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GLOBAL PRISONS AND PRISON LIFE
Workshop with Students from Universities and Institutions in Geneva, Marburg, and Cologne

Introduction

On November 19, 2021, an online workshop “Global Prisons and Prison Life” was held with students from universities and institutions in Genève, Marburg, and Cologne. The workshop, co-hosted by the MENA Prison Forum (MPF), brought together students and professors from three different classes taught at the respective institutions that focused on carcerality and prisons around the world. Students had the opportunity to share ongoing research they had developed during their Masters or PhD research. After a brief introduction of the three co-hosts Stephan Milich (University of Cologne), Mina Ibrahim (University of Marburg and the MPF) and Basil Farraj (Graduate Institute, Geneva and the MPF), five students presented their work. The first three presentations respectively addressed the history of Islamic prisons, critical prison theory in light of abolition movements, and ethnological approaches to boundaries in Indian prisons. After a break the workshop continued with two presentations, both of which analyzed gendered perspectives of incarceration and prisons. All presentations were followed by brief rounds of discussions and questions to facilitate information exchange between the participants. The workshop concluded with a session for open discussion about the role of prison studies, publishing, and different ways forward.

Guiding questions and topics

Stephan Milich followed by Basil Farraj, and Mina Ibrahim opened the floor with several leading questions which guided the discussions throughout the day. The questions probed thinking on issues such as how to avoid Eurocentrism while also not overlooking tyrannical behavior of leaders; how to explore links and entangled history that connects prisons throughout history, theory, and geography; and how to best frame research on contemporary prisons, not only in the MENA region but also beyond. They also offered more practical guiding questions, such as what should and can be done on addressing prisons across activist and academic levels? Building on the three “As” of the MPF -  academia, activism, and art - the workshop opened up questions about a whole variety of topics: power, trauma, culture, gender, sexuality, and theory, and discussed them all in the intersection of these three “As”. 

Michelle Gromek: “Prisons in (early) Islamic History”

Michelle Gromek highlighted through an overview on prisons and incarceration that there were two main evolutions in early Islamic prisons. The first being that most prisoners during the pre-Islamic Jahiliyyah period, were prisoners of war and prisons in the sense of how we conceive of them today in their physical spaces barely existed. The second being that the role of prisons and incarceration changed with centralization of power. With this transformation came the rise in popularity of political imprisonments among leaders and began to be used to gain political leverage and achieve political goals. 

During the following discussion Mina Ibrahim noted that there are quite a few similarities between early Islamic and early Christian prisons, and that it might be fruitful to compare their respective influences on each other. On another note, Stephan Milich asked about the trope of miracles and tales of miracles in prisons, and the role they played in early Islamic history, especially for religious scholars. A focus on this could produce fruitful analysis in the sense that imprisonment is a time of isolation, loneliness, and suffering, which all play a part in theological asceticism - not just in Islam, but in other religions as well.

Clara Palmisano: “Transformative Justice and the Abolitionist Movement Today: Rethinking International Human Rights Law and Justice”  

Presenting part of her initial research for her Masters thesis, Clara Palmisano showed different theoretical connections between the abolitionist movement and the theoretical movement of transformative justice. Departing from her observation that academia is always a few years behind on-the-ground developments, she explored how organizational structures, such as those based around human rights, could fruitfully engage with the abolitionist movement. 

One element Basil Farraj proposed was to get “in front of the problem” of academia’s slow reaction time by considering ways to link art and academia. Or to put it differently, to take the connection of the three “As” of the MPF seriously. This proposition comes from the observation that most methods of resistance come from arts and directly affected communities, and therefore academia should follow this lead. In a related element, participant Dr. Anne-Marie McManus emphasized the importance of the aspect of translation between the communities where resistance is occurring. Since these communities are small and regional on the one hand, but also part of a global and interconnected movement on the other, it might be fruitful to think of those interconnections especially via social media and the connections between art and academia as forms of translation. 

Riddhi Gyan Pandey: "Sharing Life Across Prison Boundaries: Proposing an Ethnography of Social Connections of Incarcerated Persons in Indian Prisons”

Presenting parts of her PhD research, Riddhi Gyan Pandey elaborated on her findings on the situation in India, her conceptual framework, and some further ideas she is currently exploring to better understand her focus area. Starting from an understanding of incarceration as a social issue, she intends to work with the two concepts of social death by Lisa Guenther and Joshua Price, as well as the concept of secondary prisonization and the courtesy stigma by Erving Goffman and Megan Comfort. Especially regarding the latter,  the idea of porousness of prison walls or borders is of particular interest for her. As she puts it, we should stop thinking of prisons as necessarily watertight entities, and therefore change our conceptualization of this paradigm. Basil Farraj subsequently inquired if she thinks that since prisons are constructed as social death and inmates are rebelling against it, could this mean that social death could kill porousness as a concept. Quite on the contrary, she replied that she doesn’t think that social death will cancel porousness: she said: “the state is trying to kill people, but they still survive.” To discuss this idea of porousness across these levels theoretically is a current challenge to her thesis. 

