- 1 “ je désire quitté la france pour quitté les prisons ” François Gleize, letter of 19 April 1874, Au (...)
“I want to leave France to leave the prisons”1
- 2 On political prisoners, see the work of Vimont J.-C. (1993). Political prisoners predominate in the (...)
- 3 It took the recent thesis by Sylvie Lapalus (2004) for the Pierre Rivière's text to be analysed in (...)
- 4 See the glossary at the end of the text for an explanation of this term, and others not left in the (...)
1Prisoners of the 19th century, especially those sentenced as common criminals, have left few testimonies about the way they experienced their imprisonment and served their sentences. Unlike political prisoners2 who were better educated and left many letters, written expression by common criminals is rare in the prison system. The writings that do exist, relating to sensational crimes or drafted at the request of doctors and criminologists, often take the form of memoirs or accounts. These texts have been assembled carefully and published, often in their entirety, (Artières Ph., 2000), but little has been done to analyse exactly what these people were trying to express when they wrote. In the train of the history of representations, researchers focussed on discourse in its relation to power, especially in the context of crime. As, by definition, the prisoners' letters were written under constraint it hardly appeared useful to look into the meaning of the messages they left us. A typical example is the fate reserved for Pierre Rivière's memoir, the signification of which was eclipsed by an analysis of the diverging discourses of the alienists of the time regarding its interpretation (Foucault M., 1973).3 It is even more rare to see what the convicts themselves had to say about prisons (Carlier Ch. and Wasserman F., 1992) or its continuation (Surveillance légale,4 or legal supervision).
2Nevertheless the interest of studying correspondence found in case files was recently underlined by the documentalists of the Centre des Archives d'Outre-Mer (Krakovitch O., 1992, 1993; Clair S., 1992). In the absence of such files for the 19th century, in poorly preserved archives, the files of the bagnards stored in the Centrales and departmental prisons contain several letters written by convicts sentenced to "transportation" to penal colonies. In the protean documentation left by the Ministry of the Navy, which administered the prisons in the colonies, we are particularly interested in the files of the étrangers à la transportation ("transportation: other"), stamped with "E.T.", and containing letters from prisoners held in prisons located in metropolitan France expressing the wish to be transferred to New Caledonia or other colonies.
- 5 CAOM, H 258 à 263. Due to delays in consultation only this first series can be covered.
- 6 Out of a body of 502 petitions, only 6 lack a date. Less than 10% of the letters were written under (...)
- 7 Letters are available from all the centrales, from the Corsican penitentiaries of Casabianda and Ca (...)
3Obviously, with this body of archives we are far from the letter writing purposes that historians have studied over the years (Chartier R., 1991). And we are even farther from private letters that interest most historians who focus on literary correspondence. These letters also have little to do with "lost letters" (Artières Ph., Laé J.-F, 2003), that turn up by chance when private archives are sorted, which reveal the solitude and fragility of ordinary people in the prosaic events of their daily lives, unveiled bit by bit in their letters. And if biftons (notes) and other clandestine writings teach us about the subculture of the prisoners (O’Brien P., 1982) or give us a glimpse of their emotions and dreams, the letters the prisoners wrote to the Ministries, by their very purpose, imposes a different interpretation. Few studies, moreover, have delved into the more ordinary correspondence, especially administrative, where the individual is effaced by the social or claims purpose of the missives (Lebrun-Pezerat P., 1991). The prisoners' letters discussed in this article belong to this latter category. Nonetheless, although the administrative petition, by definition, is a highly codified form of writing, it also evidences resistance to the penal institution – if we pay careful attention to the wording and especially to the arguments underlying the request. This is what we intend to demonstrate by studying over 500 letters that were found in the files of these étrangers à la transportation,5 most of them written in the 1870s6 by men and women detained in the centrales, maisons d’arrêt or maisons de correction throughout the territory.7
- 8 A heady task when one considers the need to go through all the transportees' files in order to find (...)
4The petition, addressed to the Ministry of the Interior or Ministry of the Navy, is often the only document in the file, which is not surprising since the nature of the archives consulted, in fact, implied a refusal by the authorities. As our objective is limited to comparing the way the prisoners saw their sentence, rather than an exhaustive study of petitions for transfer to the colonies8, this bias is not a drawback. The grounds for refusal are not important for the scope of our study: our interest lies in having correspondence that can shed light, in highly particular conditions, on how the inmates themselves saw their condition as prisoners, a condition they could not shake even after they left the penitentiary. Thus behind the highly stringent form of petition imposed by the institution, the reader can discern a criticism of the institution itself, leading the historian to question the impact a prison term had on the future life of these people. The image the inmates gave of prison life and their criticism of it can be seen directly in the actual request to leave France [Part 1] and also in the way their requests were formulated [Part 2].
- 9 Désiré Marbot, letter of 10 April 1873, released from the Casabianda penitentiary, domiciled in Bay (...)
"An unfortunate man requests the favour to be deported"9
- 10 Théophile Ernest Grosse, letter of 20 July 1874, Vendôme maison d’arrêt (H 254).
5To be granted the favour of being deported... these words are all the more surprising as they were written by a convict who had just left prison. The use of the term deportation in no way refers to sentences for political crimes. And, in fact, the letters by the political prisoners of Belle Ile, some of which are included in this collection, speak of transportation in petitions to be sent to a colony. Couched in uncertain vocabulary, as most of the common criminals were members of the poorer classes, the writers expressed the wish to leave metropolitan France: "in France I would just vegetate and die in prison".10 All these letters are requests to expatriate; and this is the very criteria for grouping them in one archive. The wish for exile is first and foremost a reaction of flight: the petitioners wish to escape prison life and more particularly a life which, under the constraints of legal supervision, would inevitably lead back to prison. The petitions sent to the authorities clearly state the wish to get out of prison, but also the wish to get on with life and to break the vicious circle that is ruining it. Expatriation appears as the only way out. Written in the prison cell, behind walls, these letters are testimonies of the petitioners' past. They express hope and tragic wish to build a new life elsewhere because their future is a dead end in France. The mirage of colonisation sustains the hope to escape the surveillance of the police and the prison.
- 11 Pierre Berger, letter of 7 June 1874, Riom centrale (H 249).
"he perceives it is completely impossible to remain in France"11
6It is not hard to imagine the reasons why the authorities refused these requests; we can obviously read the petitions. Those addressed to the Ministry of the Interior were regularly forwarded to the Colonial Directorate of the Ministry of the Navy, the only body competent to reply, which led the petitioners to send letter after letter to the administration. For these recipients there could be no doubt that what mainly motivated the petition was the wish to escape the harsh sentence imposed by the courts. If some inmates went so far as to commit crimes in prison so they could be sentenced to hard labour and thus transported to New Caledonia, this is because life in the penal colony seemed less unbearable. Obviously most of the requests were to serve the sentence outside metropolitan France: 60% of the prisoners wrote attempting to avoid incarceration in the central, some were already serving their sentence, or were about to leave the maison de justice after learning of their sentence. However, the others – 40% a substantial minority – were not seeking to be spared a harsh sentence: near the end of their prison term, or sentenced for only a few months in a maison de correction, many wished to leave France to avoid the conditions of legal supervision and start a new life elsewhere. The variety of terms used is a good illustration: the petitioners wished to be transported, deported, banished, expatriated, sent as a colonist to New Caledonia... at the end of their prison term. In this aim, they often sought to obtain facilities for the voyage: "furnish me the means needed to go to the Island of Guadeloupe", "grant me free passage on a ship to travel from France to New Caledonia", and so on. As they had meagre resources and received only a small sum at the end of their term, the newly released prisoners knew they would not have the means to leave the continent, and often could not even afford the trip to the harbour. So they requested "free passage" on a "State vessel", a place in the next convoy, or transportation paid by the government in exchange for work on board during the voyage.
7The diversity of both the destinations requested and the motivations - finding a job, bringing the family back together – truly illustrate the wish to start life over far from France.
- 12 Claude Boivin, letter of 16 August 1871, Bazas maison de correction (H 249).
"that I be sent to a colony, any which one..." 12
8The writers' geographical knowledge is occasionally somewhat vague. One convict sentenced to 20 years hard labour, who had nevertheless spent 9 years in the French merchant marine, asked if his wife, also sentenced, could join him in the penal colony of .... New Orleans. We can also see that after French Guiana was abandoned as a transportation site at the end of the Second Empire, New Caledonia came to be called New Guiana. Given the time period of the correspondence analysed, as expected New Caledonia was at the top of the list of colonies requested: three out of four prisoners explicitly named it as the island of their dreams.
9It was naturally the destination preferred by inmates serving a prison term: 82% expressed this choice. The few letters citing Cayenne or Guiana date primarily from the Second Empire and were written by members of the military or women wishing to follow their husbands, or else people serving light sentences who were attracted by the mirage of land concessions offered to freed prisoners. From the 1860s on, the immense majority of the prisoners wishing to escape incarceration in France asked to be sent to a penitentiary in New Caledonia. They wanted "to go serve their sentence" in this colony. Although not explicitly mentioned, it is clear that they were motivated by the wish to have somewhat easier conditions and a bit more freedom. They stated that they would be happy if they could "exchange" the time remaining of their sentence for deportation, "in the same way and with all the consequences of the sentence to hard labour, in other words to be transported to New Caledonia." And this was referred to as an "immense favour".
- 13 Louis Bailly, letter of 30 July 1873, Belle Ile centre de detention (H 248).
- 14 " …in case it should please you, your Honour, to grant ahead of time the object of my petition, I s (...)
10Other destinations, however, were also envisaged. Some of these petitions were written by Communards detained at Belle Ile who sent identical copies of a petition that contained a request for "transportation to an Island of our possessions, either in one of the Martinique or Guadeloupe groups, or to the Iles St Louis, St Anne, L’Hattes, St Maurice, St Pierre (Direction de St Laurent du Maronge), to the Guyane Française, or even to Algeria."13 Some inmates also wished to be transported elsewhere: women sentenced to hard labour in the centrales stated they were willing to leave for Cayenne, and men who knew people already in Guiana made the same request, planning for their future at the end of their prison term. We should also add that seamen sentenced by military courts had little taste to be closed up inland and wrote to be placed in a maritime penitentiary. Although no specific destination was mentioned they undoubtedly hoped to be sent to New Caledonia. Additionally, inmates serving a long sentence were clearly seeking a "legal" way to escape the hardships of prison. They also knew there was little chance that their request would be accepted, so they attempted the ruse of petitioning in view of their future release, stating they would be happy if the government deigned to accept their request..... ahead of time.14
- 15 Joseph Paris, letter of 4 August 1878, Nîmes centrale (H 260).
- 16 Alexandre Rouge, letter of 2 October 1881, Clairvaux centrale (H 261).
- 17 Pierre Berger, letter of 7 June 1874, Riom centrale (H 249).
