The carceral impasse seen from the perspective of street youth in Burkina Faso
Translated and edited by Cadenza Academic Translations
With 41 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017, prison may seem like a minor part of Burkina Faso’s security policy. However, during my ethnographic work carried out in Ouagadougou with the bakoroman - young men at odds with the law, living on the streets of the capital city - I observed that, in spite of this low incarceration rate, prison has a strong grip on the daily lives of certain segments of the population. The lives of bakoroman unfold at the interface of the street, police stations, and prisons. Scholars have clearly documented how the ‘carceral continuum’ creates close links between working-class neighbourhoods and prison (Wacquant 2001, da Cunha 2008, Waltorp and Jensen 2019). In this case, however, the continuum involves non-territorialised delinquent networks. Whether it operates along social or spatial continuums, the Maison d’Arret et de Correction de Ouagadougou (MACO, Ouagadougou Detention and Correctional Centre) acts like an airlock that captures, concentrates, and distributes delinquent careers, rather than a fortress that isolates criminals in order to ‘reform’ them (Foucault 1977). Although the Burkinabe authorities have indeed taken up the project of the government of souls, as described by Foucault (1977), the carceral policy that governs the lives of the bakoroman is present first and foremost in its ‘necropo- litical’ dimension, that form of sovereignty that decides who may live and who must die (Mbembe 2003, see also Le Marcis 2019, for reference to prisons and necropolitics).
The gap between the penitentiary ideology' of reform and the actual workings of prisons has been amply demonstrated by historians (see in particular Perrot 1980, Faugeron and Le Boulaire 1992) and sociologists (see in particular Chantraine 2004, Chauvenet 2008). Other research has shown that, when introduced to Africa by colonial empires, prison was part of a policy of relegation and exclusion that extended, rather than replaced, older forms of banishment, thereby contradicting the ideology' of reformative ‘punishment’ that it promoted (Bernault 1999, Dikotter and Brown 2007). But the supposed failure of prison to reform comes to seem irrelevant once we encounter the bakoroman, who appear indifferent to questions about the political legitimacy of prison and the effectiveness of its methods. They force us to admit that prison leaves its mark, even if its reformative project fails. Studying their individual experiences allows us to become immersed in the depths of the institution and to become attuned to its ‘practical norms’: the ‘subtle, invisible, implicit, underground social regulations’ that are effective independently of both the ‘public professional norms’ and the ‘social norms’ of Burkinabe society (Olivier de Sardan 2008).
Of course, a focus on the ‘practical norms’ of the offenders largely obscures the legal and administrative provisions that shape justice and detention, as well as the ‘practical norms’ of the professionals employed in the sector. As a result, I was never quite able to understand the legal mechanisms that officially regiment offenders’ trajectories. Was it really legal that, at mid-sentence, offenders could buy their freedom by paying the equivalent of 6,000 CFA per month of parole? How far up the hierarchy was it known that prisoners were cooking in their cells? Was there a legal limit for how long a person could be held in police custody? Did defendants have the right to a court-appointed lawyer? Was it really ‘normal’ for a prisoner under judicial investigation to have spent eight years in detention without even going to court? My knowledge of the institution is thus comparable to the worried and disbelieving experiences of offenders’ friends and relatives, who are involuntarily drawn into it through court hearings and prison visits. Unlike the usual proximity of researchers to the carceral institution that opens its doors to them, and in contrast to the Eurocentric prejudice according to which formal rules have legal pre-eminence, this ethnographic study of bakoroman's judicial trajectories - while producing an understanding that is partial in both senses of the w'ord - is, at least, close to their ‘real’ experience (Olivier de Sardan 2008). Our guides as we explore will be Saidou, Leon, Hamadi, Claude, and Innocent, all Burkinabe men in their thirties.
After a brief introduction to the world of bakoro, I discuss the practical norms that regulate the trajectories of the bakoroman in the courts, within the prison w'alls, and after their release. I show that, instead of leading these repeat offenders away from a life of crime, these experiences tie them ever more closely to law- breaking. In Burkina Faso, as elsewhere, it is not through the individualisation of sentences or the panoptic surveillance that Foucault describes that prison encourages repentance. Rather, prison succeeds in discouraging crime by exhausting the logic of social exclusion and violent negotiation that governs the delinquent ethos, either by confining offenders within a sterile, limiting repetition of small offenses or by forcing them into unconditional surrender to the law, from where they will have to start again from scratch.
