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What the Fight Against Radicalization Does to the Prison Officer Profession

Ce que la lutte contre la radicalisation fait au métier de surveillant de prison
Gilles Chantraine et David Scheer
Traduction de Gail Ann Fagen
Cet article est une traduction de :
Ce que la lutte contre la radicalisation fait au métier de surveillant de prison [fr]


Cet article, basé sur une recherche ethnographique, analyse les transformations du métier de surveillant sous l’effet de la lutte contre la radicalisation et de la mise en œuvre des « quartiers d’évaluation de la radicalisation » (QER) dans les prisons françaises, en embrassant les différents types d’activité du surveillant au quotidien dans toute leur diversité : « surveiller, séparer, isoler » d’abord, « négocier, dialoguer punir » ensuite, et, enfin, « observer, consigner, tracer ». Ce cadre d’observation nous permet de décrire, dans un premier temps, la défiance guerrière qui surplombe les activités de surveillance et de contrôle. Dans un second temps, nous détaillons les formes de dialogue qui s’instaurent néanmoins entre détenus et surveillants, parfois sous-tendues par des objectifs de « déradicalisation » informelle ; enfin, nous décrivons comment l’activité d’écriture des surveillants est structurée à la fois par leur participation au travail d’évaluation des détenus, et leur enrôlement plus ou moins fort dans l’activité de renseignement pénitentiaire.

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1. Introduction

  • 1 Presently called the “National service for prison intelligence” (SNRP).

1This article aims to describe and analyse the transformations in the prison officer profession in view of the involvement prison staff in the fight against radicalization. The case at hand involves the ’Radicalization Assessment Units’ (RAU) set up late 2016, in the wake of other specific units dedicated to fighting radicalization in French prisons: “proselytism prevention units” (2014), “dedicated units” (January 2016) and the “radicalization prevention units” (June 2016). The RAU are highly securitised units in which prisoners identified as “radicalized”, whether sentenced or awaiting trial, have been transferred and assigned primarily on the basis of a criminal criteria (offence of a terrorist nature) or suspected radicalization. Within these units the prisoners are followed over a four-month period in the attempt to attain objective knowledge regarding their degree of radicalization. This assessment is carried out jointly by the prison officers who monitor the prisoners daily, along with psychologists, educators and probation officers who meet regularly with the prisoners. The aim is to determine the nature of their incarceration and where they should be assign once they complete their session in the RAU. Depending on the results and recommendations issuing from the assessment, the prisoners may be assigned to “ordinary detention” in a maximum security prison, placed in solitary confinement or in a “radicalization management unit” (RMU). As such the RAU are the cornerstone of the system to deal with radicalization in French prisons (Chantraine, Scheer, 2021). The selection of prisoners for the RAU – as well as their assignment after the RAU assessment – is decided during meetings between the Central Office for Prison Intelligence (BCRP1), representatives from the Mission to Fight Violent Radicalization (MLRV) and the prison management bureau. Priority is placed on offenders soon eligible for parole or release, for whom an assessment beforehand would provide better guidance and follow-up. The next group is comprised of individuals from areas throughout France and incarcerated in Paris pending their upcoming trial. Another criteria, more informal, is the aim to remove a prisoner considered problematical from ordinary detention, or else to free cells in solitary confinement units. Furthermore, in one in one of the prison sites studied, trade union negotiations led to an agreement whereby a large majority of the prisoners assigned to the RAU would be part of a local selection; in other words from the same detention facility. In this case, the prisoner selection primarily aims to ease overcrowding in the prisons of the Île-de-France. This pragmatic management of flows, involving issues arising from both penal and prison issues, is a jigsaw puzzle that must be pieced back together each time a new cohort of prisoners is assembled for a new assessment session.

  • 2 We cannot discuss the specificities of this difficult fieldwork in the space of this article; they (...)

2The data mobilised for this article come from an enquiry conducted in 2017 and 2018, based on a hundred days of ethnographic observation during emersions in three French prisons, and on 90 semi-directive interviews.2 In line with the ethnographic tradition in the sociology of total institutions (Goffman, 1990) and, more specifically, that of the prison (for example, Clemmer, 1940; Sykes, 1997; Bosworth, 1999; Chantraine, 2004; Liebling, Arnold, 2004; Crewe, 2009; Fassin 2015), the aim is to study, understand and describe the organization and institutional functioning of these units, the relations among the professionals, the actual nature of their daily work, the individual experiences of the prisoners, the assessment procedure itself (Chantraine, Scheer, 2020a), possible mobilization of ad hoc criminological tools (Chantraine, Scheer, 2020b) and prison intelligence’s emergence to the forefront in the fight against radicalization (Scheer, Chantraine, 2021).

  • 3 This wish to escape the conditions of “ordinary” prison work is also expressed in other articles in (...)

3The prison officer staff have a a variety of motivations for joining an extremely securitised system. When asked: “In your opinion, why were you recruited to work in the RAU?” a general theme is nevertheless revealed. Coming to work in the RAU primarily means escaping the work conditions of the ordinary prison, marked by massive overcrowding which, among other factors, renders the work exhausting if not unbearable.3 Secondly, the very fact of being assigned to the RAU gives the impression that the hierarchy has given the prison officer a good evaluation, recognizing their professional qualities:

I don’t want to brag, but I do think that it was my profile as a security agent that clenched it. I’m a security agent on the outside, and I trained to be a bodyguard. I’m diligent on the job and respect the rules. I’ve worked in the solitary confinement unit, and have done some prison transfers… I think it’s that part of my work, really strict on questions of security, that weighed in.

(Alain, prison officer)

They know I’m on the job, that I put in my time, that I’m never absent, that they can count on me. It’s nevertheless important to have a stable team in this type of unit.

(Bertrand, prison officer)

4Another argument revolves around the person’s ability to “remain clear-headed” in a world brimming with tension and so many sources of stress (Cheek, Miller, 1983; Crawley, 2004; Crewe, Warr, Bennet, 2014). Lastly, working in the RAU lends social usefulness to a job that is sometimes seen with disdain. Similar to prison officers who choose to work in juvenile detention centres (EPM) to follow their “teaching vocation” (Chantraine, Sallée, 2013), working in a RAU means achieving one’s aspirations to help protect society and its citizens. This “social usefulness” is invested with various meanings as we shall see below.

