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Didier Fassin, Prison Worlds: An Ethnography of the Carceral Condition

Cédric Frétigné
Traduction de Juliette Gottlieb et Valentin Hattu
Cet article est une traduction de :
Didier Fassin, L’ombre du monde. Une anthropologie de la condition carcérale
L'ombre du monde
Didier Fassin, L'ombre du monde. Une anthropologie de la condition carcérale, Paris, Seuil, coll. « La couleur des idées », 2015, 601 p., ISBN : 978-2-02-117957-6.

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Review translated by Juliette Gottlieb (Columbia University, Barnard College) and Valentin Hattu (ENS de Lyon), as part of the Transatlantic Collaborative Translation Workshop between Barnard College-Columbia University and the École normale supérieure de Lyon. Supervised by Professors Laurie Postlewate (Barnard-Columbia) & Layla Roesler (ENS de Lyon).

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1As with his previous works, Didier Fassin deploys a critical ethnography in Prison Worlds, which is informed by anthropology, sociology and history. As a result, his use of the social sciences is a continuing invitation to incorporate various scales of observation and levels of analysis.

2What is, in fact, the carceral condition in France at the start of the 21st century? It is first and foremost a prison that is overpopulated, particularly since it serves as a detention facility, “sheltering” defendants and people with short-term sentences. Furthermore, this prison has a fairly homogeneous ethno-racial and social population: young men, with little education, jobless, or with precarious employment situations, black or dark-skinned, and coming from neighbourhoods that are administratively considered “sensitive urban areas”. Finally, it is a prison that removes some people from the public sphere without necessarily making their time inside “worthwhile”, since it fails to transform the vacuity of detention into preparation for “rehabilitation”.

3The carceral condition is the endpoint in a sequence of steps: before being imprisoned, one must have been found guilty and sentenced, or be held in custody while awaiting trial; prior to this, one must have been arrested by law enforcement for having committed (or having been suspected of committing) an offense – all of which must be preceded by the legislative and statutory authorities’ sanctioning of what the individual was being questioned for in the first place.

4Didier Fassin describes the infernal mechanisms that determine how certain actions are criminalized, which offenses are “selected” to be most severely prosecuted, and who, among the accused, will be the most severely punished. The disproportionate application of laws for narcotic offenses leads to mass arrests of cannabis users in so-called “problem” neighbourhoods, whereas the cocaine addicts in rich neighbourhoods are left in peace. The same applies to the ruthless conviction of the hash-smokers of poor neighbourhoods contrasted with those in rich neighbourhoods who enjoy a leniency shown in their release, a simple fine or a suspended prison sentence. The same is true for driving without a license; black and Arab chauffeur-delivery drivers and small-scale workers are pulled over and stopped more frequently, and charged when driving without a license, and subsequently brought to justice more often than other drivers with middle-class and white ethno-racial profiles. This analysis, which is disturbing within the context of France, is perfectly standard for other nations, particularly Anglo-Saxon ones. Didier Fassin lifts the veil on unequal carceral treatment of men (more so than women) in France – an inequality that is perpetrated first by the police and then by the legal system. He considers the researcher’s aim to be more than simply repeating, through his writing, the general hypocrisy which keeps silent that which everyone knows very well. In his second chapter, he concludes: “There is no equality in the prison system so long as the distribution of sentences is based on the aim of reminding everyone of their place in society. For some, the dreadful prison experience is avoided at all costs. While for others, we impose the supposedly salutary shock of incarceration” (p. 153).

