CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Juvenile delinquency is currently a significant political issue. The so-called Dati Act of August 10, 2007, makes provision for minimum sentences for juvenile recidivists and, except where there is a “specially justified decision,” aligns the sentencing regime for minors with that of adults from the second offense onward. From that point on, the seriousness of the offense and the personality and background of its perpetrator matters little. The review under way of the Ordinance of 1945 on Juvenile Offenders is expected to further tighten the legislation, which already makes incarceration the main response to juvenile delinquency. It is therefore high time to look closely into the experience of incarcerated teens. How do they present themselves? How do they represent their offenses? What meaning do they give to their stay in a correctional facility? In other words, what is their indirect reply to the magistrates who incarcerate them and, more generally, to lawmakers?

2As part of a one-year research study commissioned by the Ministry of Justice (June 2003–July 2004), I spent four or five days a week pacing the corridors of the Fleury-Mérogis Youth Detention Center (YDC)—“the biggest juvenile wing in France”—which, depending on the month, held between fifty and one hundred boys aged from fifteen to seventeen years old. I would go with the detainees to the exercise yard, the gym, the visiting room, and the games room. I would sit near them or near the guard and we would talk. With those who wished, I would make appointments for one-to-one interviews in a small office or in their cell. I would usually meet the teens at the start of their stay when they felt the need to talk and to be reassured by individual human contact. They would indicate to me a little while beforehand in the corridors to come and get them or see them, when they were bored in their cell. The twenty or so years that separated me from the teens put me closer to their mothers’ age. They would call me “ma’am” and ask me if I had children. Before they could talk to me, and before we could relate in general, the teens had first to figure me out and show me the place they were willing to have me occupy.

3These boys are between fifteen and seventeen years old (Le Caisne 2008). They live in Paris and its suburbs, and the vast majority are of North African or sub-Saharan African origin. Many of them stay only a fortnight. Some leave the facility after just a few days, others after several months. A few might wait over a year before they get out. [1] In almost 90 percent of cases, they have not yet been judged. Most of them have committed repeated robberies involving violence and/or did not respect the probation conditions set forth in a previous measure—the teens left their homes or went back to their neighborhoods, close to their victim(s), despite having been forbidden to do so. A few of them have been imprisoned for rape or sexual assault, being an accessory to murder or attempted murder, or for drug-related offenses (dealing or possession). The boys quoted in this paper have stolen mobile phones, torched cars, and/or snatched handbags. One is charged with trafficking car parts, another for a luxury car scheme. Two of them raided banks, weapons in hand. Two others stole an electrical appliance truck and are accused of having kidnapped the driver. Finally, one boy is suspected of having raped a young woman with a friend.

4Based on my experience with prisoners serving long sentences (Le Caisne 2000), who spend their time trying to set themselves apart from one another, judging the morality of their fellow prisoners, and presenting themselves as moral people, I expected to meet teens in a hurry to differentiate themselves from their neighbors and persuade others of their innocence. I also thought that most experienced their incarceration as a mere pause in their criminal activities. Perhaps others might think of it as a compulsory “halt” to their actions (as the judges would hope) or as an abrupt shift in their educational and personal direction (as the educators would like).

5When I arrived at the Fleury-Mérogis YDC, I found that, contrary to official rhetoric, the staff has no educational project for these teens. Socioeducational activities are very rare and never involve more than a half dozen inmates out of about sixty. There is no professional training and a limited number of places in the school. The educators, too few in number for the whole YDC, make do with a very administrative interview to welcome the “new arrivals.” [2] The psychologists and the psychiatrist stay confined to the infirmary on the ground floor and wait for the boys to come to them. Unsurprisingly, this does not happen often; there are rarely more than five or six teens receiving care at any one time. Upstairs, the guards are trainee state employees who have come to take advantage of attractive working hours and to put off their encounter with adult inmates. None of them has had any specific training for guarding teens—which most of them regret. Disappointed by their working conditions, all they are waiting for is their permanent appointment before leaving for more attractive horizons. These officers see the boys come and go without anyone deeming it necessary for them to be informed of the teens’ background or criminal record. In the end, they do not have much to offer the detainees to keep them busy and give meaning to their prison experience. Their sweat suit and sneakers, and the floor’s pail, mop, and broom are their only educational tools.

6Consequently, in the absence of any educational program or support, the prisoners have every opportunity to divert the meaning of their prison stay away from the one intended by the magistrates: namely, to keep them away from society so they cannot do any harm and, especially, to provoke a positive shock in the hope they will gain some awareness (Le Caisne 2003). So they occupy their days turning their place of detention into an annex to the housing projects they come from, and present their offenses as acts of youth.