A way of life condemned to criminality'
The word ‘bakoro’ is street slang, and for those in the know, it refers to the way of life of children and young people living on the streets of Burkina Faso. Those who live in bakoro are called ‘bakoroman' and are referred to generically as ‘street children’. These are young men who left their family homes at a young age, navigating a thin line between runaway adolescents and youth in search for ‘adventure’; in the city, they become involved in a relational universe characterised by substantial marginality and the instrumental practice of mobility (Champy 2016).
Because they receive much of their income from different types of theft and petty crime, consume large quantities of psychotropic drugs, and navigate in an environment characterised by frequent violent altercations, the way of life of the bakoroman systematically places them on the wrong side of the law, and so exposes them to an omnipresent threat of repression. I carried out regular research trips to Ouagadougou between 2009 and 2018; during this time, the penal code of 1996 included a range of laws under which bakoroman could be systematically detained. In particular, they were detained under article 246, which states that ‘anyone who is found in a public place without being able to prove that they have a definite residence or means of support, and who does not practise any trade or profession, shall be found guilty of vagrancy and punished by a prison term of two to six months’. Begging by an able-bodied person receives a similar punishment. Informal work - the only sector that bakoroman can hope to work in - generates no tax revenue for the state and often contravenes the regulations in force. The little businesses that bakoroman run - for example, offering to guard parked cars or provide other services - can be halted by the police at any time, and bakoroman can be evicted and their property' seized. In short, whether they work, steal, swindle, beg, or ‘just exist’, the bakoroman are in violation of the law. And although raids on ‘vagabonds’ had ceased during the time of my research, the wide range of other offenses that characterise the bakoro lifestyle still enabled law enforcement officials and representatives of the courts to use the law at their own discretion: any alternative to detention could be presented as a favour, and any misjudgement could be cancelled out on the pretext of other crimes. Such actions thus gave credence to the popular notion that legal decisions are made at the discretion of law enforcement officials, who use it as a way to ‘eat’ for their own benefit.
My interlocutors thus often disappeared for a few days, weeks, or even months, for short stays at the police station (‘in the box’) or the detention centre. After undergoing systematic humiliation ‘in the box’, or even torture sessions that could be fatal, they were typically released. I realised that pre-arrest abuse, near starvation, and lynchings in police stations were used as alternative forms of justice. But I also witnessed that law enforcement officials might decide to send bakoroman to the Palais de Justice, particularly if they became tired of continually arresting the same offenders. A magistrate might then decide to release them without further formalities or send them to provisional detention. Again, they might be released if the magistrate decides to avoid further burdening the overcrowded detention centres. And in the rare cases when ‘their business’ takes them to court, the judicial language and codes remained largely opaque to the bakoroman, making any claim that the court serves as the first stage of reform implausible.
The theatre of the Palais de Justice
I observed that my interlocutors barely sought to understand why they had been convicted, instead simply remarking that they were ‘unlucky’ that time. When I asked Hamadi about his conviction, for instance, he replied: ‘They wrote that it’s, like, what? A group of criminals, or an organisation’. To them, the Palais de Justice is part of the bureaucratic, legalistic world of‘papers’. This universe - associated with the ‘white world’ - operates according to codes that are radically different from those that their education has prepared them for. During a hearing I attended, for example, Sai'dou - a former bakoroman who had been framed by his uncle, who was the actual offender - explained to the judge the principle that elders take precedence, which had prevented him from contradicting his uncle. He began his explanation by saying, ‘For us Africans’, at which point the embarrassed judge had to interrupt: T assure you, we’re Africans too’. The gap between the courts and the social norms of Burkinabe society was also apparent when Leon bridled at the fact that a ‘little judge’ can ‘run a court’ and sentence an 80-year-old defendant, despite the fact that ''you [the little judge] haven’t seen half of what he [the defendant] has seen on this earth’. Following a logic very different to that of the law, Leon believed that his own acquittal depended on his capacity to ‘ask for forgiveness’ from ‘the old men [the judges]’; this strategy has apparently been effective, given the difference between the gravity of his crimes and the brevity of the sentences he has received over the years.
