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Improving daily lifer Senegalese prisoners’ use of letters as an attempt to reform colonial prison (1930s)

Remain Tiquet

Translated and edited by Cadenza Academic Translations

Unlike the prison system in metropolitan France, where individuals were defined as citizens and legal subjects, colonial prisons participated in the construction of ‘indigenous’ populations as objects of power. Generally, within the colonial context, confinement was above all part of an ‘incarceration of conquest’ (Bernault 1999, 39),1 rather than any Foucauldian vision of a punitive, disciplinary penitentiary. In some sense, prison was the shadow of colonial society. What happened outside its walls was reproduced within them, and it was used as a plural instrument of social control that extended far beyond the penal dimension (Dikotter and Brown 2007, Tiquet 2016).[1] [2]

The establishment of mobile penal camps in Senegal, an integral part of French West Africa, was in this respect both a novel undertaking and an emblematic one. In 1936, Colonial Inspector Monguillot carried out a large-scale inspection of prisons, proposing reforms of the prison system in the colony by making the use of the penal workforce more efficient.[3] His report suggested the creation of mobile penal camps, which could be relocated as necessary to carry out maintenance and improvement works on the road network.[4] Prisoners were to contribute to public utility by working rather than by participating in their own social reintegration.

Prisoners with sentences longer than one year were sent to one of three camps in Senegal, depending on the duration of their sentence. Those with sentences shorter than five years went to penal camp A, in the Thies region. Those whose sentences were longer than five years went to penal camp B, in the Kaolack region. Finally, recidivists and ‘dangerous offenders’ were sent to penal camp C, in the Louga region, which had a section for ‘hard cases’. The three camps were located at strategic points between Dakar and Saint-Louis, the two political capitals, and the Sine-Saloum region, the heart of the Senegalese peanut economy (Sene 2004).[5]

Prisoners faced extremely harsh working conditions, and poor hygiene and living standards in the camps made their day-to-day lives even more difficult. Prisoners responded to their incarceration, and to their degrading living and working conditions, by rejecting the prison and penal labour in various ways, including escapes,[6] collective mutinies, or even more extreme measures like self- mutilation (Tiquet 2019).

This chapter looks at another reaction to living conditions in the penal camps: written complaints. Around ten handwritten letters[7] produced by prisoners at the end of the 1930s are now kept in the Archives nationales du Senegal (National Archives of Senegal [ANS], archived in Series F, ‘Prisons’). Most of these come from penal camp C (see Figure 0.7), and they are dated between March 1938 and April 1939, nearly two years after the establishment of penal camps in Senegal. It is very likely that these archived letters are only the tip of the iceberg: many prisoners used this method to complain about daily life in prison, but such letters did not always get past the camp’s censors. For instance, a report in ANS states that a prisoner named Mamadou Faye physically assaulted the director of penal camp C in 1939 after he tore up a letter that Faye had written.[8]

It is difficult to draw general conclusions with such a small body of complaints, but these letters reveal a number of important features. While they have only rarely been used by historians of Africa,[9] these letters are not simply complaints or protests; they are also the prisoners’ attempts to influence colonial authorities and defend their own interests. Based on an analysis of these letters, this chapter approaches the concept of reform in a broad sense: as the manifestation of multiple logics aiming to transform the prison system. These are present in the prisoners’ demands for better living and working conditions in the penal camps, and also in the authorities’ responses, which included increased censorship of letters and increased overall surveillance in the camps.

I begin by examining the complaints made by prisoners in the mobile camps, which describe their inhumane living and working conditions and demand prison reform, including respect for their rights and minimum living standards. In the second section, I discuss how these written complaints defeated censorship, highlighting the porosity of the mobile penal camps and of colonial confinement more broadly, which was riddled with persistent channels of exchange between prison and the outside world. Finally, examining the responses of the colonial authorities to these letters, I argue that better living and working conditions for prisoners were far from being a priority for colonial officials, who instead chose to increase surveillance and to monitor prisoners’ letters more strictly, in order to avoid any further complaints. By contrasting the desires for reform of the prisoners and of the colonial administration, this chapter reveals how the different actors calling for a transformation of the prison system occupied different levels and spoke in different registers.

  • [1] Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign-language materialin this article are our own.
  • [2] I would like to thank the members of ANR ECOPPAF for their remarks on an early versionof this chapter. This situation is not specific to the colonial era and is found in other historicaland geographical contexts. See Faugeron et al. (1996), and Martin and Chantraine (2018).
  • [3] In French West Africa, penal labour was first regulated in 1927 by the Decree of 22 January1927 on labour in French West African prisons, Journal officiel de I’AOF, March 1927. Therehad been an earlier decree enacted exclusively in the colony of Senegal in 1892; see ArchivesNationales du Senegal (ANS), 3F86, Decree of 14 March 1892 regulating penal labour.
  • [4] See ANS, 3F100, Inspection report for the Senegalese prison services, Colonial InspectorMonguillot, February 1936.
  • [5] See Figure 0.7 Location of Senegalese penal camp (1930) on page xxxiv.
  • [6] In the 1930s, dose to 50% of prisoners in Senegalese prisons escaped, some of them morethan once. It was common for them to forge alliances with the guards, and refusals to workwere an everyday occurrence. See especially Ba (2007).
  • [7] These handwritten letters were also typewritten by the colonial administrations to make themeasier to read. Most of the handwritten and typewritten versions are in the archives.
  • [8] ANS, 3F117, Incident at penal camp C, prisoner Mamadou Faye, 14 April 1939.
  • [9] See for instance Sifou (2004), and Rodet and Tiquet (2018). For the use of complaints ashistorical sources, see Van Voss (2002) and Bcrcc (2014).
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