5Underlying this general theme, we ask how a prison officer’s daily work is affected by the fight against radicalization in general, and by the RAU administration in particular. To answer this question, it is useful to begin with a review of the different types of prison officer activities that serve to organize how the prisoner is monitored and controlled. In an article discussing use of the electronic electronic observation logbook in the EPMs (Sallée, Chantraine, 2013), one of the authors, on the basis of contemporary sociological studies on the work of prison officers (for example, see Kauffman, 1988; Liebling, Price, 2001), attempted to summarise these activities along three major types, which organize the discussion in this article. The first is controlling the prisoner’s bodies and gestures through spatial coercion – making sure cell doors are closed, controlling movements – and surrounding the prisoners; in three words: “monitor, separate, isolate” (Johnston, 2000; Demonchy, 2004; Milhaud, 2009; Mbanzoulou, 2011; Hancocket Jewkes, 2011; Simon et al., 2012; Scheer, 2013). The second type, and here we will touch on the traditional heart of studies on sociology of prisons – from the originating analyses of the daily production of order to new studies on the deployment of dynamic security, is: “negotiate, dialogue and punish” (McCleery, 1960; Chauvenet et al., 1994; Chauvenet, 1998; Liebling, 2000; Liebling, Price, 2001; Chantraine, 2005; Chantraine, 2006; Crewe, 2009). Lastly at the crossroads of ingress of the law in prison, of an increasing injunction for pluridisciplinarity in dealing with prisoners (Le Bianic, 2011) and the growing importance of the activity of writing in prison (Cliquennois, 2012; Chantraine, Sallée, 2015; Durand, 2019;), we have: “observe, log, trace”.

6With no pretention to offer an all-encompassing view of the renewal of contemporary governance of French prisons, an analysis of how the fight against radicalization and the RAU organization affects the work of prison officers means observing each type of activity, one by one, to understand how they take shape in a specific way in the RAU. Within this general descriptive and interpretive framework, we will show that the prison officering and control activities take place in a ultra-securitized system, devoted to the total control of the prisoners’ bodies and gestures, overshadowed by a warlike relationship. In a later section we will describe how forms of dialogue nevertheless do development between the prisoners and the prison officer, despite the pervasiveness of a static and securitised security structure. And then lastly, we will describe the prison officers’ writing activity focused on two separate types of tasks: participation in the pluridisciplinary assessment of the prisoners, and the enrolment of the prison officers in the intelligence activity.

2. Controlling and neutralizing the enemies of the nation

Working here [in the RAU] or on the floors [in ordinary prison], is like day and night. It’s so different here, nothing to do with the other. Here we’re dealing with enemies of the Republic; and it’s the uniform of the Republic we’re wearing.

(Basil, prison officer)

7In one of the RAU observed, many professionals particularly remember one encounter with prisoners. They evoke a highly tense situation between two groups facing each other: professionals on one side, prisoners on the other. They all had something to say about the encounter:

We were that close to something dramatic happening.

(Nathalie, psychologist)

Right before us they were preparing for a fight.

(Nacim, educator)

It was the first time I was truly frightened in prison.

(Adam, probation officer)

It was a call to war.

(Rémi, prison officer)

8This event, virtually traumatic for the professionals, when each discovered in flesh and blood those who until then had been mere pictures on the organization chart of the “incoming prisoners” who would be part of the new session, is just an extreme example of a more general reality that needs to be described in detail. To do so, it is helpful to start with the edifying analyses of Antoinette Chauvenet:

The prison, in its security system, is first of all the material and legal transcription of the “struggle” or “war” against the enemies of public order in the homeland, in other words against criminals. We wish to show that this is not simply a metaphorical discourse: through multiple aspects the prison is a veritable warlike system. The primary objective, both implicit and explicit of any prison director is to ensure the safety of society outside the prison by preventing escapes and also ensuring order on the inside, especially by preventing riots and other forms of explosive events and disorder. If we can invoke here the notion of a social war, it is because, far from the situation of contractual law that presupposes an agreement of wills, detention proceeds from an act of violence intended to force the adversary to do what we want… Physical violence is thus a means; the end is to impose our will on the enemy, and disarmament is by definition the very objective of war operations. Neutralizing criminals, maintaining them unarmed, day in and day out, is the essential task of the surveillance staff and their hierarchy. In this, the objective of social defence and that of security dominate, taking precedence over any other consideration or objective [own translation].

(Chauvenet, 1998, 91)

9This reality nevertheless assumes a singular nature inside the RAU. It is not just the institution that constructs a warrior-like relationship with the “criminal”, shut behind walls, whom it must prison officer, but possibly the prisoner as well constructs, or is assumed to construct, a warrior-like relation with the institution. In other words, the social war relationship, caused by the security structure and analysed by Antoinette Chauvenet, is here reinforced by the terrorist nature of the acts imputed to the prisoners and multiplied by their wish, true or assumed, to fight the “institution”, “society”, “the State”, “France”. Some of the prisoners have also been identified as actual soldiers, with a warrior capital acquired in regions under conflict, especially in Syria.

10The relationship between the professionals and the prisoners in the RAU and more broadly, between the “terrorist” (or “radicalized”) prisoners and the prison administration is thus regularly described in warlike terms (Chantraine, Scheer, 2020a), similar to the social relations established in other high security units (Rhodes, 2004; Drake, 2011; Liebling, Arnold, 2012). The divide between “us” and “them” is even more acute than in typical detention. In their discourse, the prison officers regularly express and reproduce the distinction between, on one side management of a “criminal” population and on the other the fight against “enemies of the Republic”:

In ordinary detention, the relationship is simpler. You can understand why the dealers, the thieves, are there. And if they’re serving their sentence it’s because that’s the way it is, the rules of the game. It’s clear. Here, the “terro” prisoners hold a grudge. We represent France in uniform. We’re their enemy. It’s different: on one side you have “society’s rejects” and here you have the “enemies of society”.

(Daniel, prison officer)

11The RAU are certainly one of the most heavily secured places in the prisons where they are located. They are shaped by a defensive warrior climate, the fruit of a mutual construction by the institution and the prisoners. This climate over-determines the reciprocal representations each has of the other. They are also the places where the prisoners are the most closely watched, their gestures observed and behaviours interpreted. Surveillance is conducted in monitoring close-up but also via surveillance cameras, which not only enable a quick reaction in case of an incident and observation of the prisoners behaviour, they also enable monitoring of the prison officers’ work. In some cases the images captured help improve surveillance practices, refine certain security reflexes or correct gaps in the frisking procedures or escorting movements.