11Those sentenced to short terms or eligible for release had a wider range of choice, in so far as their plans to start anew abroad were more concrete, obviously more immediate, and in principle not subject to finding an overseas penitentiary. Often the location was less important than the exile itself: "the essential thing is that I be deported."15 So they accepted any colony, even "the worst"16, or else most often they left it up to administration to choose: they merely asked the Minister to "give the order to transport him to whichever French overseas colony you deem suitable."17
12The designation of a specific colony naturally reflects the geography of the French colonial empire of this period, as well as the knowledge the inmates had acquired on this question, under conditions that an well be imagined. It is thus not surprising that New Caledonia is at the top of the list, but in a proportion slightly less (76%) than that of inmates wishing to serve their time there. The second choice is Guiana, where the writers hoped to obtain a free land concession by assimilating themselves to the category of released penal colony convicts. Some petitioners were related to these convicts, and a few had even returned to France after their term and wished to go back to Cayenne after failing to make a new life for themselves in France. Saigon and Indochina, Algeria and Senegal are also, but more rarely, mentioned. Clearly, from the very heading of the petitions – 'obtaining transportation as a colonist' is a recurring theme -, we can see that what foremost in the writers' minds was the wish to start over in any colony available. For the inmates, who had spent long years talking together about their futures after prison, New Caledonia seemed to meet all their aspirations. Although the arguments and motives given to justify the petition were highly circumscribed by administrative requirements, the letters undeniably belie the wish to forge a new position in the colonial society and find a new family or social life that would give them a chance that now appeared to be impossible in France.
- 18 André Biron, letter of 1 June 1873, Beaulieu centrale (H 249).
"… create an honourable position for myself in this colony"18
- 19 Jacques Théodore Cabanne, letter of 15 February 1876, Nîmes centrale (H 250).
- 20 Letter of 31 May 1875, Saint-Lazare prison (H 251)
- 21 Eugène Drouillet, letter of 2 September 1877, Clairvaux centrale (H 253).
13In the petitions written by those eligible for release (- but not only, for we cannot discard a vision of the future in those who first seek to improve their prison conditions, even if rarely expressed-), the desire to begin a new life, to "create a small position for himself, one he could no longer attain in France"19 is a constant refrain. Only too aware that their prison record would hamper their future in France, they decided to try their chance in a colony. Indeed, at that time a conviction barred several professions: tradesmen, sailors, and members of the liberal professions would have to find a new trade. Even among those who worked the land –a large section of the inmates – the future was jeopardised, at least for those who had owned a farm, which they could obviously not retrieve on release. Exile was thus perceived as a solution to find a new trade, hold down a regular job, in other words to find a place in society and have a future. Anna Chenot, sentenced to 12 years hard labour, wrote while she was still in gaol at Saint-Lazare before leaving for the centrale. She hoped to transfer to New Caledonia, for in this colony she could "create a position for herself by working. With a few means to help her set up a small shop, she will be able to ensure her own existence, her own future and thus spend the rest of her life honourably."20 Even if the details are provided in the hope to obtain a favourable response, we cannot doubt the sincerity of those who stated they wished to remain in Guiana or New Caledonia until the end of their days, to become a "perpetual colonist" as one applicant wrote.21
- 22 Hamon, letter of 28 September 1874, Vannes maison d’arrêt (H 255).
- 23 Louis Nicolas Lelièvre, letter of 8 May 1873, Baugé maison de correction (H 257)
14This desire is undoubtedly common to all the emigrants and is one motivation for settlements in the colonies. If they were to have a chance to fulfil this desire, the prisoners had to portray themselves as good colonists. They considered themselves part of France's colonial mission, if only through their frequent use of the word 'colonist' ( found in over 10% of the petitions from those eligible for release). More directly, some of the petitioners wished to participate in building the colonies. One writer wanted to "improve [his] position by taking every effort to further the colonisation in our oceanic possessions."22 Another deemed himself able "to make [himself] useful by working for the progress of colonisation of this part of France."23 Beyond these set phrases, intended to flatter an administration that officially promoted the colonising mission of penal transportation, some writers detailed their plans to improve these new countries to which they wished to be sent. In 1880 Jean Baptiste Benesteau, sentenced to 8 years in prison in 1878, asked for his sentence to be assimilated to hard labour so he could go to Guiana. Referring to an earlier stay in this colony (from 1852 to 1865, "I know the penitentiary institutions established there..."), he wrote enthusiastically of the territory's potential:
"I must say that if they wanted to they could have built and established agricultural and industrial centres in Guiana, but I must say that no one seriously thought of that.
"For there are trees of all species suitable for naval and other constructions, wood for carpentry, cabinet-making and marquetry, which if they were cut in a lumberyard they could fill thousands of ships, if in Guiana there was a colony of workers interested, overseen by a serious manager, and of course if he had the right tools. The convicts, instead of being a cost to the state could after a few years support themselves and bring money to the state.
- 24 Letter of 7 March 1880, Melun centrale (H 249).
In addition to lumber, there are crops in the country, such as rice, coffee, pepper, cocoa, sugar cane, catamiers, castor-oil plants, and other crops. They could lay a few navigable roads from one city to another, and link these villages to the Governor's Headquarters in Cayenne. In one word, a lot can be done in Guiana, but it calls for a firm will. I do not have the space to describe all the advantages offered by this virgin soil, then by taking samples one would surely find precious metals....".24
- 25 Le Bourdiec, letter of 15 March 1874, Fontevrault centrale (H 256).
- 26 Augustin, letter of 24 September 1876, Aniane centrale (H 248).
15All the petitioners naturally highlighted their physical aptitudes and professional skills. "I am 23 years of age, I have never been ill and I have a burning desire to leave France"25... an example of a phrase often repeated. As the inmates were primarily young men, it was fairly easy to meet the Colonial Directorate's criteria on this point. Problems were posed only for the older prisoners or... the youngest. The former argued against exclusion because of their age (the age limit was under 40) on the grounds of their physical vitality. We can even read the letter of a 64-year-old inmate who protested being kept in prison and asked to be sent to New Caledonia, for "if one takes into account the robust constitution he is gifted with, one will understand that he should be classified in an active service."26 The younger prisoners stress their maturity. For instance, a gardener from Lyons – who participated in the Commune in this city – defends the idea that at 18 he is at
"the most suitable age to acclimate himself in the inter-tropical countries. At a younger age, the body is too weak, too subject to the reactions and the often pernicious influences of an abrupt change to entirely different climates. Too old, and habits are instilled, the body is shaped to live in a determined climate and if this man suddenly changes climate, the balance between him and nature is upset, between his being and the external circumstances of the environment in which he lives, and this abnormal state can be highly dangerous for him.
- 27 Benjamin Victor Gosme, letter of 10 April 1873, Avignon prison (H 254).
"From 17 to 30 years, this is the most appropriate age to emigrate to the torrid regions."27
16All the petitioners were robust, with a strong constitution even if they had been exempted from military service (it was hard to keep this a secret) and they considered themselves to be in perfect physical condition. Furthermore they had never been ill, except for those inmates who wished to leave the prison for .... health reasons.
- 28 Letter of 11 May 1873, Bourg prison (H 260).
17Almost all were apt for the agricultural work required by colonisation. The farmers and other agricultural workers, numerous among those sentenced by the high courts and thus to prison, hardly needed to argue this point. It sufficed to refer to their earlier activity. Some prisoners, those better educated, nevertheless emphasised their qualities in this area, by evoking prizes obtained at agricultural fairs and other competitions. Eugène Prevel, sentenced to 5 years imprisonment in 1873, asked the Minister of the Interior to kindly "change [his] sentence into that of perpetual deportation." He described himself as a distinguished horticulturer (he had obtained 7 blue ribbons at the agricultural fair...) and offered to provide free of charge seeds for the lands that would be conceded to him.28 The convicts following liberal or intellectual professions referred indirectly to their manual skills, evoking their childhood or family. For example, a bailiff sentenced to 2 years imprisonment in 1873 "would expatriate to New Caledonia or any other colony" and forestalls any questioning of his manual skills:
- 29 Pierre Louis Cuvillier, letter of 21 November 1873, Amiens prison (H 251).
"a farmer's son, raised in agriculture which he practiced exclusively until the age of 21, he is perfectly knowledgeable about growing all the crops produced in the Somme and the nearby departments, especially industrial crops such as beets, linen and others."29
18As for the editor of the Echo commercial et agricole, sentenced by the Courts of the Seine to 5 years prison in 1864, it was easy to show how he would be more useful in New Caledonia:
"He could be useful to the Emperor's government through his knowledge of agriculture, whereas in a prison his knowledge would remain fruitless and sterile for five years.
"A farmer's son, he followed practical and special studies on grain crops; on oil-producing seeds and alcohol roots; and on breeding of horses, mules, cattle, sheep and pigs. And lastly on agricultural chemistry which is so useful to agriculture, in order to apply fertilizers and stimulants safely and profitably.
"He has studied agronomy applied to cotton, tobacco, sugar cane and other exotic crops.
- 30 Victor Valentin, letter of 19 November 1864, La Roquette (H 263).
"Through this knowledge he has gained in the school of adversity, he hopes he can be useful for the colonisation of New Caledonia."30
- 31 Berneau, letter of 12 June 1876, Eysses centrale (H 249).
19Lacking agricultural skills, those with a more intellectual background, sought work overseas in offices or schools. Skilled workers were also needed, and it was simple for some petitioners to ask to be assimilated "to skilled artisans to be deported to New Caledonia," as requested by a former railroad foreman and architect, reduced to inactivity in the Eysses centrale.31 Taking literally the promises made in the regulations regarding transportation, those eligible for release thought they could easily find a job serving the colony, under the impression that priority was given to former convicts:
- 32 Paul Antoine Binquet, letter of 27 January 1876, Nimes centrale (H 249).
"I know that in the penal Colonies, in New Caledonia, as formerly in Cayenne, the released convicts were and still are employed by the Governors, either as overseers in the Bridges and Roads administration, as tailors, or as servants, and other in hospitals and other public establishments..."32
- 33 Joseph Cogordon, letter of 9 March 1879, Nimes centrale (H 251).
- 34 Berneau, letter of 12 June 1876, Eysses centrale (H 249).
- 35 Marius Blanc, letter of 13 May 1880, Nimes centrale (H 249).
20We can certainly find much set wording in such arguments. And we can hardly be surprised by ritual reference to returning to an honest life promised by work assured in the colonies: the petitioner "wishes to leave France and regenerate [himself] in a faraway country"33 and expressed his "burning desire to redeem his past and regenerate himself in a faraway society,"34 and "all his future efforts will be directed at becoming an honest man"35… That they catered to the authorities by stressing their plans to make amends in a colonial land is blatant, and this was probably also suggested by the prison guardians or clerks who penned the letters for the prisoners. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to ignore the deep-seated desire for a new life, made possible by breaking with a social environment that "closed all doors" to the future. Reading these purely administrative letters, we can imagine the drama of these prisoners faced with sundering family and social ties that were the very fabric of their existence and that gave their lives meaning. Exile was also an attempt to forge new bonds to see a future for themselves.
- 36 Yves Fitament, letter of 16 March 1873, Beaulieu centrale (H 253).
"I am alone in the world, with no family, no goods, and with no refuge. I therefore ask you to kindly authorise my transfer..."36
- 37 Eugène Gras, letter of 8 July 1877, prison of La Santé (H 254).
- 38 Jean Jacques Buffait, letter of 10 January 1875, Nimes centrale (H 250).
- 39 Reine Leduc, letter of 12 January 1873, Rennes centrale (H 256).
- 40 Benjamin Victor Gosme, cf. note 27.
