Research on Prisons

Since the late 1970s, in France as in most industrialized countries, principles of human rights have penetrated inside the prison, putting inmates' rights on the political agenda. At the same time, however, criminal law has become more repressive towards the socially vulnerable, especially immigrants and youth from disadvantaged areas. Selective sanctions such as deportation and banishment for alien offenders and mandatory incarceration of repeat offenders have created a situation of precarity for a vast portion of the penal population. Prison administration, therefore, has to deal with a dual demand: promoting the humanization of prison and implementing repressive policies. The rule of law and the rights of prisoners are a core dimension of this process.

Our research focused on actual practices of this dual demand of humanization and repression. We observed local configurations in which prison workers and other actors (judges, doctors, chaplains, volunteers, etc.) deal with inmates, express moral evaluations, and discuss issues raised by their legal status or social background. Tensions between repressive policies and humanitarian reason, between stigmatization and recognition, are particularly visible at the local level. Criteria prescribing appropriate attitudes towards prisoners are embedded in moral values and expressed via moral judgments. We thus observed how the moral imperative of dignity is translated into practices of protection of physical integrity on the one hand, and better access to law and litigation on the other.

The empirical research was conducted in four jails comprising a large proportion of foreigners and youth of immigrant descent. Yasmine Bouagga examined more specifically the increasing diffusion of legal vocabulary and legal procedures for treating prisoners, and the consequences of this evolution on the management of undocumented immigrants in prison. Her field study included prison social services and parole boards. Fabrice Fernandez focused on the moral and emotional issues involved in interactions between inmates, interveners and prison guards, and the social treatment of immigrants and youth. Didier Fassin conducted his fieldwork on values and affects in the everyday life of the prison. They were interested, in particular, in the various commissions that sanction or reward behaviors, whether they are concerned with aid for the poor, distribution of work, assignment of cells, or punishment of prohibited actions.