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Using written complaints to reform prisons?

Protesting degrading living conditions

For the prisoners, whose living conditions were reduced to the bare minimum, a lack of privacy was the rule. But it was hardly Foucault’s panopticon. For instance, mobile penal camp C was composed of two sheet-metal huts that served as dormitories, measuring 20 metres by 5 metres, and housing up to 100 prisoners. For the prisoners crammed into these camps, living space was extremely limited. The camp was surrounded by three rows of barbed wire, and ever)' night the guards would release a dozen dogs inside the camp to suppress any attempts to escape.[1] [2] There was a cell that could provide solitary confinement for ‘dangerous’ prisoners or those who had tried to escape. No lighting was allowed in the dormitories, leaving the prisoners in complete darkness as soon as they came back from the work site.

The penal camps had a damaging impact on both the physical and the mental health of prisoners. The budget constraints and the mobile nature of the camps meant that sanitary conditions were far from a priority for the colonial authorities.11 The prisoners’ letters described a whole range of deficiencies in terms of food, clothing, sleeping arrangements, and hygiene conditions. In a collective letter to the governor of Senegal in March 1938 the prisoners described themselves as ‘badly dressed and poorly fed’ and complained that the daily ration was primarily composed of ‘boiled millet in warm water’, lacking the calories they needed to withstand the harsh working conditions. The letter ended with a demand:

We ask simply that we be granted a change in our diet, we don’t need beautiful meals but simply nourishing ones to sustain the work we’re doing, and to be dressed in clothes to protect our bodies, and an end to the whippings we receive even,’ day from the commissioner of Kebemer.[3]

Beyond the difficult living conditions in the camp, several of the letters complained about the inhumane treatment the prisoners were subjected to, and particularly the violence committed by the guards. These allegations were corroborated by a surprise inspection of penal camp C in 1942, which gives us an idea of the prisoners’ mental and physical state. The gendarme in charge of the inspection noted that ‘more than half of the convicts present scars or festering wounds ... that appear to be relatively fresh, on the shoulders, arms, back, and in some cases the insides of the thighs’.[4] According to the report, these injuries had three distinct origins. First, the permanent friction of the buckets and rails that the prisoners carried over long distances damaged their shoulders and left deep wounds. Second, many of the injuries to their torsos or the insides of their thighs were the result of intensive scratching of the skin due to the presence of vermin in the dormitories. Last, many of the wounds were the result of beatings or physical abuse by the guards. Their daily life caused prisoners to lose all hope, with some of them developing incurable chronic diseases. In the conclusion to his report, the doctor of camp C described them as ‘human wrecks, sentenced irrevocably to death’.[3]

Claiming respect for rights

The letters are interesting not just because they denounce the camps’ degrading living conditions but also because they demand improvements. They suggest that the prisoners were well aware of their rights and were ready to assert them:

We are willing to submit, but only on the condition that our rights are respected and that the statutes and regulations are followed. Service in the penal camp will be better and more peaceful for the authorities, for the guards, and for the men themselves. Even if it leads to our deaths, we will see our rights respected, as we are unshakeable in our duty at this moment.[6]

This passage from one of the collective letters demonstrates how prisoners used the argument that they accepted their sentences, and promised that they would carry out the penal labour without resistance, in order to claim the minimal rights that they were supposed to be accorded in the camps.

The letters demanded reforms to the functioning of the camp in order to ensure that they received the minimum means of subsistence that the authorities were supposed to provide to prisoners. There is thus a sort of dialectic of reciprocity, of respect for dignity, with the prisoners calling on the colonial administration to respect its obligations. By creating a dynamic of mutual obligation, the labourers in the penal camp opened up a debate about their living and working conditions and pushed the authorities to react and improve them.[7]

  • [1] ANS, 3F107, Inspection report for penal camp C, 1938.
  • [2] For other African countries and other colonial spaces, see Zinoman (2001), Diallo (2005),Branch (2005), Aguirre (2005) and Piret (2014).
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] ANS, 3F136, Report of Lieutenant Boivin on the surprise inspection of penal camp C, inKelle, following a request by the governor of Senegal, 12 August 1942.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] ANS, 3F117, File ‘Lettres ouvertes des detenus et plaintes et reclamations’, 1939.
  • [7] This dynamic of reciprocity can also be found in the military context, as discussed by Mann(2006). See also Tiquet (2018).
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