21Alone in the world without family or friends, this is first a formula intended to evoke the recipient's pity: the petitioners hoped the official would be touched by their distress and would be even less reticent to approve the request since the absence of family ties in France could be seen as a factor for success overseas. How could anyone refuse the person who said he was "without relatives, a bachelor and alone in the midst of society"?37 Or the one who "without family.... wishes to become the submissive son of the State"?38 Being an orphan is a frequent argument and was considered as a sufficient motive to go "make [one's] residence" in New Caledonia or Guiana: "she is an orphan, and for this reason she would like to move to the colonies".39 It was known that the government made it easier for orphans to emigrate, and the petitioners asked to benefit from these measures: in 1882 two inmates in Arras, wanted to leave "with the Orphans of Paris" to New Caledonia. And the gardener of Lyon quoted above, Benjamin Gosme,40 offered to … marry an orphan to give more weight to his request!
22We cannot doubt the veracity of the family situation evoked, as the inmates knew that the administration had ways to check the facts. In fact, a good number of convicts from the poorest classes had indeed lost their parents, and we can understand the wish to escape solitude in France and - who knows – start a family overseas, as the authorities themselves stated they facilitated the marriage of those released from the penal colonies. The exile sought also reveals family dramas caused by a prison sentence. Although served by the convict alone, a prison term affected the whole family: separation from the family was hard enough to bear, and the prisoner often found him/herself rejected by family and friends. All the more reason to apply for expatriation.
23Several requests express the sorrow of separation from loved ones, and the writers hoped to be spared this pain by formulating the wish that the spouse, often convicted along with her husband, accompany him into hard labour. Albert Cohen of St Opportune, clerk at the Saint-Lazare prison during the Commune de Paris, and sentenced to forced labour for life for the usurpation of functions, made this very request to the Minister of the Interior:
- 41 Letter of 14 March 1872, Paris (H 251).
"that you authorise him to bring along to New Caledonia his wife, who in any circumstances wishes to follow her husband and share his sad destiny, and bind herself through him to the land that will be granted to him. Doing this, your Honour, you will be doing an act of justice and will have the gratitude of two people so united in friendship that they form a single being."41
24Conviction made the prisoner truly realise the loss to their family who would no longer be able to count on a breadwinner. One convict sentenced to prison hoped he could be transferred to New Caledonia along with his wife and children so they would not be needy:
- 42 Auguste Salonne, letter of 10 May 1874, maison de justice de Chaumont (H 262).
"That during his long captivity in a prison in France, he will not be able to assist his wife or help her raise 4 dishonoured orphans... [he thus applies] to be sent to New Caledonia where his wife and children can follow to establish himself and spare a family from need."42
- 43 Marie Garnier, letter of 26 October 1879, Montpellier centrale (H 254).
- 44 Marceline Guillot, letter of 23 May 1880, Rennes centrale (H 255).
25It was painful for mothers to be separated from their children. Several women thus evoked this motive to justify their request for transfer to New Caledonia, in the hope that their young children could accompany them. For instance one woman, sentenced to forced labour for life and serving her term at the Montpellier centrale, wrote: "I have but one joy in life, and being separated from my child causes great pain... I will no longer have to worry about my child being left with strangers."43 Serving an identical sentence, an inmate at the Rennes centrale, evoked her child placed in the care of her elderly father who was in bad health, and aware that she had lost "the hope of ever returning to [her] family," asked to "leave France" for New Caledonia, the only solution enabling her to have her son back: "Ah, I pray you, your Honour, deign if possible, do not deprive me of the last hope remaining in this unfortunate situation. There at least, I would be able to take care of my poor little son..."44
- 45 Augustin Baudulon, letter of 28 April 1874, Pau maison d’arrêt (H 248).
26Others requested transfer so as to be nearer to those serving their sentence in penal colonies: "I am writing to request your benevolence in granting me the favour to serve my sentence in New Caledonia in order to be near my father and my Brother."45 In many cases, this was the sole family left. One woman, for example, wished to be sent to Cayenne, to be near her father, brother and sister:
- 46 Sophie Eymard, letter of 20 July 1867, Nevers maison d’arrêt (H 253).
"Deprived of my mother at a tender age, bereft of all means of existence, I cannot help but see a dark future for myself, for the misfortune that has overwhelmed me has shattered my future forever... this is my last thread of hope after such a catastrophe... "46
- 47 Amédée Vasseur, letter of 28 November 1875, Castelluccio penitentiary (H 263).
27Insensitive authorities possibly doubted the sincerity of these family sentiments, expressed to escape the harsh conditions of prison. But they were nevertheless real and sincere when, for example, we read of a prisoner eligible for release requesting the favour to join a family member in a penal colony. A gardener wrote a few months before his release from the Corsican penitentiary of Castelluccio: "[I wish to]... come to the aid of my poor father, who is old and sick, far from his family, and [deported to New Caledonia] to finish his days, I would be happy if I could be there to close his eyes at his dying hour..."47 We can imagine that these bonds are all the stronger when they are the only family members with whom the prisoners have maintained relations, for the dishonour caused by a conviction often destroyed family ties.
- 48 Guillaume Antoine Cayla, letter of 12 November 1875, Mazas prison (H 250).
- 49 Joseph Jonan, letter of 28 March 1880, Aniane centrale (H 255).
28The convict was the most aware of this fact, convinced that he had dishonoured his whole family. This feeling was particularly keen among military men and members of reputed families. A former non-commissioned officer in the 2nd regiment of the Zouaves, on the verge of leaving the Mazas prison after a mere three month sentence, felt that the dishonour entirely justified his departure for New Caledonia: "I have never incurred judgement, and the one I have undergone forces me, for my family, to expatriate by freely choosing to travel far from France."48 The terms and expressions used reveal how strong this feeling of dishonour was: they keenly wished for the members of their family to "no longer hear" of the one "who sullied the name" it gave to the convict. The best solution would be to leave to "soothe the torment" of a family "sorrowfully affected by the punishment I have undergone."49 An inmate in Loos, most likely a former teacher or accountant, puts this motive forward first:
- 50 Victor Magagnosc, letter of 30 March 1879, Loos centrale (H 257).
"Son of a high-ranking officer, nephew of a Naval surgeon major, professor of chemistry, dead slightly over 20 years ago in Toulon.... I come from a highly honourable family who would be relieved if I were far from them. Affected by a heavy sentence I have but one aim: to succeed, even at the cost of heavy sacrifice, in raising myself up, by seeking a new life in a faraway land, a life of hard work, but honest."50
29But the worthy classes did not have a monopoly on concerns about reputation and honour. The same sentiment is also expressed by the poorest prisoners in different terms, and when they lacked the words, they evoked dramatic situations, for example when the inmate believed he had indirectly caused the death of a loved one.
- 51 Victor Villain, letter of 25 June 1876, Clairvaux centrale (H 263).
- 52 Lucie Louise Aimée Frétier, letter of 12 March 1879, prison of Saint-Lazare (H 254).
- 53 Joseph Clerc, letter of 7 December 1873, Lons-le-Saunier prison (H 251).
30When they mentioned this as a motive to leave France, the prisoners certainly echoed feelings shared by their family. The penal administration itself was also aware of this: one article in the regulation on correspondence adopted at the Beaulieu centrale stipulates that: "The families who wish to hide from the public that they have relatives in prison can address their letters to the Director as long as the letters bear a stamp." At least one letter in our set was written at the request of the family itself: "Son of an honourable family, my father, a former chief accountant at the Reims Town Hall, [and]wishing to see me change my behaviour, has strongly encouraged me to send you this petition."51 Several letters describe pure and simple rejection or a complete break with the family. For instance, a young 22-year-old woman, sentenced to 6 years in prison for robbery and break-in – a minor infraction in her opinion: only 35 francs and a few women's articles – after three weeks in gaol saw that her "future... [was] lost": "since I have been convicted, my Parents no longer wish to see me and say I am no longer their daughter, and even my brothers and sisters refuse to see me and also reject me as their sister..."52 This ostracism, painfully felt by the prisoners, explains the wish to expatriate: "I have about 15 charges against me, my family has turned its back on me, and I have no future prospects but prison."53 In addition to the loss of family ties, the resulting lack of support on release from prison reinforces even more the wish to leave a country to which the prisoners are no longer attached.
- 54 Marius Blanc, cf. note 35.
- 55 Hyacinthe Azé, letter of 20 May 1873, Rouen maison d’arrêt (H 248).
31This is all the more true when the "repulsion" attached to the convict is also felt by friends and professional contacts. The infamy of the conviction, in the eyes of the inmates, is a serious obstacle to reintegration into their former circles: "given that his criminal record not only prevents him from presenting himself, but also bars all access to honest persons."54 Those on the verge of release see only one solution, that of travelling to a new country where their past is unknown: "no longer being afraid to be the object of disdain and repulsion, living in an environment that would have nothing to reproach him,"55 he can hope to build a new life.
32Here again the motive lends itself to stereotyping, especially since it is reiterated in a model letter used by an official who wrote the petitions in the Beaulieu prison. But if we study the more authentic letters, written by the inmates themselves, we cannot help but notice the underlying distress. That the letters were written to support a petition does not undermine the truth of the arguments as reflecting the image the inmates had of their condition and their view of solutions to cope with it. When we read these letters we an see how the inmates were constantly on the lookout for occasions and possibilities to flee a double reality: the penitentiary and legal supervision. Awareness of new laws, such as the Decree of 24 March 1866 regarding marriage of the transportees and incidentally evoking the convicts sent to New Caledonia at their request, the information quickly circulated on ships departing for this destination, the questions put to visitors (inspectors or representatives of surveillance commissions), and the assessment that political amnesties would free space in the deportation locations, all this shows how anxious the prisoners were to leave France and expatriate. The strength of this demand is tantamount to an accusation of the condition they wished to escape: conditions in the penitentiary certainly (even though the very nature of the administrative petition narrows the scope of any criticism), but primarily the difficulties they knew they would encounter on their release due to the constraints imposed by legal supervision.
- 56 Louis Arthur Binot, letter of 13 April 1873, Beaulieu centrale (H 249).
"he attributes the sole cause of his relapse to the indelible stigma of the supervision applied to him"56
33In the letters received by the Ministries of the Interior and the Navy, 40% are from prisoners preoccupied with the situation they will have to face on leaving the centrale or maison de correction. This figure is a minimum, for we can well imagine – as explained above – that this was also the objective behind requests to be transferred to serve the sentence in New Caledonia. In any case several letters cite concerns for the future as a motivation. Generally, however, this was expressed a few months before the end of the prison term. For the inmates whose exact release date is known, barely 100, we can see that the majority (55%) started to worry three months before their release. One out of five already began thinking six months ahead of time. Reading these letters, we are struck by the immediate justification for the petition: many wished to leave for New Caledonia to do their "mandatory residence", "serve the supervision", "spend the rest of the supervision". In short, they left it up to the administration to decide the place of residency on release, as required by the law on haute police supervision, and then they proposed a faraway land... whereas we could rightfully expect them to be delighted to return to their old stomping grounds and loved ones. In fact, their satisfaction at leaving prison was mitigated by anxiety for their future, and this anxiety was due to the police supervision to which they were now subject. One inmate at the Clairvaux centrale, explained clearly, two months before his release:
- 57 Fournier Joseph Emile, letter of 16 August 1874, Clairvaux centrale (H 253).
"The captive writing these lines will find the prison doors open to him next 22 October. Although his joy is great when he dreams of liberty, his anxiety is also great when he thinks of the unhappy existence of ex-convicts who have the misfortune of being placed under haute police supervision."57
- 58 Jean Marie Cheval Cheval, letter of 20 August 1873, Beaulieu centrale (H 251).
