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DOI: 10.1177/1748895812462593
2014 14: 44 originally published online 5 November Criminology and Criminal Justice
Andrew M Jefferson
Conceptualizing confinement: Prisons and poverty in Sierra Leone

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Criminology & Criminal Justice
2014, Vol. 14(1) 44 60
The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1748895812462593
Conceptualizing confinement:
Prisons and poverty in Sierra
Andrew M Jefferson
DIGNITY: Danish Institute Against Torture, Denmark
This article develops an expansive notion of confinement as a lens through which to think about the
lives of former prisoners, former fighters and slum dwellers in a post-conflict setting characterized
by political volatility, exorbitant poverty and limited opportunities. The theoretical purpose of
the article is to explore whether an expansive notion of confinement might help us make sense
of the lives of people whose possibilities are limited materially, spatially and discursively. The
intention inspired by Loc Wacquant, Zygmunt Bauman and archaeologist Eleanor Casella is
to move beyond the prison as the dominant optic for thinking about confinement. The concept
of confinement under development is illustrated with empirical examples culled from fieldwork in
prisons and a poor urban neighbourhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. The orientation
is towards confinement as site, practice and state of mind. The argument is that an expansive
notion of confinement that attends to space, time, practices, meanings and states of mind is a
useful way of thinking about the situated struggles of people living in prison and relative poverty.
Confinement, (im)mobility, poverty, prison, Sierra Leone
Incarceration is the medium for the exacerbation of deprivation rather than the means of
deprivation per se. (Halsey, 2007: 361, emphasis in original)
Prison begins far from the prison gates. Just outside the door to your house. (Foucault, 1971
cited by Welch, 2010: 57)
Corresponding author:
Andrew M Jefferson, DIGNITY: Danish Institute Against Torture, Borgergade 13, 1014 Copenhagen K,
462593CRJ14110.1177/1748895812462593Criminology & Criminal JusticeJefferson
Themed Section: Emerging Issues of Crime and Justice in Africa
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Jefferson 45
Confining institutions can be understood as sites where social power is a central dynamic
and where practices of power and knowledge, discipline and resistance, control and care
are key features (Butler, 2006; Casella, 2007; Diktter and Brown, 2007; Foucault, 1979;
Strange and Bashford, 2003). The idea that the dynamics and effects of confinement
observed in prisons might also feature in other social contexts is gaining ground. Loc
Wacquant (2000, 2001) has written about the deadly symbiosis created when prison
and ghetto (in the USA) meet and mesh. Zygmunt Bauman (2000) hints that the para-
digm of exclusion and logics of confinement and marginalization seen most clearly in
carceral contexts are not limited to such contexts. And more recent work by Da Cunha
(2008) in Portugal supports the idea that carcerality extends beyond the walls of state
institutions and pierces the heart of specific local neighbourhoods. This article shows
how material gathered in Sierra Leone, West Africa points in a similar direction. The
article explores two sites, namely, a prison and a camp within a poor urban neighbour-
hood. The point is not to compare them systematically but rather to juxtapose the dynam-
ics and characteristics of confinement. The article is divided into two parts, the first
theoretical where confinement is discussed as an analytic category and the second empir-
ical where examples are given of the topography of confinement in a prison and a poor
urban neighbourhood in Sierra Leones capital city, Freetown.
Sierra Leone is a small country of around six million inhabitants sandwiched between
Guinea and Liberia within the volatile Mano river region. Ranked consistently at or near
the bottom of the UNs development index Sierra Leone is most famous for its diamonds
and its civil war, a protracted affair which caused widespread anguish and disruption
between 1991 and 2002. Since the end of the so-called rebel war and subsequent elec-
tions, Sierra Leone has endured a gradual transition towards multi-party democracy,
including an election where an incumbent regime was defeated at the polls and handed
over power. The international community, through a variety of security and development
initiatives, led by the British, has played a central (though not unproblematic) role in
pushing an agenda of rule of law, human rights, poverty reduction and institutional
reform, especially of the justice sector. This article is set against this backdrop but does
not directly or indirectly address these initiatives. Rather, it focuses on the lives, situa-
tions and experiences of the implied beneficiaries of such programmes, namely the poor
who occupy the urban slums and the prisoners who occupy the prisons.
The article reflects an expansive transdisciplinary approach. Such an orientation,
where disciplinary boundaries are not the criteria used to evaluate the merits of the
argument, the observations or the style, has been demonstrated elsewhere (Motzkau
and Jefferson, 2009). Fieldwork, especially in prisons, especially under conditions of
exorbitant poverty is an intimate affair. The reader is encouraged to show tolerance if
the data presented occasionally have an intimate, personal feel. This is a product of a
slight over consciousness of the researchers position in the field rather than the
As already stated, the article features a theoretical discussion of the concept of
confinement illustrated with examples from a specific West African context. However,
it ought to be of interest to criminologists more generally, particularly those conscious
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46 Criminology & Criminal Justice 14(1)
of the extreme degree of western dominance in the field (Martin, Jefferson and
Bandyopadhyay, under review). The article makes a specific contribution to the litera-
ture on prisons, particularly to the very sparse literature on African prisons by attend-
ing to the dynamics and logics of confining practices in Sierra Leone. For too long
penal systems in Africa have been seen as too difficult to study or too underdeveloped
to compare meaningfully. For too long the scholarly work on Africa has assumed
Africa to be a bottomless abyss where everything is noise, yawning gap and primor-
dial chaos (Mbembe, 2001: 3). By presenting empirical data it is hoped that some of
these dubious assumptions might be laid to rest.
