Transforming the prison

The final set of chapters interrogates the practice of confinement reform. This might seemingly contradict what we stated in the beginning of this introduction, namely that we distance ourselves from research on the prison as a subject for good governance intervention. Nevertheless, reform efforts of this very kind have made their way into African prisons as a social fact. For example, in administrative language and material structures (e.g., cell size), they have left their traces, often reflecting a certain Zeitgeist and interaction with the particularities of prison reform. It is then these traces in their particularity and plurality that our analysis brings to the fore.

Yasmine Bouagga, grounding her reflexion in the field of penal reform in Tunisia and the numerous international conferences on this subject, discusses the subtle play between human rights imperatives and the longue duree of an economy of punishment. The moment of political transition in Tunisia offers a critical insight into the complex negotiations, translations, and contestations of reform practices and ideologies. Marie Morelle who writes about Yaounde Central Prison sheds light on an underestimated aspect of the engine of reform: the prisoners themselves. Acknowledging their capacity for action, she accounts for informal processes of legal learning and calls for the inclusion of prisoners as full actors in the arena of prison reform. Maud Angliviel examines the multiple uses of pre-trial detention in Guinea, detailing the abnormally high rates of pretrial detention (60% of the criminal population) and the illegal lengths of time inmates remain in detention. Moving towards a more qualitative analysis, she interprets pre-trial detention as a space for negotiation before justice is spoken in court. With pre-trial detention increasingly the subject of recent reforms, it becomes clear how reform threatens informal sources of state power found in the aberration of detention processes. The author emphasises that if reforms sped up the processing of individuals placed in remand detention, no longer allowing the legal time limit to be exceeded, the prisons would be emptied, but then filled immediately by punishing more.

Kathy Rawlings discusses the notion of reform premised at the level of the individual inmate. She highlights, based on her interactions with inmates in and out of prison, how the politics of testimony manifest as demands on the self and on individual responsibility. Through this particular grammar they then ignore and obscure the historical causes (racial inequalities, criminalisation of Blacks during apartheid) at the roots of the socioeconomic conditions and specific penal treatment of the Black South African majority.

We end the section as well as the book with an interview with Alice Nkomo, a well-known attorney trying to keep gay men out of prison in Cameroon. We do so to first honour her fearless efforts. Second, we would like to make clear that any reform effort is doomed unless there is a legal and social groundswell that drives these efforts in a much more explicitly political and adversarial way, rather than treating them like purely technical tools that don’t rock the boat. The interview provides an exemplary account of many of the issues raised in the previous chapters, be it how prisons imprint forcefully on the making of gendered citizenship or how questions of punishment are often torn between contradictory moral and institutional structures.

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