- Prison Worlds: An Ethnography of the Carceral Condition by Didier Fassin
In the 18th century, the prison emerged as both the paradigmatic form of modern punishment and a philosophical model for thinking through tensions between freedom and control in the formation of liberal democratic subjects. Since then, prisons have been a critical site for studying power, subjection, and the state. While the bulk of academic investigations of punishment have grounded their theories upon either philosophical models of the imprisonment or sensationalistic representations of captive life, since the mid-20th century field studies of carceral institutions have played an important role in advancing the scientific and critical study of imprisonment as a technique of social control and "a medium of racialized statecraft" (Gordon 2008:652). Didier Fassin's Prison Worlds: An Ethnography of the Carceral Condition constitutes a valuable contribution to this line of research. On the one hand, the book provides scholars of imprisonment with a detailed look into the contemporary French penal system. On the other hand, the manuscript offers readers who are new to prison studies a solid introduction to the field.
Research for the book was based on the seven months of fieldwork Fassin conducted in one short-stay facility in a disadvantaged urban region of France over the course of four years. With enormous tact and without gratuitousness, the ethnographer chronicles the everyday indignities prisoners suffer in confinement. But the book's analysis is not limited to the internal space of the prison: Fassin follows what he calls "the penal chain," from the formation of public opinion about crime, to legislative efforts that selectively combat its spread, to police policies that target specific populations for arrest, to courts that confer particularly harsh sentences on persons who are economically and racially marginalized (26–28, [End Page 447] 71). In so doing, he calls attention to the social differentiation that leads to the law's selective, and repressive, focus on illegal acts committed by poor people of color.
Following directly on the heels of Enforcing Order, Fassin's (2013) study of repressive policing in France, Prison Worlds reinforces and extends the anthropologist's prior critique of the ways punishments are unequally distributed along racial, social, and geographic lines in contemporary liberal democracies. The central question the book arguably asks is: how "does a formally colorblind criminal justice system achieve such racially discriminatory results?" (Alexander 2012:103). Fassin argues that answering this question is particularly fraught in France, where the issue of race in prison is never directly confronted: "The prison management does not want to know about it, and the staff prefer not to speak of it" (59).
To shatter the nation's silence about the overrepresentation of ethnic and racial minorities in its prisons, Fassin conducted an original census of the short-stay facility in which he carried out his ethnographic research; the project is presented in Chapter 2. Using the variables of age, nationality, and race/ethnicity, he found that black and Arab men under the age of 30 made up half of the prison population. What is more, when men over 30 are added to the count, two-thirds of prisoners were ethnic minorities. Fassin notes that these results will likely surprise people who assume that the French republican ideal of equality among citizens means that all receive equal treatment under the law. He further argues that this surprise points to the fact that the overrepresentation of minorities in prison has become naturalized—in France and in many other parts of the world where the "war on drugs" has encouraged the criminalization of poor and dark-skinned men (and, increasingly, women) who have committed minor legal offenses.
Echoing, but never directly citing, black feminist scholars who have been studying the worldwide expansion of mass incarceration for decades (Alexander 2012, Davis 2003, Gilmore 2007), Fassin notes that the naturalization of imprisonment as a strategy of social control has accompanied the decline of the social state. In Chapter 1, Fassin argues that at the same time that liberal democratic governments have abdicated their responsibility for...