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Introduction Thinking with prisons in Africa

Julia Hornberger, Frederic Le Marcis, and Marie Morelle

Winding up with the rhetoric of exceptionalism

There are two ways in which prisons in Africa are generally discussed. One is as a site of exceptional horror, abject human conditions, and incarceration of, especially, political inmates. Steeped in a paradigm of otherness, this makes for sensationalistic (media) reports that feed into stereotypes about Africa as the ‘dark continent’ (Morelle and Le Marcis 2015). The other foregrounds ‘Northern’ advances in prison rule and the humanistic mission of applying these to the African prison. This way sees the African prison as an institution in need of reconstruction and reform, and, as such, in need of international interventions and the pressuring of states (Jefferson 2007, Bouagga 2016). And indeed, for many years now, dominant discourses of justice reform and human rights have been part and parcel of both national and international agencies engaging with African states and their prisons. Classically, these aim to improve carceral conditions, whether in terms of living conditions and health, overcrowding, pre-trial detention, or forced labour. Over the years, this concern has shifted from a human rights activist discourse (for example, as expressed by Amnesty International) into a more technical language of good governance.

These approaches often build on humanitarian cliches, technocratic dogmas, and geopolitical interests. They end up depoliticising carceral issues, foreclosing in-depth debate on the role of prisons and the form punishment takes in these institutions (Colineau 2013, Ferguson 1990, Morelle and Le Marcis 2015, 2019). Yet, the authors and editors of this edited volume tty to do something different. We break with the archetypal stereotypes - both monolithic and incomplete - frequently perpetuated about the prison in Africa, and offer instead a nuanced critique of prison experiences in diverse detention facilities across the continent. This critique, as we present it in the remainder of this introduction, is first rooted in a decentring of African prisons along a set of comparatives axes. Second, it is informed by a critical analysis of the methods and ethics entailed in the study of prisons in Africa. Third, it is elaborated in relation to four core themes brought to light by the contributors to this volume.

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