Lukas Walesch: “The Subman - Sexualized Violence Against Men in the Novel 'The Shell' by Muṣṭafā Ḫalīfa”

“Welcome to Tadmor, where god cannot enter without the permission of Hafiz al-Assad.” This dystopian quote from the entrance of the prison in Tadmor, Syria, sums up very well the atmosphere in the novel “The Shell” by Mustafa Khalifa. Lukas Walesch presented literature analysis on the representation of sexualized violence against men in this book: mostly using the concept of hegemonic masculinities by Raewyn Connel, he explained the use of sexualized violence against men in the novel is a gendered performance of masculinity as developed by Judith Butler. Departing from this hypothesis, he outlined alternative ways to consider more fully aspects of trauma, such as exploring the violence in the novel through Gayatri Spivak´s concept of enabling violation. However, he asserted that any analysis that aims to explain sexualized violence needs to contend with ideas of a performance of masculinity, since masculinity is again located in the stereotypical ideas of power and violence the violence is located in and aims to deconstruct in the first place. 

Chiara Burgard: “The Role of Dr. Shirin al-Abed in Fauda – Do Palestinian Women Need Saving?”

Chiara Burgard presented her findings from a course paper on the role of women, specifically looking at the role of Dr. Shirin al-Abed in the Netflix series “Fauda.” Looking at the Palestinian context, incarceration can be seen across on several levels, ranging from and including fences, violence, and harassment, but also patriarchy, (neo)colonialism and poverty. She showed how the colonial influence in the Israeli – Palestinian relationship is mirrored in the gender relationship. She also suggests that the suicide of Shirin in the end of the series is a form of (re)claimancy of agency, and that such acts should be analyzed more closely in marginalized contexts. Questioning if suicide is in fact the highest form of freedom, Basil Farraj emphasized the importance of the aspect of racialization of incarceration in the Palestinian struggle, ad he stressed that the racist colonial project must be at the forefront of understanding of the structure of violence in this context. Stephan Milich added that it might be of interest to compare the series “Fauda” with Saadallah Wannous’ 1990 drama “The Rape”.

Final discussion and concluding remarks

The last section of the workshop consisted of some concluding remarks followed by some ideas and propositions on how to move on from here. In the concluding remarks, there were two topics which were further discussed. The first, made especially strong by Stephan Milich, was the relationship of a culture, and masculinity, of social care. His proposition was that the culture of care is aimed against social death and could be a form of rehumanizing masculinity. The second topic focused more strongly on the relationship and interactions of creative and academic output, and activistic goals. Riddhi Gyan Pandey asked about the difference between truth and fiction and how they relate, especially when it comes to tales of extreme violence and hardship out of the incarcerated experience. Basil Farraj agreed with her  that the spread and dissemination of knowledge goes both ways: especially with such sensitive topics such as prisons and incarceration, it is even more important to think about how you write about it. But at the same time Anne-Marie McManus also noted that it depends on how you see the role and function of literature in society.

Concerning the possibilities and ideas to move forward, Stephan Milich proposed the idea that it might be fruitful to co-teach one joint class across two different universities: for example one in Cologne and one in a university in the Middle East or elsewhere in the global south. Mina Ibrahim emphasized the importance of publishing and interacting with other individuals working on related topics, in order to build connections and to realize you are not alone in engaging with those emotionally draining topics. He also concluded with a passionate appeal to keep research in this field political and embedded in people’s relationships and interactions. Basil Farraj concurred with Mina Ibrahim’s comments that the academic work must be political, because the struggle against incarceration and suppression is actively ongoing on the ground. For the next workshop of this kind, he suggested that it would be important to link academics, practitioners, and former prisoners in the global south, especially on the topic of memory.

The several concluding comments centered around the use of the MPF as a forum for engagement: Mina Ibrahim stated the on-going possibility to publish reflections or academic papers on the MPF website, and Anne-Marie McManus suggested establishing an online reading group with MPF to read and discuss relevant literature on incarceration. She also mentioned the following network (see here) that may be of interest to participants of this workshop. 

Short reflection and conclusion

As a participant, I found the workshop interesting and illuminating. It was a good mixture between historical and theoretical background knowledge, but also broad enough regarding the case studies to think about the different questions posed at the beginning in on a less abstract level. However, I would have wished for more time for discussion and reflection. The workshop was well managed and moderated concerning time, but therefore it was difficult develop ideas more fully and I had the feeling the time constraints held people back a bit. It was also very interesting to have presentations by different levels of experience and expertise; I would have wished for at least one presentation by a professor as well to connect all levels of research on these issues. For future workshops it might be fruitful to also have practitioners presenting their work or projects to better understand where there could be connections between academia and activism: or to round it up,  to take the three “As” of the MPF seriously and in practice.

Report prepared by Lucas Walesch, and edited by Stella Peisch

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