34In actual fact, the main justification given by those eligible for release when they requested exile was to escape legal supervision. A typical letter is the one written by a man sentenced to 5 years in prison who, as soon as he reached the Beaulieu centrale, asked to be transferred to New Caledonia "in order to be spared the humiliations and tribulations reserved for ex-convicts submitted to supervision he has resolved to expatriate".58 This is because reintegration after prison was so hard that they preferred to begin by leaving the country at the start of their sentence. And we have also seen former bagnards who returned to France, only to request they be sent back to Guiana or New Caledonia to escape legal supervision in France. Such was the case of an inmate in the Montpellier maison de correction, sentenced for rupture de ban – (violating supervision by leaving the assigned residence) in 1881:
- 59 Auguste Boudet, letter of 6 June 1881, Montpellier maison d'arrêt (H 249).
"The undersigned Boudet solicits your benevolence [in granting] the deportation I have awaited, since 1974 [when]I was repatriated from French Guiana after serving a sentence of 8 years deportation for rupture de ban. I am soliciting your Excellency [for] a new deportation because since my return this is the fourth rupture de ban that I have been subjected to, as I have no refuge to which I can withdraw".59
- 60 Letter of Paul Antoine Binquet, cf. note 32.
"this eternal chain of supervision"60
- 61 Charles Philippe Auguste Wralvègue, letter of 16 June 1873, Beauvais prison (H 263).
35In 1873, another former bagnard at the Beauvais prison in a few words described a situation which is actually an implacable indictment of police supervision which, for him, was perpetual: "I returned from French Guiana three years ago, it is impossible for me to remain free." 61 For these ex-convicts, there was a complete contradiction between freedom and the police control imposed on them. They could hardly find words harsh enough to denounce this legal supervision system.
- 62 Claude Jean Eugène Boivin, letter of 16 August 1871, Bazas prison (H 249).
- 63 Jean-Baptiste Decraenne, letter of 8 July 1875, Algiers prison (H 252).
- 64 Edme Didier Dupré, letter of 19 July 1874, assigned to residence in Avallon (H 253).
36The first effect of legal supervision was to virtually extend the prison term by stigmatising the former prisoner: "on my brow was written police supervision, an infamy".62 He is "pointed out", "marked with the reproving seal of justice".63 [He gets] "bad looks", and is marked with a "stain that follows you everywhere and everyone knows".64
- 65 François Leconte, letter of 24 June 1872, Fontrevrault centrale (H 256).
- 66 Baron, letter of 25 July 1875, Quimper maison de justice (H 248)
- 67 Louis Rosier, letter of 17 March 1880, Embrun centrale (H 261).
37Closing "doors and hearts... the weight of this terrible supervision overwhelms him".65 Reading these words, we are no longer surprised that the petitioners associated supervision with an almost automatic return to prison. Supervision exposes "he who had the misfortune of being subjected [to it] to become a pillar of the prison"66, to be constantly incarcerated, to no longer have a choice between misfortune – misery and crime – and prison, offering solely the alternative between "starving to death or going back to prison."67
- 68 Charles Philippe Auguste Wralvègue, cf. note 61.
"it is impossible for me to remain free"68
38The petitioners needed only a few words to reveal to us the mechanisms of rejection this supervision imposed on them.
39The history of legal supervision is not well known (O'Brien, 1988, p. 239-257 ; Moroz X., 1999). Until the 1870s the system was primarily a form of assigned residence, where the ex-convicts were obliged to live in a place set by the Ministry of the Interior. Their movements were controlled, with a visa on a special pass delivered by the administrative and police authorities. The gendarmes and police kept files on these people, with an "individual notice on ex-convicts" detailing their physical features and the list of their convictions, and they periodically checked that they were actually at the assigned residence. Naturally the ex-convicts were rarely sent to the residence they requested, even when it was not the township where they had committed their crime or misdemeanour, and especially if this was a large city. This is an argument occasionally used to justify leaving for New Caledonia, as explained derisively in this letter from an inmate of Beaulieu:
- 69 Pierre Pitois, letter of 8 June 1873, Beaulieu centrale (H 261).
"shortly before his release from Fontevrault a few months ago, he asked to have his residence set in Nimes (Gard) and he was sent to Caen (Calvados), where as he could not find a way to support himself, he broke his ban and was sentenced to 13 months in prison... [S]ince he was obliged by the administrative authority to be sent to Caen whereas he would like to go the Nimes, he urgently requests to be transferred to New Caledonia and to be established there to serve his sentence."69
- 70 Etienne Louis Charles Jarrault, letter of 25 November 1879, Troyes maison d'arrêt (H 255).
- 71 Théophile Pierre Gruner, letter of 12 January 1879, Eysses centrale (H 254).
40Once he or she reached the mandatory residence, the ex-convict was placed under police control, a fact that could not remain a secret among the local community, if only through the notice given to the authorities and the usual informers employed by the gendarmes and police agents. Additionally, they were first and foremost seen as ex-convicts and as such could be stigmatised by the police for various reasons: zealous supervision techniques, fearing recidivism, or else the opposite: wishing to "meet a quota" (to use a somewhat anachronistic term). In the letters analysed we find complaints against unfair treatment and false police reports. One inmate from Troyes even spoke of persecution: "with the help of unfair treatment and their false reports (I should say persecution) they sealed me into prison and closed all the doors".70 The line drawn between unfair treatment and indiscreet supervision is clear but gives the same results: "it happens too often, alas!, that following the ill-timed actions of some low-ranking police agents his position as someone under supervision was revealed and he was pitilessly fired from the job he held".71
41Thus supervised and quickly "discovered" by the local population, the former prisoners soon felt ostracised. "Rejected by everyone" is an expression found in many letters. The first consequence is obviously difficulty finding a stable job that would lead to reintegration. Many letters, such as the one above, mentioned the loss of a job following police actions. An inmate in Loos described this well, at the end of the Second Empire:
- 72 Emile Villette, letter of 10 February 1867, Loos centrale (H 263).
"I find myself in the sad position of a man under surveillance. I have been convicted several times for rupture de ban, committed under circumstances independent of my will, for it is always when I'm working that a police agent comes to warn my boss that I'm under supervision. And so, on the pretext that there is no more work, I am fired. So as I can no longer work in the city, I go look for work in the countryside, but the police are always informed and then send me before the courts..."72
42Once they were informed, the employers either refused to hire the ex-prisoner or fired him, under any pretext. The hostile prejudice against convicts made it practically impossible to find a job, as bitterly described by an inmate of Pontarlier:
- 73 Joseph Elie Parrod, letter of 28 March 1877, Pontarlier centrale (H 260).
"Today, stricken by the haute police supervision, it has become almost impossible for him to be employed on a work site or in a mine. The overseers or factory masters - filled with the prejudice that these unfortunate [people] inspire, finding themselves in the position that has happened to him - have no wish to give work to men fallen under the stroke of justice and as if they were marked by a stigma of repulsion".73
- 74 Letter from the Prefect of the Ardennes 10 November 1873 (file of Victor Joseph Dumont, H 253).
43For those who nevertheless manage to be hired, the periods of economic crisis rapidly quashed their hopes for they were the first to be laid-off. Leaving for New Caledonia to have "assured work to do" was the dearest wish of the convict who had been reprieved and released, place in residence in Remilly in the Ardennes, where according to the prefect who backed his statement: "he is leading a law-abiding life. Despite numerous applications to the region's factories, he cannot find work, which in this period of crisis, is exclusively reserved for local workers."74
- 75 Lucie Louise Aimée Frétier, cf. note 52.
- 76 Lenfant and Jules Leclercq, letter of 8 June 1876, Lille maison d'arrêt (H 257).
- 77 Théophile Ernest Grosse, letter of 25 July 1874, Vendôme prison (H 254).
44Laid-off or seeking work, the former prisoners were obliged to move from place to place, and thus break their ban – and so they were arrested and thrown back into prison. Supervision was justifiably seen as a vicious circle, a new shackle, and the antechamber to the prison: "with supervision we always return to prison"75 "each time we get out of prison a short time later we are arrested."76 The file of each ex-convict under supervision contains a separate page on which rupture de ban is the primary motive for conviction. Returning to prison thus appeared inevitable, or even desirable for those who considered stealing or begging as shameful: "in my view, it is better to be in prison than begging for my bread and suffering such mortification".77
- 78 Louis Georges Ferret, letter of 2 November 1879, Melun centrale (H 253).
45This was the life of these repeat-offenders who inspired such fear in the public and the government in the 1870s and 1880s: a series of prison stays alternating with short periods of liberty searching for work or any livelihood. If we consult the individual conviction pages in some files, we can see that the cause of the original conviction was often minor and that the ex-prisoners reappeared before the courts primarily as a result of supervision. Condemned to a life of wandering on their release from prison, in the end the last resort for these people was to return behind walls: "it is impossible for him to find in France the work needed to sustain his sad existence; his only resource is prison, always prison." 78 In order to cease this wandering and string of prison terms, they ended up asking to be banished....
- 79 For the text in French see: http://www.criminocorpus.cnrs.fr/article.php3?id_article=43&var_recherc (...)
46In these colonial archives, among these files stamped "ET" (étrangers à la transportation), our attention is drawn by a set of green folders. They identify ex-convicts found guilty of rupture de ban for whom the Ministry of the Interior had ordered transportation, an order which, for one reason or another, was later postponed (which explains why these folders are found in the archives under study). It appears that the practice of banishing repeat-offenders was followed even before it was officialised by the Relegation Law of 188579. And this in application of Article 1 of the decree of 8 December 1851:
- 80 For the text in French see: http://www.criminocorpus.cnrs.fr/article88.html
"Any individual placed under haute police supervision, and who is found guilty of rupture de ban, can be transported, as a measure of general security, to a Colonial penitentiary, in Cayenne or Algeria. The duration of the transportation will be at least five years and no more than ten years."80
- 81 Decision of 13 January 1870 (H 257).
47In some of the files consulted, surprisingly we can see in the order by the Ministry of the Interior (the only body competent to order this temporary exclusion from the territory), that occasionally those convicted for rupture de ban themselves asked to "benefit" from this article of a Bonapartist decree which was better known as an instrument for political repression (article 2 extended the above-mentioned measure to members of secret societies). For instance, we can read the letter written in January 1870 concerning: "Né Méhauté, ex-convict under rupture de ban, who personally requests application [to his case] of article 1 of the decree of 8 December 1851."81
- 82 29 June 1881 opinion on the letter of Ernest Bénard, Moulins maison de correction (H 249).
48In this light, we can indeed wonder about any parallels between the voluntary requests – expressed in the archives in question – and the administrative repression that prevailed during the Second Empire. Especially when we can read, often in the margins of the prisoners' petitions, the support added by the prison administration, departmental prefect, religious authorities, or simply the town mayor. Far from motivated by a charitable attempt to help these people out, these favourable opinions mainly reflect a wish to rid themselves of these ex-convicts. An administrator of the Moulins prison was quite clear in the lines he added to the bottom of a letter from one of his prisoners who was requesting free passage on a boat to Reunion Island: "Given the character and habits of the inmate making this request, it would be desirable in his interest and that of society that he leave France." 82 The same attitude was expressed more bluntly by the mayor of the Chasselay, in the Rhone, backing the request for free transport to New Caledonia, by Jean Pin, who had been assigned to residence in this town after his release from prison: such a voyage, he wrote:
- 83 Letter from the Mayor of Chasselay (district of Lyon) of 31 October 1878 (H 260).
