Léonore Le Caisne

Prison An Anthropologist in a Penitentiary Publication date : October 1, 2000

For two years, Léonore Le Caisne lived for four or five days every week in Poissy’s central prison, which holds 260 inmates serving long or medium sentences on a variety of charges including political crimes, assault, drug dealing, and procuring. She followed staff members on their rounds, and shared the daily lives of detainees in workshops, activity rooms and prison cells. She also went to the Centre National d’Observation, in Fresnes, where the cases of detainees sentenced to more ten years are examined.
La Prison, à Leurs Côtés is a unique document which will enable readers to understand the workings of a prison on a day-to-day basis, the codes and myths that govern relations among inmates, and how prison staff control and pressurise detainees. It also gives a wider picture of how the penitentiary system as a whole operates.
It is generally accepted that most of the existing problems stem from insalubrious and overcrowded prison conditions, with lack of privacy aggravating prisoners’ distress. But if funds for renovating prison buildings are unavailable, the only solution is to diminish the prison population, by increasing the number of alternatives to imprisonment (e.g., work in the community) and by granting release on parole more often.
But doesn’t the so-called “prison problem” go beyond material considerations and the often banal discussions surrounding it? Doesn’t the issue seem insoluble, because the question is badly posed? Aren’t the real problems caused by the chasm that exists between the demands made on detainees by judicial and prison staff, and the lifestyle and social codes that detainees create for themselves in order to survive their social exclusion? The failure of the penitentiary system is perhaps due not so much to the state of the buildings but to the social constraints that govern inmates, prison guards and officers who must work together in a confined space. For inmates, such constraints inevitably lead to the deconstruction of the self.

Léonore Le Caisne is an anthropologist. She is teaching and researching at the University of Paris X-Nanterre, under the direction of Jeanne Favret-Saada, the author of a renowned study on witchcraft in the Bocage region of France.