The theoretical purpose of the article is to explore whether an expansive notion of con-
finement might help us make sense of the lived experience of people whose possibilities
are limited materially, spatially and discursively. Exploring the lived experience of people
occupying poor neighbourhoods and prisons will allow us to reflect on the constitutive
relations between subjectivity and confinement. At stake are notions of social power and
freedom as well as what it means to be human. To what extent are we confined? To what
extent are we free? What exactly confines? And what liberates?
The aim is to expand our understandings of confinement beyond the icons of penal
incarceration, by exploring processes of confinement that cross institutional bounda-
ries (Casella and Fredericksen, 2004: 118). This is part of a search for a less prison/
state-centric orientation, a looser more multi-textured analytic frame (Armstrong and
McAra, 2006: 7). Attention will be turned not only to institutional sites but also to prac-
tices and states of being. Two fundamental relationships are under scrutiny, that between
institutions and non-institutions and that between confinement and subjectivity.
Confinement as Concept
Confinement is a term utilized in the criminological literature but it remains under-
theorized. It is often used as a simple noun, its meaning assumed, or as a straightfor-
ward synonym for incarceration or imprisonment. We can read of quality of confinement
(Lukemeyer and McCorkle, 2006; Perrone and Pratt, 2003), impact of confinement
(Thomas et al., 1981), consequences of penal confinement (Comfort, 2003), conditions
of confinement (Welch, 2010), forcible confinement (Mailloux and Serin, 2003), forced
confinement (Wacquant, 2000, 2001), coercive confinement (OSullivan and ODonnell,
2007), solitary confinement (Scharff Smith, 2008 ), supermax confinement (Naday et al.,
2008), use of confinement (Welch and Schuster, 2005 ), custodial confinement
(Macallair, 1994; Williams and Soutar, 1984), sovereign confinement (Howell, 2010),
community-oriented confinement (Burdman, 1969), prior confinement (Kassebaum et
al., 1964), institutional confinement (Wright, 1998), history of American confinement
(Kunzel, 2008). While the term is recurrent there is relatively little evidence of system-
atic reflection on its conceptual possibilities or its analytic power. The ambition of this
article is to allude to its theoretical potential in order to think more clearly about the
lived realities of marginalized citizen-subjects in a post-conflict setting characterized
by political volatility, exorbitant poverty and limited opportunities.
Harvard Professor Stanley Cavell (2007: xii) notes that the philosophical image or
myth of pervasive but hidden chains is represented throughout the history of philosophy
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Jefferson 47
in the works of Plato, Rousseau, Thoreau and Marx. The use of prison as a metaphor
has been widespread. Societies, homes, factories, barracks are variously portrayed as
prison-like. Navaro-Yashin (2003: 110) offers a graphic example: Expressing a feeling
of entrapment in a slice of territory, a man described his brief visit out of Northern
Cyprus as the permitted stroll of the prisoner in the courtyard to take some air. Some
even go so far as to suggest that life itself is a confined practice. It has boundaries, audi-
ence and architecture (terms borrowed from Armstrong and McAra, 2006). It is lived
within contours of control. Human subjects are always only more or less free. In the
words of anthropologist Jean Lave (forthcoming: 13, emphasis added),
I believe that we make our own history but not exactly as we might wish or intend. I take
social existence to be in part historically/spatially determined and in part made by people in
their interrelations and their interrelated struggles in the world.
What Nils Christie (1978) calls the imperialist tendency to call anything and every-
thing prison causes him to warn against hollowing out the concept of prison and forget-
ting the specificities of prison, its shame and its pain. The intention here is not to propose
that poor urban neighbourhoods are prisons as much as it is to point towards a broader
overarching concept of confinement which might capture some of the similarities and
differences across institutions and practices. Christies desire to specify details and deci-
pher difference is a backdrop to the analysis. The desire to develop a broader theoretical
orientation to confinement draws upon exactly Christies concern with the way those
who underuse and overuse the category prison seem to lack interest in the specific
characteristics of sites of confinement.
The analytic journey, represented here, towards recognizing the power of confine-
ment as a concept has, in this authors experience been a gradual and essentially empiri-
cal one. A field-based study of Nigerian prisons and prison staff resulted in a quite
specific orientation towards the everyday micro-climates that characterized the prisons.
In a subsequent project in Sierra Leone the focus broadened to detention practices
because of a desire to study state prisons and the ways in which rebels exerted control
and punished their members during the civil war. The experiences of a group of newly
released former rebels were examined and we learned how their experience of life
beyond prison was not so different from their experience of life within prison. Their
lives could be characterized as journeys through which they traversed sites of confine-
ment (Jefferson, 2010: 387). Their movement from prison to beyond prison was one
strand of a journey back and forth between prison, police detention and poor urban
neighbourhood experienced rather regularly by a certain segment of Freetown society.
