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Culture in prison, a step towards reintegration

prison culture

Cultural programming within prison establishments has been enriched over the years. Beyond the opening offered by the creative workshops, the prisoners reconnect with the outside world and regain their self-esteem.  

The event is rare: for once, the prison is in tune with the rest of society. In French prison centers too, culture has deserted for several months because of the health crisis. Without programming shows and organizing creative workshops within the establishments, time stretches out. Proof of the frustration of the prisoners, the associations which intervene in prison are already solicited for a still uncertain recovery. This is the case of Makadam, created by Berthet One, cartoonist and former prisoner himself. “There is a severe lack of culture in prison, and right now it is the worst of the worst”, deplores this former robber.

However, cultural initiatives have been multiplying within prisons for several years. Berthet One benefited from it. In 2008, he was the first to win the Transmurailles prize organized by the Angoulême festival. Each year, it rewards detained artists. Thanks to this victory, the former robber who cheated boredom with his sketches, on the advice of a supervisor, was contacted by several publishers even before he left his cell. He has published two volumes of The Escape, humorous chronicles on his life as a prisoner, and met with great success: 10 copies of the first volume sold in one year. This meteoric rise fascinates the inmates whom Berthet meets today during his interventions in prison. “They often tell me that I am “the pride of our people”, he smiles. But I want to show them that they can do it too. In a week of comic book workshops, they make great drawings, even though they didn't believe it at first. As soon as we start working, we can surprise ourselves. » At the end of each session, the participants are already asking when he will return.

Self-confidence, the stepping stone to reintegration

More than a moment of escape, these capsules allow you to reconnect with the outside world. "Culture opens the mind: it's already freedom, but in the head", supports Berthet One. Boosting prisoners' self-confidence is also one of the objectives of these cultural activities in prison. Initiated in the 1980s by Jack Lang and Robert Badinter, this policy introduced many disciplines into detention. Agreements between the Ministries of Culture and Justice have multiplied over the years, and it is the Penitentiary Integration and Probation Services (SPIP), created in 1999, that is responsible for managing these programs. Today, the initiatives differ according to the establishments, and depend largely on the choices of the administration.

For Marie Langrée, cultural coordinator at the Nanterre prison (92); cultural programming is a sure lever for social reintegration, just like housing or work. She asserts: “The benefits of the workshops no longer need to be proven: getting to know yourself, working on yourself, respecting a framework, feeling capable of doing…” With the ambition of “bringing culture from the outside back to detention”, the manager sets up around thirty projects each year, both cultural events and creative courses in partnership with associations. These initiatives attract nearly 300 volunteer prisoners on average, out of the 800 or so prisoners at the centre, an encouraging result according to her.

Furthermore, cultural activities also allow the prisoner to reconnect with the community. This is how the Wake Up Café association, which regularly intervenes in the penitential center of Nanterre, sees its action. Created in 2014 by a prison chaplain, this structure formed a choir made up of prisoners, before expanding its workshops to many areas: theater, painting, dance, floral creation... The association also monitors prisoners at their cell release, to help them in their job search. Two complementary approaches: during the workshops, the speakers invite the participants to undertake a longer-term process starting with artistic creation. “For us, it is important to combine individual and collective support, explains Emilienne Joud, in charge of workshops in detention within the association : regaining self-confidence also means trusting others. »

Art for everyone

Daniele Martignoni, visual artist and speaker for the association, can testify to this. “At the beginning of the workshops, the detainees are intimidated and remain silent, he describes. But gradually, they let themselves go: one day, during a break in the middle of the session, one of them came to give me some confidences by talking to me about Italy, as I am from there. » To gain their trust, he does not hesitate to multiply affordable exercises, before going to an increasing level of difficulty: "art is not dedicated to an elite, no one has a gift for it"“There is a real psychological barrier to break: there is no legitimate culture and no other. It should be accessible to everyone., abounds Marie Langrée. Especially since many prisoners already had an interest in different artistic practices before entering the cell. This is what Emilienne Joud was able to observe during the workshops: “Some tell me that they had already practiced theater before prison, and that they loved it! For others the discovery is total. But to think that this is the case for everyone is a big misconception. »

This accessibility of culture, Yacine Yahiaoui also ardently defends it. This former prisoner discovered the riches of literature and philosophy in prison, starting with the prison library. “I wanted to enter culture from above, with great classics that I had never opened: Genet, Céline, Bourdieu…” From books to the texts of French songs, he tracks down each reference and enriches his repertoire over the years of detention. The one who today likes to support his explanations with numerous quotes was appointed in 2013 curator of an exhibition in detention at the prison of Réau (77), organized in partnership with the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. Its president at the time, Jean-Paul Cluzel, noticed the erudition of Yacine Yahiaoui on this occasion, and offered him the opportunity to work on his release from prison in the administration and then in the reception of the public in many museums. Parisians, from the Opéra Bastille to the Petit Palais. "Knowledge is scary, it dismantles our certainties and changes our perspectives, insists the former prisoner. But it allows us to understand our lives, to apprehend their depth. » He willingly attacks "the bourgeoisie that crushes people with superficial knowledge" and also multiplies his interventions in prisons and sensitive neighborhoods, inviting his listeners not to be afraid to build their own cultural repertoire.

Persistent obstacles but growing demand

However, this type of remarkable trajectory is very rare on leaving prison. Difficult to engage in training in the artistic field in detention. If some bridges are possible, such as an internship offered by the Eloquentia program, a partner of Wake Up Café, which can be highlighted on your CV, they remain extremely few. “Being able to work in the cultural field would be a very interesting prospect. But unfortunately artistic professions often require prerequisites and training that are difficult for prisoners to access”, regrets Marie Langrée. An impasse that does not surprise Berthet One: “Even outside, it is very difficult to make a living from a profession in the field of culture! »

Especially since the projects in detention always come up against brakes. "Access to a dedicated room is not always easy, and above all, it is difficult to ensure the attendance of all participants at the same time, explains Emilienne Joud, especially in a remand center where there is a rotation of entries and exits. » However, the manager has noticed a growing enthusiasm for a few years, with an increase in requests: at the end of the health crisis, the association should intervene in five establishments in the Ile-de-France region, compared to three last year.

Beyond these initiatives in detention, some workers also rely on crime prevention through cultural awareness, such as Berthet One, which organizes numerous workshops in sensitive neighborhoods. For the artist of Congolese origin, it is essential that young audiences can identify with models who look like them. Inspirational figures who warn them against “the glass ceiling that awaits you, when your name is Farid or Mamadou”, while encouraging them to persevere in their ambitions. Artistic creation is for him one of the ways to get out of it. “In prison or elsewhere, culture saves people, He says. Simply. »

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