Meeting Up on the Inside

7In accordance with the penitentiary allocation policy, in this facility magistrates incarcerate juvenile offenders who live in Paris and its eastern and southern suburbs. One or two days after their arrival, after having been overcome with fear at the announcement of their placement in detention by the sentencing judge (juge des libertés et de la détention), the boys almost always come across familiar faces. “There are some guys from my hood here. I couldn’t believe it when I saw them!” says Sahli. “One guy who’s over eighteen got busted once, then he got busted again. And I know him. The guy lives a few doors down from my place! His [little] brother is on the fifth floor. He’s a buddy of mine. It’s crazy! It's traumatic. It's amazing. Your neighbor! I know Oualid from the outside. He lives right nearby.” In the yard, they recognize the voices calling them through the concrete bars in front of the windows. “One day,” says Boniface, “I heard through the window: ‘Wait, I know that voice!’ I said to one of the adults, ‘he comes from where I live, from the same project.’ And then he called someone, he said, ‘There’s a kid from my hood just arrived, get him some stuff!’”

8To begin with, the reunions surprise and disturb the boys; it means that they are not the only ones locked up, that their suffering is not unique. Then they get used to them and take pleasure in them. Soon they look forward to them feverishly because, above all, these “acquaintances” from the outside are reassuring. They are points of reference, and protect to some degree from the feeling of exclusion that incarceration engenders. They help the boys situate one another and themselves. They also open up the prison space and bring a little sunshine to the boys at their lowest ebb. “Later, you meet people, you realize you’ve got friends you know,” confides Ludwig. “It makes for a first topic of conversation. It’s always nice to see someone who hangs out in the same places!” Most importantly, these reunions make an individual, personal experience seem almost like the collective and social fate of members of a certain age group.

“To Have Grown Up Together”

9When they find themselves with teens from the same project, neighborhood, or even department, the boys draw not so much on a geographical space to be defended as on a community of situations, practices, and experiences that bring them together and tell them who the other is. In this community, they have (or could have) gone to the same schools, the same nightclubs, sat on the same benches, whether they were together or not; they have dealt (or could have dealt) with the same police officers, the same magistrates, and the same educators. Sometimes they have even broken the law together.

10Coming from the same neighborhood or the same project is first and foremost “to have grown up together,” a sentiment that reveals the familial character of the teens’ social affiliation. The bond is almost a bond of blood—a social bond of blood—that has nothing to do with the contingencies of the moment, that is, with prison. “When you grow up together, nothing can separate you!” says Yacine.

11Coming from the same project or the same neighborhood speaks of a background that is both shared and personal, and destroys the very context of prison. “Having grown up together,” or simply having spent time in the same area—“someone from where I’m from,” the teens often specify—equals both acquaintanceship and recognition. Even without having spoken much to such a boy, the others know “what he’s like.” “When it’s someone from your hood, you know who you’re talking to,” Yacine adds.

12Having shared experiences gives the Other a social profile and brings him closer. It makes it possible both to identify with him and identify him to oneself. Indeed, a boy one “has grown up with” is never a delinquent, even if one has committed offenses with him. He cannot, any more than oneself, have been driven by a malicious intent in committing a crime, whatever it was: robbery, rape, or assault causing death. He therefore cannot be a “bastard.” Recognizing that the Other is capable of a crime would be the same as recognizing that one could also commit a crime. Accordingly, Azziz defends the assailant of a man who came to get his wife’s bike back and who died from his injuries—a very high-profile case. “They put him in here because of public opinion. I used to see him outside, I know exactly where it happened. It wasn’t on purpose! They didn’t say, ‘Yeah, come on, guys, we’ll kill him!’” The boy one “knows” is neither a prisoner nor an Other, but someone like oneself, capable of erasing the prison and its ignominious stigmatization.

13The fact that the Other comes from the same project or neighborhood indicates his moral probity, not only to the boys, but also to others, including the guards. One morning in the yard, Frédéric called to a fellow inmate who had stayed in his cell, “Hey, Soued! Gimme the magazine! Later, later, when I come up!” He then turned to the guard sitting on a bench, walkie-talkie in hand. “Hey, sir, can I go get a magazine? He’s gonna lend me a car magazine.” “Who is it?” “Soued, he lives in my hood. He just got here. He’s on the fifth floor.” While indicating their acquaintance on the outside, this boy speaks both of his ties to the person in question and the legitimacy of the relationship.

14The nature of the experiences themselves is of little importance. Consequently, a boy can refer to another boy he was in conflict with on the outside, but whom he “knew” and “spoke with.” “I know a guy who lived in Bonneuil,” Patrick explains. “I know him because of trouble between our neighborhoods. We spoke to each other in an RER [suburban train]. It wasn’t him I was looking for originally, it was someone else. We talked for ages. Some guys had shot at us with a pump action shot gun. It wasn’t him I wanted. Now I talk to him through the window, we talk without talking. We ask each other stuff about his buddy and about other friends. It’s not that it gets your hopes up to see people you know, but it’s cool. You’re happy about it. They’re people who were outside. It does you good to talk to them. It forms little groups…you got stuff in common.”