2.1. An ultra-securitized system

12In the RAU, now more than ever, Marquart’s observation (Marquart, 1986) rings true. In his words, the gradual diversification of modes for producing order in prison should not elude the central role accorded to “physical coercion as a means to control prisoners”. As soon as they arrive in the RAU the prisoners are welcomed individually or in a group by members of the prison direction and/or the professionals assigned to the unit. They must sign a specific document stipulating the duration of their detention in this unit, the objective of their stay in the RAU: assessment in view of the next steps in the process of detention or sentence enforcement, as well as various practical details such as the objects authorised in the cell, access to telephones and visiting areas, the library or the activities proposed.

13Each RAU is regulated by specific internal regulations that mention the detention regime (individual cell, limits to the number of prisoners during collective periods, etc.). They also lay out specific security and control measures, the principle of mandatory individual assessment interviews and other special aspects such as proscriptions against bringing books to collective activities, participating in events of a religious nature or wearing religious clothing in collective use areas. In general the days are cadenced by a limited number of periods outside the cell, such as optional time in the courtyard in small groups of prisoners at a time. This period outside is either organized simultaneously when several courtyards are available or in several “turns” when the RAU has only one yard. The prisoners may also leave the cells for phone calls, visits, assessment interviews or to participate in activities proposed.

To be honest, in no way would I ever want to work elsewhere. Here in the RAU we’re in our little fortress. […] Things are solid and that’s reassuring. We’re far from all the laxness elsewhere in the prison.

(Mohamed, prison officer)

14As soon as stepping into the RAU, the observer can see that the unit is an extremely securitized area, dedicated to control and to the omnipotent observation of behaviours, collective dynamics, gestures, personal belongings and habits. Once the main door is closed, the RAU is an airtight sector, framed by its own rules and norms. The climate is quite peculiar to say the least. The halls are empty a large part of the time; doors are opened surreptitiously, during “movement to the courtyard”, the time of a shower or a sports session. The prison officers usually gather in their common office where they share observations, study the images transmitted by the cameras and continually readjust their security procedures. They are scrupulously orchestrated through a precise articulation of individual and collective gestures. It takes three prison officers to open a cell door, the prisoners are regularly frisked and no prisoner can leave his cell before the first one is in a safe place (in the cell, courtyard, the telephone room, etc.). All these movements are “triangulated”, taking the form of an escort in a “triangle” to surround the individual. Only one prison officer speaks during these transfers. A prison officer who has remained in the office makes sure everything is followed on camera. All the prison officers working in the RAU have received special training from the Regional Teams for Intervention and Security (ERIS) and, within the prison, the RAU prison officers regularly work with the Local Teams for Action and Control (ELAC).

Return from the court yard: The movement is announced via Motorola [walkie-talkie]; the first prisoner’s cell door is opened; the prisoners are called individually; the airlock entrance is unlocked by the PIC [central information post] – located outside the RAU; with the prisoner alone in the airlock, the second door is unlocked; the prisoner positions himself facing the wall, his hands on the wall; frisked by the designated agent, while the other two remain slightly behind; escort: one agent in front, one to the side slightly behind, the third at the back; the movement halts when they reach the foot of the stairway; the agent at the front climbs the stairs and secures the passage; he calls “OK”; the prisoner climbs the stairs followed by the two prison officers; hallway; the prison officer in the front places his foot against the open cell door; the prisoner enters the cell; the middle agent places himself facing the cell – and keeping his eyes on the cell – a bit further from the threshold; the first prison officer closes the cell door; the second prisoner’s cell door is opened… And so on for the four prisoners. The procedure is invariable and gives a strange feeling of déjà-vu.

(Field journal, June 2018)

15In addition to this highly secure system that can be observed, felt and physically experienced constantly, other local tools have been developed to to accomplish the RAU mission more efficiently: daily and weekly observation sheets (submitted outside the prison administration’s shared software, Genesis, for reasons of confidentiality), a security barometer (from 1 to 4), an “alert” sheet transmitted to each person involved in interviews in order to indicate the slightest tension via the camera, a log of movements in the RAU, a log of “entries” and “exits”, a log to record the passage from one team to the next, a landline phone, a television set “to be informed in case of an attack”, and so on. Other signs of what appears as “bunkerization”, the prison officers in one of the three RAU observed have taken on warrior-like nicknames – “Viking”, “Shield”, “Mormek”, “Blitzkrieg” -, doing so to make sure the prisoners do not learn their names. Furthermore, in this same RAU, many prison officers are obsessed with military equipment and gadgets: with frequent discussions about things like tactical pocket torches or combat bandages. People from the ELAC visit regularly and cell checks are also militarized:

Two cell searches are planned for today in the RAU. To make sure the prisoners won’t be forewarned, all the cells will be searched simultaneously. The senior prison officer on duty has cancelled the breaks of the prison officers on hand and called for reinforcements from the ELAC. The senior prison officer, four RAU prison officers and four ELAC prison officers meet in the office for a briefing: “We’ll come on strong and discretely. Turn your radios off and don’t bring any keys. We’ll forget the procedures, don’t look in the peephole before going in, we don’t want to lose time. We’ll go directly into the cells and position ourselves. If the prisoner is in bed, we’ll pull the sheets off and get him out of bed. We will do a full frisking [nude] directly in the cell and not in the shower. If we have to bend him [use physical constraint] we’ll bend him, but we’ll keep things calm. You’ll form two teams: two RAU prison officers and two ELACs in each team. The ELACs will wear tactical gloves, the prison officers searching gloves. We don’t warn the Central Post. Go in directly. We’ll make sure they stay quiet. Close the window immediately and leave the cell door closed once we’re inside. We won’t give them to time to hide anything. OK so let’s get going!”

(Field journal, February 2018)

16The routine nature of the security does not seem to dampen the vigilance of the prison officers who often repeat that “anything can happen”. On the other side, the prisoners deplore what seems to them a series of useless precautions:

Patting down, patting down, nothing but that in the RAU, being patted down. And they’re constantly checking our clothes. I’m patted down even when I get out of the shower, even though they checked the shower AND I was patted down for five minutes before I even got in. That’s a bit too much. And for this interview with you, I was patted down four times. First just before I left the cell, then before I went into the waiting room, I was patted down before I left the waiting room, even though I spent a whole two minutes there. And I’ll be patted down just after this interview.

(Massoud, prisoner)

2.2. Mistrust from the very start

17The prison officers make a distinction between common-law prisoners and the “terro” prisoners (also called “TIS” from the French abbreviation for “Islamic Terrorist Prisoners”) in virtue of the presumed degree of harmfulness: the normal prisoners are seen as “thugs”, and the terrorist prisoners (or, by extension, the “radicalized” ones) as “enemies”. This categorization reinforces the process of “Otherness”, or even reciprocal ostracism. Anglo-American criminologists refer to the process of “otherization” or the “criminology of the Other” (Garland, 2001), which tends to consider the individual taken up in the prison system as a “different kind” of person to be treated as such, unlike the “criminology of the Self” which aims foremost to work on what is normal about a deviant individual when working with them.

