The history of prisons in Africa remains unknown. Marie Morelle, a geography professor at Lumière Lyon 2 University, addressed the subject alongside a team of researchers who documented the existing prison and criminal justice systems. She co-directed “l’Afrique en prisons” with Frédéric Le Marcis, published in April 2022 at ENS Editions. Prison Insider asked her three questions.
Prison Insider. What does history tell us about the prisons in Africa?¶
Marie Morelle. This work offers us several historical approaches, notably through the contributions of Christine Deslaurier, Romain Tiquet, and Nana Osei Quarshie. Little is known about the history of prisons in Africa, apart from the significant work conducted by Florence Bernault on this subject. African prisons have a recent history, but this is also the case with prisons worldwide. The prison system was established in Africa during the colonial empires at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the aim of serving the conquest and colonisation. This authoritarian and disciplinarian system was used as an instrument to dominate African societies and contributed to the process of racial segregation. Prison conditions are extremely difficult: prisoners are subjected to poverty, scarcity, illness, and segregation (a European prisoner does not receive the same treatment as an African prisoner).
During decolonisation, the new sovereign states inherited dilapidated prisons. We often think that what came from the colonial era is a type of unsuccessful “graft”. Yet, this is not the case. Sovereign states claimed these prisons without making any investments or refitting them.
The prison is and remains a pivot of penal policies. There has been no rupture with the colonial past. In fact, we are still observing a continuity. From the moment a prison sentence is introduced, it is not questioned.
The use of prisons to dominate can be seen with the rise of authoritarian regimes in many countries on the continent, with the incarceration of political prisoners to stifle the opposition. The democratisation of the 1990s could have led to reforms but the return of authoritarian regimes, the recent coups d’État in West Africa, and the current war against terrorism were not favourable for opening up prisons and reforming prison policies. Some nuances are necessary, however, as there could have been times of democratisation in some countries. Movements have come and gone. Elsewhere, for example in Togo and Gabon, there are practically presidential dynasties.
However, reflections on African prisons go beyond the explicitly political question. And the continent has a place and legitimacy to participate in debates on prison sentences at the international level.
African prisons are too often thought of as needing “to be developed” and “reformed”. Yet, they have the same issues and questions as other prisons on other continents.
The mere threat of a prison sentence seems to be enough to make people obey orders.
PI. You speak of a prison imprint: the prison can be read beyond its walls. What do you mean by that?¶
MM. Colleagues from various other countries and disciplines sometimes have difficulty entering prison. Is it necessary to actually go inside in order to conduct research on incarceration? We realised it was not. We can learn about prison in other ways, where its impact is considerably more direct.
Our work reports a number of findings. Romain Tiquet described mobile prison camps, which are actually used to obtain labour to build railways and exploit the continent’s resources, as is the case in Senegal.
Our South African colleagues developed another angle: there is no avoiding one’s prison past. That is the conclusion of Kathleen Rawlings and Julia Hornberger, who followed and analysed the journeys of former prisoners and showed how difficult it is to put their prison experiences behind them. The former prisoners are constantly reminded of that status as they attempt to regain their place in society. Some even become spokespersons for the prison, carrying a message of redemption that places the weight of the blame solely on the prisoners to the detriment of more structured readings on criminality and delinquency. How do people detach themselves from a prison experience and move on? We can also cite the work of Sacha Gear, still South African, who discussed the trauma of imprisonment by pointing out the gang violence experienced as soon as one enters prison. How do you live with that then and later?
Finally, in another chapter, Sabine Planel examined the constraint exercised by the simple threat of a prison sentence in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s policies on agricultural development force farmers to go into debt to buy fertiliser, and they can be sent to prison if they do not follow the policies and if they do not repay. The mere threat of a prison sentence seems to be enough to make people obey orders.
Our book raises certain points about the footprint of prisons beyond their walls. But there are also other forms of confinement, in the context of migration policies, for example, as depicted by Nana Osei Quarshie: is there no other way of dealing with social discourse and conflicts? Can we envision anything other than confinement?
MM. The institutions to which contributors are attached are different. Our South African or American colleagues are more legally constrained by ethical protocols. In France, we are freer. However, in reality, signing a charter does not prevent you from remaining on your own in the field, because not every situation can be foreseen. We must think of ethics “in situation”, to quote Didier Fassin. There is no one way of doing things, a definitive way of considering our actions and defining them on the ground. Our observation is participatory and raises certain ethical issues; whether with guards or prisoners, our presence changes the dynamics. Frédéric Le Marcis cited the example of a young prisoner in Abidjan who spoke to him willingly. The next day, he realised this caused a problem for the young man as the elders thought he had no legitimacy to speak to the researcher.
We are often involved in power struggles. During my work in the field, I felt at one point that a prisoner was asking money to those who wanted to talk with me. You have to know how to be assertive and talk freely with the interlocutors that you choose. But who are we to pretend that we know the codes prisoners use among themselves? If we call them into question, we do not have any other short-term solution, and we know that we will possibly expose some people. I do not know if it is reasonable to hope for a short-term solution, as in the end, we will not be there.
I think we need a good dose of humility, and to accept that, sometimes, we have to improvise and do not have all the answers. We do our best.
That said, we can write, we can talk. But here, too, there are limits. We cannot sign or publicly disclose some information that could endanger our fieldwork and those who have spoken to us. The restitution and training seminars with the prison administrations allow us to find the appropriate language and to exchange, at least when we manage to have the authorisation to organize them; this helps us not to offend them when they let us in. Moreover, we should probably take more of a stand on the given penalty. Bernard Bolze wrote in his preface that it is up to activists to apprehend the book. We, as researchers, speak and write, but do we go to prison every day? No. Do we go to court to defend prisoners? No.
We want to open things up. Our work provides context, perspective, and necessary comparisons. But we do not deal with the daily work that activists or the prisoners themselves, and their families carry out to further their cause. It is up to the citizens to get involved, as we are all citizens. However, our role as researchers does not give us the right to act, or to be bearers of truth. On the other hand, it seems fundamental to us (and this is what Bernard Bolze also underlined in his preface) to shed light through our work and highlight the issues that society can take up.
In this regard, the book in its English version gives the podium to Alice Nkom, a Cameroonian magistrate who defends the rights of LGBTQIA+ people, particularly in a country that criminalises homosexuality.
In conclusion, we want to show the diversity of the continent and what African countries with their different experiences have to say. We hope to stimulate discussion and share ideas, especially with organisations, cooperative projects and national prison administrations.
Interviewed by Jeanne Ulhaq et Clara Grisot.
Translated by Marg McMillan and proofread by Nancy Denisse Ashton