15This fraternity, which also originates in what “the projects” represent for the teens on the outside—a refuge against the world (Beaud 2004)—seems natural in here. To be identified with the same territory also makes it possible to enter into contact straightaway, and simply to talk. This affiliation, which everyone takes for granted, could be called in to question only by a lunatic—or an ethnologist.

Where’re You From?

16By recognizing one another, the boys are symbolically making the space their own and turning it into a place they have “control” over, in order to make their incarceration easier to bear. This is why they emphasize and accentuate these acquaintanceships, and expand the possibilities of affiliation.

17The connections are not limited to peers from the same neighborhood or project; they stretch to those who, though they do not live there, go or “hang out” there. So, for example, going often to another neighborhood and knowing people there authorizes an affiliation. “Alfred comes from the 11th in Paris, but he hangs out with a guy from the 94 [department]!” explains Soued. Boys whom one did not know or with whom one had no relationship, but whom one might have run into, become “acquaintances” to whom one refers and allies oneself.

18The fact that boys have been to the same places at one time or another on their peregrinations also makes them acquaintances. “Chavanne lives near where I live, near Meaux. He buys shoes there. So of course I know him! On the outside he’ll come see me!” says Frédéric. The gare du Nord, Châtelet-les-Halles station, the avenue des Champs-Élysées, and the Barbès neighborhood of Paris are all preferred places.

19Knowing that they have, or might have had, shared acquaintances, is also enough to create a connection. In keeping with the old adage, “Any friend of my friend is a friend of mine,” they ally themselves with indirect relations, thereby expanding the circle. “Y’know Ousmane? It’s like I knew him from outside,” says Samir. “Actually, Ousmane’s big brother knows a guy that I know really well.”

20Thanks to these boys whom they have never met before, but with whom they share acquaintances or places, a direct link is established between prison and the outside. Moreover, even if they have never spent time together outside, they could have, and they will certainly see each other again. “The ones I talk to are all the ones who arrived with me, who are in the cell with me. Or people who know people I know. We say we’ll see each other again outside later,” confides Samir.

21Knowing people in prison, even when it is a short stay, also implies significant sociability on the outside, which is a guaranteed source of prestige. “I know heaps!” boasts Boubacar. “Hichem lives in my hood ’n’ all that. I know him, I know him well. I know everyone in here, I know everyone! I know everyone!” By telling people of their project’s renown and the large number of friendships it promotes, they persuade themselves of their popularity. “Ibrahim used to come to my project all the time. Heaps of people come to my project. ’Course we know each other!” says Mamadou.

22Past acquaintances, or at least claimed acquaintances, and often overstated ones, extend—or even, when they are exaggerated, create—the link with the outside, protect from loneliness, and guarantee a little solidarity. It is easier to feel strong in a group than alone.

23Real or fabricated connections also screen out the intrusion of the staff and of the institution into their privacy. These acquaintances put up a protective screen between the boys and the guards, and adults in general (including the ethnologist). Overall, their number unites the community against the adults. It represents a strength against the power of the judges and the role of the guards. The teens sent to prison occupy the place as a community, en masse, stifling the institution and its staff, and destroying its effects. Unlike with adult prisoners, here it is not a matter of distinguishing themselves from one another, but of grouping together against the adults. These young people are looking not for a difference that would set them apart from those who are going through the same experience—as recluses usually do—but quite the opposite: resemblance and assimilation. They do not want to be unique; they want to be the same.

24Generally, recognizing fellow inmates and placing them outside the prison space is a means of extracting themselves from the penitential institution with the others, and of sharing the same condition somewhere else. “We all know each other outside!” notes Brahim. The collective experience is added to the individual experience and gradually surpasses it, easing the prison ordeal. As they discover the prison environment, the boys build their sociability on the basis of these unexpected and then constantly sought reunions. Even if it means exaggerating or sometimes inventing the acquaintances, they gradually transform the prison hell into a familiar and, therefore, controlled space.

25For all these reasons, before “hanging out” together, they have to assess the degree of affiliation possible and therefore know where the other boy lives and, most importantly, which department he comes from. When two boys meet in the corridor, at exercise time, in the yard or during “activities,” the first question they ask each other concerns where they live. “Where you from?” “Where d’you live?” Furthermore, in asking someone where he lives the boy is practically sure that he will be asked the same question in return and, consequently, be able to clearly state who he is, that is, someone good. For only the cunning and the weak will not reveal their identity.

Those Who Are Not Asked

26However, the question “Where’re you from?” is never addressed to certain boys: the “Chinese,” the “Romanians,” and the “French.” They are looked down on too much for others to try and make them allies, and so different there is no need to set them apart. These boys themselves never ask the others—or their peers—the question either, in a sign that they have integrated and accepted their exclusion from the group.

