Economic Turmoil in Prison. A Contribution to the History of Economic Relationships behind Bars (1920s-1930s, France)

Elsa Genard, Harvard University

This presentation reflects on the impact of economic turmoil in prison life in Interwar France. While there is a body of work on the organization of work in prison in the 19th century and on the links between markets and carceral systems at large, the question of how economic crises impact the economic prison life remains underexplored. Did the crisis reshape the economic relationships behind the walls? This paper aims to answer this question based on the case study of the Fontevrault prison. Located in the West of France, this facility opened in 1814 in what was previously an abbey. It hosted between 700 and 1000 male inmates. Its archives have been perfectly preserved after it closed at the beginning of the 1960s, which allows for a highly detailed ground-level perspective on the prison’s economic life, particularly on work conditions and consumption within the walls. There are two main issues at stake in this paper. The first is measuring the crisis. Using administrative reports as well as figures from the Statistique Pénitentiaire, I try to put forward quantitative measures of the phenomenon. Through the unemployment rate, wages, and work organization, we can show that the 1920s and 1930s were a period of drastic changes. Using canteen prices, I show that purchasing power was severely eroded over the period under consideration. The second aim of the paper is to analyze how the different actors involved in the process of imprisonment responded to the new economic difficulties that occurred in detention. By focusing on how the rates of prisoners’ wages became a source of tension between private entrepreneurs and the prison administration, I will show that the level of pay for work was less of a priority than the level of employment.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 177. Crime, Justice and the Law