18A prison officer intern working outside the RAU clearly expressed this “otherizing” category, primary founded on the motive for imprisonment and the warrior-like dimension implied by this notion. The wary relationship of otherness is thus the groundwork that already frames representations and interactions:

I have very little experience, but you can feel that the tension is different. When dealing with the other prisoners you play cops and robbers. It’s a game. They’re petty thugs, kids from the hood who went bad. And they come up against authority. But you can nevertheless establish a relationship to make them understand how things work. But with the “terros” it’s something else [he shrugs]. These blokes are enemies, it’s clear. Dialogue is impossible. All they want to do is slaughter our kids, shoot up our restaurants. You can tell as soon as you catch their eye… With them, it’s death. There’s no way back. The objective is to destroy. In one way or another: they want to destroy us, our objective is to destroy them.

What makes you feel that way? Have you already worked with those prisoners [designating the RAU cells]?

— No, never. And that’s exactly why, for all those reasons, I don’t want to work where they’re around!

(Bruno, prison officer intern)

19In this context we can discern the use of special vocabulary by the professionals in the RAU. It reflects a mixture of terms of otherization (frequent in the prison world): “thug”, “wild man”, “beast”, “nutcase”, “dirty bastard” and sobriquets linked to radicalization and violent extremism: “leader”, “soldier”, “wiseman”, “preacher”, “foot soldier”, “ignorant”. In practice, the typology the professionals use to describe the prisoners is regularly related to a type of risk. As such, the “preacher” or the “wiseman” conveys the threat of contagion by harmful ideas. The “hitman” or “good soldier” reflects the risk of moving on to violent actions; the “leader” or “smart one” embodies the risk of a terrorist plan; the “psychiatric case” or “nutcase” symbolises the risk of management problems and a potential incident.

20In parallel with this typology, one invariable aspect links to varying degrees the experience of all the prison officers: increasing mistrust of prisoners charged with terrorism, signalled as being “radicalized” or assigned to a RAU, compared to other sections in the prison. Thus a form of mistrust is shared by the surveillance staff, whether occasioned by real or imagined risks posed by the prisoners incarcerated for terrorist motives, or else arising from a form of rejection of – or even disgust and hate for – these individuals. Mistrust is even stronger in the RAU than in the normal prison setting. This is not so much imputable to risks of a collective uprising – for although the prisoners are assembled in the RAU they are nevertheless constantly divided into sub-groups or isolated – than it is to the duration of the stay in the unit. The short assessment period, as well as the small number of daily contacts between the prison officers and the prisoners fosters the divide that separates them. Furthermore, threats are sometimes real. One prison officer, now removed from the RAU, was placed under police protection following threats by the “terrorist” prisoners who had got hold of personal information about the prison officer, especially his family situation, the school his children attended and his home address.

21The generalised mistrust may occasionally regress in favour of more individual relations, which we will analyse later. However, the consequence of an “attack” – a prisoner serious aggressed a prison officer in a unit grouping “radicalized” prisoners in the Osny prison in September 2016 – led to reinforced security measures in all the RAU, consolidating the warrior-defensive structure between the prison officers and the prisoners. Management of this event later took shape in more stringent security conditions. Some prison officers still working in a RAU witnessed the aggression. They present this event as a drama, but also as something that sparked awareness of the danger posed by the people they were dealing with, without exception: “Even those who seem to be on their best behaviour can be fighting machines” (Stéphane, prison officer). A senior prison officer explained that “once again” (Mike, prison officer), he watched the images of the aggression a few days before our discussion. He thus spoke of the fact of now having to work bearing solely in mind the potential for violence to occur. Since this event, the site where the aggression occurred has undergone some adjustments and renovation, but other sites have also seen renovations: creating a securitised airlock entrance to the courtyard, limiting the number of prisoners participating in activities, organizing a higher ratio of professional assessors for the prisoners by establishing systematic interviews with two professionals present, three prison officers to escort the prisoners, and so on.

3. A deradicalization “off-the-record”?

Let me take this prisoner home for a week. I’ll get the marabout out of him.

(Éric, prison officer)

22Granting and withdrawing favours and privileges, whether they are official or not, is a cornerstone of keeping order in detention (Sykes, 1997; Kauffman, 1988; Lhuilier, Aymard, 1997; Leibling, 2000; Crewe, 2011; Malochet, 2012; Ibsen, 2013). In the hyper-securitised context we have just described, this leverage is virtually non-existent. Nevertheless, the scarcity of management by favours does not preclude the possibility of a dialogue between the prison officers and the prisoners. While “following the book”, that is, being punctual, reliable and strictly observing security protocols are the main qualities of a prison officer working in the RAU, the ability to establish a dialogue is nonetheless, for other prison officers – or even the very same – regularly emphasised. It is still crucial to know how to “ease the tension”.

I’ve been around for a while. And at my age I have a different view of the prison officer’s job. Security is important, for sure. But I think having someone on hand with a bit of experience under the belt also helps calm things down, helps with talking and maybe also learning more about them. Over the years, I’ve learned to talk and to open doors rather than immediately shutting them.

(René, prison officer)

23This said, the dialogue aims primarily to “sow some doubts” among the prisoners, or to erode their ideological-religious anchoring, a weakening that occasionally means calling on the religious knowledge and faith of the prison officers themselves.

I don’t really like to say I’m the token Muslim here, but that’s kind of the case [laughter]. It’s important to have some who speaks Arab, who understands the language but also the culture, the religion. That can be useful. For the prisoners as well, even if I’ll never be their buddy, it does mean there’s someone around who can understand them.

(Nizar, prison officer)

3.1. “Sowing doubt”

24Although the session does not last long enough to “de-otherize” the other, by not reducing them solely to the state of “terrorist enemy”, the experience accumulated from one assessment session to another nonetheless services to add layers of meaning and hone one’s professional view about those who pass through the RAU. For example, someone who left for Syria before the attacks in France, to fight with Al Nosra (whose members did not commit any attacks in France) against Bachar el-Assad at a time when France also wanted the leader out. What does this prisoner have in common with the person who left for Syria after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, who proclaims he is a “Salafi Jihadist” who has pledged allegiance to Daesh and is part of its secret police? With the experience of the encounters, and possibly also the attempt to learn more about geopolitics and the history of religion, some prison officers learn to perceive all the underlying differences in the group of prisoners assigned to the RAU:

The fact that they are together means that they get along despite the tensions among the different groups – Shiites, Daesh, IS [Islamic State], and so on… They have the same codes. But despite all that, he [a prisoner] told me that through my work I’d sown some doubts among some prisoners. A year ago, I never would have told you that, I only saw the horrible side of things. But now I’ve gone beyond the terror facet, I’ve learned that you can’t generalise. You don’t have a united group that calls itself the Islamic State, it’s more complicated than that; much more complicated. But learning not to judge requires both spending a lot of time with them as well as a certain experience in life.

