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Dynamic Study of the Relationships to Citizenship. The Case of Prisoners as Social Actors.

Caroline Touraut
Cet article est une traduction de :
Étude dynamique des rapports à la citoyenneté d’acteurs incarcérés [fr]


This article deals with the question of citizenship among prisoners within a framework that sees them as social actors. First, the difficulties of conceptualizing the notion of citizenship are presented together with an account of the theoretical work underlying the attempt to relate citizenship to prisoners. Thereafter, attention is focused on the plurality as well as the dynamics of these relations. The analysis made is based on a prisoner typology that revealed the existence of four propensities  within each typological category to manifest a specific approach to prison life.

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1Since the beginning of the 20th century, successive waves of reform have occured in prisons in an increasing effort to normalize the situation of prisoners and detention conditions1. One can note a certain improvement of prison conditions, an opening of prisons to outsiders and the progressive recognition of prisoners’ rights. However, the tendency to normalize the status of prisoners is still constrained by the security imperative. On entering the institution, prisoners see the legal status that determines their freedom to act being modified and the rights which they enjoy being redefined. These rights are fundamental to citizenship and  prison redefines them. This leads us to examine citizenship in this situation that is prison.

1. Theoretical and Methodological Considerations

1.1. From Citizenship to « relationship to citizenship »

2In this paper, the topic of citizenship will be studied from the perspective of social actors. The analysis focusses on the lived meaning through a comprehensive study of prisoners’ discourse. However, considering the multiplicity of meanings that citizenship has, the concept must be operationalized for this empirical research.

1.1.1. Reflections on a Complex Idea

3Citizenship is characterized by three principal elements which interfere with a univocal and consensual understanding.

4First, an historical perspective and comparative analysis of the meaning of citizenship in different countries reminds us that citizenship is an idea that is situated in time and space. Our conceptualization take this into account.

5Furthermore, citizenship has a multidimensional aspect that articulates the social, political and the legal while referring to social ideas, moral values and institutions. It includes a statutory dimension which is called a « legal » dimension by J. Leca2, which comprises the collection of rights and duties attached to citizens. According to T. H. Marshall3, the legal dimension is composed of three categories of rights: civil rights or liberties-rights, political rights or rights to participate, and social rights or obligation-rights. It can be described as theoretical citizenship or « citizenship on paper »4. To this is added a practical dimension corresponding to the actual translation of the legal dimension of citizenship, that is to say, the concrete existence, empirically observable, of the principles of statutory citizenship5. The emphasis on this dimension of citizenship shows the gap that exists between citizenship as an ideal or as an Idea, as Kant meant it, and the reality of observable facts. Indeed, the idea of citizenship is always seen as referring at the same time to a reality and a desired ideal : citizenship is on the one hand, a reality of the legal, political and social order, a distinct manner of organizing and living social and political affiliation. On the other hand, it is an idea if not an ideal : a distinct way of thinking and evaluating this belonging6. Moreover, citizenship is comprised of a dimension of identity7 in the sense that its purpose is to create modes of collective identification8, an « us»9 : citizenship also refers to the feeling of belonging to the political and social collectivity created by the state10. According to D. Schnapper11, it is mainly through this identity reference that citizenship is a source of social connection. Finally, citizenship corresponds to a set of « moral qualities »12 through which one can define the « good citizen ». These qualities define what is commonly called civic mindedness and they refer to two main dimensions : « devotion » to the public and the sense of collective duties, namely, the duty to vote, fiscal duty…that is to say, everything that expresses participation by a social actor.

6Beyond its two main aspects, understanding citizenship leads to discerning  its constitutive paradoxes-among those, we can define the tension between communitarianism and individualism, the opposition between particularism and universalism, the dialectic of inclusion and exclusion as well as the ambivalence towards the idea of equality13, that it is based on. Thus, citizenship searches for points of equilibrium between the two polarities which animate it.

7The paradoxes of citizenship combined with the plurality of its approaches, varying from one country to another and its multidimensional character, make the idea of citizenship difficult to understand and use.

1.1.2. The Construction of the “relationship to citizenship”

8In relation to these problems, a theoretical framework is necessary to operationalize the idea of citizenship for the purposes of empirical research.

9Firstly, the relationship to citizenship is based on the relationship to work. We have postulated that it expresses their participation within society. The work is perceived as a symbol of the participation and the quality of the citizen, but also as a sign of recognition by individuals of the societal consensus. Moreover, as the essence of economic and social citizenship, work is also the concrete base from which stem social rights and duties, responsibilities and recognition, as well as subjugations and constraints14.

10Starting from the idea that the vote was one of the most powerful emblems of citizenship, conceived as the transcending of memberships by the political connection, we have identified political interest and participation as a second set of elements. This axis refers to ideas of participation and involvement as well as to the idea of the division of power among the citizens, each one being defined as a holder of some political power by virtue of the right to vote.