"[This] would thus render a great service to the petitioner who, as he states himself, has many difficulties finding work, and [it would be] an even greater service to the town of Chasselay and the surroundings by purging the region of a dangerous and feared individual."83
49And likewise, for a history of the origins of the law of 27 May 1885 on Relegation (banishment) (Badinter R., 1992, 111-179), we might well ask how the elites and authorities, under the relative pressure of public opinion, may have used these requests from prisoners who were willing to do anything, even expatriate voluntarily, to escape police supervision and life imprisonment in France. Possibly they drew from these letters the justification for the highly repressive measures later taken under the Third Republic. Is this a paradox reflecting the final stage of alienation by a section of those miserables who constantly found themselves before the courts? Banishment undoubtedly responded to the wish of some to escape police supervision. And it was certainly a primary reason for requests for deportation to New Caledonia, at the same time as the authorities denounced the wish to escape incarceration in the centrales.
- 84 Pierre Marie Moro, letter of 6 April 1879, Thouars centrale (H 259). This inmate reported having he (...)
"I need air, lots of air…"84
50Indirectly, for the released prisoners subject to supervision and often serving only a short sentence for rupture de ban, leaving for a colony was also the way to escape a string of arrests and prison stays. But like the inmates sentenced to long terms, their complaints about the prison system tended to be quite discreet. Although we can extrapolate from the reasons put forward for exile, their criticism is rarely explicit. Which is easily understood, given the context for in which this administrative correspondence was written.
- 85 Anne Carles, letter of 30 March 1873, Montpellier centrale (H 250).
"I would rather be deported than end my days in a centrale"85
- 86 Anne Marie Chiloux, letter of 4 October 1874, Rennes centrale (H 251).
- 87 Marie Michaud, letter of 19 October 1873, Rennes centrale (H 258).
- 88 Jules Matisse asks the Minister to "consider that his sentence is much too long to be served in a c (...)
51We can see that it was the length of the prison term – especially for women sentenced to hard labour and serving their term in centrales – that inspired the most fear. A young woman of 27, imprisoned for 15 years in the Rennes centrale wrote that she had obtained her mother's permission to go to New Caledonia: "that would please me, and time would not seem so long".86 Another woman in this prison in 1873 was filled with the same anguish: "I have a quite long sentence and I am afraid thinking how I will suffer in captivity, this idea has completely determined me to ask you to send me your decision which I am impatiently awaiting."87 Although men had less tendency to evoke this argument, some used it directly to justify leaving for a colonial penal colony, as if any long sentence should be served in the form of hard labour.88 Here again, the length of imprisonment made the inmates fear the loss of their personality. One man, sent for a 10-year term in the Gaillon centrale, said he would be willing to leave for a Corsican penitentiary to not longer be closed up, or else New Caledonia, for he feared he would not be able to bear the moral suffering of such a long time in a centrale:
- 89 Pierre Joseph Demath, letter of 20 August 1876, Gaillon centrale (H 252).
"It's because I am continually fraught with dark despair that I will not be able to reach the end of my interminable sentence that I address you this petition... you will have spared me suffering and the moral pain in the Centrale which are worse than death."89
- 90 Lapouge Marguerite, letter of 19 October 1880, Cadillac centrale (H 256).
52The length of the sentence went hand in hand with the incarceration system of isolation, monotony, and sedentary stark living conditions that went completely against the grain of a people used to working outside and having an intense and protective social life. Seamen and soldiers, like people from the countryside, found it hard to bear forced idleness and being closed up: "used to working in the fields she cannot get used to the sedentary life of the centrale".90 And likewise, the intellectuals and political activists, habitually plunged in the centre of life in society, saw forced idleness as a harmful process, a gangrene that would gradually destroy their whole reason for living. Two inmates in the Nimes prison, one a former student at the Ecole des Mines, were sentenced to 5 years in prison. After two years they could no longer bear this forced inactivity and in 1852 asked to leave for Guiana:
- 91 Jean Trahand, letter of 22 October 1852, Nîmes prison (H 263).
"[They are] happy to be able to put to the service of the common good of the State, a precious time they are called to spend under lock and key, and the loss of which would be totally irreparable, if they were forced to spend this time in a pernicious idleness which, at this time, increases the horror of their deplorable position."91
- 92 Emile Daurat, letter of 30 July 1873, Belle Ile centre de detention (H 251).
53The Communards at Belle Ile, who "benefited" from a political prisoner status exempting them from work, nevertheless considered this as one of the main hardships of imprisonment. Several of them wrote a letter in which each referred to a dark future because of the "fatal consequences of a state of deadly indolence, paralysing all energy, destroying strength and corporal agility, without sheltering the heart from the dangers of pernicious and demoralising influence".92
- 93 Jean-Baptiste Pignon, letter of 1er January 1877, Melun centrale (H 260).
54The same could have been echoed by the common criminals for whom forced labour was anything but character-building. The headers on the stationery distributed by the penitentiary administration were ample reminders. The letters had to be identified precisely, especially by indicating the workshop the person was assigned to: shoemaking, basketry, button making, fine sewing, rough sewing, sandals, etc – terms evoking unskilled manual labour, having little to do with the inmates' former trades. Hence, the impression they were engaged in a sterile activity, keenly felt by the intellectuals. In these conditions, it would be incongruous to speak of professional training useful in the future. None of the letters mention the work done in the prison as an argument for experience that could serve in the colonies... The general impression is undoubtedly expressed in the letter from an inmate eligible for release from the Melun centrale, who in 1877, simply recalled his background as a farmer, adding that he was "more suited to this state than to any he may have learned in prison."93 Imparting no skills, more a onerous task than instructive work, the jobs performed in the prisons also paid very little. Although only one petitioner complained about the sums deducted from his pittance due to his repeat-offender status, all were fully aware that their prison earnings would not be enough to support them while they looked for work after release, and let alone cover the hoped-for voyage to salvation in a colony: we know that this was one argument evoked to ask the government to pay for their transport.
- 94 Jacques Richard, letter of 26 January 1873, Melun centrale (H 261).
- 95 Georges Aimé Dermenon, letter of 26 September 1875, Clairvaux centrale (H 252).
55We rarely find complaints concerning the writer's state of health, for obvious reasons because this would hamper their chance of acceptance by the Ministry of the Navy. Only two prisoners asked to leave the prison for "health reasons", one mentioned the supposedly favourable opinion of the doctor: "he was told, and the doctor treating him is of this opinion, that fresh air and a warmer climate would enable him, if not to recover his health, at least to be able to work".94 Only two inmates cited close living conditions: a former police inspector who placed at the top of his list of motives "his exceptional position among the prisoners"95 to justify his deportation "even for life" to New Caledonia, and an informer who feared being the victim of revenge.
- 96 Jules Leméré, letter of 25 June 1882, Reims prison (H 257).
56Only two letters allude to relations with the prison guards. An inmate at the Reims prison in 1882 justified his request to be "incarcerated in the colonies of New Caledonia" because "not wishing to be the repugnant object of the prison guards and nor wanting to suffer from their harsh and unseemly movements."96 Another inmate in the Melun centrale, wrote that he was "tracked like a wild beast" after an attempt to escape:
- 97 Edmond Chenon, letter of 6 April 1873, Melun centrale (H 251).
"Hardly arrived at the Melun Centrale, driven by despair I conceived the plan to escape, I was searched and they found me in possession of a catgut rope that I had used to try some work: from this time on I was never at ease, always punished, reports always say that I am arrogant, threatening, all this because I am lost in my thoughts, chagrined, and do not laugh or joke, nor join in with the others. The administration concluded that I was planning to escape, and not only is the surveillance excessive, and becoming unbearable, but often there is provocation..."97
- 98 Article of the regulations of the Cadillac centrale, printed on the stationery provided to the inma (...)
"Correspondence is subject to control by the Administration"98
- 99 Marie Delorme, letter of 12 May 1878, Montpellier centrale (H 252).
57We can easily understand why these letters rarely allude to relations between the administration, guards and the inmates. If they wanted their petition to be accepted they obviously had to stay on the good side of the prison administration, especially the immediate representatives they saw each day. The writers often referred to their good conduct, suggesting that the prison director could confirm this, as grounds for granting a lighter sentence in the form of deportation to the colonies. In this context, the writers could not openly criticise the highly peculiar form of social relations in the prison context. Any remarks could only be general, discreet and indirect. Most were limited to mentioning the penitentiary regime in general terms, or an individual's difficulty adapting to it: "I cannot get used to the Montpellier Centrale ".99
58In the end, rather than correspondence regulations, it was more the need to maintain good relations that undoubtedly accounts for this obvious self-censorship, which reinforced the wall of silence regarding concrete aspects of prison life. For example, in the regulations for the centrales of Beaulieu, Gaillon and Landerneau, we can read a telling note printed on the stationery distributed to the inmates: "The inmates always have the right to write to the authorities, in sealed letters, but without envelopes and the cell number must be printed on the outside." And indeed, in the files under study, we can see these letters that are virtually open, identifiable by the cell number, which the administration could read with no problem.
59This is clearly the sign of a writing subject to constraint, by definition unfree, for it was censored by the prison director. Moreover, if the petitioners wished to obtain satisfaction – and the stakes were crucial, vital – they had to word the requests very carefully to ensure that the motives laid down could not be used against them. Nevertheless, reading these letters we see that the restrictions governing the writing could not muffle criticism of a system that was tantamount to a life sentence, as the convicts were afflicted with the additional burden of police supervision once they were released. This is the main explanation, along with the moral suffering of being locked up so many years in prison, for requests that a priori seem to be so paradoxical: asking to be deported rather than stay in France, even at the end of one's prison term. This implacable indictment of the prison and legal supervision becomes evident when we analyse the purpose of the letters and the motives they contain. It is also expressed in the words chosen, as we can see from the various quotes cited in this article. The art of the petition, a highly codified genre, also left space for a voice that was authentic and free.
- 100 Louis Marie François Audrand, letter of 29 September 1878, dépôt de condamnés Saint-Martin-en-Ré (H (...)
"I have the honour to petition Your Excellency and to ask you kindly to look into my sad situation"100
- 101 Aunay veuve Garraud, letter of 18 April 1875, Rennes centrale (H 248).
60When a petition is sent to the Minister the sender effaces his/her identity: the prisoner is reduced to a cell number, police record, a list of convictions... despite the fact that the petition itself is an attempt to renew hope and start life over far from France. The contradiction is reinforced by the distance between the prisoner and the recipient, the Minister or even the Head of State, an omnipotent person with the power to decide the fate of all his citizens: "Deign, Monsieur le Ministre, to heed the humble request of an unfortunate woman whose fate is in your hands."101 Nonetheless this unfortunate woman would be hard-pressed to find the words that would spark the Minister's interest and convince him to decide in her favour. After explaining her sentence (hard labour for life for poisoning, as judged by the Laval Court of Assize in 1873), "with the deepest respect for Your Excellency", she came to the point, her motive for writing: "I have one child of nine left, who is dear to my heart; the thought of being separated from him for such a long time is so hard to bear that I resigned myself to take this step [of writing] to Your Excellency." And promising that if he allowed her to "leave for the first convoy to New Caledonia" with her child she would strive to "earn my life honourably and that of my child, once I reach my new destination; work costs me no effort, I am full of good will; it seems that we will not be unhappy, I have true hope." How could one doubt the sincerity of these closing words and the dignity they reflect?
61The petition genre implies a subtle play between self-effacement and highlighting the qualities of the petitioner. Coming through all the constraints – censorship, illiteracy, the imposed writing form – the letters reveal the personalities of those who claim in their own way their right to exist, if not their liberty, and occasionally they argue against the society that destroyed their lives.
