rhythms can be observed directly and analysed in terms of their particularity. In his chapter in this volume, on women being imprisoned for being involved in female mutilation, Le Marcis describes the exact layout of the women’s section of a prison and how through subtle ways they are not just locked up but ‘protected’ from the male gaze both from within and from outside the prison. By witnessing the rules and assumptions-in-practice that govern women’s imprisonment he is able to show how women are being imagined and ‘reconstructed’ along the lines of particular gendered virtues.

In addition, traces of violence and abuse are hard to conceal in the presence of the immediate encounter with prison life. And the informality of how things are really done comes to the surface. Who is really in charge? What orders and hierarchies exist? How is survival structured? This is well represented in Gear’s chapter, in which she presents prisoners’ experiences of arriving at the prison. She does this by recovering the stance of ‘being there’ by talking to ex-prisoners recreate the experience in most disturbingly vivid and indeed tangible ways. This allows her to describe the various rules enacted and enforced by prisoners themselves to govern different prison spaces, from police cells where they are detained, court cells where they await trial, and prison proper.

It is here that we might understand better not only what prisons pretend to be but what they really are. We can then confidently follow Wacquant’s (2002, 387) stance that “field researchers need to worry less about challenging the terms of the discourse that frames and supports prisons and more about getting inside and around penal facilities to carry out intensive, close-up observation of the myriad relations they contain and support.” If, in the United States, ‘the ethnography of the prison thus went into eclipse’ exactly at a time when mass incarceration took shape, then the dearth of such studies is even more pronounced in Africa, as there has never been many of such studies before (Wacquant 2002, 385). Being a witness to these dynamics, also then involves a certain responsibility to speak out for those whose voices are silenced and whose suffering is concealed by both secrecy and pretence. Especially since, for most researchers, ‘being there’ still comes with being able to leave whenever they want and to say whatever they want.

The ability to leave and speak out is also, of course, the fundamental difference between researchers and both inmates and wardens (whose lives are often dependent on their employment as wardens), as both of the latter are bound to confinement. This is also where we have to caution about the seemingly self- evident virtue of studying the prison from within, and admit that, at times, there is a certain fetish related to the idea of ‘being there’ in prison and the insight it can produce. How authentic can researchers’ accounts ever be? How much can we really ‘be there’ as researchers? Not only can we leave any time, which might give us only a limited understanding of what it means to be imprisoned, but our prison visits might also be highly mediated. Such mediation can take many forms: authorities control our movements within the prison, very few researchers have ever been allowed to stay overnight in prison, and we have to sign all kind of agreements before prison authorities allow us to enter the prison. Prison authorities might only be swayed to let researchers into prisons if they are permitted a say in the research design. Finally, it may be that the kind of orders that form in prison are of such a nature that everybody who is part of the system, inmates included, becomes complicit in them; even those who are most victimised would not dare to speak out about these insidious logics, in fear of losing the little advantage they have gained or out of fear of further victimisation. For these reasons, Gear purposefully interviewed ex-prisoners and not current inmates. She did so to avoid them being any further exposed to sexual harassment and violence because they might be considered ‘informers’ by taking part in the research.

Prisoners might also be complicit in the idea of prison as a place of change and betterment and would hate to be seen caught in its dehumanising conditions. In an effort to preserve their humanity, they may prefer to be in control of how their life in prison is depicted. This is definitely the case in the chapter by Rawlings, who looks at prisoners’ narratives of betterment in one of Johannesburg’s prisons. Analysing mobile phone messages and photos prisoners have sent to her, she is able to critically consider their self-presentation and how they reconfigure their imprisonment as an epiphanic moment that has led to their transformation, thus transcending their dire circumstances. Some of the authors here thus show that sometimes the most detailed accounts of prison life may be recorded from outside. This, however, does not mean that these are necessarily more authentic accounts. Indeed, such accounts might actually follow a preconceived form. Hornberger, also writing on South African prisons, shows that ex-inmates’ accounts of their prison experiences are pitched towards very particular audiences - churches, gangs, NGOs - outside of prison, who in turn offer a framework within which prison experiences become meaningful.

Studying the prison from outside can also allow the researcher to avoid becoming complicit in the enactment of a transparency by prison authorities that however is quite limited. More so, the researcher can occupy a position of critical distance, which allows them to put the prison system into an interpretative relationship with wider political and economic and social structures, and see how the prison has imprinted itself on and is the product of these fundamental structures and dynamics. For example, questions of modern citizenship are arbitrated through the threat of incarceration. This insight has led to our thematic focus on the imprint of prisons, as discussed further below. Finally, studying the prison from outside, one might figure out how other forms of justice are being practiced in the shadow of the prison if not at a distance to it, precisely to avoid the prison and the kind of (state) logic of control and punishment for which it stands. We see this especially in the chapter by Epron, focusing on a neighbourhood of Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, in which he describes how people’s efforts to resolve conflicts within immediate social and familial structures are mainly aimed at avoiding the logic of state punishment, preserving a space for both restorative and retributive punishment.

Other methods that figure strongly in this volume and that contribute to producing a composite picture of prisons in Africa look at the changing architecture of prisons, taking seriously the materiality of confinement as both ideologically meaningful and socially consequential. Historical, archival work as well as analyses of betterment and reform discourses reveal repetition and reappearance where claims to change and newness are being proffered. They also highlight shifts and cracks in what otherwise might seem a homogenous approach, as Deslaurier shows from an analysis of the history' of Burundian prisons. How such discourses are appropriated, undermined, and even falsified speak to the prison having an active inside and outside, and to its powerful imprint on the efforts of bureaucrats, officials, and other institutions.

From this it should become clear that these methodological choices lead to different epistemological insights in the role and functioning of prisons. Yet, considering how nascent our understanding of prisons in Africa, and how thin the critical scholarship on them is, there is no better or worse method. It is in the multiplicity of approaches that we not only build a complex picture but also gather the kind of material to critically review each other’s approaches, beyond just preference and partiality.

 
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