(Michel, prison officer).

25In this way, although a security-based mistrust and that warlike climate a priori structure the logics of interaction in detention, other forms of prison relations take shape, at least on the margin, such as mutual “respect” between the professionals and the prisoners, held up as a condition for an acceptable relationship; the same occurs in other sections of the prison. Along these lines, the case of one prison officer working in the RAU is particularly interesting:

On the floors [normal prison sections], we’re running all over the place. And even if vigilance and observation must be the heart of our job, we don’t have time for that. I have to manage a hundred blokes all on my own. And that really tries my patience. Especially because I’m really involved in my job and that has effects on my private life: I lose my temper all the time at home […]. But here [in the RAU], it’s really different. I’m interested in my job again. I like that. The TIS are intelligent people, cultivated, they know how to talk… Here, for example, no one ever excuses themselves, because they never step outside the lines. They know the rules. They don’t hassle you about petty things. Here [in the RAU], they never say “excuse me”. On the other side [in normal detention] they’ll spit in your face and the next day say they’re sorry. Here no. They’re know perfectly well what they’re doing. They know the law better than we do.

(Marie, prison officer)

26Another prison officer explains a process of reflexion and a stance towards the prisoners that he considers minority view, but which reveals a specific approach that refuses the “criminology of the Other” mentioned above and sets store on treating those in the RAU as “prisoners just like any other”. Doing so, he shifts the heart of his work from strict security missions towards the objective, grounded in solid bases in the history of religion and geopolitics as, “trying to stir up some awareness”:

One day I said to myself, “from now on, I’ll consider them [the “terro” prisoners] like the garden-variety prisoners.” And that’s what I did, what I do each day […] My challenge was to consider them like any other human without provoking an encounter… If you provoke something, you just run up against a wall. With time, a degree of respect and esteem is built. But that calls for a neutral zone where you talk about anything, football, the weather… We talk about everything but That [terrorism]. I don’t build my job around security. I try to get their awareness moving, if only a bit. And actually, you have to show something to make them [the prisoners] wonder about you: “Why does he take a risk? Why does he take time for us?” It’s up to us to take the initiative […]. You can’t go barging in, it takes someone who’s subtle. You need to be curious, want to learn. I devour documentaries every evening. The training doesn’t give us that. They [the TIS] evolve; they follow current events. It’s not a question of teaching them lessons, but just the opposite – placing yourself at their level to talk about things and confront them subtly.

(Patrick, prison officer).

27On his own initiative, this prison officer has set up a daily management plan – one of its kind, at one of the three RAU – that consists in going from one cell to the next to greet each prisoner. He also schedules collective meetings in the library, sitting down to speak individually or collectively with the prisoners. He gives an example of this daily and discreet work:

The prison officer named Michel comes up to me: “About a half hour ago, I heard something really important. A bloke [TIS prisoner] said to me: ‛You’ve spread some doubt among some of us. It’s thanks to you human side, that you don’t judge, that you trust us’”. He explained that he still needs to find out which prisoners are “doubtful” but this is already a victory, “a seed that may begin to grow”. “This prisoner has been here for seven or eight months. It’s the result of work that takes time.” In his view, some RAU prisoners have also begun to think things over, but the work in the RAU is just the start, the first step. He seems to be really touched that the prisoner used the word “trust” to describe his way of working. He explains that despite the extra work involved – both in and outside the RAU, “you have to do things seriously and I drop by to see each one in their cell, everyday”.

(Field journal, December 2017)

28This form of dialogue is particularly striking among one type of prison officer, who can be described as a “prison officer missionary”.

3.2. Prison officer “Missionaries”

29A large number of professionals working in the RAU are Muslim or Roman Catholic. In our observations we noticed that the professional categories most marked by this fact are surely the prison officers and educators; this is less the case for the psychologists and probation officers. One major finding of this research, a strong heuristic surprise, is the effort expended by some prison officers to having the prisoners move towards a “non-violent faith”. The religious faith of some prison officers, whether Christian or Muslim, becomes an essential element in understanding the “missionary” logic that guides the way they see their job in the prison. Thus, while the official role of the RAU is solely assessment, not “guidance” – as was the case in the former “radicalization prevention units” (RPU which preceded the RAU) or in the present “radicalization management units” (RMU) –, a form of prison correctionalism, one that is unofficial and individual, underlies the Units’ official scope.

30The faith-based dimension is linked to personal motivations for working in the RAU and conditions the “missions” these professionals undertake, “mission” in all senses of the term. This can be perceived in certain details, gestures and interactions, such as a prison officer who makes the sign of the cross before eating, an officer who reminds prisoners of the prayer hours, deep discussions about religion in the prison officers’ offices, an educator giving a prisoner the fraternal embrace, a prison officer discretely touching the prayer beads in the pocket of his uniform, a Koran placed on the desk of a prison intelligence agent on which it is forbidden to place any document… The mission is equally – and intrinsically – moral (Liebling, Arnold, 2004). But it occasionally goes beyond that, for example, when a professional thinks that having a religious faith should be established as a criteria for hiring staff in the RAU.

31These “prison officer missionaries” have a different way of viewing the warlike climate in prison: sure, there is a war and this is precisely why it is important to propose and build peace. A RAU prison officer, after describing his own religious path, defined what was at the heart of his job:

The heart of my job, and the reason I wanted to work in the RAU, is trying to establish a relative peace. But this mission has to be invisible. It’s the mission of any person of faith. It shouldn’t be written.

(Yacine, prison officer)

32This prison officer evokes the formal façade of the RAU prison officer’s job: “assessment on the basis of objectifiable behavioural observation” and a tacit dimension which is the true penitentiary mission: “a human work of pacification and showing how to attain a faith stripped of all violence.” He added:

They need to hire prison officers who have knowledge about religion, that’s for sure. But more than that, you need people who profess a faith.

