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Tension within the dispensation of justice

In a third set of chapters, we explore the jagged articulations of justice, punishment, and imprisonment. The focus lies on questions of punishment and justice, specifically how what prisons do and what governments and officials want prisons to do, do not add up in a coherent manner. They might even stand in crass contradiction to each other. This is reflected in the interpretations people give to the role of prisons and the experience of it, or the way they seek alternative spaces, means, and practices of punishment and justice, often displacing prisons altogether.

From ethnographic research carried out in a small detention centre 50 kilometres from Ouagadougou, Frederic Le Marcis analyses the different meanings attached to the incarceration of a whole family that was involved in a genital excision. He describes how the condemnation of excision (a process justified as ‘making women’), which landed the women in prison, appears in contradiction with the highly gendered way women are treated in custody. Moreover, he argues that, while the pronunciation of a sentence is seldomly open to public scrutiny, it cannot avoid the power of suspicion. Speculations abounded that the sentence was shaped by motives other than the pure interpretation of the law, questioning the probity of the state.

Reservations and tensions about who owns the power to dispense justice or to decide what is right or wrong, legal and fair, are at the heart of the uncertainties faced by victims and offenders when confronted with accusations of crime. In Giyani, a South African rural municipality situated on the outskirts of Limpopo Province, Musa Risimati followed the paths of the judicial treatment of two crimes and found that local people saw the bail hearing as an opportunity to make their voices heard. Contrary to what could be expected because of the opacity of the legalistic procedure, people do not feel excluded from the legal process. In contrast, they try to take charge of the process by employing a range of means rooted in social capital and occult economies. These efforts re-appropriate the meaning of the bail hearing and reinterpret it as a form of final sentence and speaking of justice.

In Cote d’Ivoire, Sirius Jose Epron grappled with the negotiated aspect of seeking justice in Abobo Nord, a working-class neighbourhood of Abidjan. His informants strive to avoid being exposed to the rule of law as administered by the state. Victims and offender alike use their networks (families, religious actors, police officers) to intervene in their cases with one foremost objective: escaping a referral to court, which is seen as untrustworthy, costly, and leading to jail (a place they want to avoid). In this case, official actors such as policemen act as mediators and partake, paradoxically, in a justice production at a distance to the state.

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