11Finally, the relationship to citizenship leads to an investigation into the memberships formed by the social actors. More precisely, in the third element characterizing the relationship to citizenship, one must observe whether the « nation » represents a collective « us » for the actors.

1.2. Duality of the theoretical framework and analytical tool

1.2.1. Plurality and Dynamism

12Starting from this conception of the relationship to citizenship, the theoretical framework consists of a dual perspective. Firstly, it consists of an investigation into the plurality of connections of prisoners to citizenship. This investigation leads to an hypothesis of a dependence on variables related to the situations of the social actors. Secondly, the theoretical framework touches upon the dynamic of the connections to citizenship based on the idea that incarceration can be a factor for change. The two questions were analyzed simultaneously : how do their relationships to citizenship differ ? To what extent are social actors in prison likely to re-define their relationships to citizenship ?

1.2.2. Elaborating a typology

13The type was chosen as the most relevant analytical and conceptual tool for the joint analysis of these two axes. Type is understood as an analytic category, as a model created to comprehend and represent behaviours or observed facts. Categories and models are the means used by the researcher to make intelligible the observed social reality15.

14In order to construct types, we have taken into account the three elements that constitute the relationship to citizenship while emphasizing as much the practices of the social actors was the meaning they attribute to them in order to evaluate their commitment and investment. This dual perspective was symbolized by different modalities chosen on each of three axes representing the dimensions of the relationships to citizenship. Thus, we have pinpointed those tendencies by exaggerating the most significant traits.

15The chosen modalities allow us to define « the ideal-type of relationship to citizenship » that corresponds with the greatest possible accuracy to the elements that define citizenship. It is symbolized by a stable relationship to work and committment by the social actors in their professional activity, by participation and by a significant interest in political questions, and finally, by the reference to membership in a national group, specifically, to France.  This construction of a theoretical model a priori represents an analytical indicator. However, we do not postulate that this relationship to citizenship is the most legitimate. Similarly, when we speak of « the ideal-type of relationship » or « relationship to the normative model », we do not mean that the norm is behaviour that is not pathological. It is perceived as the behaviour that is presented and recognized by the greatest number. Hence, our work is situated in the area of sociology and not in the area of ethics.

16Finally, the types integrate a dynamic vision and are situated along a temporal axis before and after the incarceration. Along each of these axes, we evaluated the modalities towards which the behaviours of the social actors inclined, the meaning that they attributed to them, and whether they evolved because of incarceration.

1.3. Methodological Consideration

17Parallel to this process of construction, 40 semi-structured interviews were conducted with the prisoners in two types of institutions : 20 interviews in a remand centre and 20 in a jail.

1.3.1. Population of the study

18The choice of interviewees has always been guided by the willingness to meet with prisoners representing a wide diversity of profiles. Four strategic variables16 were chosen, based on our hypothesis that they revealed the diversity of discourses and practices of social actors: nationality, age, length of sentence, place of incarceration.

19Institutional constraints influenced the composition of the population under study, creating certain biases that we will reveal. After having solicited volunteers to participate by displaying a poster in each institution, a possible distinction was established between one « spontaneous » population at the remand centre and a « guided » population at the detention centre. Let us note that using posters to find participants is not neutral. This method relies on the ability to read and write while a significant number of prisoners do not read or write or do so with great difficulty17. Moreover, writing has a specific value in prison because it is one of the only avenues for self-expression available to the prisoners. Hence, writing a note always connects the prisoners to their position of dependence and submission within the prison.

20Within the remand centre, more than 20 prisoners responded to our poster by writing a note that was received by the chief of detention. We may assume that some people didn’t want their interest in the study to be known to the chief of detention. Let us add that the chief of detention, claiming security issues, refused to share some prisoner responses. We assume that this choice was also motivated by more arbitray criteria since the administration refused to share the responses of those prisoners it disliked.

21At the jail, having received no spontaneous responses from the prisoners, the chief of detention, using our criteria, put together a list of prisoners that he deemed to be « interesting ». Then, the first correctional officer came to the cell to ask the prisoners if they would agree to participate in our work. Two biases can be noted here. First, the chief of detention’s conception of « interesting prisoners » largely predetermined our population based on arbitrary criteria. Thus, we have encountered few prisoners submitting to disciplinary sanctions even if some people accumulated them in the past. Secondly, we assume that one constraint weighed upon the prisoners who agreed to participate in our research-that some of them were afraid to refuse a request from the correctional officer.

