Law in prison or law imprisoned?

Special report: State and illegal practices
Sociology of the social uses of the law in prison
By Grégory Salle, Gilles Chantraine, Gail Ann Fagen

The theoretical challenge for an empirical sociology of uses of the law in prison is to disavow legalism without necessarily embracing the single-minded critique that discredits any juridical progress as doomed to failure or, inescapably, to strengthening relations of domination by masking them. This article first provides a historical overview of the conditions for imposing the issue of rights in France’s prisons after 1968. It then describes the plurality and ambivalence of the sociological effects of introducing law in the prison, drawing from several studies and a variety of sources (archives, interviews, observations, administrative documents). More than evidence of juridical inefficacy, it highlights the contradictions arising from application of norms, for example by citing the devaluation of certain forms of practical know-how. An analysis of the differential management of illegalisms when transposed in the prison makes it possible sketch the opposition between law and lawlessness to underline how they are interwoven. Neither cure-all nor trap, law’s progression is pragmatically determined by the useful value of the resources they offer in actual situations.

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