The carceral imprint

The first set of chapters reminds us that we need to avoid a reductive analysis of imprisonment as simply time behind bars, and instead recognise the contingent, porous nature of African prisons, across both time and space. They show both how various prisons are marked by time and how the imaginary of prison and its structures of punishment carry' a weight far beyond any spatial confines, reflecting and shaping historical processes (see also Bernault 1999, Dikotter and Brown 2007, Diallo 2005, Deslaurier 2019). We start the volume with Christine Deslaurier’s chapter, in which she shows, through a historical review of prisons in Burundi, how colonial logics have left an unmistakable mark on prison language, architecture, and organisation. Deslaurier further reveals how forms of punishment originally rooted in colonial penal servitude and the ‘politics of the whip’ retain their imprint, if not legitimacy, despite or exactly because of their colonial import.

As Florence Bernault’s (1999) work has already made clear, and to continue in this historical vein, prisons in Africa have always been highly contested. She describes how colonisation led to a shift from an ‘open Africa’ to a ‘closed Africa’.

In the wake of confinement linked to the slave trade, colonisers imposed the penal prison. While this introduced confinement as punishment (supposedly to humanise punishment), prisons were poorly endowed and politically as well as materially instable. As a result, many men and women simply escaped from prison. And the early African prison also came up against the paradox of its mission: namely to make available cheap labour where it was needed. Thus, we come to see, prisons from the beginning are widely open or even mobile.

Contrary to Goffman’s (1961) reading of prison as a total institution, and in line with more recent research in prison studies more generally (see Chantraine 2000; Rostaing 2001), prisons are marked by circulation between the outside and the inside. The various methodological approaches of studying the prison from outside have shown to be particularly generative to capture this dimension. With regard to Africa, one thing that demonstrates the porosity of prisons is political prisoners, who penetrate the prison walls through their writing of letters to the outside world that often have made their way into the popular press (Mbonimpa 2019, Vassen 1999). This is explored in Remain Tiquet’s chapter, which is based on letters written about and smuggled out of Senegalese penal colonies in the 1930s. He shows, as represented in these letters, that in mobile prison camps violent conditions went hand in hand exactly to counter the provi- sionality of the prison. At the same time, in these letters, a language of prisoners’ rights was taking shape. As such they posed a significant challenge to the colonial authorities as well as powerfully prefiguring the age of prison reform as a way to consolidate prisons rather than to abolish them.

The prison is also connected to the outside world at a both highly instrumental and imaginary level. The prison appears as a very particular imaginary connotating questions of punishment, reform, and state power that shape political - authoritarian, liberal, and at times religious - ideologies more broadly. In the context of contemporary Ethiopia, Sabine Planel’s chapter shows how prison and the threat of imprisonment are instruments of intimidation at the service of a developmentalist ideology in the hands of an authoritarian state. Farmers are being forced into debt to buy fertiliser in order to comply with agronomic guidelines, at the risk of not being able to repay and being incarcerated. Here prison is not seen from what happens within its walls but from the potentialities of fears and forces of power that it conveys. These spread from the obvious field of deterring political dissent or violent crimes to even how to work the fields. Many of the chapters are, then, less about the prison, or prisons, but an effort to rather think with prisons - to understand something else - about the nature of confinement and punishment in relation to wider forces.

Closely related to this, the prison often appears as the symbolic and practical cornerstone on which a government and its society define elementary categories of citizenship. Here, the prison reveals structural relationships as much as it allows their reproduction. Nana Osei Quarshie discusses this intrinsic altering function of prison by looking at how the newly independent Ghanaian state used it to control West African immigrants. He describes the triage that is applied to distinguish citizen from non-citizen in relation to prison resources, and how the state implemented, at least formally, the double sentence of incarceration and expulsion. Speaking strikingly to all modern nation-state making, this mechanism echoes in current French immigration policies known as ‘double peine' (double sentence), in which an immigrant who has committed a misdemeanour or an offence on French territory and served a prison sentence may be deported if his presence ‘threatens public order’.

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