This represents the expansion of an empirical field which might have been enough if we
only want to define the parameters of new empirical studies but it seems necessary to do
more. For example, to pose questions about what confinement really means and how con-
fining practices differ or are similar, especially for those subject to them. This orientation
to confinement resembles in a way an intriguing question posed by Mary Bosworth (2010,
2012) at the Conference of the British Society of Criminology in 2010. She asked what is
it about prison that makes it prison? What are the defining characteristics of prison? Is it
the walls and the wires and the security infrastructure? Is the prison best defined according
to purpose or to effect? Should we give primacy to intention or experience?
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48 Criminology & Criminal Justice 14(1)
Below work by Eleanor Casella (2007), Casella and Fredericksen (2004) and Mark
Halsey (2007) is presented as illustrative of scholarship which consciously and delib-
erately works with the concept of confinement. Halsey (2007: 338) is specifically
interested in the products and meanings of confinement, in the kind of subject which
confinement unwittingly produces. Casella and Fredericksens interest is in histories,
archaeologies and theories of confinement.
It is clearly important to attend to the dynamics of specific institutional contexts
(Armstrong and McAra, 2006: 21). While different sites of confinement and control are
not identical or interchangeable common frames of analysis can reveal important
cross-institutional patterns (Armstrong and McAra, 2006: 21). Pursuing a similar line
while writing about Australias diverse heritage sites Casella and Fredericksen (2004:
119, emphasis added) note that despite differences the theme of confinement can be
used to thread them all together into a unique strand of shared national experience.
Here, reference to a theme of confinement indicates the analytic work that the notion
of confinement does or can do.
Casella and Fredericksen subtly unpack the landscapes institutional and non-
institutional of confinement which they claim are central to understanding Australian
national identity. They trace how, in actual fact, despite popular misconceptions insti-
tutional confinement during the period of convict settlement was not that widespread
in Australia except as applied to the indigenous people: Institutional confinement
represented an atypical colonial experience (Casella and Fredericksen, 2004: 105). In
fact the convicts shipped off to Australia were subject to forced labour more than to
confinement. Through their historical analysis Casella and Fredericksen are led to
think about confinement in broader terms than the institution. The practice of labour
rather than the site of imprisonment was the confining mechanism. Archaeological
studies of the sites of convict labour enable Casella and Fredericksen (2004: 112) to
argue that these have become landscapes of confinement as much as they are repre-
sentations of early colonial governance. The prison has historically been a classic
feature of colonial governance. What is emphasized here is the way non-institutional
forms of confinement can equally be tools of control and regulation.
Similarly, but with reference to rural Sierra Leone, Mokuwa et al. (2011), in a recent
article on judicial serfdom, show that it is not the farm or the field which is a confining
site for the Sierra Leonean villager. It is rather labour and relations between elders and
youths which have significance. Basically, they argue, elders control the labour and
reproduction opportunities of cadets (2011: 360). In the Sierra Leonean village relations
of obligation, mediated via customary judicial processes or alternative dispute resolu-
tion, are examples of confining practices. These circumstances were seen as so oppres-
sive by some young men that joining the rebel movement became a viable escape route.
It allowed them to break free from a restrictive and customary institution namely the
agrarian marriage arrangement (2011: 343). Of interest here is the way the authors use
the concept judicial serfdom as related to practices and relationships resulting in limited
freedom and mobility (and creating a breeding ground for violent dissent). Echoing the
idea of judicial serfdom, Casella (2007: 87) makes an additional claim comparing non-
institutional and institutional confinement: the everyday experience of non-institutional
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Jefferson 49
agrarian enslavement may not have been materially dissimilar from that of penal
These studies suggest that to understand the experience of confinement we must look
not only at institutions or sites but also at practices and meanings, or more crucially at the
relations between sites, practices, social relations and subjectivity.
Having laid out a theoretical backdrop we can now turn to some empirical material
from Sierra Leone which casts further light on these relations. First, a note on
The empirical examples presented below are drawn mainly from seven months field-
work in Sierra Leone during 2006. The fieldwork formed part of a larger project on state
and non-state detention during and after war. Fieldwork included extensive time spent in
the company of, discussing with and interviewing former political prisoners and former
fighters in the rebel war (19912002), repeat visits to the Central Prison in Freetown for
observation and conversation, visits to seven of the 12 provincial prisons (including
interviews with senior members of prison staff) as well as participant observation in a
localized area of the Kroo Bay informal settlement throughout the seven months of field-
work. In addition, court hearings were attended where the slow grind of the wheels of
(in)justice was witnessed. Elsewhere, meetings were held with key actors in the justice
sector reform business.
The data are drawn then from systematic observation and field notes recorded in
Sierra Leone in 2006. Subsequent annual visits to key sites offered an opportunity to
meet with key informants as well as central actors in the prison reform business (for
example Prisons Watch, the Community Association for Psycho-Social Services (CAPS),
the Justice Sector Development Programme (JSDP)) and with the Prison Authorities.