22Hence, the composition of our population reflects some biases that must be taken into account to the extent that they specify the nature of the data upon which rests the analytical work. The population is characterized by an age, a cultural and social level, an education superior to the average of the prison population and is mostly approved of by prison personnel. A diversification of the areas of research and an increase of the population sample would allow one to overcome the biases encountered and to enlarge or circumscribe the heuristic relevance of the proposed approach. However, we emphasize that the study corresponds to four strategic variables since the population is composed of prisoners of different ages, nationalities, lengths and places of sentence. 

1.4. Context of interviews

23The 40 interviews took place in lawyers’ interview rooms in prisons where the normal institutional constraints applied: the lack of space forced us to wait a long time or, in rare cases, obliged us to interrupt the interviews ; we were subjected to pre-set and fixed schedules ; a noisy environment with the omnipresent noise of keys ; shouts of prisoners or the ringing of alarms.

24In the jail, the taping of interviews was authorized, so we proposed taping and a large majority accepted, while in the second institution the use of a tape recorder was refused, which required the taking of notes during the interviews.

25In order to develop confidence with our interlocutor, a ritual of presentation began each interview. The prisoners saw us above all as « students » or as « neutral persons » outside of institutional conflicts and issues and a relationship of confidence was quite often established over the course of the interviews. However, not being ready to play the interview game, some prisoners expressed themselves more cautiously, making very brief answers while others tried, above all, to control the process of the interview. This attitude can explained by the fact that for some prisoners we represented a symbol of the normative model they rejected.

2. Actors relate to citizenship and their dynamics

2.1. To remain a citizen: investing in doing time

26The first type “To remain a citizen: investing in doing time” is characterized by the continuity established by the prisoners between “the inside” and “the outside”, “the before” and “the during”.

2.1.1. An incarceration never foreseen

27The prisoners who fall theoretically under this type are relatively old and imprisoned for long sentences.  They are first-timers and never imagined that they would be imprisoned-as if there were no prisons in their world.  For these inmates, prison is a mysterious institution from which one one should feel immune. They see themselves from a distance, the distancing being a tool for affirmation and an identity promotion allowing for the displacement of stigma that can weigh on the self or the group18. The distancing process created by these actors of this first type produces two different groups : people for whom prison seems their natural milieu and those for whom it is not.  The social actors revealed three criteria  differentiating them from the whole of the carceral population.

28First, the nature of the crime distinguishes them from the rest of the carceral population.  While they accuse « the other inmates » of having made the choice to be there by performing an intentional and conscious act, those informers say that  they never wished to cross the legal line and never wanted to hurt anyone. Their crime was an accident or the product of an obligation that constrained them to commit an act they themselves condemn. Hence, they acknowledge their crime, feel they deserve prison and accept it. Their life trajectory before incarceration is the second element that differentiates them from the rest of the carceral population. They feel that the prison population is composed of individuals who always lived at the fringe of society or in a precarious situation. On the contrary, these inmates see themselves as having been « integrated » to the extent that their life corresponded to the normative model as defined by the trio of housing, work, and family. In addition to these two criteria, what sets them apart is their behaviour in detention : they feel that they are  more calm and active than the others.

2.1.2. A continuous relationship to citizenship

29The relationship to citizenship for those social actors is close to the ideal type before but also during their incarceration. Their relationship to work was stable before incarceration. Involved and engaged in their job, for social actors work represents a fundamental part of their social and personal identity, giving them a feeling of social utility. Work represents a personal need and its benefits are not just financial. Those prisoners share the idea that work is a fundamental factor of integration and participation.

30In prison, the relationship to work is maintained even if we can see two different attitudes. Some prisoners work, but not just to busy themselves or to fill the empty hours of imprisonment. They work for financial reasons and beyond that, to symbolize their independance, to show that they contribute to society by fulfilling a role within it even while being incarcerated. One can add that work is also seen as a way to weaken the totalization of the jail, the social actors fleeing from the collective rhythm imposed upon the prisoners. They replace the status of « prisoner » with that of « worker ».  We note that these people hold valued positions in the hierarchy of employment19. However, other prisoners refuse prison work in order to engage and invest in other activities. Before their incarceration, these individuals did not do manual labour, hence the gap between their earlier employment and the work proposed for them in prison is such that the prison work is rejected. They prefer to invest in numerous activites within the prisons, activities perceived as a means of remaining able to reclaim their work after their release. They try to preserve a degree of knowledge that would be necessary to their profession and to maintain a rhythm of work close to that which they had before.

For now, I have accomplished what I had envisaged, that is to say, to conserve a rhythm of life that is totally compatible with a quick reintegration into the professional world. That’s why I chose a type of work that is more intellectual than stupifying assembly line work. (Frederic, CD, Feb. 2002, sentenced to eight years, 57, French, of Italian origin).