27The enmity for the Chinese bears the stamp of ignorance and fear, which are often related. Distanced by default by their incomprehensible language (for the others) and the way they stick together, they form an impenetrable force. “It’s Hong Kong around here [in a unit of eighteen boys]; it’s funny! Nothing but Chinese! See, they speak Chinese to each other. Even the guards call them the ‘Chinese.’” Not only do the Chinese keep to themselves, but “they are rich.” Their solidarity and their supposed wealth are a source of envy and therefore rejection. “The Chinese…I don’t really like the Chinese,” confides Hocine. “They’re weird. They’re the ones who take all the money, them and the Jews. They got restaurants and big cars. I don’t know what the Chinese did to take all the money and get their restaurants, but they sure managed!”

28Whereas the Chinese are too rich, the Romanians are too poor. Because of their poverty, they must be dirty. “The Romanians don’t wash!” Patrick mocks, “They stink! If you go in the Romanians’ cells, they stink so bad! They pick up cigarette butts off the ground outside. Muresan never washes. Each to their own shit. If you steal, you gotta have clothes. They got gold teeth. It’s not that I don’t like them….”

29As for the “French”—that is, the puny boys with a French last name (fewer than ten out of about seventy detainees—their mistake is being the least numerous, and therefore lacking the support of a group, and in principle not having the same social destiny as the teens of North African or black African origin. “In here, there aren’t any French, there are only blacks and Arabs. The white kids don’t come out of their cells. They’re scared! They’re victims. The others tell ’em, ‘Gimme your clothes!’” explains Hakim. Unable to justify their presence in prison by their social history—at least not by that of their fellow detainees—the French boys undermine the credibility of the others’ presence and disturb the social order. In committing theft, these boys usurp the identity of the boys of North African and black African origin who live in the projects, an identity built essentially on a sense of revolt and exclusion. Their presence among the majority group almost soils the worthiness of the other detainees who, at the time, claim an economic criminality understood in the sociohistorical context of migration. Yacine analyzes as follows: “Most of us are black or Arab! We raise hell! Blacks and Arabs are the shit stirrers. Immigrant families are generally big. It’s not like in French families, where there are one or two. Then they can’t manage. That’s the root of it. If we lived in the 16th [arrondissement], if my parents made 10,000 francs each, no one would go stealing. Obviously! I know French kids, their parents are rich, and they go stealing. But they’re show-offs! In my project, we call them imitation riffraff. They don’t need to steal, they’ve got all they need, there’s nothing they don’t have, and they go stealing!” The French boys do not have the right to “choose” to be delinquents.

30As privileged French nationals, they supposedly benefit from better opportunities than the others, as if it were more difficult to be poor and of immigrant origin than poor and French, even though they all live in the same forsaken neighborhoods that produce the same violence. In fact, the boys here, inspired by prevailing opinions, consider delinquency and prison to be the social and collective fate of blacks and Arabs who live in the suburban projects. This allows them, once again, to avoid reflecting on their own individual story and their personal responsibility.

Acts of “Youth”

“What’d You Do?”

31For some boys, the question “Where’re you from?” is immediately followed by “What’d you do?” “To start with, they come over, they ask what my name is, where I live, why I’m here,” explains Sébastien. While it is partly a matter of singling out the “unrespectable” boys, such as the “rapists,” [3] to better exclude them from the group, these questions and answers always have something in the nature of introductions. They help each boy situate himself more accurately in the group and better identify the Other, that is, to assign him a place in addition to the one dictated by his home territory. Like any social and moral individual, the young detainee arranges his environment.

32To hear the boys, one would think that offenses are always closely associated with a given territory and the specialization of each in a single type of crime.

33First, the series of départements supposedly forms a comprehensive system in which every crime—apart from rape, which is claimed by no one—is represented. “In the 91 there are more courts, and more stuff between rival gangs. In the 92, it’s drugs, narcotics. In the 93 it’s theft; 94 it’s stickups; 95, Val d’Oise, it’s racketeering; 77, it’s kids, a bit of car torching, the little ones. In the 78, it’s riots, the guys who hit the police,” lists Youssef. Committing the offenses of one’s département or district shows one’s commitment to the values of the group, to its sociability, and is a sign of a certain respectability. Respecting the social and moral order of his community in the offenses he commits protects a boy from the label of “delinquent.” It is as if delinquency or deviance exists only when someone commits unlawful acts that do not form part of the practices of their community.

34As well as indicating their membership in the group, and even though their criminal records bear traces of a polymorphous delinquency, they all go on to mention their “field,” that is, in this case, their own “specialty.” “I steal”; “My field is pickpocketing”; “Personally, I’m more into violence”; “Stealing cars, that’s kind of my field,” and so on. While they criticize the French boys for thieving simply because they want to, here they boast of and promote the thefts they have committed themselves without any real necessity. Like anyone else, the young detainees use different justifications and explanations depending on the situation of interlocution and on what it is they want to get across at that particular moment.

