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Punished apart, punishment of punished: Lasting prison asymmetries

The rules of prison life that were laid down in colonial times show a great deal of stability over time. The Criminal Codes of 1896 and 1940 and ordinances- laws enacted in 1918 and 1924 had established guidelines, but it was the ordinance of 15 October 1931, issued by the Governor General of the Congo and extended to Ruanda-Urundi by an ordinance of 15 April 1932, which was the real founding document of the prison regime in Belgian Africa (RABRU 1933, pp. 187-195). This text, which remained in force in Burundi for nearly 30 years, defined the main aspects of confined life, from the entry into prison to prisoner release, according to a plan that varied little (categories, hygiene, food, clothing, rights, work, punishments, etc.).[1] It has been reviewed four times over 90 years (in 1961,1963,2003-2004, and 2017[2]) and has left an indelible mark on prison governance and the treatment of prisoners since then. Two of its most salient features merit discussion here.

First, one principle that remains ingrained is the separation of detainees according to various criteria, which determines their distribution in the premises and their treatment. The 1931 classification of prisoners into three categories, according to the length of sentences imposed, did not last. While it was supposed to harden the treatment of those convicted of multiple or serious offences, it was in reality entirely theoretical, as colonial reports deplored a ‘general promiscuity’ where ‘contraints, convicted of petty offences and common criminals are, night and day, in permanent contact’.[3] It was abandoned in 1963, giving way to a separation between the accused, those sentenced to death, the insane, women, and minors, and the rest of the condemned. The former, who were in fact rarely separated from the convicted, were removed from this list by the law of 2003, and those sentenced to death, who were isolated in deplorable conditions (ECPM 2008, pp. 75-87), disappeared as a category when the 2009 Penal Code abolished the death penalty.[4] Except in cases of flagrant danger, the insane have never ceased to be mixed with other prisoners. Lastly, women and minors, who have always formed small categories in prisons (3% or 4% of the prison population since the 1950s for women), have benefited from targeted policies since the 1980s. In Ngozi, the colonial prison was thus dedicated to them when a new building for men was opened, their quarters were rehabilitated in the other prisons, as in Mpimba in 2008, and re-education centres for minors were opened in Ruyigi and Rumonge in 2015.

More lasting are the traces left by the racial, social, and political separations established in colonial jails, which have mutated into an elitist distinction in postcolonial prisons. Since the birth of the Burundian prison system, all prisoners have always been locked up together, with only solitary' confinement reserved for individuals deemed worthy of special treatment or for prisoners punished in solitary' confinement. The organisation of‘prisoners of colour’ in collective cells was justified in colonial times by ‘the exorbitant cost of solitary' confinement’ and by reference to a kind of gregarious instinct that, when frustrated, ‘would have been, for blacks ... the equivalent of a death sentence’ (De Wolf 2004, p. 337). In reality, the segregation of Europeans and indigenes in prisons was not so much humanitarian as it was racist. The ‘indigenous’ offender or criminal was always worth less than his ‘Asian or European’ counterpart who benefited from improved prison conditions. The 1931 and 1961 legislation, however, allowed prison authorities to extend such favours to indigenes of proven ‘degree of civilisation’ or ‘notability'’ (administrative assistants, chiefs, and deputy chiefs) and also required them to arrange special facilities for political prisoners.

With the racial aspect removed after independence, the possibility of individual confinement for ‘prisoners whose social condition differed [from] that of most other prisoners’ was maintained in a 1963 ministerial decree. Although this text specified that such prisoners were to be subject to the ordinary' regime, the prison authorities’ latitude of action in this matter made it possible to prolong in practice the existence of a two-tier prison regime. It must be said that the demarcation between low-ranking and high-ranking detainees coincides with the sustained consideration given to people of power in Burundian society since monarchical times. Individuals with a high-level social network, political influence, or economic capital have been able to enjoy improved living conditions without public outcry' (Mbonimpa 2017, pp. 51, 54). Metamorphosis of the old pistol sy'stem, VIP areas have been set up in most prisons, such as the Kibosi area (‘bosses’ corner’) in Gitega or the Infirmary in Mpimba (Deslaurier 2019a, p. 44). The June 2004 internal prison regulations, which dictate that the distribution of inmates in the wards and dormitories is the responsibility of the prison management, have perpetuated this situation. Without being systematic, since revenge against elites also exists, race-based colonial discrimination has thus flourished on the basis of a strong hierarchy of individuals, nowadays linked to financial, partisan, or ethnic motives, as evidenced by former inmates.[5]