In addition to reinterpreting how the courts work, bakoroman navigated them using practices of concealment they had learnt on the streets. While none of my interlocutors seemed aware of the existence of a penal code, nor to have any of the relational and financial support needed to negotiate the judicial process of the Palais de Justice, their familiarity with the courts and the endless stories that circulate on the streets at least allowed them to master the implicit codes that govern the day-to-day functioning of the justice system. For instance, a skilful defendant might give a false identity so that their criminal record remains clean, pretend not to speak French to avoid questioning, or claim to be a minor. These are classic examples of tactical manoeuvring, a weapon for subalterns who, despite moving through a territory and under rules imposed on them, can learn how to exploit the cracks of power (de Certeau 1984, Scott 1990). Innocent, who had three convictions for selling cannabis and heroin, and had spent 55 months in prison before we met, described using such tactics. He had spent seven months in pre-trial detention in the juvenile section, before receiving his first acquittal:
They asked me how old I was. I told them 12. The police told me I was lying, that they were going to write 17 [an understatement, as he was around 20 at the time]. ... [He explains to me:] Ifit’s a kid they’ll sort it out quickly. They even gave me a lawyer! The day they sentenced me, they called me and I just stayed like this [arms folded]. There was a lawyer who came along and he was the one who spoke until they let me go. I didn’t even speak'. They let me go that same day. The lawyer even gave me 1,000 francs! [laughs],
During my years at the bakoroman's side, I observed that one could spend two months in prison for a night sleeping rough, or be lynched for being an accomplice in the theft of a chicken, or be arrested for theft three times in one week and each time be released immediately. But I never heard a bakoroman complain about ‘the injustice of Justice’, even less try to defend the legitimacy of their delinquent counterculture. Instead, their discourse reveals a widely shared social norm, according to which law' enforcement officials, judges, and thieves all pursue the same goal: exploiting available opportunities for their own profit. Hamadi, w'ho had tw'o convictions for nocturnal vagrancy and receiving stolen goods, and had spent 37 months in prison, explained:
Even the judges, that’s what they say, they’re there to eat. Suppose someone w'ho’s stolen a sheep gets two years. Someone w'ho’s stolen 20 million, they give him six months. It’s not fair, but it’s like it’s fair. Why do I say that? Because the judge doesn’t have any other job. That’s the advantage they’ve got, their opportunity to take.
In the eyes of the bakoroman, the line that separates them from the courts is not so much determined by a distinction between law and crime but by the unfair odds of a game that is played with loaded dice and ‘mired in the continuity of the practices of power’ (Bigo 1989, p. 885). They are content to observe that the game can also go in their favour; it is a matter of skill and luck, or bad luck. Their previous experiences with police stations, the stories told by their peers, and the many people they come across in prison whom they already know - all of these at least soften the blow when they arrive in a hostile but familiar world.
Everyday tactics inside the MACO
While local social norms are well adjusted to the circumvention of laws and the corruption of institutions (Tidjani Alou 2001), conviction resembles trial by ordeal. The bakoroman's lack of networks means that their margin of action is reduced to exploiting what they have learnt on the streets.
Over the years, the experiences my informants’ related to me and what I observed myself - about what rules can be circumvented and how, about the precise amount of ‘gifts’ demanded by the prison staff in exchange for the favours they can provide, and about the prices of various food products, drugs, and services inside - leave no doubt that law-breaking in prison is regular and widespread. The negligible resources allocated for the daily care of prisoners reveal that such institutions are surviving on a drip-feed, with their fragile balance largely based on the continuous influx of goods brought in by friends and relatives, and the revenues from commercial activity within the prison. Some prisoners receive visits ever)' weekend and on weekdays have meals brought to the main gate; for a small tip, ‘waiters’ among the prisoners will deliver these to the recipient. Each time I visited, I was careful to bring clothes, rice, spaghetti, beans, Maggi cubes, sugar, cigarettes, soap, etc., and, of course, a little cash. Those who do not have relatives in Ouagadougou, however, or whose family ties have been too badly damaged, can only survive through small-scale trafficking and their ability to negotiate services and favours. In a country where the temperature exceeds 40°C in the shade for most of the year, 20 inmates are crammed into each unventilated 16-square-metre cell and they are only entitled to a single daily ration of an infamous millet dough garnished with a sauce made from kapok tree leaves. Both the prison staff and the prisoners know that the prison would instantly implode if it ceased to turn a blind eye towards the transgressions and irregularities that prevail within it. Bakoroman are trained in ‘the law of the ghetto’, according to which one never informs against one’s associates, and are thus ideal partners in smuggling. Relying heavily on these activities because they have no visitors to sustain them, the most resourceful survive by selling tobacco (cannabis) or psychotropic drugs (like diazepam and tramadol). Leon and Claude received their merchandise directly from the guards, with whom they entertained a privileged relationship. But Hamadi sold tramadol on behalf of one of his fellow prisoners:
We sell three [pills] for 500 [francs]. Outside, a packet [of 10] is 150. So you sell each packet for 1,500 and you have one leftover. ... Out of every 5,000, I’ve got a right to 500. In one day we could sell up to 50,000, maybe even 75,000 on Sundays [visiting day]. So you aren’t doing anything but you can pay for a fan or a TV.
