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IV Transforming the prison

The languages of prison reform How to speak about punishment in a period of political transition (Tunisia, 2011-2019)

Tasmine Bouagga

Translated and edited by Cadenza Academic Translations


May 2014: yet another symposium on democratic reform and political transition is being held in the Hotel Africa in Tunis. This one has been organised by Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), a Swiss nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that works for good governance in the security sector and promotes the adoption of international conventions and codes of practice by security forces. Today’s theme is law enforcement’s implementation of the Bangkok Rules, which are United Nations recommendations on how female prisoners should be treated and specific vulnerabilities that should be recognised. The rules were adopted by the United Nations in 2010 and were signed conditionally by Tunisia in 2011, with all restrictions on application lifted in April 2014. Experts and professionals had gathered together at the symposium to discuss this implementation. After presentations by the NGO and representatives of the ministries concerned (the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior), the director ofManouba prison spoke. Manouba is the main women’s prison in Tunisia, and more than half of its 376 prisoners were in pre-trial detention at that time. The director complained about the lack of significant advances, ‘in spite of all the conferences and seminars’, declaring, ‘We don’t have reintegration programmes, qualified staff, or any activities to keep the inmates busy and prevent recidivism: they spend the day watching television, even though most of them are illiterate’.[1]

This scene took place during the reformist turmoil after the 2011 revolution in Tunisia. Since the regime change, there have been important debates about the running of the security sector (police and prisons). These discussions have been headed by domestic reformers - prison staff members who want to change their practices or improve their image - and by a host of actors from community-based organisations, NGOs, and development agencies who want to strengthen the rule of law and good governance. In a context of increasing political openness, one that offers an opportunity to express normative views about prison, how do such reformers ‘speak about punishment’? How, during periods of transition, do people attempt to define a good way of punishing, in contrast with old practices that must now be left behind, making reference to norms and standards that must be followed?

Moments of political transition are particularly fruitful for such an investigation, because they are moments when philosophies of change, of punitive transformation, and of the practical modalities it should adopt - in short, the goals of‘moralizing’ prison (Gillespie 2008) - are formulated explicitly. While these changes often prove to be disappointing (Lascoumes 2006), the multiple ways they are discussed offer a rich perspective for studying the tensions at work in philosophies of punishment and their application. Political transitions are moments of regime change in which the terms of democracy, the rule of law, and the modes of exercising power are negotiated (Banegas 1993). At the same time, they are moments of political instability, which may be reflected in security issues (Morelle et al. 2018). Prisons encompass issues relative to security, human rights, justice and more broadly exemplify relations between the state and its citizens. From the implementation of international conventions to the development of prison work or the upgrading of the infrastructure, a range of different ‘languages of reform’ are in use. In some cases, these languages are formulated in the highly standardised vocabulary of international law, which acts as a point of reference and a source of legitimacy for particular demands; in others, they are formulated in pragmatic terms and adapted to immediate needs. Reformist languages may also target a specific category of the population. The aim here is not to draw up a balance sheet but to try' to understand both the multiple, shifting, and sometimes contradictory ways that the terms of reform are expressed, and the uses of the values emerging in Tunisia.

This chapter, however, is not based on an analysis of the discourses but on observing various actors involved in reform who raise normative questions about institutional change in the particular context of political transition. Since the 1990s, critical social science research has focused on the expansion of human rights discourse, the forms of hegemony it contains (Mutua 2002), and the philanthropic ‘multinationals’ developing in the area (Garth and Dezalay 1998). Human rights discourse has a special place in the development sector, offering new ways to speak about social progress in both universalist and juridicised terms (Goodale 2009). This phenomenon has ambiguous effects, which depend on how the concepts are translated locally and ‘vernacularised’ in everyday language and use, which may displace their meaning (Merry' 2006; Englund 2006; Hornberger 2007) or even cynically distort them (Allen 2013). Research has focused specifically on how human rights discourse is used in reforming repressive state institutions, in particular the police (Hornberger 2011) and the prison system (Jensen and Jefferson 2009; Martin 2014), which are seen as the main perpetrators of human rights violations. These studies shed light on how ‘rights’ can be differently understood and reappropriated by security actors (Goldstein 2010) according to institutional constraints, professional issues, and political circumstances.