31The actors who fall into this group are characterized by an interest they always had in political issues, an interest that continues while in prison. They have firm ideas about political subjects, which reflects a knowledge of the current debates. These are persons who had always voted or who had always had an interest in voting even if they did not have the opportunity. They ascribe significant value to the right to vote, close to that defined in the conception of citizenship. These people expect to have a certain degree of control over their lives via the power to control the government through the right to vote.

32Finally, for these actors, France represents the first level of integration into a « us », a feeling of belonging that does not weaken during their incarceration.

2.1.3. In prison: demanding to remain a citizen

33In detention, the goal of these prisoners is to remain citizens. The behaviour they adopt is completely conditioned by this priority and by their desire to recover their place in society upon release. Many characteristics of their behaviour allow them to fulfill this objective. To begin with, these actors choose to be in a combative position and a process of claiming their rights. This struggle is highly symbolic, for behind the possession of rights, these people desire a sign of their belonging to society and the recognition that society fully accepts them as social actors. Moreover, the actors believe that to succeed in remaining citizens they must be active, that they must participate and get involved in prison life. One can discern here an instrumentalization of the prison by the prisoners who are in a claim-making mode, in the voice201. This claim-making mode necessitates respect for the rules of the prison game and has the effect of going beyond the rules. It is in playing the role of « good prisoner » that the actors have the possibility of leaving this role. The prisoners also try to establish quasi-symmetric relations with the correctional officers. Their relations with the correctional officers are a strategic asset allowing them to benefit from many advantages while being given the status of « person » to substitute for that of « prisoner ». Finally, the creation of a specific relationship to time and the possession of personal resources seems necessary to successfully remain a citizen and actor in society. The actors invest time and try to profit from that investment. They wish to profit from the time available in prison to acquire knowledge that can improve them both personally and professionally : prison is seen as an opportunity to achieve things they were unable to in their tormented lives on the outside.

34The actors had a relationship to citizenship before incarceration that was close to the ideal type and continued that orientation during their imprisonment. Their attitude in prison revealed the persistence of their relationship to citizenship but also that this persistence was the means of creating this continuity.

I have the feeling of being a social actor, of being part of society. Outside, I still have economic interests, I still have my parental authority…look, concerning this, I did defend myself, like everyone else, and it was acknowledged, since my parental authority was not withdrawn from me. I really have the desire to become an integral member of society. Through my many friends, I keep myself up to date about what’s going on, I read about film releases, cultural events, I’m visited by the OIP, I stay in touch, I’m not alone in the world. On the day that I am released I know where I’ll be going, what I’ll be doing, I don’t have the feeling of having lost everything, and my release doesn’t frighten me. (…) I am confident, I’m not worried, I am not disaffiliated. On my release, I will go to work immediately, I do not feel disaffiliated, not at all, I am just deprived of liberty. (Sebastien, MA, Sept. 02, remand prisoner, 34, French).

2.2. Those without citizenship. Prison: the price of a marginal life

35The actors of the second type also have a constant relationship to citizenship, this one being very far from the ideal type of relationship to citizenship before and during imprisonment. In prison, these individuals continue to reject the normative model of life in society they refused before their incarceration.

36The prisoners who make up this type are older than the average of the prison population. They have long-term sentences, mainly for robberies or drug trafficking. These are recidivists, « habituals » who have often spent many years in prison.

2.2.1. The rejection of society

37The actors of the second type reject all the constitutive elements of citizenship and refuse life in society, which they perceive as alienating. They have never had any employment and distinguish themselves from those living a process of social disaffiliation: to not have worked represents a lifestyle choice. Work is seen as a symbol of exploitation and the domination by a minority of people (politicians and heads of companies) over the rest of society.

I prefer to steal, and use the money for a world tour, rather than going to work like an imbecile for people who will exploit me and ultimately profit from my labour. (Bernard, CD sentenced to 10 years, 54, French).  

38These actors to not attribute any significance to the right to vote. They never voted and are not interested in political issues. Politics is rejected because they believe that politics makes no contribution to them and they have no personal benefit to gain. For them, politics is like work in that it causes them to be dominated and is a charade of democracy that they don’t believe in. This view of politics is consistent with their view of life in society and of the predominance of their personal interests : no collective interest  is able to mobilize them. It is for this reason that demonstrations and associations are criticized :not having any direct contribution to make to their daily life, they have no value or significance.

39When we examine the dimension of identity in relation to citizenship, we find that there is a weak attachment to an « us » in relation to political issues. Indeed, in all cases, for actors of this type, France does not represent a level of integration resulting in an « us ». Their « identity of me »21, which can be extended to the family circle and a narrow network of friends, is reinforced to the detriment of an « identity of us ».