35A personal specialty, added to the neighborhood specialty, implies skillfulness. It makes any offense “worthy” and “respectable.” “You can do anything if you do it well,” asserts Ludwig repeatedly. Finally, when they brag about their specialty, the boys are implying that they act neither by need nor by urge, but by choice and after reflection, and that they are therefore a part of the cultural sphere. In this way, although they are in prison, they can remain in the social and moral group and maintain a certain degree of dignity.

36In fact, the crimes are of lesser importance in themselves than for classifying their perpetrators and the territories they authorize. The question “What’d you do?” is not intended to assess the degree of morality of the person to whom it is asked. Apart from “rape” (see note 3 on this point), the offenses are very rarely the cause of individual moral reprobation—the boys, unlike their elders, never specifically say “that’s good,” “that’s bad,” “you can’t do that,” or “I shouldn’t have.” While inmates serving long sentences continually justify their presence in prison and present themselves as moral beings by judging their fellow prisoners’ offenses and values, the boys do not seek to demonstrate their morality, as it is not in question.

37Moreover, this is why the Romanians and the Chinese are no more asked, “What’d you do?” than, “Where’re you from?” Although they too are supposed to have committed specific crimes—thefts for the former and “serious” offenses (sequestration and assault) for the latter—they do not benefit from this specificity. Unlike the others, the reason they only commit one type of offense is that they cannot do otherwise. When a “French” boy is asked this question, it is not for the sake of introductions, but in order for the others to dominate him and show him that everyone knows he is there for rape, that is, to establish a balance of power in the asker’s favor.

38Thus freed from purely personal motives, offenses are not associated with the individual but with a group, a neighborhood, and a culture. Above all, committing offenses fits the boys into a peer group. As well as transforming this place of social exclusion into a place of mutual acquaintances, the boys describe their offenses as ordinary acts.

“Everyone Does It!”

39The young detainees present their crimes as age-appropriate practices that are a part of “street culture,” in which criminal activities have to do, among other things, with staging oneself (Lepoutre 1997). The link between the offenses of which they are accused and their cultural practices is most certainly specific to youth detention, and places them in a very different position from adult prisoners. The adults, incarcerated for having transgressed the laws and rules of their peers, that is, adults like them, refuse to be associated with the “criminals” around them. The young detainee, who generally has not yet been judged nor, therefore, convicted, explains that he has been incarcerated for having committed acts accepted by his peer group and inherent to his culture.

40Whether they have held up banks or tobacconists’, whether they have stolen mobile telephones or torched cars, insulted police officers or hit other teens, they all convince themselves that delinquency is common to all young people. Logically then, they are in prison because they are like other teens, that is, different from adults. “We’re underage, we have the same mentality!” says Tarik. The boys situate themselves in an opposition between young people and adults, not between delinquents and ordinary citizens. Or rather, the opposition between young people and adults protects them from a condemning distinction between delinquents and ordinary citizens. “We young people against you, adults, and together with other young people, big and small.” Moreover, with few exceptions, they do not set themselves apart from socially well-integrated youths; teens who do not commit crimes are absent from their conversation. The boys speak of “young people in general,” that is, a unified group understood as a generation necessarily in conflict with the previous one, but in their opinion, their differences in viewpoint with adults stem more from adults’ incomprehension than from any ideological positions that might cause them to see society differently. Unlike what young people in general ordinarily believe, when they swear they will never do things or think the same way as their elders, these boys know they will become like their elders. It is simply that to each stage of life supposedly corresponds a certain way of thinking and acting. The adults of today must just have forgotten.

41As no teen has ever been able to avoid stealing, the difference between those who are free and those behind bars lies between those who get caught and those who do not. The image of prison as a receptacle for offenders is far from their minds. “Everyone’s been down this road,” claims Abdel. “Everyone’s done stupid shit. Later, after enough stupid shit, you realize that you gotta stop.” “Everybody’s done a robbery at least once in their lives,” adds Nadir. “Either the grocery store, or the post office, or a gas station. The grocer near my place gets held up once a week!” In the exercise yard, Frédéric turns to the guard and says, “Everybody’s stolen something in his life! Even you, guard! You must have stolen a bike!”

42It is all the easier for the youths to maintain this view because they have found many peers in prison. Whether they have been charged or convicted, have committed a misdemeanor or a serious crime, are repeat offenders or have been caught for the first time, whether they have been imprisoned before or not, the boys, who for the most part are incarcerated for a series of offenses that lie somewhere short of “serious crime” (bag snatching, destruction of cars, fighting, etc.), are in this particular prison for a limited period (at the most until their eighteenth birthday) because they are underage. Furthermore, as they have often left school or are in the process of doing so, these young detainees do not lose their social affiliation when they enter the prison gates. Once incarcerated, they can continue to assert their “outside” identity inside the prison, an identity constructed on the basis of their cultural practices, their territorial affiliation, and most importantly, their age group.