Because of low salaries and limited resources for guarding prisoners, many tasks are delegated to the inmates (Jefferson 2010, Akoensi 2014, Morelle 2014, Le Marcis 2014), who arrogate to themselves spaces of power that enable ‘genuine domination rents to emerge’ (Morelle 2013, p. 348). For instance, Innocent was appointed ‘deputy corridor leader’ during his most recent stay, a position that cemented his ability to distribute resources (food, access to the television and the fan). Innocent acquired it through his charisma and his ability to assert himself, which he calls ‘his move’. This informal position allowed him to demand a small contribution from newcomers and a cut of the supplies and money that prisoners receive from visitors; to negotiate with the staff for possible favours, including getting them to assign ‘good’ inmates to his corridor, distribute them among his four cells and place the ‘best’ in his own. This might appear to be corruption or racketeering, but Innocent presented it as a socially beneficial redistributive practice. In his eyes, it compensated for the structural inequalities between guards and prisoners, and between prisoners without resources - who use their master)' of the workings of the MACO to obtain certain advantages. He then distributed his cut to his cellmates, whom he also gave cigarettes, Nescafe, and food. As he explained it, everyone was a winner, from the guards who received small supplements to their meagre salaries to the most deprived inmates. Far from constituting a closed-off universe and breaking the principle of the generality of the law, these practices show how prison reproduces pre-existing social and economic inequalities.
At the same time as it condemns them, the prison both confirms the usefulness of the skills they have learnt on the streets and reinforces their delinquent networks, particularly by allowing different marginal networks to meet. As Claude explained:
Once you’re there, one month, two months, three months, you’re done with discouragement. You tell yourself that you’ve got no choice, so it’s better to carry on. ... Those who were stealing at knife-point when they were outside, once they’re at the MACO they’ll go and find someone who knows how to do it with an automatic pistol ... [to] increase their knowledge.
With such ‘attempts to transform time spent in detention into useful time, oriented towards the outside’ (Chantraine 2004, p. 89), the bakoroman may initially hope that being in prison will allow them to become more professional criminals, balancing out some of the risks and negative aspects of prison. But over the years they discover that they are ‘stuck’ (Jefferson, Turner, and Jensen 2019) in an indefinite, suffocating temporality (Jefferson and Segal 2019, p. 109), where the absence of connection turns into isolation, and marginality turns into banishment.
Leaving prison only to return
There are no reliable statistics on the recidivism rate in Burkina Faso. This is because prison registers are not stored digitally, but also, as we have seen, because some defendants wipe out any traces of their recidivism by giving false identities, or by having new identity papers drawn up after their release.11 Errors by court staff' do the rest.  Instead, I asked one of my contacts to draw up a list of the inmates in the four cells on his corridor (73 inmates), indicating for each one how many times they had been in prison, the fact of living together preventing any dissimulation on this issue. When he was transferred to another building, he carried out the same exercise in his new cell (11 inmates). Of these 85 people, at least 50% were repeat offenders: 33% had been jailed once, 12% twice, and 6% three or more times. These numbers indicate that recidivism is a structural reality, at a magnitude comparable to that observed in countries with higher incarceration rates (Henneguelle and Monnerv 2017).