40This relationship to citizenship leads us to see these individuals as rebels22. They refuse some rights in order to not have any duties, all assistance from the state being seen as alienating. The whole of their behaviour is conditioned by the desire to be independent.

Society…I don’t bother with it. (…) I have no desire to be in it, I’m there but I have no desire to participate. (Gregory, CD, 2000, 6 ½ years, 28, French).

41If they see life within society as alienating, they say that they themselves enjoy « real life »23. Indeed, they promote the model of a fantasy life where freedom is the supreme value. It is a life made of pleasure, a life of opulence that is much sought after, where a pre-eminent place is accorded to money.

2.2.2. Prison as continuity

42This life has a cost-prison. Prison is fully integrated into their life-choice. Prison is a permanent risk that threatens/traps the actors in exchange for living what they see as the life of freedom. This idea is found in the relationships of the prisoners to their offences. The offence is presented as an expression of their rebellion and their desire to not live within society. It is an act that is intentional, rational and conscious-the actors having deliberately taken the risk of prison. In spite of the years of prison, these people see themselves as more free than people who accept life within society. Hence, incarceration is not seen as a rupture, it represents the consequence of choices made by the actors and is, in this sense, quite well accepted. It must be added that prison is very well accepted by these actors, in part because it is compensated by financial benefits : even if they lost that « match », they see themselves as having won the game, because the role of the « drone »24 is always played by the member of society.

43This attitude towards prison suggests that prison would not be a source of transformation. Hence, prison is an institution where these actors live well and one to which they have « acclimatized ». Although comfortable in the institution, their behaviour is not characterized by an engagement and full compliance with prescribed roles. Indeed, all of society’s evils (injustice, domination, exploitation…) are transposed onto prison, which is seen as a Machiavellian and all-powerful institution. Hence, the acclimatization of the actors within this institution includes numerous secondary adaptations as well as disintegrative adaptations25 that represent the means by which the individual can deviate from the role assigned to him. Seeing prison as a Machiavellian institution, they adopt, in detention, an attitude similar to that which they chose outside the walls. The rejection of norms and dependence always conditions their behaviour. The priority for Gregory is to not be controlled by the administration, in the same way that he wishes to not be dependent on the state.

I don’t have a social security number…I don’t need help, yes, don’t need the state, I don’t want to be dependent. If tommorow I’m in the hospital, I will prefer to pay cash than to have a social security number (…) Me, personally, I don’t accept parole, so, no one has any control over me, it’s clear, I don’t ask for permissions, this way things are always clear (Gregory, CD, 2000, 6 ½ years, 28, French)

44The prisoners share the idea of a war existing26 between the prisoners and the administration. They accuse it of using particular techniques and strategies, specifically those meant to divide and conquer. While for the type 1 prisoners, the method for making demands was to establish an equilibrium in their relations with the correctional officers, for these actors, the only means of expression is collective action-the freeze.

45The study of the behaviour adopted by these actors in detention allows us to emphasize that they maintain a relationship to citizenship very far from the ideal-type. They do not work in detention and if they do, it is only to kill time. They do not envisage working upon their release since their conception of work had evolved little. Interest in political issues remains weak, the right to vote is still criticized. These prisoners note that their relationship to group membership has not evolved in prison.

46Prison did not cause a redefinition of their relationship to citizenship and these actors do not see a modification of this after their release. These prisoners do not rule out their return to prison : like the « political » figure highlighted by L. Le Caisne, they do not seek to integrate the society against which it (they) fight27.

2.3. Becoming a citizen: prison as springboard

47Within the third type, « becoming a citizen : prison as a springboard », the actors redefine their relationship to citizenship during their incarceration. Their discourse is structured around the articulation before/now.

2.3.1. A path of marginality

48The actors, based on whom the type was elaborated are « youths », mostly less than 26 years old, who, before their incarceration, were on a wheel of delinquency28. They are often less educated, having quit school around 15 or 16 years of age. They are all single, without children, living with their parents who reside in neighbourhoods described as « sensitive ». The majority of these youths are French and their parents are mostly from the Maghreb.

49Prison was always integrated into their social life since it touched a part of their social network. We can illustrate this idea by noting that these people are often familiar with how prison works even before their first incarceration. We emphasize a certain « porousness of the walls » for the experiences of prison seem very present in the interactions within the « neighbourhood ». They themselves are multirecidivists and a certain number among them experienced prison as minors. However, the multiple incarcerations are brief with short sentences, often less than six months.