(Yacine, prison officer)

33Thus, although a warlike climate, the result of mutual interactions between the institution and the prisoners, overdetermines the action logics and representations, the professionals themselves nevertheless hold a wide range of attitudes. Some take up a warrior-like relationship and readily consider the prisoners as “enemies” to be treated as such. Others try to change the status quo by attempting different types of relationships, focused more on dialogue and listening, in the very aim to instil “doubt” among the prisoners, to have them shake off their own warrior logic. Yet others place a “peacekeeping mission” at their heart of their job, a mission based on a deep-seated and fully assumed religious faith. Although in interviews with prison management we were unable to validate the hypothesis whereby the prison officers’ religious faith may be a criteria for assignment to the RAU, several prison officers consider that this was an item in their favour, in the eyes of management who were trying to find a balance in the different prison officer “profiles”.

During an official visit to present the RAU by top officials of the Justice Ministry, the director presents the surveillance team on duty that day: “You have before you a dream team to accomplish all the missions of this unit”. In a mixture of humour and a persuasive effort, she introduces, one-by-one, the prison officers standing before her: “Behind the cameras you have the champion of security; you can see this in his size and steady eye. […] And at the keyboard you have the one who analyses and submits all the observations, he also notes down all the written works found in the cells; he reads and understands Arab, which is really useful; he has a good contact with the individuals under assessment, he’s our diplomat. [..] Here we have our resident spy; he’s presently listening in on phone calls.”

(Field journal, March 2018)

34Although these “prison officer missionaries” do their job in a thoroughly unofficial manner, the enrolment of prison officers in the radicalization assessment process and in intelligence activities also reconfigures the borders between formal and informal.

4. Observing and logging, at the crossroads of assessment and intelligence work

There is always something to observe. There is always something worth writing down: he sleeps, refused a meal, he reads, and so on.

(Christophe, senior prison officer, speaking to a prison officer who had marked “Nothing to Report” in this logbook)

35The third type of work organizing the prison officer’s activity involves two important relations to writing, with respect to the activity of assessment and to that of intelligence. For the assessment, the prison officers are urged to participate in the pluridisciplinary watch on the prisoner and to write daily reports on the behaviour they observe. And then on the basis of these daily observations, the prison officers are involved actively in preparing the assessment summary when they write their section of the report.

  • 4 The expression “intelligence community” refers to all the French Republic’s specialised intelligenc (...)

36A parallel development impacting prison officer work is the bourgeoning of prison intelligence. Prison intelligence was established in 2004, composed of a dozen staff members from the Prison Administration’s directorate for security. The initial structure was dissolved in 2015 and rechristened the “central office for prison intelligence” (BCRP) in 2016 in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper-Cacher attacks early 2015 and then Bataclan incidents later that year, which involved terrorists who had become radicalized in prison. The BCRP gradually grew to employ about 50 professionals in the sub-directorate for prison security at the Prison Administration Directorate (DAP). In 2019, prison intelligence became a service with national jurisdiction, under the title “national service for prison intelligence” (SNRP). With time, the role of prison intelligence became increasingly essential in the French “intelligence community”.4 The SNRP now serves as the interface between the central administration (the DAP) and the decentralized services. It works with information collected at the 10 interregional cells for prison intelligence (CIRP) reinforced by local intelligence agents working in the detention facilities to collect and exploit intelligence relating to the fight against organized crime, preventing prison escapes and riots, and the fight against terrorism. The prison intelligence agents nevertheless also rely on information transmitted by other professionals in the prison system, the prison officers to begin with. We will now describe the prison officers’ enrolment, first in the assessment activity and then in that of intelligence.

4.1. Participating in the pluridisciplinary assessment

  • 5 For a more detailed analysis of the impact that prison intelligence has had on the assessment proce (...)

37As we have seen, the prison officers participate in the assessment process. The steps in documenting an observation are as follows: depending on the observation post, a prison officer can observe directly, via video or by listening. The observation is centralized along with others, on individual paper or digital forms. These forms are then transcribed partially or totally in daily summaries, either on a prison software (Genesis) or in the RAU’s own computer system. Weekly summaries are prepared, written either by a prison officer assigned to this task or else collectively. These weekly syntheses are occasionally discussed in so-called “pluridisciplinary” meetings that convoke all the professionals involved in the assessment: prison officers, senior prison officers, psychologists, educators, probation officers and occasionally management staff and prison intelligence officers5. These data may or may not be used in writing the actual assessment summaries.

In my view, the involvement of surveillance staff in the assessment helped to complexify the image that the prisoners convey. This is because [the prison officers] have an observation field that, technically, is completely different from that of the educators, psychologists or probation officers who see see the person in an interview, over a limited period of time. […] The surveillance staff have contributed true added value to the assessment. While the prisoner obviously knows he is being observed and will behave in compliance with the expected image, he is nevertheless caught in the middle between the image to be conveyed to the other prisoners and the one for the prison officers. At one time or another he will drop his prison officer and reveal inconsistencies which the prison officer, if sufficiently attentive, will notice.

(Anne, prison manager)

38In an earlier study (Chantraine et al., 2011) on the uses of an “electronic logbook” (cahier électronique de liaison – CEL) in juvenile prison facilities (EPM), we showed the importance in the prison officers’ work of the monitoring and movement managing tasks on one hand and, on the other, producing order and limiting disorder through various types of interactions with the prisoners. The objective of this study however also tended to identify a third focus for work, revolving around the work trio: “observe, log, trace”. These terms encompass a series of tasks that had emerged over the previous decade, which in particular incited the prison officers to transform their relationship with writing, by ’logging’ information in the CEL (Sallée, Chantraine, 2014) or, at present, in the Genesis software.

39In the case of the RAU, the issues at stake in observation practices and their traceability go well beyond those that we analysed in the juvenile facility. As Thomas Le Bianic (2011), then Gaëtan Cliquennois (2012) and we ourselves, have written, henceforth it is a question of the official integration of prison officers in assessing risks in a pluridisciplinary context. This prison manager explains the transformation:

In the RAU context, the surveillance staff have been extremely solicited to go beyond their normal duties. […] They were asked to produce written texts of a quality far beyond what they normally prepared. […] “We are asking you to give your opinion about the factors for risk and protection and to propose a plan for the follow-up.” This is something I think is fairly unique outside the national assessment centres. But I do not think it is completely outside their present job description. Quite the contrary I think it is a way to recentre the heart of their profession. […] It is also a way to recognize their skills and place value on their professionalism.

(Pierre, prison manager)

40Not all the prison officers feel comfortable in these new missions assigned to them, nor in the writing practices they require. The following dialogue with three prison officers illustrates well the oppositions regarding the way the prison officer’s job is conceived even among the RAU team self. An issue is debated among three RAU prison officers as they are writing an assessment:

[Francis] — At the ENAP (National school for prison administration) we were trained to open and shut doors. Our profession is about authority and security. We’re not equipped to do assessments.’