These visits confirm the contemporary validity and ongoing relevance of the observa-
tions made and recorded in 2006. While there have been changes (e.g. a new prison
Director, some infrastructural improvements, a new magistrates court in Freetown, the
destruction by fire of the camp studied), the dynamics and logics of confinement
described here remain accurate.
Prisons and Poverty in Sierra Leone
The second part of this article gives, as promised, some glimpses of confining practices
across two sites: a prison and a poor urban neighbourhood. Giving a taste of the lived
experience of others inevitably poses epistemological as well as representational chal-
lenges. Field notes recorded at the time present the dilemmas of being in the field, the
ambiguity of the researchers position as well as the radical contingency of the research-
ers embodied presence. In an intriguing article about the experience of stateless persons
in Northern Cyprus, Navaro-Yashin (2003) writes of the need for an alternative language
for expressing the lived experience of exclusion (or confinement), a counter to the (F)
ully conscious, always rational, never lost. I wonder, he writes,
whether another sort of sensibility may keep us within the domain of the subjective experience
that the political generates so that we may sense it, catch hold of it as it fleets by or before it is
normalized, and write about it without flattening it into the rationalizing discourse of the social
sciences. (Navaro-Yashin, 2003: 109)
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50 Criminology & Criminal Justice 14(1)
What follows draws heavily on extensive field notes both to give a sense of immedi-
acy but also to allow the reader to sense the material as it fleets by.
There are 13 active prisons in Sierra Leone incarcerating around 2500 people. Of these
less than one-third are convicted and the vast majority are male. The largest prison is
in the capital Freetown. When built its capacity was 324. Today it typically houses
around 1000 prisoners. The prisons are centrally administered by the Sierra Leone
Prisons Service through a national headquarters (HQ) which falls under the Ministry
of Internal Affairs. There are also four regional command HQs. The main functions of
the prison are, in the official terminology, the safe custody of prison inmates, the wel-
fare of inmates and their reformation and rehabilitation. There are currently 1166
members of prison staff, 896 male and 270 female (Prisons Watch, personal commu-
nication). Prisoners are accused of crimes ranging from treason through homicide to
larceny and loitering. The prisons in Sierra Leone are, of course, examples of institu-
tional or spatial confinement. Inmates are confined in and confined within by walls
and wires, gates and guards. We might also say they are relationally confined in the
sense that they are subject to share cramped quarters, sleep, eat and spend time with
people not of their own choosing. Possibilities for interaction with family members
and friends are limited though on a day to day basis most prisoners spend long periods
unlocked in the company of fellow prisoners, inside or outside cell blocks. Extensive
periods of association and exercise serve to distinguish the Sierra Leonean prison from
the generic image of a western prison. Another distinction is the custom of dormitory
accommodation. Living a life in conditions of intimate proximity with others is a key
characteristic of confinement in prisons. But what does it mean to have a life in a
Sierra Leonean prison? Commenting on a football match in Central Prison, Freetown
field notes record:
The opportunity for competitive exercise and the associated tiredness and aches and pains
likely remind prisoners that they are alive, that they have a life, that they are alive despite the
curtailments on that life. The playing of football seems to introduce a hint of normality into
everyday prison life. It evokes groans and cheers from spectators, a sense of identification with
something outside of themselves, a break with what I imagine is a sense of aloneness. (Field
note, 30 May 2006)
Looking back it is doubtful whether aloneness is the key characteristic of the prison
experience. As mentioned above the institutional set up of the prison means it is actually
a strikingly social institution filled with exchanges, pressures and obligations to manoeu-
vre and negotiate in order to procure the goods, services and alliances necessary to sur-
vive. A more accurate reflection of the Sierra Leonean prison experience would be to
characterize it in terms of uncertainty, limbo and ontological insecurity (Jefferson, 2010,
2011). There is an inbuilt paradox to confinement in the Sierra Leonean prison. It is
undoubtedly a confining experience but the boundaries are unclear and undefined. In
temporal terms confinement is elastic, that is, in experiential terms, often perpetual and
indefinite. The former fighters who were released in January 2006 after six years in
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Jefferson 51
prison (no case to answer declared the judge finally) were held in temporal conditions
with no outer limit. For many prisoners there is no fixed end point to the experience.
The early period of incarceration is particularly stressful. Many speak of their anxie-
ties about being held incommunicado, about family members not knowing where they
are or even that that they have been arrested. One prisoner approached me with a note to
deliver to a family member. He wrote:
___ ____ please I Abdul is asking you to come to court on 020506. I have seen my lawyer but
you are to be there for him to speed up. Please try to help me. Greet ____ ____ for me.
____ _____
From prison
This is not out of concern for worrying parents but in the interests of release. Without
outside help there is no guarantee that release or even a court case will ensue. If nobody
knows their plight no-one will act to expedite the case. The experience of prolonged
uncertainty or judicial limbo is a real and strong one even for new arrivals. This is dem-
onstrated most clearly in the anxieties associated with court attendance and the regular
shows of disorder associated with the failure of the prison authorities to deliver prisoners
to court on schedule.