Those languages of prison reform do not only shed light on issues of human rights but more broadly on an economy of punishment based on moral values and inscribed in institutional, political, and social contexts. As Foucault (1977, p. 25) shows, systems of punishment should be situated in a particular political economy of the body. For Foucault, reforms that put an end to torture and replace it with prison mark the advent of an era of careful calculations intended to discipline bodies, rather than reflecting any humanist sensibility. In contrast to a narrative of human rights and democracy, in which prison is the result of applying ‘the civilization of manners’ to penalty, the Marxist narrative sees prison as the capitalist era’s preferred form of punishment, intended to discipline bodies that must be put to work (Rusche and Kirchheimer 1939; Foucault 1977; Ignatieff 1978). Critical discussion of this research has underscored the importance of moral debates in the transformation of penalties (Ignatieff 1981; Garland 1990): To what extent is it right to punish? For what reasons? By what means?

Here I would like to keep to a middle way, remaining attentive to the languages of reform - whether they are humanistic, pragmatic, or security-based - and to examine how they express punishing well. To do so, I ask how a particular punitive culture (Garland 2001) - meaning a way of determining punishments and carrying them out, anchored in sets of practices and representations - is discussed, challenged, and shaped.

This chapter is based on an empirical investigation initiated in 2013 and lasting until 2019. Sixty interviews (in French, Arabic, and English) were conducted with various actors: prison officials, both from the central office and the prisons themselves, and in different professional roles (managers, guards, ‘civilians’); judicial and administrative magistrates; members of inspection and monitoring bodies like the Higher Committee for Human Rights; senior officials from the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Human Rights in charge of reform programmes; lawyers, some involved with anti-torture or human rights organisations; members of these organisations, both activists and experts; experts from international organisations, co-operation agencies and NGOs working on the issue of prisons in Tunisia; journalists; and former prisoners. In addition to these interviews, I attended dozens of public conferences on human rights, torture, prison reform, and the modernisation of justice, as well as numerous meetings of reformers. I also conducted four visits to prisons. Since 2011, accounts, reports, and testimonies from former prisoners have been a particularly rich source of information.

Moralising the institution: The discourse of transparency

The discourse of prison reform is primarily articulated in the language of human rights, democratic control, and transparency. It often emerges in a context of political transition, with all the difficulties posed by the institution of confinement

(Bouagga 2018). Such a context is characterised by challenges to the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence, through the demand for the use of violence to be moderated and supervised by international law. It is marked, too, by the state’s concern to relegitimate itself by making clear its adherence to the principles and standards of international law. Human rights discourse both develops a critique of the security apparatus and serves as a public showcase of its reform.

Transparency and demands for dignity

During the revolutionary uprisings of December 2010 and January 2011, mass protests took place in Tunisia against the abuses and violations committed against citizens by law enforcement officials, especially the police, the judiciary, and prison staff. This dissatisfaction was voiced through slogans, but also through the destruction of police stations, courts, and prisons (as well as banks and offices of the single party, the RDC). The vocabulary of contestation was formulated primarily through demands for ‘dignity’ (кагата), which refers to a sense of honour and status (a right to respect) and which was used to denounce abuses of public power, humiliation, and, in particular, torture. ‘Кагата’ was used both by opposition politicians and by protesters, and it also covered denunciations of social injustice (Ayari 2011).

In the first weeks after the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime, these protests against torture led to debates about transforming police and penitentiary practices. A first step in opening up prisons involves allowing access to inquiry' commissions, UN bodies, and international human rights NGOs. The national fact-finding commission into abuses committed during the revolution (known as the ‘Bouderbala Commission’, after its president) painted a picture of overwhelming repression, including within prisons (National Investigation Committee on Violations and Abuses 2012). Apart from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has been working in prisons since 2005 but does not make any public reports, only the Higher Committee for Human Rights has had access to detention sites. This national committee was set up in the 1990s following the scandal after a number of people died under torture; as its reports on these deaths were not made public, it had a reputation as a facade organisation made up to satisfy the international community. To signal a change, the transitional government allowed external monitoring bodies access to Tunisian prisons. First, in January 2011, access was given to a mission of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Then, in May, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture received access, followed by international human rights organisations such as Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture and Human Rights Watch. Their reports describe the prisoners’ terrible living conditions, helping to put reforming prison on the agenda of the post-revolutionary period of transition.