[Karim] — I don’t agree with you. I personally did not come to the RAU to open and shut doors. You can watch for things. We see them every day. You can write…

41Francis and Karim discuss an assessment that had posed some problems during an earlier session. The text had mentioned that a prisoner “bossed the others around”. The prisoner, who had received a copy of the assessment, did not understand this interpretation and had questioned the prison officers about this on several occasions.

[Francis] — In my mind, we can’t interpret. And all the written observations have to be validated by the whole group.

[Karim] — No. If a prison officer sees something he can write it down. F. reads a few of the observations;

[Francis] — “[A prisoner] is withdrawn.” Who wrote that? You can’t write things like that. At the DAP, they’re going to understand that he doesn’t talk to anybody. But that’s not true. He talks out in the courtyard. We’re the ones he doesn’t talk to. And even then, he talks to some prison officers but not to others. Before writing any old thing, we should talk about it!

[Nizar] — Oh, good for you Mr. Security! You criticise other people’s work but you never write anything.

(Field journal, May 2018)

42This scepticism, or even rejection, by certain prison officers concerning the observation work and writing the observations down, is a fairly minority opinion. This attitude reflects a more nuanced critique that does not concern the principle of observing itself, but rather the order to write, and to do so despite the occasional lack of pertinent information. Moreover, the prison officers and prisoners alike are aware of the potential stigma that a simple observation can cause when it is written down then referenced in a meeting. This explains a certain prudence that does not neutralise the dangers of over-interpretation nor the logic of suspicion that overdetermines the professionals’ view of each behaviour.

43Similar to what we noted in the EPM, observations about a prisoner’s positive behaviour seem to be rare. In the case at hand, the mechanism is compounded because the aim is to shield oneself from any possible accusation of a “bleeding heart”, negligence or approximations towards a “terrorist” public:

During a writing period, several prison officers are studying closely what they have written. A senior prison officer explains that the prison officers need to be careful about the terms used in the observations:

— Hey guys, I see here that someone has written: “Very nice and very discreet. To be watched.” You can write: polite and discreet, but don’t use nice”. Or else you should write “too nice to be honest”.

The prison officer who wrote the observation explains:

— I wrote “nice” because that’s the word that was used yesterday. That’s what was said.

[Bertrand, senior prison officer] — Just be the hell sure you watch your words when you write! You know perfectly well that everything gets read by management, by the DAP or by the Ministry.


The case of another prisoner is discussed:

— So what do you want to write about [a prisoner], for example?

[Jean-Marc, prison officer] — In my mind, he’s someone to worry about. He’s against the system. A walking time bomb.

— Okay… but there you’re making a judgement!

[Jean-Marc] — Listen here all of you. Don’t forget that these are terrorists. We don’t owe them any favours. Do you have to be reminded about Nice, Bataclan, September 4, Belgium, England, Spain… We’ve already given them a lot. So cut that BS!

(Field journal, March 2018)

44The challenge thus consists in producing relevant information by formulating it into words. The act of writing is trapped between the will to be neutral, objective, factual and the attempt to forestall an automatic “inculpating” interpretation by other readers. In this case, the discretionary power of the middle manager – mainly senior prison officers – does not lie in the ability to manage audiences in the form of interpersonal face-to-face meetings with the prisoners, which is what occurs in normal detention (Durand, 2019). While the division of writing work, in the Genesis software and then in the assessment summary, is modulated by specific situations in each RAU, such as high or low turnover in a Unit’s team, which reinforces or weakens the stability embodied in the middle managers – the senior prison officers’ own personal power lies in their ability to organize and control the prison phase of the writing, the one relating to the prisoner assessment. They can guide the way things are written in Genesis or select certain observations and discard others when writing the assessment summary.

45On the other hand, in the next section we shall see that the tracing dedicated to the intelligence activity is organized along a different set of circuits and media, which are clear novelties in the prison.

4.2. Monitoring and informing

It’s not the assessment itself that gives meaning to my work, but the positive effects behind what I do. Preventing terrorist attacks, stopping the right people, saving lives… And all that calls for gathering intelligence.

(Benjamin, prison officer)

46In addition to the work of writing and daily observation of the prisoners, the staff are also called on to participate in undercover surveillance of the prisoners, in a logic of providing useful security information.

Closed up inside the surveillance camera room, I talk with Caroline, a prison officer responsible for the strategies of behaviour observation of the prisoners assigned to the RAU. It is the courtyard time and we are watching the screens transmitting images from some 40 cameras placed in the RAU. In one yard, the prisoners are playing chess. In another, they are walking back and forth. In the third, they are talking together, leaning against a wall. As we talk, Victor, a prison officer, appears on the screen. He stops for a cigarette in the hallway while observing the walkways in the courtyard. He stubs out his cigarette and walks toward the exit and moves off-screen. From afar, I hear the sound of a gate closing, as if he had left the hallway. Yet a few seconds later he reappears. On his hands and knees, crawling slowly towards the courtyard observation windows and hidden from view, he moves towards the yard where the prisoners are talking together. He places himself discretely near the gate, kneeling, close to the wall. Caroline notices my surprise and smiles. The prison officer lies low another few minutes before exiting the courtyard adopting the same discreet gymnastics. [Later in the day] I glance at the observation log: “Listening in on the courtyard: the prisoner X gives instructions to his fellow prisoners. Speaking of the prison officers, he says ‛we’re not the ones who have to shake with fear, they’re the ones who should be afraid.’” I question Victor the prison officer about the observation. He talks about his professional background and his gradual specialization in intelligence: “I like digging up shit. I know that sounds weird.” He also explains that his listening session was actually more fruitful than what the observation seems to imply “but that, that’s off-the-record, I handle this information directly with the people competent for this.”

(Field journal, June 2018)

47The prison officers in the RAU therefore often proudly refer to their participation in intelligence objectives as being part of a “war effort”. In the section above we saw those who who were guided by a missionary logic in their own professional involvement, beyond the assessment work, moved by a will to ease tensions and/or violent inclinations. Likewise, the prison officers in question here also see themselves as performing a public service, but from a different angle: preventing acts of violence and terrorist plots by gathering information held and shared in a group that is potentially dissident and supposedly dissimulating. Prison intelligence thus reflects the warlike logic analysed above (Scheer, Chantraine, 2021).

We’re at war against the Daesh, don’t forget. Here, you could say it’s kind of an observatory of their breeding ground. It’s in prison that they recruit and sometimes even prepare attacks. […] I do pass a lot of time listening to phone calls or I try to hear what they say at night. But I feel like I’m more efficient in my mission here than when I was [a soldier in the French Army] in Afghanistan. I’m still at war, but here I get to go home to my wife everyday [he laughs].