- 102 Opening of the extract of regulations for the Loos centrale stamped on the stationery distributed t (...)
“Extract of the regulations. Prisoners are forbidden:...”102
- 103 However the administration could grant derogations in case of an emergency (such as a death in the (...)
62We have just seen how the letters addressed to the authorities were covered by a special status, the sign of a regulation that aimed to control the prisoners' correspondence closely. The prisoner had to obey strict prison rules regarding the frequency and contents of these letters (Krakovitch, 1992, 159-160). The regulations printed on stationery handed out by the directors of various prisons shows that the prisoners were only allowed to write one letter a month, except for Fontevrault where the frequency was every other week.103 All the letters leaving the prison had to be stamped and the officials constantly stressed that it was absolutely prohibited to send stamps to the prisoners. This provision likely aimed to curtail secret correspondence, but it also had the effect of limiting the material possibility of sending a letter, since the price of a stamp put a considerable dent in the prisoners' modest earnings, from which various other amounts were subtracted. The punishments dealt out also served to limit the frequency of mail: "The prisoners can be deprived of mail, as a punishment" (Cadillac).
63In addition to limits on frequency – without counting the letters that went astray, especially when addressed to the bagnes, the contents of the mail was also under close surveillance. The rules detailed all that was prohibited: the prisoners "can only write about their family, their position, their particular interests" (Nimes). As all the prison administrations could withhold letters that did not meet these requirements, they had a powerful leverage over the prisoners. Furthermore many writers, out of dignity or not wishing to worry their loved ones, tended not to dwell on their situation, and thus said nothing about their living conditions. The rules of the Cadillac prison, undoubtedly written for a female population with all the images that summons up, specified the type of contents the directors could censor: "Letters are withheld [if they - are insulting and improper, - contain political or frivolous information, - are written in a foreign language, - or are sent by an unknown or unauthorised writer." As the rule indicates, the letters always had to be written in French. To verify the application of these provisions, the prison administration read all the mail, both incoming and outgoing. In this aim, they carefully identified the letter writers: the cell number and workshop were mandatory to avoid any possible mix-up.
64The letters were frequently written on the prison stationery, the very size of which also limited the length of the letters (another form of censorship). Mail sent from the prison was thus under constraints that seriously hampered the prisoners' freedom of expression. One of the rare forms of intimacy – bonds with loved ones – was placed under the inquisitor eyes of the prison administration.
65Although, naturally, this censorship also applied to mail sent to the authorities, paradoxically more "liberty" was perhaps allowed in this special form of correspondence. Obviously a letter with concrete criticism of prison life was liable to be blocked. But at the same time, a petition to the Minister, requesting to change prisons or expressing the will to avoid returning to prison after release, could not remain completely silent about the prison regime, even if cloaked in general terms. The requests had to be motivated. The severe criticism of legal supervision illustrates a certain lack of censorship. Possibly the prison directors did not mind such complaints being expressed – especially since they did not point a finger at their own administration, in so far as they did not want to see the same recidivists back again. The latter were factors that structured the prisoners' society and thus the source of tension in the establishment. The easiest way to rid themselves of rebels in their midst was to facilitate their expatriation or at least their transfer to another prison. It is a not unlikely hypothesis that it was in the interest of prison directors to be relatively less strenuous when they censored mail addressed to the authorities, especially those requesting transfer to a penal colony overseas.
- 104 Common letter – written by a public writer – from Louis Florantin and Arthur Thuillier, 16 May 1882 (...)
“Florantin, not knowing how to write, signs with an X.”104
- 105 Marie Doutre, letter of 23 November 1872, Montpellier centrale (H 252).
66Before it was inspected by the administration, the letter first had to be.... actually written. And not every prisoner knew how to write his own request for transfer to New Caledonia because illiteracy was still widespread in the 1870s, among a prison population largely from the lower classes. Several of the letters reveal the author's illiteracy when the person who actually wrote the letter indicated that the petitioner simply signed his name, or that someone else (occasionally the prison director) authenticated the letter: "The undersigned witnesses certify that the named Doutre stated that he could not sign his name and that he placed an X."105 Most of the time the person who penned the letter simply wrote the first and last name of the petitioner at the end, with a squiggle after the last word to imitate a signature, along with the word: "Illiterate". Apparently the ability to sign one's name was no measure of the ability to read and write. A comparison of the handwriting in the signature and the preceding lines is enough to tell whether the petitioner wrote the letter him/herself or not. For a prisoner moved from the maison d'arrêt to the centrale, or transferred elsewhere, repeated petitions for transfer to the colonies were often written by different hands.
- 106 Sénéchal, letter of 13 December 1881, Arras prison (H 262). Translator's note: the following is a l (...)
67We can quickly recognise the authentic, self-written, letters. They are often awkwardly phrased, attempting to write in a straight line, tracing the words with difficulty and adopting a purely phonetic spelling. Occasionally the Ministry offices noted the unintentional humour of the mistakes, such as the remark "Joli!" ("A good one!") jotted in the margin and words underlined at a later time in this letter from a prisoner in Arras, here shown in the original French:106
“Je vous adresse cette demande comme je suis bien desidé à me faire transporter à la Nouvelle Calédonie, libre. je suis à la maison d'aret pour une petite peigne à faire aussitôt la respiration je voudrai partir. Mai mes moyen me permettre pas de partir pour mon contre. Je voudrai partir au contre de l'état : et je voudrai partir à la première embarquation… ”
68Even when the writing did not provoke the recipient's irony, the petitioners often displayed a somewhat confused knowledge of geography in the destinations requested, and in penitentiary terminology: we have already noted the uncertain use of terms such as deportation, transfer, and transportation to the colonies.
- 107 Louis François Soit, letter of 16 March 1873, Beaulieu centrale (H 262).
- 108 Joseph and Marie Virginie Moninoz, letter of 4 June 1874, Bourg prison (H 259).
69We can also expect that the actual writing of these letters – possibly to an even greater extent than letters sent to the family, since the former were addressed the Minister directly and much was at stake - was often entrusted to writers whose identity is unfortunately unknown to us. The actual writer rarely signed with his own name; one exception is the letter written at the request of a prisoner from Beaulieu in 1873: "For the petitioner who cannot write, Le Cordiez."107 We only have one example of a writer indicating his function and status. And this case is certainly not representative for the writer was a barrister, called to the maison de justice in a continuation of his defence: "As [Mr and Mrs] Moninoz do not know how to write they asked their barrister before the court of assize to address this petition in their name."108 We can imagine that these writers were prison staff (clerks), visitors not related to the prisoners (teachers, members of the supervision commissions), or else better-educated prisoners (Krakovitch O, 1992, 160-161).
- 109 Emmanuel Bourgeois, letter of 3 April 1873, Beaulieu centrale (H 249).
70In any case letter-writers were certainly used and they most likely also inspired the form of the self-written petitions. When we sort the letters by centrale we can quickly detect form letters, in similar handwriting, following the same outlines, and using more or less the same phrases. For example, of the 50 letters from the Beaulieu centrale, over half were written by someone else. We can easily distinguish five different models, one reproduced in eleven letters and the others respectively six, four and three times. In the most frequent model, the composition always follows the same order: the conviction used the identify the petitioner, the motives, the request and the salutation. The phrases are stereotyped. The same wording is used for all the motives: "That pushed by shame and this feeling that keeps him from presenting himself again, on release, to his former relations, he is driven with the burning desire to expatriate far away." A few supplementary words may be added, taking the petitioner's past or personality into account, as long as they fit into the original mould. Thus, the Beaulieu form letter occasionally refers to the person's marital problems to underline the loss of all ties with France: "That doubts about his wife's faithfulness, the motive of his conviction, can no longer bind him to his native soil."109 The signature is hardly ever that of the petitioner but is imitated by the writer. It appears likely, at least for the Beaulieu centrale, that the writer was part of the penitentiary management. Wardens or clerks probably inspired the highly administrative language, close to legal writing. We can imagine that these form letters were available in the offices: some were adopted by two different writers - only the handwriting differed. Strangely enough, the most authentic texts that – partially – escaped the models distributed through the centrale were those written on official stationery, with the prison letterhead...
71In any case, even if the writer was a barrister or someone outside the prison, the administrative wording, like the attempt to adopt a legal style, testifies to the formal constraints this type of procedure imposed on the prisoner. The very purpose of the letter – a petition – determined its form.
“Your very humble and very obedient servant”
72The form of the letter was largely determined by its intended recipient, who had to addressed in a certain way (formal salutations, composition), whilst using arguments and a style that could persuade him. In this highly codified art of petition, some people were more equal than others: most inmates lacked the rhetorical ease of the educated classes. So they turned to a public writer and model letters, occasionally attempting to add a dose of authenticity.
73In most cases, the petition was addressed to a Minister. As the prison system came under the Ministry of the Interior, this minister was the main recipient. The Minister of the Navy – the only person authorised to grant free passage to a colony or whose opinion was decisive for a transfer – came in second place. The Minister of Justice was rarely solicited: only a dozen letters were sent to him. It was also rare (a dozen letters) for the applicant to write directly to the Head of State, Emperor or President of the Republic. Letters addressed to lower level officials, such as the public prosecutor or the prefect, were also rare – mainly the case of those awaiting trial or who had just been convicted. It is thus not surprising to see that they knocked on the right door, possibly on the advice of the prison directors, in the aim of efficiency.
- 110 Edmond Chenon, cf. note 97.
- 111 In French, the Hail Mary begins with the words "Je vous salue Marie"
- 112 Marie Le Folle, letter of 21 November 1872, Saintes prison (H 256).
- 113 Urbain Jiverny, letter of 22 September 1873, Beaulieu centrale (H 255).
74The first rule when writing to a Minister was to respect the customary formal salutations. Here again, we can imagine how hard it must have been for prisoners of humbler origins to find the right words: the model letters, advice from a prison clerk or warder must have been a great help. The initial salutation seemed to pose the least problem: "Monsieur le Ministre" (Dear Minister), is used in 80% of the letters, with the actual Ministry (Interior, Navy) rarely mentioned. The more flattering writers began with "A Son Excellence.." (Your Excellency) with or without the recipient's title. These letters (40) outnumbered those by less intellectually endowed inmates who kept to a simple "Monsieur" (Dear Sir) (30 letters). The form of address in the letter itself respected the same hierarchy: always "Monsieur le Ministre", "Votre Excellence", or simply "Monsieur" which is generally repeated in the shortest letters just once, in the formal closing. This figure of speech was a set piece, with the petitioner presenting himself as the "very humble, very devoted, and very obedient servant", or the "very humble and submissive servant". There were very few variants. The closing could be direct, as authenticity and simplicity went hand in hand with ignorance of the world of the powerful. Or, on the other hand, when flattery was needed the writers would stress the "most humble submission of your servants", or the writer's "eternal gratitude". Some also abased themselves to the rank of "unworthy servant" (the petitioner taking advantage of the conviction he is serving) or played the card of a conquered nation by presenting themselves as "your very humble and devoted subordinate who prays to God for you and my poor country".110 We can easily detect those who did not have a model available and used their simple everyday language, the only words they ever knew – possibly borrowing from their childhood prayers: 111 "je vous salue vôtre servante" (I salute you your servant"),112 "je vous salut votre malheureux prisonnier" ("I salute you your unfortunate prisoner"),113 or even more succinctly "je vous salut" ("I salute you"). This last salutation is found on the shortest petitions, the hardest to write, such as the one from this prisoner in Beaulieu who fit all into just a few lines:
"I am writing you these few lines to let you know that I am at the Beaulieu centrale, I ask you that you take care of me to have me transferred to new caledonia, to which I have to do 7 years and 10 years of supervision, please take care of me and do your possible to send me there.