Settling Down

43Few of them doubt and, whatever else they must surely say in other situations, in prison they maintain that they will stop offending as soon as they come of age. “We do this stuff because we’re young. But as soon as we’re eighteen, or twenty-five at the most, we won’t think the same way, we’ll stop our crime, we’ll work and build a family” is their general message. Indeed, the older boys (aged seventeen), incarcerated for armed robbery, car theft, or stealing trucks full of electrical appliances, make it clear that they also commit their misdemeanors or felonies in order to enter “normal” life, by which should be understood “legal” life. This sets them apart once more from adults serving long prison terms, who usually dream of a remarkable future life (once freed, they will do better than ordinary citizens). Furthermore, these teens, with their highly normative projects, are not in prison—as many long-term convicts in the central penitentiary claim—because of the specificity of their personality traits (they have too much integrity, they are too honest, they hate injustice too much, have too strong a character). It is not because of an unfortunate biographical event (sudden unemployment, accident, death or illness of a relative or friend, “a moment of insanity,” etc.), nor because of a gradual break in the ties they had on the outside (family, friends, work, etc.) that lead them little by little to build their lives in prison, as the adult prisoners in the penitentiary explain (Chantraine 2004).

44Neither is it because their delinquency failed—they do not say, “I played the game and I lost!”—nor because of falling personally subject to legal hounding, as many convicts with long sentences also maintain. The oldest boys especially consider their stay in prison as an avatar of their journey toward standardized social inclusion: an average job and salary, a wife, and children.

45This sought-after legality justifies the means employed to reach it, and their prison stay becomes just a step along their journey. Their offenses even prove their good intentions; thefts can be explained only by the need to save the money required to “settle down” in the future.

46Indeed, they look ahead and stockpile. “The older ones’ activities are more drugs, dealing, hold-ups,” explains Vincent, incarcerated for three bank robberies. “We think about it, we want to save money for later. To buy a house later on.” The boy goes on to support his demonstration using the goals his friends have achieved or their successful career changes. “There are some who waste the money, but a lot of them put it away. Later, they can have a house built for them back home. Then they can help their wife. I had a friend, he invested in Tunisia. He’s a stretcher bearer now. They stop one day ’cause it can’t go on forever. They got what they wanted.”

47To settle down and live within the law, some “initial capital” is indeed necessary. “I’m going to change! I’m not going to do this all my life. It’s just to get started, that’s all. To have some capital and then do something else,” confides Mamadou. Once they have obtained the required amount, the boys will be satisfied with a salary, even a modest one. They do not dream of a life of luxury. “It’s not at thirty,” sighs Yacine, “but I don’t know an exact age to stop all the stupid shit. My only goal is to save as much money as possible while I can: 50,000, 100,000 euros, let’s say. Nah, 100,000, that’s too much. We’ll say 50,000 euros. You save up bit by bit. Later, I’ll do like everyone else, I’ll make 1,500 euros a month. A normal wage.” Laurent knows exactly what every young person needs: “You need to have a certain amount, or else you can’t get anywhere. You gotta have the washing machine, the dryer, the TV, the apartment…otherwise you gotta get credit…. When you start from nothing, you got 1,000 euros salary, you can’t get an apartment, and live, it’s impossible. What I say is, I don’t need hundreds and thousands—10,000 francs, a good job. Once I’ve got all that at home, a little car, 10,000 francs, that’s enough.” Although they know where and how they can obtain the nice things they want, the boys would agree to join the category of ordinary people—proof, perhaps, of their sense of citizenship, or even of their moral standing.

48Consequently, for these teens on the road to social inclusion and in the middle of building their assets, a prison stay is nothing but lost time, to be caught up as quickly as possible as soon as they are released. A few days before his release, Dmitri even denounced the cost of incarceration: “You know, when you go to prison, you have to pay a lawyer. When you get out, you can’t laze around, you have to get back on top! Yes ma’am, 2,000 euros to open the case file.” Moreover, if he could, Vincent would barely hesitate to file a complaint. “Prison isn’t like, ‘It’ll make them think’ like the judges say. Some of them, it just makes them harder. They’ve lost money. ’Cause if you steal outside, you got money every day. When you’re in here, you lose money every day ’cause you’re stuck in one place and you don’t make any money. No one’s gonna pay us back!” Incarceration is seen as a loss the boys sustain, in terms of the social scale of the environment in which they operate.

49In inserting prison into an “economic” process—not only is it a waste of time, but it prevents them from making money—and presenting it as a detour in their social climb, the teens are once again cheerfully circumventing the goal that the magistrates attached to their prison stay. Once released, they will get straight back on their route to inclusion. However, as Samir, convicted for two armed robberies and in prison for nearly a year so far, confides, this is a way of denying the suffering endured. “Prison really sucks! It’s hard. Even if there is a PlayStation…. When you don’t have your freedom, it’s just shit!”