50The actors within this type are part of a process of alternation between a neighbourhood life and periods of incarceration, a process in which the relationship to the world of work is very distant. Also, the actors closest to this type had a relationship that was very far from citizenship before their incarceration and were not working. They had a life centered on their neighbourhood and on their « crew », which led them to have a lack of interest in political issues. This lack of interest is also explained by the feeling of exclusion and persecution they feel in seeing themselves as victims of discrimination because of their Maghreb origins. The feeling of persecution is also found in the relationship they have to their offences: the majority of these actors acknowledge their offences but attenuate their degree of responsibility and the gravity of the offence by blaming « the system ». They explain their behaviour as the product of a process results from constraints within the neighbourhood that weighed upon them and by the difficulties they had to face because of their origins. We note, finally, that the identity references of these actors are split: they feel themselves belonging to two countries. This dual national referencing is experienced harmoniously by some, while others feel that their identity is divided, feeling at home neither where they live, nor where they originated.

2.3.2. Prison: the genesis of change

51These prisoners reveal that prison broke the spiral of their earlier life. This incarceration seems different from the earlier ones: they see it as a lesson and express a desire to change in the sense of wanting to more closely approximate the ideal-type of relationship to citizenship.

Now, I would like to find a place in society, to give myself something else, to integrate (…) I will be more open to society by doing more concrete things within this society (Choops, MA, sentence of three years, 26 French, an Algerian father).

52Prison is seen as a point of rupture : the actors reject their past life and wish to begin a new one. Prison is seen as beneficial, a protection and a salvation. Many elements associated with the prison experience shed light on the desire for change : the threshold of age, the expression of « enough is enough ! » where this incarceration seen as « the last straw », the discovery of religion, disillusionment with friends and rapprochement with family.

53 « Life » according to them, is nothing more than the alternation of periods of incarceration and then of misery, but « having a life », « making a life » is to abide by the norms. First, this is based on the pursuit of a professional activity in which they want to invest themselves. Then, the search for a woman is seen as fundamental to a necessary stability. Finally, the actor begins his life by leaving the city he lived in before his incarceration. Through this desire, the actor seeks to withdraw from old social networks, in order to gain distance from a former « crew ». One might add that political issues assume a new dimension : the actor, from this point on, seeing the vote as an imperative duty. Hence, the wish is now to live within the norm, to be a complete citizen.

2.3.3. Two Models

54It is legitimate to question the value given to the wishes for change that are displayed. Do the prisoners play the role of the « good prisoner » by showing fine intentions the way they might do before a sentencing and then not follow through ? Are their speeches simply « fraudulent representations »29 performed to make a good impression?

55From these questions we were able to define the degree of solidity and coherence in the displayed projects as well as the divergences in the behaviours adopted in prison. That is why we will distinguish between two models within this type. Some can only hope while others are convinced of their change of life. The projects of the first ones are less structured while those of the second group are well developed. Moreover, for the first model, their behaviour in prison does not allow us to discern a modification of their relationship to citizenship while in the second the relationship to citizenship evolves from incarceration.

56In the first model, the relationship to citizenship remains far from the ideal-type during incarceration. The youths hope to succeed in attaining the normative model. They do not guarantee their wish to work after being released but they do hope to. Also, they do not guarantee that their behaviour will be modified after release but they hope to succeed at « being within the norm ». Entrance into the « norm » is presented as a dream but they do not want to create any illusions about their abilities to follow that road. For these prisoners, the release projects evolve over the course of the discussion, they lack precision and coherence, the contradictions are apparent. Moreover, their behaviour inside the prison does not translate into a change in their relationship to citizenship. The word that best describes the nature of their detention is « routine ». During this routine, the time is filled by « colleagues », playstation and television in order to fill the emptiness of detention. Even if they hope to end their relationships with all the people they are familiar with, they remain stuck in the same social networks.  

E : Can you not write to the warden to ask him for an explanation ?

K : That doesn’t work, you have to create chaos for him.

E : You have to create chaos ?

K : Yeah, here, you have to create chaos and you’ll get what you want. « Yes » to the clinic, you want pills…they don’t want to give them to you, you make a mess for them and they’ll give them to you. (Kyser, CD, Nov.00, 5 ½ years, 24, French).

57We can add that these youths are often involved in illegal trafficking : many have a portable phone or bring in cannabis and DVDs illegally. These prisoners do not work and always seem very uninterested in political issues.

58Within the second identified model, the relationship to citizenship is different as soon as the prison term starts, the actors do not content themselves with planning and hoping that these plans will come to life when they are released. These prisoners prepare a coherent release project in which they are already invested. One can find « prison invested » prisoners who were engaged  and tailored all of their behaviours in relation to their release. These prisoners don’t feel that prison time goes slowly : they are « conditioned » and reflect a certain well-being in jail.  They seek what is known as « quiet time » and the desire to break away from their network of friends is expressed by ruptures and isolation. These prisoners show a new interest in political issues. Even if they don’t vote in jail, they say that they became aware of the reasons for and the importance of the right and obligation to vote and say that they will fulfill these things upon their release. 