- 114 Auguste François Prestant, letter of 27 April 1873, Beaulieu centrale (H 260).
I salute you."114
75No question here of appealing to human sentiments, the spirit of justice, or the Minister's religious beliefs. Most often, however, the request was worded indirectly and the final closing of the letters mirrored the way the writers presented themselves, as subordinate and submissive. The petitioners humbled themselves, completely effacing their personality, becoming unworthy and dishonourable since they were convicted. Half the letters were written in the third person, more frequently when the inmate expressed the wish to serve his/her sentence in New Caledonia, or when years still remained before release: "the so-named", "the undersigned" has the honour of exposing, informing, soliciting... Some writers could not maintain this posture throughout and the first person was needed after the concrete request had been made and it came time to wind up the letter:
"The so-named Beaucousin (Julia), born on the twenty-fifth of September, eighteen hundred forty six, in the town of Barquet, canton of Beaumont (Eure).
Hereby asks your Excellency to kindly grant her the request that she addresses him to leave for New Caledonia.
It is not because of the judgement that has just sentenced me to two months imprisonment that I address you this request, My Excellency, for a long time now this idea and firm wish pursues me.
- 115 Julia Beaucousin, letter of 28 February 1874, Saint-Lazare prison (H 249).
This morning I spoke to Monsieur the prison Director, and it is after his reply that I hasten to address myself to you."115
- 116 Marie Agisson, letter of 10 December 1876, Clermont maison centrale (H 248).
76The texts were carefully composed, and the letters almost always begin by recalling the petitioner's identity and conviction, followed by the request to leave for the colonies and the motives, a promise to mend one's ways, and then any reference to recommendations by worthy persons. The person's identity often merged with the status of prisoner and the conviction. Several letters thus begin with a roll call of sorts, such as the one written in 1877 by an inmate in Clermont: "Agisson Marie, N° 15141, sentenced by the Assize Court of Beauvais on 11 December 1876 to 20 years hard labour for repeated robbery and break-ins in Churches and private homes, writes to solicit your benevolence.....".116
- 117 Eugène Talineau, letter of 20 April 1880, Dreux prison (H 262).
- 118 Alexandre Rouge, letter of 2 October 1881, Clairvaux centrale (261).
- 119 Baron, cf. note 66.
- 120 Louise Besson, letter of 20 March 1876, Dijon prison (H 249).
77The petitioners had to mention the cause of their conviction, even if it was evoked discreetly, couched in administrative terms. Some could hardly deny their heavy police record, but used it as an argument to justify their expatriation: they had spent too many years in prison... For instance, a man eligible for release from the Dreux prison, requesting the favour to be transported to New Caledonia, at the charge of the State, motivated his petition as follows: "To support this request he is submitting to you the succinct résumé of his police record which is composed of ten and a half years imprisonment and eight convictions for robbery, disturbing the peace and ruptures de ban".117 Similarly, a former soldier, imprisoned in Clairvaux, voluntarily admitted that his "police record is black".118 Others however, fearing the adverse effect this almost-mandatory information would have on the outcome of their request, sought to minimise the conviction. The crime was committed when the writer "forgot himself" for an instant, or else the "horrible action" was due to straying off the path, the follies of youth, or part of a "past he regrets". The writers relativised the conviction by evoking their life before and after the fact - a whole life could not be reduced to one, more or less insignificant, error. A farmer from Brittany, recently sentenced to 8 years réclusion and still held in the Quimper maison de justice, justified himself as follows: "Except for the fact for which I was convicted, no serious reproach was ever made about my behaviour, I am therefore not a dangerous criminal."119 Convicted for criminal association together with her husband, an inmate of the Dijon prison pointed out that "until that time, the life of the undersigned was without reproach."120 As far as their future was concerned, promises to lead an honest and honourable life, working hard to redeem their fault were commonplace, occasionally guaranteed by citing the prisoner's good behaviour in prison. The recipient was also flattered with accounts of how the penal colony fostered the convicts' rehabilitation.
- 121 Lecointe, letter of 21 March 1874, La Santé prison (H 256).
- 122 Victor Valentin, cf. note 30.
78As could be expected, the prisoners of prestigious origin referred to possible recommendations from other worthy individuals who could confirm their statements. One prisoner at la Santé (Paris), stating he had been convicted for drunkenness, wished to leave for New Caledonia after serving his four months. Saying he came from an "honourable family" (his father was Division Chief at the Préfecture, one brother was the Receveur d’Enregistrement on Reunion Island, another was Bureau Chief at the Préfecture of the Department of Aisne), and recalling his military service in Algeria and in the army of the Loire during the Franco-Prussian War (1870), he added as a postscript: "You can have information about my family from Mr. Aimé Leroux, Député for Laon at the National Assembly in Versailles."121 Along the same lines, Victor Valentin (already quoted above), founder and editor-in-chief of the l'Echo commercial et agricole, after describing his agricultural skills to justify serving his sentence in New Caledonia, closes his letter in a similar fashion: "If a few references would be useful, you could obtain them from Mr Beaucamps, député to the Corps Législatif, rue miroménil, 20, who knows both him and his family, residing 13 kilometres from his Château de Lhomaizé in the Department of Vienne."122
79Despite the mandatory format of these letters, we naturally find a wide diversity in the petitioners' intellectual resources, social class, or gender. The women, for instance, tend to be more affirmative: they are more direct in their letters, occasionally addressing the Minister in more familiar terms (Krakovitch, 1992). They also refer to themselves in the first person more often than men: 76% of the time, compared to 46% for the men. Although the forms of address are similar for both sexes, the women's petitions show a greater tendency to appeal to the recipient's feelings. They are more imploring – although discreetly so - as seen by the use of words such as supplicate or pity. We can also see that a major motive was the wish to keep their children with them. The women were more dependent on their family circle, even if they had been rejected by their relatives or their husband, and their overriding concern was to maintain a close tie with their children. In general their letters are more down-to-earth, without long descriptions of their past or future plans, and they come straight to the point. Proportionally the shortest petitions were written by women. Although we can also find men adopting a similar style, overall the latter were clearly more prolific, and the imploration in some letters was akin to fawning. A good example is Constant Pachot, inmate of the Beauvais maison de correction, who in 1880 petitioned the Minister's "worthy and honourable personage" to be sent to New Caledonia as a colonist:
- 123 Constant Pachot, letter of 25 December 1880, Beauvais prison (H 260).
"My intelligence and capacities are not developed enough to depict the boundless recognition that I would owe you personally if you were kind enough to not be inflexible to my request. Know, Monsieur le Ministre, that I am bowing down before you to send you this request which sincerely comes from a frank and loyal heart. I dare to hope, Monsieur le Ministre, that you will deign to place your saving and protective hand over your submissive servant who will always respect you..."123
80These flowery appeals and flatteries are nevertheless the exception. We rather see that, beyond the formal salutations required for these letters, most of the inmates limited themselves to describing their request in simple terms, recalling the events that plotted a life now in suspension. We often perceive a somewhat harsh style, possibly reinforced by illiteracy, lack of schooling and the administrative wording disseminated in the model letters. But this style also reflects the harsh life and loss of identity that reigned in the prison world. The impression is particularly strong for the correspondence from inmates of humble origin. There is an enormous gap between these awkward concrete letters that come straight to the point, without transition or flowery language, and those by educated prisoners well-versed in writing. The standard letter from Communards held in Belle Ile is a perfect example of reasoning, with a harmonious style, using dense and synthetic phrases. The same mastery of language can be seen in the letter from Louis Momiron, member of an "honourable family from the Department of Allier" who, "tired of this life of aberration and shame" leading him from one prison to the next for the crime of vagrancy, decided to leave for "any colony whatsoever". The first words set the tone:
"I have the honour of submitting this request to you in the hopes that you will deign to consider it favourably: perhaps it will appear strange to you, but I hope that in your benevolent justice you will take into consideration the pressing circumstance that motivates its dispatch."
81All the habitual ingredients of the petition – the criminal record, abandon by the family, the request, and the promise to "lead an honest and hardworking life" in the colony – are laid out with a mastery of grammar and elegance of expression in sharp contrast with the situation of the writer, revealed in the passage that leads to the precise object of his petition:
- 124 Louis Momiron, letter of 1er November 1875, Nevers prison (H 259).
"Abandoned by my parents, rejected by my friends, despised by society, in this imminent peril, penniless, without any resources, what was I to do? Forfeit all honour? No! Commit suicide? No! I presented myself to the police to inform them of my desperate situation. Locked up in the Maison d'arrêt, as ever under the accusation of vagrancy, I thought things over thoroughly and concluded that were I to remain in France, my only prospect would be prison. I am still young (38), sturdy, and in a colony I could be useful to Society, to our mother country, by putting my intelligence to good use."124
82Although a highly codified genre, the petition nevertheless did leave room for a degree of "freedom of expression", revealing the educational background, skills and personality of each writer. We could also cite letters from prisoners who had served in the military, who tended to recall their service record or military exploits, occasionally going on for pages. The impact of their military training, with experience in writing to senior officers, comes through quite clearly. Most writers however never managed to go beyond primary school, and even then school attendance was sporadic for the prisoners of rural background. Does this mean that for these people the only solution was a letter written by a stranger's hand, in other words a writing in which they were prisoners twice over?
- 125 Lucie Louise Aimée Frétier, cf. note 52.
"I take the liberty of writing you..."125
83In the authentic letters, written by the prisoners themselves, the petition occasionally turns into a protest, and in any case it expresses a personality seeking to reach beyond the constraints of prison walls. In their way, the requests for expatriation also show how impossible it was to totally break the spirit of these people battered by life and repression. Even respecting the constraints and norms described above, these letters were also written – or dictated – in a moment of hope. They were requesting a favour, to be able to leave for New Caledonia, and this request also marked a small parenthesis in prison life, a short while (awaiting the reply) when they could dream of another life, where they could truly affirm their personality, and live freely, far from a society responsible for all they suffered in or after prison. The motives put forward, but also the words and the style of the request reveal individual resistance and occasional criticism of an unjust social order.
“I am the mistress of my own self"
84For example, here is a letter written by a woman, Adèle Barbier, inmate in Saint-Lazare:
“ Dear Sir,
Monsieur the Ministre of the Navy as being an inmate in Saint lazare as I was judged for 6 years and having a child aged 7 years not having people to care for this poor child, This is why M. the Director recommended to address myself to you M. the minister to obtain from your kindness is the grace to be able to leave for new Caledonia with my little girl who only has me for support for M. the minister I have no husband so I was told that I could obtain it from You if you wanted with facility (sic) For I am mistress of my own self If I can obtain This favour have the kindness to let me know as soon as possible for my poor child is With strangers and no longer want to keep her and if you were good enough to grant what I ask you then M. the Director of Saint Lazare will have my child come with me where I am held awaiting my departure
Awaiting your reply Monsieur le Ministre that I ask you in grace
- 126 Adèle Barbier, letter of 7 July, prison de Saint-Lazare 1874 (H 248). Note: the English translation (...)