One such drama unfolded in the gate lodge one morning. Three high profile prisoners
had already been protesting in their cells in order to get taken to court. Later one of them
described how they had been ready to string the man (a prison officer) up by his prover-
bials and to smash in the gate. In the gate lodge the senior prisoner shouted in frustra-
tion: This is the third time we have not been to court, the third bloody time so called
treason trial Later, after court and the refusal of bail, we sat together in the special
quarters (old female) where the three were held in segregation. Field notes record how
he laughs about the tragedy of the whole situation, noting that one day maybe he will be
able to laugh about the whole business, suggesting his current laugh is no laugh at all
(field note, 17 July 2006). On the same rather tense occasion the older man shared how
he still could not get used to the lock being turned in the evening hours. As noted, even
after six months the most confining aspect of his daily routine still gets to him (field
note, 17 July 2006).
Other examples of prisoners having to fight the authorities in order to attend court
were witnessed. One of these disputes pointed to the deeply inter-personal nature of
confinement in the form of being under anothers control, of relinquishing autonomy
through being under the jurisdiction and command of a state official. A dispute overheard
in the gate house resulted in the inmate refusing to eat food served by the officer he was
quarrelling with out of fear he might subsequently be poisoned. More or less trivial dis-
putes can result in mortal fears.
This idea of being confined by somebody, of having ones routines regulated by a
specific other, is closely related to experiences of inner confinement, that is, to emotional
states, and fears about what one might be subject to. Material experience is linked to
subjective experience. Cohen and Taylors (1981 [1972]) question remains pertinent: Is
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52 Criminology & Criminal Justice 14(1)
adaptation to conditions and circumstances a sign of deterioration or of adaptive coping?
The biggest fear expressed by former fighters who lost comrades during their six years
in prison was giving in to despair. In their narratives, deaths in custody were unequivo-
cally a result of comrades giving up. The relation between the material and the subjective
is also illustrated by this authors experiences of confinement within the prison. The fol-
lowing example shows the strong relation between actual physical confinement and an
existential state of confinement:
I went to leave after staying longer than planned with the three treason trialists But I could
not get out. The orderly had gone for food and was no doubt standing in a queue in the kitchen,
so I retreated to the veranda a slight feeling of claustrophobia and containment bugging at me,
pressing at my chest, a surge of confinement. Here I was slightly off limits together with the
treason trialists, those threatened with plotting the assassination of the Vice President and the
overthrow of the state. And here I was stuck inside the walls. Coincidence or conspiracy? (Field
note, 11 July 2006)
Here, seeping paranoia was partly informed by a slightly covert approach to this small
group of sensitive prisoners. In the interest of not being refused, permission had not been
sought. But it was clear that there was a risk that the authorities might not have looked
too kindly on the British researcher hanging out with their most high profile and politi-
cally controversial prisoners.
One way in which to think about the limits of confinement is to consider issues of
mobility. As already mentioned prisoners are relatively mobile within the prison. Some
are also engaged in supervised labour outside the prison. Still others are reportedly
released on a daily basis to carry out their own business in the town on the condition
that they return in the evening. In an evocative article about relationality, mobility, space
and movement Philip Vannini (2011: 250) explores the constellations of (im)mobility
characteristic of the lives of people living on islands. He identifies isolation and insula-
tion as hallmarks of islandness and proposes a concept of remove to refer to the
degree or stage of separation influencing motion between locations (2011: 252). Mobility
is certainly an issue in relation to confinement and to prison, both in terms of its restric-
tion by walls and gates but also at the level of daily interactions between inmates and
staff. Attention to the micro-dynamics of embodied interactions suggests there are subtle
ways of resisting restrictions on movement and that motion between locations is not
totally fixed, as illustrated below.
Much as I avoided the gaze of the old officer yesterday to facilitate my own change in location
when prisoners want to move through spaces potentially off limits they occupy the micro-
territory around the officer in particular ways. A man I watch moves through from remand
section diagonally across gate lodge towards the reception exit. He is challenged by the
gatekeeper but simultaneous with the challenge about where he thinks he is going the prisoner
steps sideways and turns his body (almost spinning) such that he has come past the officer
situating himself closer to his hoped for destination than to his place of origin. The officer is
forced to extend his arm very wide and stretch it very long to indicate the way in which he
wants the prisoner to limit his movement. The language is clear Go Back but the space has
already been occupied. The officer is at a disadvantage and is put on the defensive. Notably face
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Jefferson 53
to face confrontation is avoided by the spinning movement of the prisoner. The gatekeeper
remains seated at least at first. In the end the prisoner is permitted to move through to reception
ostensibly to check the date of his court appearance. But after 5 minutes he is ordered back into
his own section by the gatekeeper who goes looking for him. They just come to loiter he says.