Me, it’s prison that tells me that voting is important. Since I’ve been here I’ve told my parents, my sisters, to go register on the lists and vote (Choops, MA, sentenced to 3 years, 26, French with an Algerian father).

59The evolution of meaning that they attribute to the vote is part of a wider transformation of their perspective. Indeed, we see an evolution in their opinion of society. These actors, who felt a sense of exclusion connected to a feeling of social uselessness, now want to participate in society. While for the most part they felt persecuted and marginalized by society, they are attenuating their criticisms of society and now see benefits in it. Hence, we notice a weakening of the feeling of exclusion which strengthens their feeling of belonging to France. These prisoners are successfully establishing an harmonious identity beyond their sense of dual membership.

2.4. “Un-Citizenship”: prison seen as destroyer

60The fourth type, « Un-citizenship : prison seen as destroyer » characterized by a de-citizenship30, a term that symbolizes the dynamic through which the actors distance themselves from the normative model of citizenship. It is in the construction of this type that homogeneity was the most difficult to define, the profile and practices of the actors remaining diversified. However, although the relationship to citizenship is not the same for all actors, one can note a distancing from the ideal type, for all, because of incarceration.

2.4.1. A painful prison associated with losses

61Before their incarceration, the actors of this type felt fully integrated. Their professional activity was the principal factor in their feeling of participation in society. All the actors worked and the majority occupied positions of responsibility (administrators, managers of companies…). Their social integration was also rooted in strong involvements in social and family networks. They had a strong interest in political issues without necessarily linking it to their feeling of belonging to France. Their identity of « us » was larger : it was the feeling of being citizens of the world. Hence, their relationship to citizenship was close to the normative model.

62Hence, incarceration will be a source of significant ruptures, especially because these prisoners do not accept their sentences, either because they feel them to be disproportionate in relation to their offences, or because they claim to be innocent. Prison is experienced as painful : it is felt to be destructive because it is the source of many losses. The actors have a strong feeling of exclusion that they never felt before.

We are completely excluded from society. All of our social world has been taken from us, we are completely desocialized, we are completely cut off : work, family. We lose all of our usual points of reference. (Patrick, MA, Jan/04, sentenced to 2 years, 42, French).

63Their narrative is articulated between what they were, what they had before and what they are, what they have now. That’s why they have the feeling of occupying the role of a drone31.

64In denouncing the absence of rights characterizing their new status and deploring the loss of social roles that they had occupied until then, we can tell that they live prison as a « social death »32.

I lost my little family. I was with my wife and three children and for me, it’s all lost. (…) We are put aside from society. This made me lose all that I had gained in the last 14 years of life…I was punished in many ways : on the psychological level, with prison, with the liquidation of my business, with the separation from my family…its not a double sentence anymore but a quadruple sentence. (…) I was a business man, with a family, an address, a house, children…(Mati, MA, April/03, 4 years of which 28 months are on probation, 34, Turk).

65The adoption of a status that is not highly valued, defined as degrading and stigmatizing, attacks their identity. For these actors, this adds to the feeling of loss of status and of rights, a feeling of humiliation. We find the idea of a wounded identity33 where the actors suffer a loss of recognition. What predominates in their discourse is their criticism of prison conditions, a discourse through which we can see feelings of de-personalisation, dehumanisation, desocialisation, injustice, spoliation and disappointment.The experience of prison by these actors corresponds to the image of total insitutions drawn by E. Goffman. The total institution is understood as a context that weights heavily on practices but from which the people can free themselves more or less sucessfully, that they can overcome and use, or else, that they can experience painfully34. The actors falling under this type seem to be especially shaken by this context seen as constraining and destructive. Contrary to the actors of the first two types described earlier whose behaviors reflected a de-totalization of the institution, discourses on prison by the actors of this type repeat with accuracy the constitutive elements of total institutions. In addition, the behaviors of those actors show their full submission to prison. They adopt a posture of loyalty and apathy : they wish to be release the quickest possible and, for this, they chose the obediant attitude35. Hence they never resist the correctional officers and feeling that they are powerless, they avoid all conflicts.

Here in prison, it is better not to complain in my opinion. When one says to you that the sky is grey while the sky is blue, it is better to say that the sky is gray : one must not say anything. It is useless (…) Protesting, what for ? We are always wrong anyways (Malik, MA, Jan-03, sentenced to 5 years, 41, French of Algerian origin).

66They prefer to submit rather than protest, revolt being too risky for them and lost beforehand. Fear seems everpresent for those actors.