5The carceral condition is structurally tied to criminal justice. The latter leads to incarceration. But the conditions of imprisonment are changed through prison policy. And here again, it must be stated that despite efforts made to “humanize” prisons and grant rights to detainees, inequality reigns within prisoners. As a result, from a practical perspective, defendants and convicts are not offered the same opportunities by the Prison Rehabilitation and Probation services (a prisoner awaiting trial is not allowed to apply for a training program, because it is not known whether he will be convicted or for how long). Those who are “presumed to be innocent”, that is, defendants that are being legally detained, generally have the least favourable incarceration conditions. As for those who have been convicted, the “punitive inflation” produced by “disciplinary authorities” (p. 448) doubles the sentences set by the judiciary. If this formula did not already produce the results we expect it to (a prison sentence followed by deportation at the end of the sentence), we could speak of a double penalty. In fact, Didier Fassin demonstrates that most of the time, these sentences are tripled or quadrupled (if not more) and imposed on the detainee within a legal framework but only delivered inside prison walls. This is done in order to repress violations of the internal prison regulations and resistance to its constraints. When a “problem” occurs within the carceral framework, detainees can be sentenced to placement in a punishment block, to a cancellation of their reduced sentence, to a suspension of the proceedings intended to adjust their sentence, to the loss of their auxiliary status, to the full loss of access to work and educational activities, or to the postponement of a request for participation in sports activities, etc. The accumulation of these penalties, which is linked to the time spent in prison itself, is more often the rule instead of the exception.

6The overall conclusion of the work is, in fact that: “the function of prison is therefore not simply to punish crimes, but to provide a repressive response to the social question on the basis of a moral argument” (p. 500).

7However, it would not be (entirely) fair to Didier Fassin’s work to limit our analysis to this perspective of critical sociology. We know that Didier Fassin also intends to account for the subjective perspectives that he naturally must situate socially. The people interviewed (magistrates, prison directors, supervisors, agents of the Prison and Probation Service, sports instructors, prisoners, etc.) base their judgements and their actions on an ethical code. We encounter no “malevolent guards” nor “sadistic prisoners” in this work. Nor does Didier Fassin fall into psychologism or naïve optimism. Rather, he endeavours to identify the logical actions possible for the different players “brought together” in prison. And it must be noted that there is a correlation between the suffering of some (the prisoners) and the suffering of others (the stigmatized supervisors, working in a deteriorated line of work). This comes along with an opposition between the principles of some (from the side of the prisoners, you do not, for example, “tell on somebody”) and the principles of others (on the side of the prison authorities, whatever one may think, one never publicly provides a negative judgement on prison guard). Thus the “carceral order” finally observed is the result of local developments. But it is also underpinned by the social representations of punishment on behalf of political orientations that prevail in this area, of media coverage of crimes and offenses, of texts and regulations that organize police activity, and the judiciary system.

8It is perhaps on this subject that Didier Fassin’s work could be further developed. Hoping to legitimately break with an “insulated perspective” (p. 34) which treats prisons as self-contained units, his analysis is often and perhaps inevitably very (or too) general in nature, and this is the result of his expressed desire to cast a wide net. The empirical links that would decisively deconstruct the mechanics of phenomena that are often presented as cumulative or cascading are missing. This is all the more obvious since this type of statement contrasts with the subtlety of the analysis and the accuracy of the data provided throughout the volume. One thus finds on page 35 a theoretical observation which is valid but not empirically supported: “Prison is the product of work by police, judges, governors and parliamentarians, journalists and filmmakers, and even of society as a whole, through the fiction of what we call ‘public opinion’ and what we make it say”. While “the carceral world is simultaneously the reflection of society and the mirror by which it reflects upon itself” (p. 36), the difficulty lies in empirically documenting this type of assertion, which is to a large extent based in generalizations. The same remark can be made concerning the operational analysis of social inequality regarding prison: “this inequality plays out in the construction of a public problem, in the elaboration of the legislative arsenal, in police activity, and in the work of justice system” (p. 133).

9Overall, Didier Fassin delivers in Prison Worlds a full-scale work that combines, very conveniently, different disciplines of the social sciences for the benefit of a moral and political anthropology of the “carceral condition”.

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Cédric Frétigné, « Didier Fassin, Prison Worlds: An Ethnography of the Carceral Condition », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, mis en ligne le 21 janvier 2021, consulté le 16 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Cédric Frétigné

Professor at the University of Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne and a member of the REV-CIRCEFT research laboratory

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