(Field note, 12 July 2006)
Vannini (2011: 258) portrays islands as places of geographic marginality where dis-
tance, separation and connection are performed spatially and temporally and where the
negative aspect of islandness, namely isolation is an affective experience marked by
vulnerability, marginality, and inescapability. The prison is, of course, at one level quali-
tatively different to the island in the sense that prisoners are objects of the performance
of spatial and temporal distance to a greater degree than they are agents of that perfor-
mance. They are distanced and removed from society (though as we saw above they are
also mobile performing agents). The point is prisoners are separated and connected
through their own actions but chiefly through the actions, policies and discourses of oth-
ers. Quoting Weale, Vannini (2011: 255) writes:
when you live here for long, you take the island inside, deep inside. You become an Islander,
which is to say a creature of the Island. Islandness becomes a part of your being, a part as deep
as marrow, and as natural and unselfconscious as breathing.
Clearly spatial arrangements, performances of distance and remove are particularly sig-
nificant for subjectivity within sites of confinement.
These reflections on mobility, separation and connection serve as a useful link to the
experience of the occupants of the urban slum. To what degree does it make sense to
speak of their lives as similarly or differently confined? What follows is a topography of
confinement in a poor urban neighbourhood.
Poor Urban Neighbourhoods
Within the urban neighbourhood which became one of the key sites for this research the
residents experienced confinement in a number of ways. The stakes were high as sug-
gested by the following field note written after attending the burial of a very young child:
Tears gather in the outer corners of my eyes but evaporate before they fall. Tears of humidity.
Tears of futility. Tears in the landscape of grief I felt trapped between competing discourses
on health, illness and well being. Not called to arbitrate or judge. Just called to care, and to
donate Did they know she would die? They have watched her suffer and deteriorate, kept her
condition secret. They saw her pain. Now they grieve. I only saw the father, heading the
procession of men (walking) at marching speed through the neighbourhood, across the bridge
the brother of his wife following, Isatu, wrapped in a prayer mat, held in his arms.
On the way home from the burial one of the young men complained I too want to die; I am so
tired. (Field note, 2 June 2006)
These fragments and those that follow can hardly do justice to the lived experiences of
coping with exorbitant poverty and the uncertain daily struggles of life and death in the
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54 Criminology & Criminal Justice 14(1)
camp. The aim was to try to understand the everyday lives of residents in the slum
neighbourhood. How are lives organized, configured and lived? How is the community
governed? How are rule-breakers punished? How is authority instantiated and social
control practised? Who controls which spaces when? An explanation about the broader
focus of the study invited the following response from an early gatekeeper: life in the
neighbourhood was made up of young men hanging out, hustling, smoking weed, not
having much chop (food). While not inaccurate this was clearly a minimalist account.
Material, Spatial and Discursive Confinement
The following examples show how confinement was expressed and experienced in the
camp: (1) materially, in terms of lack of opportunity and insecurity; (2) spatially; and (3)
discursively and symbolically. In the conclusion these dimensions are supplemented by
consideration of the temporal confinement of both camp and prison.
Camp dwellers are confined materially through poverty and lack of opportunity
though these particular camp residents do not fit the caricature of jobless, idle young
men. Indeed most of them are working in some way or other, and a proportion of resi-
dents were neither men nor that young. But they do all share livelihoods which are far
from certain and certainly insecure:
An elderly man shunts a barrow filled with refuse, shoulders hunched, hat down over ears. He
comes from the roadside all the way to the shoreline where it is dumped. I ask whether work is
hard. He says its not work. He has no work. The refuse collection is just something he does for
small thing and gestures with his hand in a manner implying rattling coins. The refuse is
dumped where the pigs roam and the kids mess about, tossed and turned by the waves. (Field
note, 2 February 2006)
Everyday life features a variety of forms of subsistence employment, which typically
feature movement from and to the camp as goods are acquired, sold and exchanged.
Only three out of 39 respondents to a brief household survey I conducted characterized
themselves as unemployed or in their terms doing nuttin. Irregular work and informal
trading are the commonest livelihood strategies. Pre-made food for instant consumption,
second-hand clothes and household items/toiletries are among typically traded com-
modities. The women especially wake early to prepare olele or rice which they spend the
best part of 12 hours trying to sell on the city streets. Others claim to be electricians,
carpenters, barbers or the like, though work in this field is often sporadic and hard to
come by. Pig-rearing and slaughtering is one highly visible form of local industry, the
pigs roaming and feeding off the dumped garbage on the seashore. Others work in the
police or the army or as drivers while others facilitate the drug-trade or arrange local
football tournaments. Rumours that the young women in the camp engage in sex work
to supplement the meagre incomes acquired through trading commodities are rife.
Similarly the trade in cannabis is a dominant feature of the everyday landscape ostensi-
bly smoked to ward off hunger or to keep heads calm.
Insecurity is a feature of their material confinement in at least two senses. In the first
instance the residences are part of illegal settlements and rumours circulate regularly
that the land will be confiscated and they will be made homeless. But powers stronger
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Jefferson 55
than the local city council also threaten their homes, namely the powers of the rainy
season. Flooding is a perennial threat. The rain exacerbates the day to day sufferings of
the residents. Rooms leak, alleys flood, temperatures drop, confusions and palavers
XXX complained of the fact that he had not had food. (T)he mother of one of his children
came sidling up to the room during a pause in the storm, left slightly ashamed (according to
XXX) because she could not fight him due to my presence. She has been bothering him for
money all morning, he says. He has nothing. He showed me a wound on his head that she gave
him with a stone. The rainy weather creates confusion between men and their girlfriends,
explained YYY. (Field note, 19 June 2006)
Business opportunities are reduced. The possibilities for movement on which hustling is
dependent are limited by the rain. At the same time frustrations are enhanced as people
are forced inside rooms which leak, revealing their impotence to alter their own situation,
even to provide a roof over their own heads.