2.4.2. Disillusion, disenchantment, de-citizenship

67Realizing what prison is, something that they didn’t know until then, and having the experiences of loss, provoke a transformation in their relationship to citizenship. A process of de-citizenship emerges following their experiences of injustice, incomprehension and disappointment. Their understanding of prison conditions is parallelled with the emergence of a very critical perspective on the justice system. They accept the idea of punishment but refuse the sentence they have been given, some even claiming their innocence, those actors say they have lost confidence in the justice system. They feel justice is abitrary, that the accused can’t defend himself, that the results are decided in advance. This criticism of the justice system spreads to the whole of society, justice being one pillar of the Republic. Hence, criticism of justice spreads to politics. Politicians are reproached as being responsible for the bad prison conditions, of the malfunctionning of the justice system and the injustices they have experienced or witnessed. For those actors, disillusion emerges and accompanies a feeling of withdrawal. We notice a loss of interest in political issues while they take a position that is opposed to the one taken by actors of the second type. Their feeling of powerlessness in prison extends to society, where they now feel they have no power. This disillusion about politics and French justice provokes a disenchantement towards France. While they feel a certain attachment to France, they reject and express disgust and anger toward the country. Those negative feelings are expressed by a will to leave the country, even to change nationality. This wish is also explained by the stigma felt by those actors during but also after their sentence ; they are ready to carry the image of « ex-prisoner ».

68The diversity of relationships to citizenship observed here and the variety in the identified dynamics can be explained by a combination of many variables : age, sentence length, the place of incarceration, nationality, all appeared important at different times to understand the listed profiles. We notice a special connection between the relationship to citizenship before and during the incarceration : it is difficult to understand « during » without looking at « before ». In this research, two elements were fundamental to understand the dynamic or stability of the relationship to citizenship : prisoners’ relationship to their offense and the acceptance of their sentence. Hence, relationship to citizenship before prison combined with their relationship to their offense allows us to understand the way those actors experience prison. Their perspective on prison conditions strongly affects the relationship to citizenship of those actors within the carceral world but also the stability or redefinition of this relationship.

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1 This article was translated by Uri Ben-Gal.
2 Leca, 1983.
3 Marshall, 1950.
4 Constant, 1998, p 98.
5 Hassenteufel, 1997, p 52.
6 Constant, 1998, p 26.
7 Hassenteufel, 1996.
8 Leca, 1983, 1991(a) and analysis presented by Birnbaum, 1996. One can note that J. Leca defined the feeling of belonging in more general terms. For the author, it was defined on three axes.
9 Elias, 1998.
10 Hassenteufel, 1997, p 52.
11 Schnapper, 1994, 2000.
12 Leca, 1983, 1991(a).
13 Schnapper, 2002.
14 Castel, 1995.
15 Weber, 1964, 1971 ;  Schnapper, 1999.
16 Michelat, 1975.
17 39% of the applicants are situated above the threshold of functional reading as defined by this test, compared to 20 % of the army according to the following report: International Prison Observatory, The Conditions of Detention in France, Report 2003, Paris, La découverte, 2003, 100.
18 We are here inspired by the work of Elias, 1997 and of Goffman, 1975.
19 The value accorded to work in prison is different from that recognized on the outside: dirty work (Hughes, 1996) does not refer to the same tasks. For example, a prisoner of the first type could have the task of taking out the garbage, a task that is valued very much. This activity allows the prisoner to leave the prison every day for a few seconds, thus providing a fragment of precious freedom.
20 Hirschmann cited in Pollak, 2000.
21 Elias, 1998 (1939, 1940-1950, 1987).
22 Livrozet, 1999.
23 Chantraine (2004) evoked it when speaking about the “rhetoric of the good life”.
24 Goffman 1989.
25 Goffman, 1968.
26 Chauvenet A., 1998.
27 Le Caisne, 2000, 97.
28 Chantraine, 2004.
29 Goffman, 1973.
30 Constant, 1998. We follow here Constant, for whom the process of social disaffiliation is associated with de-citizenship.
31 Goffman, 1989.
32 Goffman, 1968.
33 Roulleau-Berger, 1999.
34 We find this approach to the total institution in Mallon I., “The recreation of a home by aged people in a retirement facility”, transcript of a seminar of GRS, session from March 5, 2004.
35 Term borrowed from Hirschmann cited in the work of Pollak, 2000.
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Caroline Touraut, « Dynamic Study of the Relationships to Citizenship. The Case of Prisoners as Social Actors. »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], Vol. II | 2005, mis en ligne le 12 mars 2009, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Caroline Touraut

Caroline Touraut earned a doctorate in psychology and anthropology at the University of Lumiere-Lyon 2 under the supervision of Jean-Paul Payet and Corinne Rostaing. Her thesis is based on the carceral experiences of relatives of prisoners. Caroline Touraut also participated in a research project relating to the incarceration of minors (under the supervision of Gilles Chantraine).   

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