Since recidivism was structural among the bakoroman, so to speak, their trajectories offer a clear example of the carceral impasse. Here, as elsewhere, those most likely to go to prison were also those who were the least integrated into family and professional networks: both prior to arrest, because they were in greater danger of engaging in criminal activity, and after arrest, because their family members could not negotiate effectively in police stations by offering contrition, oaths, or gifts (Nedelec 1999). Given the absence of reliable support, incarceration undermined any hopes that they might accumulate wealth through their crimes. For instance, when Innocent was arrested, he ‘lost’ his motorcycle and his belongings (which his landlord recovered). He decided to sell the plot of land he had acquired on the outskirts of Ouagadougou in order to hire a lawyer, but the friend he entrusted with the task ran off with the money. When the bakoroman I knew were released, they typically went back to their old friends, along with the new contacts they made in prison. This was also true for Innocent, who met his future heroin supplier during his first conviction. At the same time, incarceration cut them off from the fragile networks for exchanging news and goods that they had previously maintained with other circles of friends and relatives, either because they had disappeared without news for several months or years, or because the rumour of their arrest permanently tarnished their image with their relatives.
When I saw him in the visiting room in January 2018, Claude said that he regretted having ‘played with life’: at 38, while all his younger brothers had wives, he was ‘nothing’. He wanted to return to his home village, start a market gardening business, and finally marry, so that it would no longer be ‘the wives of [his] younger brothers who bring [him] water’. But at that moment, he had no better idea of how to make up for the lost time than to sell cocaine for a few months after his release, in order to accumulate enough money to pursue this plan. He received a presidential pardon - as did Sai'dou and almost 900 other prisoners that year - and he was released in January 2019. After his release, he returned to the town centre, where he said he was ‘waiting for an idea’. His long prison stays  and the massive quantities of drugs he consumed during them - as Leon says, ‘there’s nothing else to do at the MACO’ - seem to have had irreparable consequences on his ability to live more than a few months ‘in the great outdoors’, as he calls it. Claude’s experience is representative of those trajectories in which the MACO and bakoro gradually blend into a continuum of ‘galere45 (Chantraine 2004), and relegation. Hamadi was once an enthusiastic thief, but the last time we spoke on the phone he too was looking for an escape route, desperate to have abandoned his ageing mother during his three years in prison. While they were ‘waiting for an idea’, Hamadi, Leon, and Innocent - who do not know each other - have all sought an escape by working in illegal mining camps,
respectively in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mali. Meanwhile, Sai'dou sells individual cigarettes and pairs of flip-flops on the street, earning barely enough to feed his wife and three children.
The trajectories of this specific yet emblematic population allow us to re-examine the hypothesis of the carceral continuum, where ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are constructed in relation to each other, forming an autonomous social world. When in prison, my bakoroman interlocutors were able to compensate for their persistent social deprivation and isolation thanks to their prior initiation into radical solitude and the need to assert oneself in order to survive. But while the practical norms of the street allowed them to survive in prison, they prevented any attempt at social rehabilitation. Their way of life, which I have never heard supported by rewarding depictions of a delinquent counterculture, then appeared as what it was: an aborted attempt to find a shortcut towards success and respect. Already isolated due to their often delicate position within their original family, which какого has only made worse, prison completes the trajectory of disaffiliation (Castel 1991) on which they had begun. The mental and physical torment caused by crowding 20 people into unventilated 10-square-metre cells did the rest. In spite of a penitentiary facade aiming at rehabilitation, it is the insidious combination of torture and banishment that enables the judicial institution to contain law-breaking. First of all, law enforcement contributes significantly to the very high mortality rate I observed among the bakoroman}7 And then, as years go by, contemplating the status of ‘living dead’ (Mbembe 2003, p. 40) of the ageing bakoroman, condemned to the sterile repetition of solitary', hopeless petty' crime, those who still have enough resources start looking for an alternative path. The example of the bakoroman indicates that the prison’s historical transition - from a form of social control guaranteed by the spectre of punishment towards a normalisation guaranteed by the internalisation of surveillance, as described by Foucault - crashes at the prison gates. Being the ultimate space to which the ‘irretrievable’ are consigned, prison appears mostly as a relic of the universe of punishment, barely hidden beneath the guise of surveillance.
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17 My statistical research into the fates of a sample of 296 bakoroman identified between 199 and 2004 found that, 10 years later, one-quarter of them had died, many of them at the hands of law enforcement agents (Champy 2016, p. 318). In comparison, the annual mortality rate of men living in urban settings aged 15 to 30 oscillated between 1.5 and 3 per 100,000 people during this period (Baya et al. 2009, p. 87).
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