(Luc, prison officer)

48While the national security objective is regularly cited to evoke the information transmitted between the professionals in contact with the RAU prisoners and prison intelligence agents, local security – that of the prison or even more precisely within the RAU itself – is also at play. Measures to prevent proselytizing within the prison, avoiding aggressions or attacks within its walls, identifying and restraining illegal texts or those of a Jihadist nature, etc. In the face of these local or national threats, there is always a risk of mistaken interpretation, even more so when the contemporary context reinforces the aim for zero risks among professionals.

49One of the main issues at stake in the RAU nevertheless consists in organizing strategies for hidden listening or observation. Listening when prisoners talk together, hidden on the other side of the door, from afar or behind a camera is a daily practice. In addition to the habitual frisking and other usual prison surveillance practices, written texts found in the cells are photocopied, dustbins are searched – and documents ripped up are pieced back together and photographed –, the prisoners’ clothing is examined, their religious practices are spied upon and their gestures and words are transcribed. As such, one prison officer mentioned that they are “all becoming intelligence agents”.

I can certainly say that we do a job that goes beyond intelligence. We’re in contact with these blokes, we know them, we watch them and we can see when something changes. We’re not sitting there at our laptops. They [the intelligence officers] base their work on hearsay, mere hearsay. And hearsay can get distorted.

(Dominique, senior prison officer)

50Between the assessment mission and that of intelligence, each professional sets priorities. Some evoke an “institutional schizophrenia” and give precedence in their practices to one or another mission, while others feel that the complementarity of the missions convey the same meaning to their activity: protecting society. “Our number one mission is intelligence. The assessment comes after that,” one prison officer recalled during a morning briefing. This feeling, shared by many surveillance staff, is regularly highlighted during the frequent official visits to the RAU during which the field professionals stress the strategic dimension of the system, or else in more nuanced terms highlight the way the assessment is useful to intelligence. One prison officer nonetheless explained the complex articulation of the dual mission of assessment and prison intelligence.

We do assessments and intelligence at the same time. And you really need to separate the two. Before, I wrote intelligence things in the assessment summary, but that caused problems [judiciary actors becoming aware, prisoners learning about that, assessment censured]. So, from now on I send my intelligence data and my observations separately.

(Mouloud, senior prison officer)

51This said, most of the prison officers think that assessment and intelligence go hand in hand: the assessment, like the intelligence, should serve the objective to protect society. Direct or indirect participation in intelligence – in virtue of the nobility of secrecy or symbolic representations of the mission – holds greater value. Some prison officers furthermore readily bypass the hierarchical paths to speak directly with the inter-regional or central prison intelligence services, or even the general intelligence services. Working daily in these unprecedented sites for prison observation and assessment, the RAU prison officers are always tempted to show that they are the ones who are the “real intelligence agents”.

5. Conclusion

52From a theoretical point of view, it seems that the combined focus on the three sets of professional activities: “monitor, separate, isolate”, “negotiate, dialogue, punish” and “observe, log, trace” has largely shown its heuristic potential. It would be worthwhile to apply it to other facilities and other units, in other countries as well, so as to refine the analysis of a profession that is both transforming and settling in. As concerns the RAU, in virtue of its passive security and highly securitized organization of movement within, the unit is akin to a solitary confinement unit that hides its name. This security-based management reinforces relations of mistrust and limits the occasions for a dialogue or daily negotiation, which is nevertheless at the heart of the job in ordinary detention. In this context the primary aim of “monitor, separate, isolate” is total control of bodies and gestures. This said, possibilities for dialogue and negotiation can be found from time to time. They occasionally assume unexpected forms, in the shape of a religious dialogue in the aim to bring the prisoners attain a non-violent faith, and this occurring in a thoroughly informal manner. In this context, “negotiate, dialogue, punish” assumes original forms that we had never observed in earlier studies: the classical interactional practices are reworked in the name of a strong cultural engagement. The work of writing – “observe, log, trace” – is given a new shine through enrolment of the prison officers in the assessment activity and, beyond that, intelligence. It is not our scope here to predict whether the transformations of the prison officer profession inside the RAU are the precursors of a new professional standard spreading to ordinary detention or whether, on the contrary, we are witnessing a growing specialization of a minority of prison officers, especially with respect to assessment. Indeed, the radicalization assessment work marks a clear distinction from the other prison officers, in virtue of the ability of the RAU’s surveillance professionals to prepare “evaluative” writings, beyond mere behavioural observances. The intelligence activity is fated to develop through the prison system – in the name of the fight against violent radicalization – which in French prisons undoubtedly represents the most significant institutional change of the decade. And underlying this transversal question, working in the RAU undeniably provides enhanced professional value, in the ability to say and show that one has specific skills, developing the sense of being “useful” to society, and enabling one to move beyond the prison proletariat crowded into a jail, with deteriorating work conditions.

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1 Presently called the “National service for prison intelligence” (SNRP).

2 We cannot discuss the specificities of this difficult fieldwork in the space of this article; they are explained in Chantraine and Scheer (2021).

3 This wish to escape the conditions of “ordinary” prison work is also expressed in other articles in this special issue.

4 The expression “intelligence community” refers to all the French Republic’s specialised intelligence services. The expression came to be used informally in the 2000s. The list of services concerned was then published in a legal text (Order of 9 May 2011, pursuant to the third subparagraph of paragraph 1 of article L.2371-1 of the defence Code; decree n° 2014-474 of 12 May 2014 adopted in application of Article 6 of Ordinance No. 58-1100 of 17 November 1958 relating to the operation of parliamentary assemblies and concerning the designation of specialized intelligence services; law of 24 July 2015 on intelligence; decree creating article R811-1 of the homeland security Code). The expression became official in 2017. The SNRP, responsible for intelligence in the carceral environment, is a service that participates in intelligence action, in liaison with the six services of this “community”.

5 For a more detailed analysis of the impact that prison intelligence has had on the assessment process, see Scheer and Chantraine (2021).

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Gilles Chantraine et David Scheer, « What the Fight Against Radicalization Does to the Prison Officer Profession »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], 25 | 2022, mis en ligne le 23 juin 2022, consulté le 24 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Gilles Chantraine

Université de Lille, CNRS, UMR 8019 – CLERSE – Centre Lillois d’Études et de recherches sociologiques et économiques, Lille

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David Scheer

Institut national de criminalistique et de criminologie (INCC), D.O. Criminologie, Bruxelles

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