gender mix behind bars

It’s not really common, male and female detainees mingling at the prison workshop, in the vegetable garden or the library, at sports or in the training kitchen, going to the medics or the chapel. Even more so, when the ratio male – female is three hundred to eleven. Yet, the system works for five years now in the Belgian prison of Marche-en-Famenne, and inmates as well as staff seem to appreciate it. Newspaper Le Soir issued a double page feature.

Marche-en-Famenne prison is a recent construction (2013), a concrete bunker amidst a vast plain, with a half-open regime though. With its four sections for 75 male inmates each, and one section destined to eleven female prisoners, it is in the Belgian context one of the rather large penal institutions. The basic idea behind the detention regime at Marche is that although penitentiary law requires the deprivation of liberty, nothing opposes the aim of creating ‘behind bars’ detention conditions that resemble as much as possible active life outside. So, when in other prisons one has to cross an airlock, a grille, a second airlock, a no man’s land, then another grille in order to enter a wing, in Marche only one grille, which is open all day, separates the cell wings from the other sections. This ‘half open’ character of the institution implies that detainees can spend their days out of their cell, wear their own clothes, and move around rather freely to participate in work or communal activities –meeting co-prisoners of the other sex.

Being able to interact with members of the other gender on a daily basis is thought to enhance the psychological and affective well-being of the detainees, reduce disruptive and predatory homosexual activity, lessen violence between prisoners, and promote a better self-image and quality of life in general. At the start, not only the General Direction of the Penitentiary, but also detainees themselves had some doubts about the mixed detention situation. Some of the regular partners or wives outside feared the temptations to which their husbands might be exposed; some of the incarcerated women expressed their fear of being or working with male prisoners. In the end, the male-female mix doesn’t seem to have caused too much problems. The approach of security based on trust, accountability and social control seems to work, although the ubiquitous camera control system might very well have done its bit to the maintenance of peace and order. Trespassing the regulations leads to restrictions on movement and diminished access to activities (meaning: more confinement in cell).

Of course, now and then relations between man and woman have blossomed up in jail. For as long as they form a couple within the prison walls, no way however of sharing a cell or showing some intimacy in public. The partners are supposed to behave as if one of them stayed outside; they can apply for private meeting hours or unsupervised visitation. Anyway, these relations are at risk of being  rather ephemeral, for instance when one of the partners is allowed to leave prison.

The last issue of Médor contains an interview with a prison director who was involved five years ago  in the development and preparation of the new prison in Marche-en-Famenne. She says: “Dans les projets de l’administration, l’objectif est clairement d’évoluer vers un système de prisons différenciées, pour qu’il puisse y avoir une cohérence dans le parcours de détention d’une personne. Le but, c’est de mettre le détenu  au centre du projet, partir de lui, voir de façon individualisée quel pourrait être son trajet de développement en détention, le faire passer d’une prison à l’autre, qui aurait soit une formation qui l’arrange pour son parcours, ou une remise à niveau d’abord si besoin. Tout ça pour assurer une bonne réinsertion.”

Alright. Putting the inmate at the centre of the project, find out his very individual development path in detention – and transfer him in the course of that development trajectory from one prison to another. Particularly the latter part may raise an eye-brow or two. But anyway, such a project would at least require a serious engagement by the authorities to invest in proper counselling and coaching facilities. The latest Belgian prisons – including Marche-en-Famenne – might well be public-private partnerships concerning design, building, financing and maintenance, when it comes to employing sufficient qualified staff, the same authorities fail miserably since many years.

But more fundamentally, focusing on the individual needs of the inmates and mimicking life outside by jailing men and women in common facilities cannot disguise that this ‘humane’ imprisonment is part of a larger political technology of control and repression. The presence within the prison building of a courtroom for the Tribunal d’application des peines (Sentence Enforcement Court) and the Chambre du conseil (Council Chamber) is witness to that. In that sense the prison, mixed or not, humane or not, is but a link in the chain of labelling processes that make a part of the population into (ex-)criminals. Police, the judiciary, experts and psychiatrists, mainstream and social media, correctional institutions, probation boards and social services, they all contribute to the permanent stigmatisation and discrimination of a population that consists mainly of young men with their roots in the post-colonial labour migration. Eleven female inmates amongst some hundred male prisoners won’t change that fact.

Moreover, as the same prison director says in Médor: “Mais je ne suis pas d’accord pour dire que le passage en détention fait retourner en prison. Le milieu dans lequel on a grandi, le contexte de vie, l’environnement social à la sortie, sont des aspects déterminants”. The former part of her claim (that jail does not create delinquents) may be debatable, the latter most probably is not. How much one may have tried to mimic a ‘normal life’ inside the prison, as soon as the ex-convict returns to his real normal life of precariousness and instability (“his life-context”, as the director calls it), not much may have been won.