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Prisoners' requests to be sent into exile, written in the 1870s

Jean-Claude Farcy
Traduction de Gail Ann Fagen
Cet article est une traduction de :
« je désire quitté la france pour quitté les prisons. » [1ère partie]
Autre(s) traduction(s) de cet article :
« je désire quitté la france pour quitté les prisons. » [2ème partie]


This article uses a set of 500 letters written by prisoners in the 1870s, requests to leave France to avoid prison or surveillance légale (legal supervision), as a basis to discuss a particular type of prison writing – administrative petitions. Although these writings were censured and highly codified, they nonetheless give us a glimpse of the prisoners' thoughts and the way they experienced their detention. Occasionally the reader can also discern criticism about value of a prison system that gave no thought to reintegration at the end of the prison term.

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  • 1 “ je désire quitté la france pour quitté les prisons ” François Gleize, letter of 19 April 1874, Au (...)

“I want to leave France to leave the prisons”1

  • 2 On political prisoners, see the work of Vimont J.-C. (1993). Political prisoners predominate in the (...)
  • 3 It took the recent thesis by Sylvie Lapalus (2004) for the Pierre Rivière's text to be analysed in (...)
  • 4 See the glossary at the end of the text for an explanation of this term, and others not left in the (...)

1Prisoners of the 19th century, especially those sentenced as common criminals, have left few testimonies about the way they experienced their imprisonment and served their sentences. Unlike political prisoners2 who were better educated and left many letters, written expression by common criminals is rare in the prison system. The writings that do exist, relating to sensational crimes or drafted at the request of doctors and criminologists, often take the form of memoirs or accounts. These texts have been assembled carefully and published, often in their entirety, (Artières Ph., 2000), but little has been done to analyse exactly what these people were trying to express when they wrote. In the train of the history of representations, researchers focussed on discourse in its relation to power, especially in the context of crime. As, by definition, the prisoners' letters were written under constraint it hardly appeared useful to look into the meaning of the messages they left us. A typical example is the fate reserved for Pierre Rivière's memoir, the signification of which was eclipsed by an analysis of the diverging discourses of the alienists of the time regarding its interpretation (Foucault M., 1973).3 It is even more rare to see what the convicts themselves had to say about prisons (Carlier Ch. and Wasserman F., 1992) or its continuation (Surveillance légale,4 or legal supervision).

2Nevertheless the interest of studying correspondence found in case files was recently underlined by the documentalists of the Centre des Archives d'Outre-Mer (Krakovitch O., 1992, 1993; Clair S., 1992). In the absence of such files for the 19th century, in poorly preserved archives, the files of the bagnards stored in the Centrales and departmental prisons contain several letters written by convicts sentenced to "transportation" to penal colonies. In the protean documentation left by the Ministry of the Navy, which administered the prisons in the colonies, we are particularly interested in the files of the étrangers à la transportation ("transportation: other"), stamped with "E.T.", and containing letters from prisoners held in prisons located in metropolitan France expressing the wish to be transferred to New Caledonia or other colonies.

  • 5 CAOM, H 258 à 263. Due to delays in consultation only this first series can be covered.
  • 6 Out of a body of 502 petitions, only 6 lack a date. Less than 10% of the letters were written under (...)
  • 7 Letters are available from all the centrales, from the Corsican penitentiaries of Casabianda and Ca (...)

3Obviously, with this body of archives we are far from the letter writing purposes that historians have studied over the years (Chartier R., 1991). And we are even farther from private letters that interest most historians who focus on literary correspondence. These letters also have little to do with "lost letters" (Artières Ph., Laé J.-F, 2003), that turn up by chance when private archives are sorted, which reveal the solitude and fragility of ordinary people in the prosaic events of their daily lives, unveiled bit by bit in their letters. And if biftons

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