Sport for all, all forced!

While a conventional prisoner can spend 22 hours in a cell, the project for the Lavaur juvenile prison offered 60 hours of weekly activities when it opened, including 20 hours of sport. A fine idea on paper, but in practice it turns prison logic on its head, transforming movement into constraint.

In 2007, when Rachida Dati was Minister of Justice, the first juvenile prisons (EPM) appeared, gradually replacing the juvenile wards located in conventional prisons. " The legitimization of these EPMs by the public authorities was based, among other things, on the question of the porosity between major and minor quarters, and on the difficulties for educators from thePJJ to ensure educational continuity in prisons", explains Laurent Solini.1sociologist with the Santesih research team and author of numerous studies on the detention experiences of adolescents incarcerated in juvenile prisons.

Life of a "standard" teenager

The first thing that sets the EPMs apart is their slogan : "You can't learn life in prison". But how can we offer a real chance of reintegration to these young people aged 13 to 18, while at the same time removing them from society for the duration of their sentence? Faced with this ontological contradiction of the prison institution, the EPM propose to reproduce the standard life of a teenager in prison. "So as a sociologist, I ask myself, what's a standard adolescent life?" The answer is a 60-hour-per-week schedule divided into three parts: 20 hours of school, 20 hours of socio-cultural practices and 20 hours of sports. " We can already see the emergence of a vision of the so-called "lambda" teenager, whose lifestyles are very similar to those of young people from the most legitimate and upper social classes," continues the researcher.

To carry out his ethnographic fieldwork, Laurent Solini entered the Lavaur EPM through the sports he accompanied the young people in between 2007 and 2009. The facility accommodates between 30 and 40 boys for a maximum of 5 girls. The sports mainly revolve around soccer, weight training and stretching. "It's a constant in the prison world: the fantasy that sport can re-educate, reintegrate and re-socialize. Except that 20 hours of sport a week for young people who are not top-level athletes is an enormous amount! In our interviews, these young people testify to the exhaustion and fatigue caused by this "economy of hyperactivity", by this constraint of activity that operates a prison-like reversal. "They don't associate fatigue with being locked up in a cell like in other prisons, but with having to do sports when they don't feel like it, when they've already done 6 hours of group activities and would like to be left alone for a while.

The body made visible

This pressure is accentuated by the special architecture of the EPM, which features a large open-air courtyard at the heart of the facility, where some of the sporting activities take place. Cells, media library, school, weight room, administration - every area of the prison is equipped with large windows overlooking this central courtyard. This not only brings in natural light, but also makes the inmates visible at all times. All movements are made through the central courtyard, and therefore under the gaze of other young people in their cells or engaged in activities," explains the sociologist. The constraint is experienced in this body made visible, with all the problems, stigmas, labels and mockery that can arise from this, which, in detention, take on extreme proportions."

From a movement experienced as a reward in conventional prisons, the famous promenade, it becomes once again a constraint in the EPM. "At the time of my survey, cell confinement is a small part of the sentence, since from 7:30 in the morning to 9:30 at night, they are in collective. They are more often mobile than immobile". To escape this hypervisibility, some inmates negotiate the right to stay in their cells for a few hours, with a blanket hung over the bars as a curtain. This practice is tolerated by the guards, who are themselves subject to this architecture. " When a staff member crosses the yard, he may be confronted by 50 young people at their bars, who will look at him and possibly insult or shout at him.

Entering the arena

This hyperactivity, combined with hypervisibility, encourages a permanent staging of oneself as soon as one leaves the cell and is projected into the central courtyard, which the warders call "the arena ". In his book Faire sa peine2Laurent Solini explains that "for young inmates, doing their time means presenting themselves as positively as possible in this prison theater". They have to "show off", prove their worth by stepping into the arena. "Because movement implies hypervisibility, it's a place for risk-taking and confrontation. It's all about showing off and showing up.

This confrontation is expressed in practices that are sometimes far removed from the rules of the classic game, more conducive to jousting and contact. This is the case of "goal to goal", where two players compete on a soccer pitch with the aim of scoring, but without the right to use their hands to defend their goal: "I've seen a lot of youngsters stop the ball with their head and get their nose blown off. If they use their hands or hide, they get beaten up. It's not meant to hurt, it's a ritual that serves to showcase a certain self-image. For these young people, doing time means doing time!

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  1. SOLINI Laurent, BASSON Jean-Charles, "Sortir de cellule/demeurer en cellule. Une sociologie des expériences paradoxales de la détention en établissement pénitentiaire pour mineurs", Agora débats/jeunesses, 2017/3 (N° 77), p. 67-79. DOI: 10.3917/agora.077.0067. https://www.
  2. SOLINI Laurent, Faire sa peine à l'Établissement pénitentiaire pour mineurs de Lavaur. Champ social, "Questions de société", 2017, ISBN: 9791034603848. DOI: 10.3917/chaso.solin.2017.01.