In the second instance, life also features personal insecurity. Life is risky if not out-
right dangerous. The camp was founded by former streetboys known for their rough
criminal lifestyles and a significant number of the residents have first-hand experience
of the civil war or are traumatized by it in some way. While they distance themselves
from streetboy culture the camp is known as a rough place where bad boys hang out,
especially after dark.
The camp is predominantly self-policed. Rules of conduct (no bad language, no
fighting) and punishments (mostly fines) are posted on the walls of the socializing
shelters. Conduct is governed but somewhat arbitrarily. There was certainly plenty of
bad language and fighting which was going unpunished. In the case of theft a quite
explicit violent authority is enacted involving a public hearing and, if the person is
determined guilty, a public flogging.
In contrast to the prison there are no physical barriers keeping people in or out, though
there are practices which police and thereby reveal spatial markers. The camp, like
the prison, features practices of surveillance. For example, informal security networks
(youths patrolling) were adept at monitoring who was in the camp, also across the wider
neighbourhood of which the camp is just a small part. One slightly troubling incident (for
me) illustrates the reach of the eyes of the camp. During a return visit to Sierra Leone
after the first period of fieldwork my former research assistants (one a camp dweller
himself, the other a founding member of the camp and former soldier) and I headed to
the camp. Rather foolishly, rather than paying a courtesy call on the Chairman and head-
ing straight for the camp I chose to visit a young woman (former resident) in another part
of the neighbourhood. As I sat with her, just readying to leave, a posse of the camps
biggest, toughest-looking members appeared demanding why I had not yet made it to
their camp. It was a vivid reminder both of the high visibility of the researcher and the
reach of their vision.
While the vision of the camp is wide-ranging the camps catchment area is very
limited. The vast majority of camp dwellers are born within just a few kilometres of the
camp. During the period of fieldwork only a few new residents arrived. The population
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56 Criminology & Criminal Justice 14(1)
is relatively static. Listening to their talk of the long-hoped for windfall which would
mean they could pursue their dream of escape it was hard not to hear a sense that they
really felt destined never to move beyond the actual. There were no realistic horizons of
The discursive expression of confinement was revealed rather vividly during a con-
versation with the Chairman of the camp (sometimes known as the campmaster). He
showed how the occupants of the camp were confined by a self-stigmatizing discourse.
The researchers presence often invoked discussion of western Europe or America,
places to which enormous significance was granted, places imbued with fantasy based
often on rumour and hearsay or glorified accounts channelled back second or third hand
via relatives who had escaped to the West. In the context of one such discussion the
Chairman suddenly revealed his particular take on a hierarchization of humanity: first
God, then the white man, then the black man. I regret my colour, he said, I regret being
born black. Ill at ease with this characterization I sought to deny the attribution of race-
based superiority uncomfortably aware that in my interlocutors eyes I was evidence for
his thesis: internationally mobile, relatively affluent and successful, choosing voluntarily
to spend time in the ghetto in contrast to his relative poverty, confinement and daily
struggle to create a livelihood. Putting this fact aside we can still see his comments as
part of a discourse of self-stigmatization, a process of self-attribution involving shame, a
sense of unworthiness and a sense of heaviness (Mathiassen, 2009: 235). This sense of
heaviness was represented by ghetto dwellers as a burden or a struggle: we are suffer-
ers, they regularly claimed, once again situating themselves near the bottom of a hierar-
chy of victimhood. The camp masters remarks and the appropriation of negative
stereotypes by inhabitants of the ghetto suggest an internalization of racial and societal
exclusionary stereotypes (see also Bauman, 2000).
Some months later a rather different performance was enacted and I use the theatri-
cal metaphor advisedly it was drama. The Chairman was often quite loud, even melo-
dramatic. Sometimes he was just high from smoking the djamba which was the
dominant form of trade in the camp or from consuming the small sachets of gin or
whisky that were drunk for breakfast by at least some of the young men. (One of them
was nicknamed after the brand of the liquor because of his heavy consumption.) Other
times his loudness was just an expression of his personality and the authority he had in
the camp:
It is surprisingly the campmaster in his characteristic uncompromising verbal style who pays
me my biggest compliment so far. His speech kind of comes flying out, a hasty monotone, a
verbal barrage. Its form is so aggressive I fear I may have misinterpreted kind words on previous
occasions. He asks me rhetorically: do you know why we like you here in the camp? and
goes on to reveal, its because you come and join us, treat us like brothers, not like others who
think we live in the dirt who would prefer to avoid us, you come and are with us, you join in
our burials. This at least was the drift. (Field note, 3 July 2006)
There is a certain complementarity between the latter discursive performance and the
former. While the former implies a harsh reality of projected and real difference the latter
represents acknowledgement of the importance of commonality. Joining their burials
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Jefferson 57
became a sign that the researcher does not see them as living in the dirt at the same time
as it is a transgression of the perceived boundaries that separate.