Popular opinion on prisons is negative in Tunisia: a survey conducted in 2011 revealed that citizens have little faith in the legal system, the police, and prisons. Implementing legal and moral guidelines in the management of prisons and the treatment of prisoners is a priority of the justice reform programme adopted in partnership with the UNDP and the European Union. Successive justice ministers have promised to close the most horrendous prisons that had served as sites for political detention (like Nadhour), or even to turn them into memorials (like the former site of the 9-Avril prison), both important symbolic moves. Prisons are thus highlighted as landmarks of indignity, but there is no discourse on abolishing them.

Creating a monitoring authority

Beyond symbolic promises, the process of institutionalising a national torture- prevention system illustrates the attempt to offer a substantial guarantee of rights within a punishment system still based on prison. As described by an experienced Tunisian anti-torture activist, in the first weeks of the transition, the government and civil service agreed to establish a scheme for monitoring detention sites. An official in the Directorate General of Prisons and Rehabilitation (DGPR) explained:

It seemed normal to us in a transition phase - political authorities need legitimacy. The politicians were convinced that democracy required us to sign international conventions. From the point of view of the administration, it makes our work more valuable. We had to convince the staff that we needed external oversight.

(interview, May 2019)

In 2011, Tunisia ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which provided for the establishment of an independent torture-prevention body with the right to visit detention sites. The creation of this body was approved in 2013 after a legislative process that involved human rights organisations. It became operational in 2017.

Since 2011, civil society organisations in prisons have taken on an acknowledged role, gaining authorisation to perform humanitarian visits and monitor detention conditions. The Tunisian Human Rights League, for example, which has a reputation for defending political prisoners and has a large network of activists across the country, can enter prisons. The prison system thus appears to be open to external criticism that could allow it to correct its dysfunctions. Meanwhile, the Directorate General of Prisons and Rehabilitation acknowledged these dysfunctions, declaring at a public conference in Tunis in 2013 that the prisons were ‘in an almost, if not entirely, catastrophic situation’.

However, when members of Parliament demanded the right to visit prisons, the minister of justice - who had been a chief critic of the prison system - admitted that detention conditions were bad (‘You know that they treat chickens better than they treat prisoners’), but refused visiting rights in the name of the MPs’ own security, saying, ‘Even I get worried for myself when I visit prisons’.[2]

Some parliamentary visits had been made since 2011, as the Directorate General of Prisons and Rehabilitation wanted to improve its image through guarantees of transparency. But by 2014, it appeared that such openness was restricted and temporary: security restrictions were put in place as attacks by armed movements increased, reigniting concerns about terrorism and anti-terrorism policies.

MPs and human rights organisations accepted the premise that, at this critical juncture, the prison system should not be weakened. Associations that had been temporarily authorised to intervene in prisons found that only few months later they had to negotiate the conditions under which they could publicise their findings. Those that held ‘too many press conferences’ saw their access gradually restricted (interview with NGO staff, Tunis, November 2014). Similarly, researchers were granted access rights, but their movement within prisons and their interactions with prisoners were highly restricted and monitored (Jefferson and Schmidt 2019).

Reinterpreting transparency in terms of security

This change has primarily been driven by the increase in political violence due to armed Islamist movements. While the first years after the fall of the dictatorship were marked by sharp criticism of repressive institutions, as the sense of insecurity mounted, these institutions were seen as a necessary bulwark to defend society. As Bras (2016, p. 23), writes, in the ‘war on terror’, ‘the supporters of the security imperative have the upper hand, and the approach taken by defenders of human rights, which would diminish the security forces’ capacity to act, has become less legitimate’. More specifically, there is a sharp divide among human rights advocates, between secular and religious factions: the former accuse the latter of being complicit in terrorism; the latter accuse the former of forgetting the universal principles of human rights when the person concerned is a bearded man. In 2015, a lawyer who served as president of Freedom and Equity, a human rights NGO with an Islamic background, lamented the ‘incredible silence’ of Tunisian human rights NGOs regarding torture ‘because the victims were Islamists’ (interview, Tunis, 2015). Demands for transparency are countered by the silencing of abuse, which is seen by some as a compromise necessary' for security and by others as shameful behaviour. Transparency and human dignity are thus intertwined: Which victims are worth defending? How far can the prison system be attacked without entirely delegitimating it?

