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The circulation of complaints, a sign of the porosity of confinement

Thwarting censorship

The prisoners’ complaints were all received by the governor of Senegal. The next question we could ask was posed by the governor himself in a letter to the Cercle commander of Louga, where penal camp C was located: ‘How can the inmates in the penal camp write letters without going through the director [of the camp]?’[1] It is easy to imagine the surprise of the governor, as the highest authority in the colony, upon reading these demands by prisoners - which typically arrived in stamped envelopes - given that the prison authorities were supposed to monitor any letters sent to the outside world.

Ironically, in a letter received by the governor of Senegal in March 1938 - having successfully bypassed the prison censors - a prisoner complains about the censorship of letters between prisoners and their families:

We are forbidden any correspondence with our families, and every' letter written in the camp is held at the post office in Gueoul and returned to the penal camp so the sender can be identified. ... We believe that it is legitimate to write to our relatives to let them know where we are.[2]

This letter, complaining about the monitoring of letters, managed to bypass the camp’s surveillance. We are then faced with the question of who wrote these letters: Were the prisoners alone in writing to the governor, or did they have help from outside?

For instance, a letter signed by Souleymane Diakite on 2 April 1939 is an exact copy of a complaint received several months earlier, in the name of another prisoner. An investigation led by the Cercle commander of Louga concluded that an ‘educated person from Kebemer’ was behind the letter.[3] In a letter dated 16 April 1938, the prisoner Mai'p M’Baye, from penal camp C, complained about the beatings he suffered at the hands of the chief sergeant, as well as the solitary confinement and shackling to which he was frequently subjected.[4] After the letter was received, an inquiry carried out by the Cercle commander of Louga revealed that the letter had actually been written by Mamadou N’Diaye, a former inmate of penal camp C who had been released on 15 April (the day before the letter was received). His report concluded that ‘the intention of the author of the letter was to create trouble for the chief sergeant ... and he therefore used the name of a co-prisoner in order to avoid any difficulties for himself.[5] Similarly, a letter received by the governor of Senegal in November 1938 turned out to have been written by Abdoulaye Diop, a prisoner who escaped between October and December 1938.

Like the previous examples, this last letter highlights the failures in monitoring and surveillance within the camps, since Diop was on the run when he wrote to the governor to complain about the incarceration conditions he had successfully escaped.[6] Both the destination of the letters (which shows that they bypassed the censors) and their authors (who were often outside prison) demonstrate an important aspect of daily life in the penal camps: their porosity. The mobile camps symbolised what we could call a form of‘open incarceration’, somewhere between a strictly carceral logic of isolating prisoners and an economic logic of the free movement of the penal workforce across work sites. The penal camp was certainly not a ‘protected place of disciplinary monotony’ (Foucault 1977, 141 ).[7] Instead, it was above all a space in which prisoners and complaints circulated constantly from the inside to the outside and vice versa, reminding us of the fragility of the spatial arrangements of the colonial prison.

Senegalese prisoners’ use of letters 23 Complaints as ‘public transcripts’: Ways of speaking

The complaints are written in a very formal style, with long, overblown declarations of respect at the beginning and end of the documents. For example, the collective letter to the governor of Senegal begins:

We have the honour of soliciting your high and noble benevolence and in the present letter very respectfully bring to your esteemed attention the following facts: We apologise for the audacious method used to send you these few words, which are dictated to us by the sudden passion that the current penal camp has inspired in us.[2]

The letter then concludes:

It is desirable that you help your subjects who are at the brink of death, Mr Governor. May our plea find an echo in your great French heart, which we know to be so indulgent. Ever-sensitive France will always answer the call of its endangered subjects, and it is you who represent this Eternal France.[9]

These marks of deference and formal submission, which play on the registers of the paternalist Republic and the motherland, recall James C. Scott’s (1990) analysis of the arts of domination. Following Scott, we can consider these complaints as an example of a ‘public transcript’ - that is, the record of an interaction between ‘subordinates and those who dominate’ (Scott 1990, 2). The letters, which were produced by the ‘dominated’, could not say everything; in fact, they strategically reproduced the subordination that existed in everyday colonial practice and structures, in order to be allowed into the space controlled by the ‘dominant’ (see also Fassin 2000).

  • [1] ANS, 3F117, Complaint, prisoner Diagouraga Kahourou, penal camp C, 17 April 1939.
  • [2] ANS, 3F106, Collective letter from the inmates of penal camp C to the governor of Senegal,3 March 1938.
  • [3] ANS, 3F117, File ‘Lettres ouvertes des detenus et plaintes et reclamations’, 1939. For someinitial remarks about the educated authors of these petitions and other documents, see Law-rance (2006) and Newell (2013).
  • [4] ANS, 3F106, Letter from Mai'p M’Baye, a prisoner at the Kebemer penal camp, to the governor of Senegal, 16 April 1938.
  • [5] ANS, 3F106, Report of gendarme Georges Blondey, station chief of Kebemer, 27 April1938.
  • [6] ANS, 3F117, Complaint of Abdoulaye Diop, a prisoner at the Louga penal camp, 11 January 1939.
  • [7] Many scholars have distanced themselves from Foucault’s work. See Dikotter and Brown(2007) or, in France, Perrot (1980) and Petit (1984).
  • [8] ANS, 3F106, Collective letter from the inmates of penal camp C to the governor of Senegal,3 March 1938.
  • [9] Ibid.
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