Residents are confined not only by their own self-stigmatizing discourse but also by
the opinions others have of them and the rumours and myths that exist about them. As
already mentioned the camp was known as a hang out for bad boys. The overwhelm-
ingly dangerous image the camp seemed to have, remained unclear compared with
other much more dubious (to my mind) neighbourhoods. But it was certainly a powerful
Conclusion: Unsettled Restlessness and the Confines
of Time
Encounters with occupants of prisons and poor urban neighbourhoods in Sierra Leone
lend support to Wacquants analysis and Baumans hunch that there are important resem-
blances between different types of confining sites and practices, not least at the level of
personal experience and subjectivity. While Wacquants account focuses mostly on soci-
etal and structural dynamics Bauman is more concerned with the effects of carceral and
pseudo-carceral spaces on people. Both orientations are significant, though Baumans
orientation towards people resonates (not surprisingly) most strongly with the experi-
ence of the informants in this study and with the experience of the researcher. As already
mentioned, confinement was also a feature of the researchers encounter with the field.
Paradoxically, this is perhaps best revealed by a desire to keep moving. Field notes
record the following:
It is still a learning curve for me to be outside the confines of the four walls of state institutions.
My interest in travelling/accompanying/moving with informants may also be seen as a concern
with inbetweenness, a desire to be on the move, tracking, strolling, always in a process of
arrival and departure, never settling long enough to become unsettled a kind of non-
intentional restlessness. To what degree does this restlessness reflect the participation in
practice of these young men with whom my research is concerned? (Field note, 8 March 2006)
This reflection on movement and unsettled restlessness is perhaps a strange place to end
given the orientation to confinement and limits. But constellations of (im)mobility
(Vannini, 2011) do seem to infuse the spaces and practices portrayed. Most significantly,
the lives of inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods and prisons are animated by a radical
desire to escape. The tragedy is perhaps that to draw on Halsey (2007: 360) confinement
is about incapacitation a rendering still or physical capturing of otherwise volatile and
problematic bodies. Or, appropriating the words of Casella (2007: 34) what we
observe in the poor neighbourhoods and prisons of Sierra Leone are practices and sites
for the storage of ambiguously defined non-citizens (emphasis added).
Confinement, inescapability, rendering still, storage and incapacitation: these are all
terms representing limits to freedom. This is no accident. Notwithstanding contemporary
trends to reify mobility, agency, manoeuvring and so on, the reality is that lives in prison
and lives in urban poverty are constrained. Even coping mechanisms might be seen as
deterioration rather than overcoming or transcending conditions of existence. The
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58 Criminology & Criminal Justice 14(1)
conditions for the exercise of existence (Mbembe, 2001) are limited. Eleanor Casella
(2007: 2) argues that social power is a central element of institutional confinement, (W)
hether defined as an oppositional relationship of domination and resistance, as an embod-
ied engagement with institutional regulations and rituals, or as a subversive means for
minimizing the everyday pains of confinement. The question of whether the camp is
an institution and how exactly it is similar to or different from the prison remains open
but it is certainly true that social power is, like in the prison, a central element of camp
life be it defined in terms of domination and resistance, engagement with rituals and
regulations or in relation to strategies of survival. It does seem true that seen through the
analytic lens of confinement the prison and the poor neighbourhood have much in com-
mon. Perhaps one of the most striking realms in which there is a similarity relates to the
temporal perspective. Spatially we can identify qualitative differences between camp
and prison but in terms of temporal experience occupants of both seem to be subject to a
similar unlimited horizon. Time itself confines not through a limit or a fixed sentence but
paradoxically through the lack of a limit. Especially for those undergoing trial or await-
ing trial in prison (the majority) there is only prolonged uncertainty. Similarly, for those
occupying the camp there is no final horizon of opportunity. Time (for the realization of
dreams and aspirations) is out of reach.
I would like to thank members of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social
Control who witnessed a presentation of this article at their annual conference in Chambery
and colleagues at RCT who provided important input at a vital stage: Steffen Jensen, Stine
Finne Jakobsen, Emilija Zabilit, Dan Hirslund, Jacob Rasmussen, Claus Kold and Morten
K. Andersen. Special thanks to Tomas Martin for always convivial interactions and encour-
agement about prisons and Africa. Thanks to the anonymous reviewers for provocations and
1. For further thoughts on the neglect of the global south in scholarly work on prisons see www.; Martin, Jefferson and Bandyopadhyay (under review) and the introduction to
this issue.
2. For another view from beyond criminology see Martin and Mitchelson (2009) on geographies
of confinement.
3. It is possible that my own feelings of fear, shame and illegitimacy partly mirror the feelings of
prisoners as they conduct their more or less confined lives.
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Author biography
Andrew M Jefferson specializes in the study of prisons beyond the West and is co-founder
of the Global Prisons Research Network. Currently he is engaged in a practice research
project together with organizations in the Philippines, Kosovo and Sierra Leone looking
at the entangled encounters between prisons and reform agencies.