Meanwhile, for the prison administration, its public image and communications have become highly important. It is attempting to improve its reputation through a Facebook page, with photos illustrating the reforms it is undertaking and its ability to provide security. The demand for transparency in order to reform the institution so it complies to legal rules and moral values, has turned into a matter of constructing a good public image in the media, in order to reinforce the institution. This communication campaign serves to address claims for more material and human resources to ensure public safety.

During the political transition, critics of the prison system attempted to bind it to the principles and procedures of the rule of law. These procedures state that repressive institutions and their agents must be accountable in enforcing the law and must demonstrate the legitimacy of any violence exercised on the state’s behalf (Salle 2009). At the same time, the security context weakened this criticism by countering it with powerful social demands for safety. The language of human rights has thus been mitigated by discourses on security, shifting priorities.

Speaking of just punishment

In Tunisia, the languages of reform have been expressed in multiple idioms: literary (standard) Arabic, the Tunisian dialect of Arabic (derja), French (the colonial language, which has remained the language of intellectuals and the primary language for international trade), and, to a lesser extent, English (the language of international communication, imposed by NGOs and international sponsors). These many influences are visible in the way terms are used: prison vocabulary, for example, is steeped in French heritage, while the most recent reforms, like those relating to prison monitoring, tend to use English loanwords (like ‘monitoring’ itself). The word ‘reform’ itself has its ambiguities. In Arabic, the term used is ‘islah based on a root meaning ‘to improve’ or ‘to rectify’; the same term is used to mean rehabilitation or re-education when speaking of the correctional process of the convicted individual. The prison administration in Tunisia is called ‘idarat al-’ama lil-sujun wa-l-islah’ (Directorate General of Prisons and Rehabilitation); the juvenile centres are ‘markaz al-islah' (rehabilitation centres). Therefore, the same term is used to speak of the reform of the service, or of prisons in general, and the rehabilitation of prisoners. The emphasis shifts from the moralisation of the institution to the moralisation of the prisoner, or, at least, to a mission that is both penal and social. As an expert on prisons remarked, ‘the idea is to establish penitentiary reforms that promote the reintegration and non-recidivism of those entrusted to the prison system’ (interview, Paris, 2018). This idea of reintegration is central in reform discourse. But how is it expressed in terms of prison sentences and in debates over how they should be applied?

Measuring the penal response

Periods of political transition have a mixed impact on incarceration statistics. They are often characterised by mass amnesties, pardons, and escapes (Le Marcis 2017; Bouagga 2018). But they can also be periods of political instability, with accompanying worries about security and social demands for more punitive measures (Beckett and Godoy 2008). These ambivalences of democracy can be observed in Tunisia. With an incarceration rate more than twice that of France, repressive practices continue to weigh heavily on the country. Of these prisoners, 97% are men, and half are under 30 years old. Aa minority of prisoners are held for serious violent offences (11% are held for homicide and 7% for terrorist offences, a category that includes money laundering); one-quarter of all prisoners are held for theft or robber)^. But almost one-third are held for drug-related offences, most frequently the simple consumption of cannabis (Ministry of Justice 2017). The field investigation also revealed that many people were imprisoned for nonviolent offences, such as public intoxication or passing bad cheques, which are punishable by sentences ranging from a few months to several years but are not recorded in statistical categories.[3] During parliamentary debates in 2016, a cleareyed assessment of the situation emerged; as one MP for the majority put it:

It’s true that the prisons are full, and it has been found that they serve as schools for terrorism. It isn’t right that so many young people are in prison for minor offences and for offences that shouldn’t even be considered as such.[4]

In particular, there is a campaign to reform the prohibition on cannabis (law 52), led in particular by bloggers, rappers, and their lawyers, protesting - in the popular detja variety of Arabic - the misuse of jail (habs) to punish cannabis smoking (zatla). The campaign has led to slightly less harsh punishments: the one-year minimum sentence was removed in 2017, leaving the punishment to the judge’s discretion. In 2019, debates over penalties, the proportionality of sentences, and their appropriateness were ongoing but no real change in the criminal law had been adopted yet. These debates mobilise values and evaluation, with a moral economy of punishment confronting a moral assessment of the offence and its sanction. The moral economy of punishment can be defined as the way that, in a society, emotions, values, norms, and obligations relating to punishment (and ‘punishing well’) are produced, used, and distributed (Fassin and Eideliman 2012, p. 12). Feelings of indignation regarding ‘excessive’ punishment for drug use are not evenly distributed, and this lack of consensus can allow harsh inequalities to continue. Meanwhile, harsher punishment can be assigned to other types of offences.