A Magical Stop to Crime at Age Eighteen

50Whether the offenses belong to a set of “street culture” practices or are a means to constitute a nest egg, not a single one will be committed once the boys come of age, or after their twenty-fifth birthday at the latest. For while thefts committed before the legal age of majority lead to inclusion and independence, even if the perpetrators are incarcerated, those committed later subjugate their perpetrators and force them back to the parental home, and therefore into a social regression. Yacine cannot imagine it. “One thing’s for sure: I’m gonna stop all the stupid shit one day or another. Or else, if it doesn’t stop one day, I’ll be out there with my kids in the visiting room! Hell, yeah! I see heaps of them, when I go out for my exercise, at forty-five or fifty. What are they doing there? Hey! We’re not gonna spend our whole lives living with our parents!” Mohammed says, “When you see old guys who can hardly walk…if you got to eighty in prison…. Now, you’re young, your life goes on. But that’s no life! When they get out, they have to go back to their mothers’ homes; you think they like that?” Despite their succession of offenses and their prison experience, they never doubt that one day they will “go straight,” that is, they will become responsible adults. “At eighteen or nineteen, I’ll find myself a steady job,” Abel, aged fifteen, has already decided. As for Patrick, “I gotta be on the outside for my eighteenth! It’s important. You’re responsible then, you’re starting to be an adult.”

51For the boys, as for ordinary citizens, youth “goes by.” The prospect of being in a couple and starting a family sits badly with crime. “The third guy [in the case] is engaged to my big sister. He’s a robber and she wants to marry him! It’s no good! I’m not engaged!” says Abdel heatedly. Once legal majority is reached, the money that is “necessary” and desirable when they are underage becomes “easy” money, and this conflicts with family responsibilities and their future role as a father. “Life is not just about easy money, ma’am! There’s family! There’re the kids and all that! Of course!” says an impassioned Yacine. “I’m impatient to have a family. One day, like everyone else. But I want to make the most of my youth. Even though I’ve already made a lot of it. It’s a good thing to have children, to love someone, to have a household, all that.” Becoming a father both demands and seals a straight and settled existence.

52Coming of age signals maturity, entry into adulthood, and, as if by social magic—they never say how, other than having built up a nest egg—an end to criminality. “One day, it all stops!” notes Boubacar. It is an extremely linear, normative, and conventional representation of adult life (and of its onset), which is therefore inaccessible. “Honestly, one day, the crime’ll stop. We’ll start working, we’ll understand. Because now we’re still kids,” explains Jean. This representation of adulthood is specific to the working classes; members of the middle and upper classes know that youth lasts a long time.

53So, although they have spent three or four years—about a quarter of their existence—grappling with the law, the boys see this period in prison as provisional, and refer to their time of criminality as a mandatory phase endured during a period of “margin,” as folklorist Arnold Van Gennep would have said: an in-between period, after their childhood and before their life as responsible men, which is leading them almost on its own toward inclusion, as if they themselves were ritualizing their passage into adulthood.

54When they use their age to present themselves and refer to their coming social inclusion, the young detainees nullify the unlawfulness of their acts, and thereby negate the image of prison as a concentration of “offenders.” As a result, the place is no longer a creator of ignominious identities—at least, not while they are in it. In the end, these certainties sound like exhortations to stop crime, and allow the boys to include themselves among ordinary citizens as of the present, even before they have stopped anything at all or been released from prison.

The Adults, the “Real” Prisoners

55For the young detainees observed here, being in prison and most of the offenses of which they are accused are not a source of shame, with regard neither to their peers nor to the adults guarding them, but, on the contrary—in their present situation at least—the sign of their membership in their age group. These boys are here precisely because they are like all teens and different from the adults guarding them; they are also different from the adults locked up like they are.

56The “real” prisoners, the “real” criminals, are the adults who occupy the cells of the other three floors and the other prisons, those Others, the only ones liable to commit “serious things” or do “awkward stuff.”

57For the boys, their entirely new experience of detention holds no presage of a future life in prison. Fortunately, they see no link between themselves and these adults they look down on. They even ignore the prisoners serving long sentences who have already been there several years, and refuse them subject status: “Do they still exist, those things?” asks Mamadou, incredulous.

58Moral judgments, with which they rarely concern themselves, flow freely with regard to the adult prisoners. “Here, it’s not the same, there’s a good atmosphere. Here, they’ve robbed the local grocer, you can say ‘hello’ to them. The ones who get the long sentences, they’re crazies, they’re murderers,” comments Samir. “In general,” says Yacine, “you do your stupid shit between sixteen and twenty-five. Afterward, you get sent to the main wing. Thirty percent of them are there for rape, 30 percent for murder, more…for even worse stuff. Whereas here, it’s for robbery—a grocer, a jeweler, a post office. Here [on the other floors] it’s not the same guys you find in the main wing [100 meters away]. They’re different!” With a disgusted look, Azziz says, “The adults there, it’s like they’re all rapists! They’re old! I don’t know what they do to get put in jail! They’re thirty or forty years old, I wonder what they did to get sent here. Some of the ones who are overage, they’re eighteen or nineteen, you can understand it. But at forty, enough already! Some of them are here for robbery, that I get. But I gotta go to school, I gotta work, buy a house for my parents. They’re the ones who fed us. Gotta give it back!”

