Why Imprison? Contemporary Incarceration Policies from a (Post)Colonial Perspective

From the Series: Sustaining the Momentum: Reparative Justice for European Colonialism and Slavery

Photo by Elisa Rodriguez.

In the so-called Global South, detention as a tool of the justice system is intrinsically linked to colonialism and its legacies. While the idea of detention as punishment was not entirely foreign to precolonial societies, colonial powers both transformed this response into the dominant paradigm for justice and built institutions and structures to carry it out systematically, introducing new systems of justice—courts and tribunals—to complement or replace traditional structures. These “foreign” courts and tribunals focused on the preservation of colonial interests—that is, property rights and the maintenance of order—while prisons developed as instruments to manage mass population. They emerged as a security-centered approach to justice in which local populations were at best seen as resources to be exploited, and, at worst seen as threats to the dominant social order, and where prospects for social rehabilitation were absent.

Postcolonial societies have retained and adapted this legacy in their justice systems. Prison has been adapted to new threats and to the protection of modern postcolonial states’ new and specific interests (Dandoy and Edouard 2021). The criteria for locking up certain people in postcolonial societies today involve multiple actors and complex logics. Detention is at once a weapon of the political and economic elites facilitating the neutralization of adversaries and an economic resource for the judicial actors who engage in it (via the commodification of arrested and detained persons), and a tool for defining “harmful” groups in a society. The result is an essentially predatory logic that is disconnected from a quest for the collective interest.

In the postcolonial era, the problem of prisons in the Global South has been reformulated as a problem of underdevelopment. States have retained the essence of the detention system while also undertaking ongoing reforms of sorts, through efforts supported for decades via development aid mechanisms (Bouagga 2016; Châtaigner 2004; Colineau 2013). Indeed, since the early 1990s, development agencies and international donors have launched large-scale prison reform projects in many countries transitioning to democratic rule. These efforts continue today with initiatives to incorporate international prison rights norms and standards into national legal frameworks.

Former colonial powers are now the “donor countries” of the development programs driving prison reform in the Global South. They have retained considerable influence in defining the problems affecting the Global South and in shaping related reforms. As a result, development-based prison reforms show excessive uniformity in their rationale and logic across very different country contexts. In particular, the notion of “local corruption” functions as a standard explanation of the flaws in criminal justice systems across Global South countries. In parallel, the conditions of detention within prisons remain concerning and are regularly denounced by oversight bodies as cruel, inhumane, and degrading. This narrative authorizes the increasing involvement of development actors in the penal systems of the states they assist.

But the claim to diagnose problems and devise interventions is a claim to power and a continuity from the colonial period into the present. Development praxis may perpetuate colonialist and Western-centered discourse and power relations, even as it seeks to focus attention on the marginalized (Sharp and Briggs 2006, 7; cited in McEwan 2018, 111). The basic problem here is a lack of reflection by Western actors on what security and penal policies mean in and for the Global South specifically. Ignoring the historical specificities, decision-makers and actors driving reforms have been addressing the most pressing problems by looking to and adapting reforms undertaken in Europe and the United States. But these normative transfers pose significant problems, both in their integration in the local context and in their degree of reception by both actors of the penal system and public opinion. Projects initiated to reform penal institutions in the Global South lack in-depth reflection on the local impact of the global diffusion of external models of punishment.

Moreover, development policies as a whole ignore the nonlegal logics that feed the role of detention today. They focus on technical and institutional solutions that do not address the gaps between penal coercion and local norms of justice within populations, the predation of certain groups on others, and the effects of injustice and violence induced by this instrumentalization. Take Haiti, for instance. The results of research we conducted suggest another rationality of the prison institution: that of a security device whose main function is to manage populations considered dangerous for the dominant social order; that of an unequal transactional device that conditions prison life as well as the possibility of escaping from it to the market and political value of the prisoners; that of a device implemented to discipline directly and indirectly the urban marginal populations.

Paradoxically, the increase in knowledge about the negative effects of detention only marginally affects its place in justice policy. Despite clear and evidence-based critique, the efforts of development actors to reform prison systems in the Global South keep increasing, while reflections on the role of prison itself remain absent. The rhetoric of reform feeds the prison’s endurance, and thus appears to be an instrument of government and a device for the self-reproduction of the prison institution (Chantraine 2004; Veil and Lhuilier 2000).

The clear negative effects of detention, coupled with the gap between using prisons as a policy tool and the expectations of local populations, have not generated critical challenges to the rationale behind the strengthening of prison systems. How can the success of an institution known for its antagonism with basic human rights be explained? Is the prison an unsurpassable model (Artières and Lascoumes 2004)?

We put forward two hypotheses: First, policy-makers underestimate colonial continuities and postcolonial adaptations of detention as a tool of domination. Typical “off-the-shelf” technical solutions often ignore the logics of actors in the postcolonial countries where these policies are implemented. Second, there is a gap between the stated objectives of development policies in the justice sector, in the name of “good governance” and the “rule of law,” and the (explicit and implicit) logic that underlies them. In particular, there is now confusion between security and justice objectives.

Ultimately, reforms in the field of criminal justice are paradigmatic of the development-security nexus that has become a central focus of policy, practice, and thought in the post–Cold War era. Global governance linked to liberal peace produces mechanisms of social and penal regulation through an interventionist tactic that tries to manage “risky” behaviors and categories of people. This approach accounts for the punitive turn of development aid policies in the last two decades. It also sheds light on the continuities between colonial and postcolonial prison situations.


Artières, Philippe, and Pierre Lascoumes, eds. 2004. Gouverner, Enfermer: La prison, un modèle indépassable? Paris: Presses de Sciences Po.

Bouagga, Yasmine. 2016. “Une mondialisation du ‘bien punir’? La prison dans les programmes de développement. Mouvements 4 (88): 50–58.

Chantraine, Gilles. 2004. “Les temps des prisons: Inertie, réformes et renforcement d’un dispositif institutionnel.” In Gouverner, Enfermer: La prison, un modèle indépassable?, edited by Philippe Artières and Pierre Lascoumes, 319–39, Paris: Presses de Sciences Po.

Châtaigner, Jean-Marc. 2004. “Aide publique au développement et réformes des systèmes de sécurité: l’improbable rencontre du Dr Jekyll et de Mr Hyde.” Afrique contemporaine 209:39–49.

Colineau, Hélène. 2014. “Interroger la diffusion des normes dans l’aide européenne aux pays en transition.” Politique européenne 4 (46): 118–40.

Dandoy, Arnaud, and Roberson Edouard. 2021. “The Emergence of the Modern Prison in Haiti: Discourse, Practices, Institutions.” Déviance et Société 3 (45): 383–415.

McEwan, Cheryl. 2018. Postcolonialism, Decoloniality and Development. London: Routledge.

Sharp, Joanna, and John Briggs. 2006. “Postcolonialism and Development: New Dialogues?” Geographical Journal 1 (172): 6–9.

Veil, Claude, and Dominique Lhuilier. 2000. La prison en changement. Toulouse: Erès.