While social pressure has emerged against imprisoning young cannabis smokers (given the benign nature of their offence), the coercive control of working- class deviance has continued, sometimes through mass arrests in working-class neighbourhoods, which target young men in particular (Lamloum and Ben Zina 2015). In 2015, dozens of people queued every day in the office of an attorney who was also a prominent of member of Liberte et Equite - a human rights NGO with an Islamic background - to seek support for family members who had been arrested in a police raid, worried that their son or brother might be mistreated by the police at the Gorjani interrogation centre. One man stated that soon all the Tunisian youth will have been to the Gorjani interrogation centre at some stage. The Gorjani interrogation centre is less than 30 minutes walk from Hotel Africa, where, during my research, conferences on human rights were held almost on a weekly basis. As a young man imprisoned after a positive THC (cannabis) test observed: ‘It’s as if there had been no revolution ... especially for young people. We didn’t gain any rights with the revolution, even though we’re the ones who led it’ (interview, Tunis, October 2014). He described a situation in which the agents of repression can do as they like, with all of them referred to in street slang as <’hakem including police officers, judges, and prison guards. Patterns of overincarceration of impoverished youth have not been challenged in the reformist discourses.

In addition to this increase of mass arrests, some laws became stricter. The new anti-terror law passed in 2015 is harsher than the previous law of 2003: for instance, it introduces the death penalty for some terrorist offences, even though a moratorium on the death penalty has existed in Tunisia since 1991 and all those sentenced to death had their sentences commuted after the revolution. Reformist rhetoric urges lighter sentences, but this is countered by another discourse that favours harsher sentences in the name of security and other values such as the protection of victims. This is the case, for instance, for violence against women: feminist campaigns have protested the fact that such violence could be committed with impunity, and they were able to secure harsher punishments for rape and domestic violence in 2018. In the political economy of repression, demands for the recognition of victims often result in increased punitiveness towards the culprits. These changes do not mean that the reformist discourse emphasising reintegration is ineffective, but it is thwarted by other logics, which perpetuate representations of dangers to society (young working-class men), or which increase protections for victims by coercive means. Criminal justice reform is at the core of conflicting views of how to go about creating social change.

Reformable groups

Despite these conflicting views, a common idea in reformist discourses is that prison itself could harm public safety: prisoners could leave more dangerous than when they entered. A range of political and administrative leaders agree on this, particularly prison officials. The latter support alternatives to incarceration, as promoted by international organisations and funding agencies in the name of humanitarian principles, public utility, and financial efficiency. With the help of the ICRC, a probation office was set up in Sousse, in order to develop open custody measures: in practice, open custody consists in supervising community work, carried out by convicts for the benefit of public institutions (painting, gardening, etc.). The experiment has been formulated with the support of NGOs and development agencies and is being disseminated nationally as part of an EU-supported justice reform programme. The targeted groups are people who have received short sentences for non-violent offences (simple theft, intoxication, passing bad cheques, etc.); a judge in Sousse explained, ‘We lecture them and tell them they’d better integrate into society’ (interview, May 2019). While these alternative sentencing programmes are gradually gaining momentum, they remain limited in scope and affect only a small number of people. Furthermore, in practice, sentence enforcement is given precedent over reintegration support. In the short term, it is not these alternative methods of enforcing sentences that produce lower incarceration rates. Rather, they are caused by the collective pardons: the tradition of presidential pardon granted to several thousand prisoners during national or religious holidays, demonstrates a clemency symbolically inscribed in power relations rather than explicit in the penal code.

