by Gilles CHANTRAINE – april 2009
Gilles CHANTRAINE does research at the CNRS-CLERSÉ. He discusses some findings from a qualitative study on youths detained in France’s three « juvenile detention wings », conducted in 2007-2008 within the CESDIP, for an analysis and understanding of their social trajectories and how they relate, subjectively, to confinement.
This study is an attempt to render and analyse 20 biographic narratives by juveniles detained in the juvenile detention wings of two short-term prisons (maisons d’arrêt) and one larger correctional facility (centre pénitentiaire). The data collected enabled us to turn from questions about criminal « acting-out » and « meaning of punishment » to an analysis of individual histories of relationship to prison, and of the institutional functioning of juveniles’ wings, how power is exerted there, and how prisoners cope with it. This methodological stance brought out information on the ordinary, commonplace, everyday experience of prisoners, both from a biographical and an institutional perspective. As in our previous studies of prisons, juvenile detention wings were viewed as a passageway, a place where individual destinies converge. As such, this passageway is not devoid of significance for the actor ; custody, a very particular episode in a person’s existence, forces incarcerated individuals to « do some biographical work », during which the past, present, and future take new shapes, and through which they must redefine their vision of themselves.