Law in prison or law imprisoned?

Special report: State and illegal practices
Towards a sociology of law in prison
By Grégory Salle, Gilles Chantraine

Not only can an empirical sociology of law in prison deeply challenge legalism, but it can do so while avoiding the unequivocal critical reading that sees the inmates’ activities demanding rights as being doomed to fail, or else as surreptitiously strengthening domination. In contradistinction, this article describes the plural and ambivalent effects of the mobilization of law in prison. After a historical flashback on the context in which the issue of rights was shaped in post-1968 France, our contribution relies on numerous investigations and sources (archives, interviews, observations, document analysis), which allows us to focus less on the well-known inefficiency than on highlighting a series of contradictions resulting from the application of the norms. For example we show the depreciation of certain practical know-how. The analysis of the differential management of illegalisms within prison shows the limits of reading prison life through a simplistic opposition between “rule of law” and “zone of lawlessness”. Neither panacea nor trap, law’s progression in prison is shown to be pragmatically structured in situations by practical possibilities opened up by it.


Go to the article on