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I The carceral imprint

Words, walls, and hierarchies On some colonial legacies in the Burundian prison

Christine Deslaurier


The Burundian prison system celebrated its centenary at the beginning of the 21st century with the greatest indifference, which contrasts sharply with the commemorations of recent years, during which the national authorities have not failed to denounce the damage and upheavals wrought by colonisation on local society. Yet, both as a mode of punishment and as a building built for that purpose, the prison has all the hallmarks of colonial exogeneity. Introduced by the Germans at the turn of the 20th century, it was generalised by the Belgian colonisers who succeeded them in the mid-1910s and remained in power until 1962. Today, a century after the construction of the country’s first central prison at Gitega in 1926, the country’s prisons’ premises retain the imprint of colonialism. Similarly, the procedures leading to incarceration and the regulations governing confined life, despite revisions, are still steeped in foreign principles and legacies, as are certain ways of dealing with inmates. In fact, the Burundian prison seems so trivi- alised that it is never decried or questioned as a colonial ‘import’, which makes the question of its adaptation to the national context central. How was prison appropriation achieved and on what basis were possible accommodations made? Is the Burundian prison today merely a rehash of its colonial beginnings or has its incorporation into society been facilitated by locally rooted repertoires of action?

The answers to these questions are varied and show that Burundian prison history, from its emergence as a mode of punishment to its trivialisation in the 20th century, oscillates between legacies and ruptures. It is not possible to uncover all these aspects in the present chapter, so the focus here is on the colonial trends and extensions of prison. Approached as a form of colonial remnant, the Burundian prison offers the image of an ‘imperial debris’ (Stoler 2008) where legacies persist and articulate with local moral repertoires to become established in contemporary principles of prison and prisoner management. The sources on which this reflection is based are rich for the colonial period in Belgium (Archives africaines de Bruxelles, AAB) and up to the early 1970s in Burundi (Archives nationales du Burundi, ANB), with documents that make it possible to address the prison question from many angles. For more recent periods, analysis of the archival source materials has been supplemented by books, memoirs, reports by the prison administration or human rights organisations, and by interviews with former prisoners and actors linked to the prison sector.

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