I am with respect your devoted servant'126
85The style and spelling are irrefutable evidence of an authentic letter, personally written. Adèle Barbier sought help solely to learn to whom she should write in order to keep her "poor child" with her, her only concern. She asks for a quick reply for time was growing short: she is worried that strangers caring for her daughter will abandon her. The only "legal" argument is her marital status: as the child has (or no longer has) a father, she is "mistress" of her own self. A ludicrous argument for someone behind walls, sentenced to 6 years réclusion and likely stripped of her civil rights. Undoubtedly ludicrous, yet these words proclaim a resistance to the vicious process that led to the central. It expresses her will to do the utmost to save her child, her only reason for living. In this letter, written in the first person, the "I" expresses a forceful stand, the symbol of a personality attempting to resist the prison system and its consequences.
- 127 Even though we do have one example of a letter penned by a public writer that starts off "following (...)
86Referring to oneself in the third person is obviously not incompatible with such an attitude. In general, however, adapted to the codes of the administrative petition, it denotes a more or less voluntary eclipsing of the writer's personality. It is significant to note that we find a greater percentage of letters written in the third person among those from inmates in a centrale who wish to finish their sentence in New Caledonia: 54% adopt this form of reference. One reason may be that they felt the letter was a mere formality and they had few illusions regarding the outcome. On the other hand, among those eligible for release or inmates serving a short sentence, the majority of the letters (56%) are written in the first person. And these are the very letters that contain the strongest criticism of legal supervision, and their tone is often more resentful. The choice between use of the first or third person is not neutral, although it was partially dictated by little schooling,127 the imposed genre, respect due to the administration. Nonetheless, we can indeed venture to interpret some uses of "I" as a way of speaking out, affirming oneself coupled with a claim to the right to exist.
- 128 Pierre Roujès, letter of 21 September 1882, Castelluccio penitentiary (H 261).
87In this perspective, some letters must be taken at their word. Pierre Roujès, inmate in the penitentiary of Castelluccio, began his correspondence to "Monsieur" (the Minister of the Navy) with these words: "Excuse my boldness in writing to you and letting you have my latest news," 128 We must read both parts of this first phrase carefully – the opening words and the ritual formula young pupils used when writing to their parents. Although the latter reveals elementary schooling, the former clearly affirms the rights of a Pierre Roujès who is "bold" enough to write to a minister, whom he places – through the salutation (Monsieur) and the school formula at... the same level as himself. This interpretation seems all the more pertinent when frequently, in correspondence from prisoners of the lower classes who hardly master the language, the naturalness of their expressions appears to reinforce the implicit protest that accompanies the petition. Another letter illustrates this well. Written by an inmate of La Roquette, Alphonse Collin, the letter begins in a similar fashion:
Excuse the liberty that a prisoner takes to write to you. Unfortunately I am forced to make this request to release me from the error I have fallen into. For in liberty not being able to find work relating to my supervision, nor stay in paris, which is my country: obliged to wander the road without money, endure hunger and cold, which is very hard for me. for at twenty two years asking for a piece of bread is truly sad for me; I will therefore ask you to kindly allow me to go to New Caledonia; or to Algeria at the costs of the state since I have no money nor parents to pay my passage; I will try to make myself Useful on board for I already worked on board the English ships that are in Cherbourg; Monsieur Do not reject the request of an Unfortunate [man] in order to become an honest man for I have a great wish to work.
I salute you.
- 129 Alphonse Francis Collin, letter of 22 May 1874, La Roquette prison (H 251).
Your very humble servant for life"129
- 130 Paul Antoine Binquet, cf. note 32.
"my integrity has always been victorious in my cruel struggles against society which, implacable, has constantly refused me the means to work" 130
88The petition thus moves subtly towards protest. Contrary to what we might think, this is not so much the work of political prisoners as that of inmates in prison for common crimes, at least in our highly particular body of administrative petitions. This is understandable in so far as the Communards held at Belle Ile who requested – hardly a year after conviction – to leave for the Antilles, Guyane or Algeria did not question their sentence and had not yet imagined the possibility of a pardon or amnesty. As they had likely admitted their defeat, were fully aware of their situation, and benefited from a political prisoner status, as we have already seen they primarily suffered from inactivity and its "pernicious influence" on their physical health and morale. The Communards' main concern was to alleviate their prison conditions, make themselves useful and especially be able to live with their families in a faraway land where they could be exiled under the lighter regime of deportation. Each one stated their hope – in a collective petition of sorts, even if repeated individually – that: "because of his heavy sentence, the government will grant some relative facilities compared to deportation, that the conditions imposed will be acceptable and that he will be able to send for his family to join him." This explains the choice of a land of exile other than New Caledonia where a large number of their comrades had been deported after judgement by the war councils following the defeat of the insurrection.
89For the common criminals, although protests were certainly rare, they appear in some letters, even outside the vehement criticism of legal supervision. Occasionally the judgement itself if called into question. The day after his conviction by the court of assize of the Seine, an inmate still at the Conciergerie was enraged by the methods of the investigating magistrate who had asked him to denounce his accomplices but failed to keep the promises he had made in exchange:
- 131 Avril, letter of 9 April 1884, prison de la Conciergerie (H 248). Note: spelling errors not reprodu (...)
"I hope that M. le Ministre will inform himself about this fact they didn't take any information on my account, I have always worked, except 15 days when I found myself without work and without resources I leave a wife with 2 children and I am convicted even more than the others who for at least 5 years now have been criminals. Monsieur le Ministre pardon Me if I can not explain myself better for I am beside myself for such injustice."131.
- 132 Victor Jardin, letter of 15 August 1873, La Roquette prison (H 257).
- 133 Jean-Louis Faure, letter of 19 September 1880, Eysses centrale (H 253).
90In another case of accomplicity, an inmate in the Roquette prison invoked divine justice to punish his accomplices: "I hope that God will punish them as they deserve." 132 In general, such protests were expressed immediately after sentencing. After that, months and years went by, and the writers restricted themselves to a vague and general criticism of the justice system – considered responsible for long stays in prison – expressed by the use of well-chosen words: "finding myself under the yoke of 13 convictions and 5 years of supervision..."133
91Likewise, prison was denounced in general rather than concrete terms. Some of the better educated inmates pointed out the limits of this repressive system, echoing the debates on the penitentiary system in the 1870s. Paul Bollon, a prisoner at the Nimes centrale, thus pled in favour of colonial transportation to justify his request to leave for New Caledonia on release. If he remained in France, without work, he would inevitably return to prison, and to break this vicious circle he preached to the authorities by stressing the preventive role the law should play:
Granting his request "would in the end be nothing more than granting ahead of time a measure that would affect me in the future would it not be preferable to send me as a colonist rather than a transportee? should not the law also have the effect of preventing the misdeeds and crimes it represses! and would granting my prayer not enter into the spirit that dictates [the law]? public morals would have nothing to lose and I have all to gain."
92He continued his letter by praising English practices in this area... and justifying a policy of relégation before its time:
- 134 Paul Bollon, letter of 20 June 1882, Nimes centrale (H 249).
"Is it not in both the national and individual interest to facilitate [access to] the means of fortune for the disinherited of the mother Country? and sending them to a colony is this not a facility for them? here they are an obstacle, an embarrassment for civilisation, there can they not become a force and in a way the pioneers of this civilisation..."134
93The solution proposed for the malfunctions of the repressive system reflect the general tone of the requests for expatriation and are indeed in keeping with the general climate of the 1870s and 1880s, when transportation increasingly appeared as a remedy to control recidivism. In this light the arguments expressed by the inmate above are far from subversive. Nevertheless they do criticise the workings of a whole penal system that was incapable of reforming the inmates and enabling their integration back into society on release.
- 135 Anthony Bouvier, letter of 16 January 1876, Poissy maison centrale (H 249).
- 136 Louis Momiron, cf. note 124.
94But much more than the prison system, it was a whole social organisation the letters implicitly protested, or even rejected, since the writers were asking to expatriate far from its reach. The request for exile is itself an accusation of a society that ostracized former-convicts. The adverse effects of legal supervision were the subject of harsh remarks. To support their claims the writers even used the accusations against recidivists: having no work or resources, "I can only become and can only be a danger to society." 135 How could they refrain from returning to a life of crime if society, full of unfair prejudices, refused to give former-inmates any assistance, any work? For Jean-Louis Faure, inmate at the Eysses centrale, "it is no longer in my power to return to an honest life for the French society no longer has pity on me..." Experienced as an injustice, supervision turned the former convicts into outcasts. The term pariah is found in many letters. Louis Momiron, from his prison cell in Nevers, stated as much in his elegant style: "I received a broad education, but in the position in which I find myself it is useless, for society considers me a pariah and closes its doors to me." 136 But Pierre Pitois, outraged by the refusal to assign him to the residence of his choice, turns to his advantage the conservative discourse that assimilates crime and the Commune:
- 137 Pierre Pitois, cf. note 69.
"Monsieur le Ministre, it is perhaps indispensable to guard against subversive tendencies of a category of ex-convicts, but it is certain that a large number of these social pariahs hasten to join the ranks of anarchists only because supervision places them in the cruel alternative between dying of hunger or erring again."137
95It is no mistake to infer that social protest is an exception in the correspondence of inmates asking to serve their sentence in New Caledonia or go into exile in any other colony on release. We have seen that a large majority of the letters reflect a constrained, "prisoner", form of writing in all senses of the term: the correspondence was closely monitored by the prison administration, followed models used repeatedly by public writers – inevitable for a largely illiterate population, and by definition it was an administrative approach. The petition was highly codified and left little room for authenticity. But - especially in letters from prisoners preparing to leave prison and recover their freedom - we cannot help but see the implicit denunciation of a society that refused to allow a place for released convicts. The mere fact that four out of ten petitioners were inmates requesting facilities for exile on their release is an accusation against the system of police supervision, a determining factor in recidivism and a return to prison. The paradox is that these requests undoubtedly served as an additional argument to install an even more repressive policy, that of relegation (perpetual deportation) for multi-recidivists, adopted in 1885.
96The petition addressed to the Minister – of the Interior or of the Navy – had to respect the norms of this type of administrative approach if it were to have a chance to succeed: the "very obedient servant" presented him or herself as the ideal colonist driven by the will to return to an honest life in the colonies. Nonetheless, beyond the constraints of the genre, we can perceive the affirmation of a spirit that was not broken by imprisonment: the petitioners had plans for their life, prospects for the future, and they expressed the need to renew and create social bonds after their release that would allow them to forge a new life, leaving behind the one they could never find again in France. Even when the letters were written by someone else, and all the more in the words traced awkwardly in the authentic letters, the petition to the Minister also expressed hope. Likewise, for the inmate, the period spent writing and awaiting the response, was a small moment of freedom snatched from the prison system.
97By advancing this hypothesis, we enter somewhat into the evolution of historical research which, like other social sciences, has placed new value on the role of the common players. We see these prisoners or released inmates resisting the system's attempts to impose its discipline, and refusing their condition, even in the meagre chance authorised by the petition addressed to an institution. All things considered, however, their resistance was played out in the context of the penal system, and they were requesting a solution – deportation overseas – which, in actual fact turned out to be worse than the situation they denounced. We can interpret these letters as appeals, "letters in a bottle" sent out to escape the inhumanity of imprisonment, and also as signs revealing the limits of social control. In the end, however, the history of the French penal archipelago, establishing the relegation system, demonstrates how the inmates' search to return to society after serving their sentence led down the opposite road: to exclusion.