Moments of political transition provide opportunities to renegotiate what is deemed punishable, as well as how such punishment should be carried out. The term ‘reform’ brings together institutional change and individual rehabilitation, emphasising the social engineering dimension of prison (Kaluszynski 1997). A growing number of international interventions that occur during periods of political transition have encouraged attempts to rethink punishment, punishable offences, and acceptable modalities of punishment. In Tunisia, an example of these are mobilisations against the death penalty and in favour of decriminalising homosexuality, which have been supported by international agencies and NGOs. Does this mean that the language of reform is a foreign language? While discourse about changes to the prison system are permeated by a whole vocabulary drawn from development programmes and international expertise - like the ‘monitoring’ of detention conditions - cultural reinterpretations of international standards and best practices can be just as powerful.

The walls of change

What does progress (taqadom) in the materialities of prison mean in concrete terms? In the absence of properly immersive ethnographic research, one can attempt to answer this question by investigating the discourses of local governance inside prison. The question that prison officials and experts in prison reform ask is: How can prisons be run ‘well’? Reformist discourse as made manifest in concrete projects falls short of languages of reform that are based on human rights and the rule of law: it becomes a very pragmatic discourse, which tends to substitute indicators for principles, and numbers for values. As one DGPR official put it, ‘We currently have 22,000 prisoners. The goal is to go down to 15,000 through the reform, particularly by bringing cases up for trial immediately, which should reduce the number of pre-trial detainees’ (interview, Tunis, May 2019). Among the international prison regulations, the Directorate General of Prisons and Rehabilitation focuses primarily on the figure of 4 square metres per person, using this to set targets for reducing the prison population and increasing the capacity of detention sites. To use an expression from Nils Christie’s (2003) analysis of the ‘punishment industry’, the system moves from ‘expressive ritualism to managerial efficiency’. But technical reinterpretations of moral issues coexist with cultural ones, which also help to produce an expressive ritualism of punishment and a localised, vernacularised interpretation of what reform could mean. Two examples highlight what constitutes a ‘good’ punishment from the point of view of those involved: the basket and the uniform.

The food basket

The basket (couffin) is a central element of daily prison life in Tunisia, and it is a distinctive feature that is often remarked upon: a large proportion of prisoners do not eat food provided by the prison itself (which is notoriously bad and insufficient) but instead food from their families, traditionally brought to them in a straw basket. This practice allows inmates to perform exchanges and transactions. International experts argue that the use of baskets provides opportunities for smuggling, but Tunisian prison staff are attached to the system, seeing it as an important way of humanising detention. One prison guard even argued that Tunisian prisons are more humane than any Western prison because they allow family members to bring homemade food to their kin (fieldnotes, March 2015). The director of another prison explained that the Tunisian basket system ‘calms the prisoners, it promotes solidarity and sociability; and anyway, it means they take care of themselves’ (fieldnotes, March 2015). The moral value of sociability is also used to justify holding prisoners in collective cells rather than individual ones: as a prison officer said, ‘Putting the prisoners alone in a cell would kill them!’ (fieldnotes, March 2015). ‘Good’ punishment is therefore seen as one that deprives the prisoner of freedom, without depriving them of social bonds, both external and internal. The question of privacy never arises as an important point for improving detention conditions, unlike France, for example, where individual cells have been presented as a condition for improvement in incarceration. Because of the substantial overcrowding in Tunisian prisons, any departure from the collective cell (dormitory) model is unlikely, and, moreover, the prospect is seen as undesirable. The role of the basket reveals the local importance of materialities in ideas and discussions of punishment. It also points to the evaluation of the ‘moral performances’ of prisons (Liebling 2009), meaning their level of decency in the treatment of prisoners and social relations in detention. This decency agenda receives a variety of interpretations that are rooted in the practical norms of prison governance, rather than international norms, although these international norms can be used as leverage to challenge practical norms, through prisoners’ rights advocacy.

