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Economies of value

The next set of chapters continue with the idea of circulation between the inside and the outside of the prison. They do so by foregrounding how the form of life observable in prison is a reality co-constructed by its various actors. This notion reveals the co-presence of multiple logics, or a kind of grammar, that structure the formal and informal government of populations in prison. These logics become tangible around the idea of what has value in prison, what gains value, and what can be exchanged for what (Le Marcis and Faye 2019).

Sasha Gear, in her chapter, describes how inmates’ first steps in prison create a rupture in ordinary ethics. She explains the arrival of inmates in prison and how they discover the values that determine life in detention, focusing on the place of sexuality and how it is brutally commodified within this economy of values. Many of the studies indeed powerfully refract and rework the theoretical insights offered by some of the key theorists of the prison, including Foucault (1977), Goffman (1961), and Agamben (2005). Gear argues that mortification is a helpful concept to understand the institutional process of entry into the South African prison, but she also shows that this is a drawn-out process that increases in intensity depending on which kind of prison space is at stake. It becomes clear that there are a whole range of ‘front yards’ to the prison proper, and that these can be even more violent and mortifying than spaces where prison rule is more stabilised. At the same time, it is not the institution itself that carries out such mortification efforts: they are delegated to inmates to carry out on each other. In this case, the nature of prison as total institution is not accomplished through a top-down central authority, but by a horizontal rule amongst prisons. Gear’s case skilfully makes the spatial and temporal contingency of mortification visible, showing both the partiality of prison control and the negotiation of prison rules.

In a similar vein, Muriel Champy’s chapter on the repeated incarceration of street youth in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, shows that the prison space is governed by practical rules that are at a remove not only from official legal rules but also from the social rules that govern society. Supplementary economies of exchange, from drugs to Maggi bouillon cubes, are crucial to the overall functioning of the justice system as they sustain the running of the prison. She further demonstrates that repeated prison time and the ‘busyness’ of exchange do however not accumulate to anything. Instead, they lead to the emptying of youngsters’ lives - especially as they grow older - of any social value. They end up disconnected from families, too petty to join organised crime, and disrespected by police and society alike.

Julia Hornberger’s chapter on the meaning of imprisonment in South Africa also examines the abyss that prison life represents, but shows, however, that it can seemingly be overcome by keeping the prison experience alive in the outside world. While having been in prison robs ex-inmates of most of their options in life, what remains is to put their experience of having been in prison to work, be it as motivational speaker or fearsome gang member, or via providing witness accounts to advocates of prison reform. Within this long life of prison value, inmates remain forever trapped within their prison experience and their enactment of prison identity.

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