59These boys see the adult inmates as senior citizens. They are therefore well within the age of reason, or even the age of wisdom. Whereas the teens have been imprisoned for having committed crimes accepted by their peers, the “old guys” are incarcerated for having broken the laws and rules of their fellow men. As such, their criminality appears to the teens to be the product of degenerating morals that supposedly accompanies their physical decline. In contrast, the boys’ own youth and good physical condition indicates their good moral and mental health. “Some of the adults here are weird!” comments Azziz. “They’re all short, like this [a bent back], I’ve got no idea what they’re doing in prison! One of them’s the same size as Nathan [1.55 meters]!”

60For all these reasons, the boys can barely hide their disgust. “They’re all sickos over there!” “They’re all child killers!” “They’re junkies!” They leave the adults to master that damning space and dream of greener pastures: the life of a worker and father. Not one of them seems to imagine the failure of his magic plan.

61So, while some promise never to come back to prison, and hint at the trauma that their incarceration has caused them, the vast majority of the boys trivialize their prison experience, during their stay between these walls in any case. They downplay the fact they are in prison and make out their experience and their individual background to be commonplace, integrating them into a culture and lifestyle typical of “Youth.” To the lawmaker who tells them, “You have committed the crimes of adults, we will therefore punish you like adults,” they reply, from afar, “We are teenagers who behave like teenagers and we will straighten out as soon as we come of age.” Lawmakers and young detainees therefore cannot agree. Moreover, as the Dati Act on minimum sentencing leads to the automatic conviction of repeat youth offenders, and thereby further reduces the individualization of their sentence (that is, the consideration of their personalities and their stories), it risks shutting the boys into their responsibility-minimizing representation of membership in a specific community.

62When they trivialize their prison experience, the boys ease their prison stay, distance themselves from a personal awareness of their actions, and abstain from any reflection on their individual choices and pathways. As such, this trivialization is also counterproductive to the goal that magistrates are aiming for through incarceration: to keep them away from society so they cannot do any harm and, especially, to provoke a positive shock in the hope they will gain some awareness.

63So, does this trivialization mortgage the future of these boys, who have been unable to seize the opportunity of their prison stay to commit to changing their ways?

64Or is it instead beneficial for the teens in that it counters and neutralizes the adaptation to prison experienced by many adult prisoners (Chantraine 2004), and which could well catch up with them if they should be reincarcerated once they have reached eighteen? For by refusing to consider this experience as a first step into prison life, they distance themselves from a possible prison “career.” In this case, the trivialization would protect them, if only symbolically and for a given time, from a life made up of successive imprisonments.

65Unless, by transforming prison in this way into a mere “elsewhere,” so similar to the places they spend time in when they are free, or into a world so similar to what they would like it to be, the boys, whose dreams and representations still smack of childhood, are proving their perfect adaptation to prison life. In this case, what meaning and what effects would this experience have produced? ■


  • [1]
    In June 2004, the average length of incarceration was forty-three days.
  • [2]
    At the time, the educators of the Protection judiciare de la jeunesse (Youth Legal Protection agency), whose intervention with juvenile detainees was provided for by the “Perben 1” Act, had not yet arrived at the facility.
  • [3]
    That is, according to the boys, not all those who have penetrated a girl’s body without her consent, but those who have done so alone and have hidden the fact afterward.

While the magistrates who have assigned them to detention are hoping that their stay in prison will mean a sharp check to their delinquency and encourage the development of their individual conscience, juvenile detainees downplay the fact they are in prison and make out their individual experience to be commonplace in order to incorporate them into an ordinary “youth” culture and lifestyle. As a consequence, they spend their days transforming the prison into an annex of the housing projects they live in, and making their offenses out to be nothing more than a part of everyday life, or a precursor to their social inclusion. Such representations ease the stay in prison, but call into question the meaning that the experience will have for each of them.


  • prison
  • underage
  • experience
  • offence
  • juvenile delinquency


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  • OnlineChantraine, Gilles. 2004. Par-delà les murs, Paris, puf.
  • Le Caisne, Léonore. 2000. Prison. Une ethnologue en centrale, Paris, Odile Jacob.
  • –––. 2003. “Il est parti !” La décision d’incarcération des mineurs, research report, dpjj, Hellébore/cems.
  • –––. 2008. Avoir 16 ans à Fleury. Ethnographie d’un centre de jeunes détenus, Paris, Seuil.
  • Lepoutre, David. 1997. Cœur de banlieue. Codes, rites et langages, Paris, Odile Jacob.
Léonore Le Caisne
Institut Marcel Mauss (EHESS, CNRS), CEMS
Uploaded on on 30/06/2014
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