The uniform

In local discourses of reform, references to international legislation coexist with pragmatic considerations and cultural representations. For example, the practice of delegating power to prisoners (‘room leaders’) goes unchallenged: they are seen to be assisting the prison system, much like those who work within the prison

(cooking, cleaning ...). The modernisation of prison is conceived instead in terms of technologies for monitoring, video surveillance, and security classification. The reformist language used by prison officials does not break down the prison walls but reflects their shape. All the same, it has created a number of openings, a few windows to the outside, that may modify prisoners’ experiences of detention, improve day-to-day life, and build connections with life outside. Describing the various advances (taqadom) in the administration of the Manouba women’s prison since 2011, the prison’s deputy director listed: a building for mothers with young children, the weekly theatre workshop, and the sewing workshop, which gives inmates something to do and provides them with a professional skill. The sewing workshop, she said, will be used to produce uniforms, which are seen as a way of modernising and improving detention conditions:

It’s an advance ... because of overcrowding in the rooms, the problems of damp linked to the storage of clothing, and so on. Admittedly, the inmates aren’t happy; they think that clothing is part of their freedom. But in the end, we think it’s for the best.

(Interview with deputy director, Manouba prison,

May 2019)

The idea came from visits to Colorado organised by the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL): there, coloured uniforms make it possible to identify detainees according to their classification (risk level), which staff saw as an opportunity to improve surveillance conditions. As Mahuya Bandyopadhyay (2007, p. 409) has demonstrated in the Indian context, ‘the notion of reform is thus yet another technique used by the authorities for exercising power, ensuring compliance and securing order and discipline within the prison’. Reformist discourse combines issues related to the moralisation of the institution (in order to limit its hold on individuals) with issues related to the reinforcement of the institution (through technologies that increase its hold). Paradoxically, while discourse about baskets tends to preserve the value of sociality (the relations between incarcerated persons), discourse about uniforms tends to devalue such sociality. These two discourses reflect ambivalences in the languages of prison reform, regarding modernity and humanisation, and point to the contradictions between considering prisoners as individuals and considering the institution itself.


This chapter has examined the languages of reform in Tunisia. In doing so, I have tried to demonstrate how debates about ‘punishing well’ have emerged in times of political change, when the terms of the exercise of power, the relations between the state and citizens, and the ways of producing justice and security are all being renegotiated. The demand for transparency aims to make the prison system subject to the principles and procedures of the rule of law, in the name of human rights and the concept of‘dignity’ (karama) used during the revolution. At the same time, security concerns weaken this criticism, via powerful social demands concerning the fight against terrorism and the securing of new rights for victims. Moments of political transition provide opportunities to renegotiate the domain of the punishable and its modes of execution, but they also give rise to struggles to redefine the gravity of offences and appropriate penal responses. These may favour incapacitation - isolating individuals through confinement - or reintegration: prison must then be reformed in order to be able to reform the individuals it detains, and the values of ‘punishing well’ become connected with scales of dangerousness. Ways of talking about ‘progress’ within prison are equally ambivalent. Rationalist ideas inspired by techniques of control observed abroad are combined with representations, symbolically rooted in culture, of how people should be punished: a representation of the prisoner as a social subject is thus mobilised alongside desocialising logics of institutional control.

The polysemy of the words used - ‘dignity'’ {кагата), ‘reform’/‘re-education’ (islah), and ‘progress’ (taqadom) - allows us to retrace the paths taken by concepts as they are reinterpreted in specific contexts. We can then perceive the contours of punitive cultures as they are renegotiated, in terms of how coercion is exercised, the offences that lead to incarceration, and the everyday administration of prisons. In doing so, we observe that human rights discourse - which seems to dominate in public arenas, spaces of debate, and declarations by international organisations and NGOs - is translated in a variety of ways, which we can understand as a vernacularisation of such discourse. But we also see that this language of human rights is not the only way of expressing a reform of‘punishing well’ and that security' issues and cultural justifications for practices rooted in the daily life of the institution are also part of these questions about renegotiating penalties. Penal sanction serves as the site of debates on symbolic issues, pragmatic issues (the good governance of the institution), and conceptions of the balance between the power of the institution and individual rights. Observing how punishment is debated during a period of political transition allows us to empirically examine and reconceive the moral economies of punishment: understanding it as the product of variable power relations that permeate the penal world, and account for which forms of punishment and coercion are morally permissible in the effort to maintain order in society.


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  • [1] Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign-language materialin this article are our own.
  • [2] Hearing of the minister of justice before Parliament, 16 October 2015.
  • [3] Source: fieldnotes.
  • [4] Bochra Belhaj Hmida, Rights and Liberties Commission of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, 6 January 2016.
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