The other great invariant is the punishment of the punished, that is, the moral restraint and physical punishment of prisoners who are refractor)' or accused of being so. The 1931 decree established that prison officials could, depending on the seriousness of the charges, deprive ‘coloured’ prisoners (adult and able- bodied men only) of walks or visits; put them in chains, handcuffs, or caehots for a month; or even give them up to eight lashes. Racial and elitist asymmetry persisted here, since ‘Whites’ and ‘evoluei (i.e., advanced Blacks) were excluded from the use of chains and whips. These corrections could be administered under various pretexts, from ‘attempted escape’ to simple ‘possession of tobacco’ to the frequent ‘ill will’ or ‘laziness at work’,[6] and it was not uncommon for supervisors to abuse them.[7] Despite strong resistance from colonial circles, pressure from metropolitan and international reformers eventually led to the elimination of corporal punishment, which disappeared from prison regulations in 1961.[8] The ministerial order of 1963 specified that ‘except in cases of self-defence or rebellion, it is strictly forbidden to beat detainees’ and the laws of 2003 and 2017 reiterated that ‘detainees are protected against all forms of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’. However, solitary confinement in a darkened cachot remained a possible sanction, and transfer was introduced as a new disciplinary sanction.[9]

The chain, whip, and cachots are the techniques of corporal and psychological subjugation that have left the deepest stigmas in the relationship of Burundians to the prison world, as illustrated by the modem prison lexicon in Kirundi, as we have seen. Of course, the ‘politics of the whip’ has left its mark on society as a whole, as elsewhere in Africa: it has been used a great deal against the free population, to put them to work or repress their indocility (Bay-art 2008, p. 150). However, what history bears witness to within the prison, even more so than outside, and even though Burundian society is far from being free of violence, is the permanent renewal of a brutality that seems never to need justification to be deployed against prisoners. Thus, despite the official ban on physical correction, most prisoners and those who assist them are aware that beating has remained commonplace since independence, in all places of detention and from the investigation phase to that of confinement (Biziyaremye and Kakunze 2011, p. 35, Mbonimpa 2017, p. 56). Admittedly, it is no longer necessarily the police officers on duty, who have been liable for prosecution in cases of torture or cruel treatment since the 2003 law, who administer them. The maintenance of order in prisons is delegated to security ‘’generals' (or ‘eapitas'), i.e., convicts chosen for their physical strength who calmly beat insubordinates (Deslaurier 2019b, p. 171). But these physical punishments in prison, combined with other psychological torments that are as unregulated (deprivation of care or food, insults, prolonged isolation), represent a colonial latency in the taming of individuals to whom no value is accorded, other than that of their bodies put to work (Morelle et al. 2019). The prison’s postcolonial perpetuation fits into a local ideological repertoire that is far from being hostile to corporal correction, a fortiori against ‘wild beasts’ (Deslaurier 2019b, p. 166), erased from all social existence.[10]

  • [1] A separate text existed for the prison regime in the indigenous districts (Ordinance No.21/180 of 8 December 1953), incorporating most of the provisions of the general regime.
  • [2] Ordinance No. 111/127 of 30 May 1961 on the prison regime in Ruanda-Urundi (derivedfrom Ordinance No. 11/13 of 15 January 1960 in the Congo), was repealed by Ministerial Decree No. 100/325 of 15 November 1963 on the organisation of the prison service(slightly amended in 1968). This text was replaced 40 years later by Act No. 1/026 of 22September 2003, supplemented by the Internal Regulations of Prisons of 30 June 2004. ActNo. 1/24 of 14 December 2017 amended it marginally (AAB Just 149 B, BOB 1963, p.456, 1968, p. 216,2003, p. 822, 2004, p. 683).
  • [3] .AAB BUR 188: lettre du Resident de l’Urundi au VGGRU, Kitega, 27 December 1949.
  • [4] The Criminal Code adopted by Law No. 1/05 of 22 April 2009 repealed Decree-Law No.1 /6 of 4 April 1981, which revised the Criminal Code in force in Burundi since 1940. A newPenal Code was adopted on 29 December 2017 (Law No. 1/27), which did not reinstatethe death penalty'.
  • [5] Interviews with S. N., T. H., and Kabuye (pseudonym), Bujumbura, 31 March and 4 May2016,21 June 2018.
  • [6] AAB BUR 184 and 188: Prison Punishment Books (1928-1956).
  • [7] In 1953, for instance, detainees complained: ‘[Soldiers] beat us with a whip dipped first inpilipili and salt to appease their cruelty [and] the Commissioner ignores this. [We] have soreson our buttocks that make us suffer too much’ (ANB Muhinga AH 5.27: lettre des prison-niers de Muhinga, Muhinga, 8 January 1953).
  • [8] The punishment of whipping was suppressed as a criminal sanction in 1951, but it was abolished as a disciplinary punishment in prison on 17 November 1958 only (De Wolf 2004,pp. 327-328).
  • [9] Transfer is feared by detainees because it takes them away from their families, who are anessential source of assistance, and forces them to undergo a new, and sometimes brutal process of prison integration (interview with Kabuye, Bujumbura, 21 June 2018).
  • [10] A former ‘principal capita’ of Mpimba reports that the 2008 population census ‘was thefirst time that prisoners were counted, so they existed’ (interview with F.N., Bujumbura, 8September 2017). It should also be noted that prisoners have always been deprived of theright to vote.
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