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A prison without walls? The Mettray reformatory

The Mettray reformatory was founded in 1839, some ten kilometres from Tours in the quiet countryside of the Loire Valley. For almost a hundred years the reformatory imprisoned juvenile delinquent boys aged 7 to 21, particularly from Paris. It quickly became a model imitated by dozens of institutions across the Continent, in Britain and beyond. Mettray’s most celebrated inmate, gay thief Jean Genet depicts it in his influential novel Miracle of the Rose [1946] and it is also featured at the climax of philosopher Michel Foucault’s history of modern imprisonment, Discipline and Punish [1975]. The boys worked nine-hour days in the institution’s workshops – making brushes and other basic household implements; they dug its fields and broke stones in its quarries. Such labour was thought conducive to moral reform but it also enabled the institution – which was run by a profit-making private company – to balance its books. In his seventies, Jean Genet suspected that the reformatory was doing rather more than this: making then concealing huge profits from its forced labour. He set about, with a small team of helpers, trying to prove this by plundering the institution’s archives as well as reading widely in the historical sources. The result, The Language of the Wall, was a script for a three-part historical documentary drama for television which retells the story of Mettray from its foundation to its closure as a prison in 1937. Genet could find no hard evidence of profiteering but he dramatizes his own search for it in the script and retells the life of the institution over the hundred years by intertwining often violent incidents from the daily lives of prisoners with scenes from the corridors of power to show how closely the private institution worked alongside the state and how it survived successive changes of regime.

My return to Mettray’s archives in Tours was guided by Genet’s still unpublished script, versions of which are held at the regional archives in Tours and at IMEC. Although Genet rightly ridicules him for his reactionary politics, it is difficult not to admire the technical accomplishment of Mettray’s principal founder, the devout Frédéric-Auguste Demetz. Demetz had been sent to the United States by the French government with prison architect Abel Blouet in 1836 to follow up Alexis de Tocqueville’s earlier visit, the official purpose of which had been to investigate American prisons. Demetz and Blouet were to obtain more precise technical information about them, including detailed drawings.

Abel Blouet, Maison Paternelle et Chapelle de la Colonie plan élévation, courtesy of Les Archives Départementales d’Indre-et-Loire, 114J173

Blouet subsequently produced drawings for Mettray’s chapel building which show cells in the crypt, as well as in the building behind, a unit which the institution ran as a money-making enterprise by encouraging middle-class families to send wayward sons for a short spell of “paternal correction,” during which they experienced individual tuition and could also hear Mass in the adjacent chapel from the privacy of their cells without having to mix with the working-class delinquents in the chapel. Demetz was a brilliant publicist for his institution, marketing it and carefully managing its visibility to the outside world. He boasted that Mettray was “sans grilles ni murailles” (without bars or walls) and in one sense this was true: there was no perimeter wall, yet in addition to the punishment cells concealed in the chapel and elsewhere there were frequent roll-calls and escapees were rounded up by the local peasantry, alerted by the ringing of the chapel bell, and incentivized by the payment of a reward. Sometimes they killed escapees. Demetz welcomed philanthropic tourists but only on Sundays, when they witnessed the institution’s weekly military parade, La Revue du Dimanche.

Colonie de Mettray – La Revue du Dimanche, courtesy of Les Archives Départementales d’Indre-et-Loire, 114J344.

The institution provided a hotel and even postcards for visitors to spread the news of its success in taking wayward criminal children and remoulding them into disciplined servants of the established order: inmates could leave Mettray a few years early if they joined the armed forces so many did, becoming troops in the colonial armies. Genet’s script is accurate in showing the presence of soldiers from Mettray at key moments in the colonisation of Algeria, as well as in Mexico and Indochina. Demetz was an expert carceral entrepreneur who not only governed the prison but also the surrounding local population, enlisting them as – in effect – auxiliary prison guards to substitute for the absent perimenter wall. In Paris he garnered financial support from the governing classes in a similar way. By capitalising on the fear of crime to further his own institutional agenda, Demetz’s approach points forward to the ubiquitous work of today’s “(in)security professionals,” to use Didier Bigo’s suggestive formulation.

Featured image credit: Colonie de Mettray – La Revue du Dimanche, courtesy of Les Archives Départementales d’Indre-et-Loire

Recent Comments

  1. Gregory Tzanetos

    Reading the Article on ‘‘ A prison without walls’’ I felt the necessity to express some more generic thoughts about the treatment of the criminality by a regime of law, which, of course, could be subject of critique.

    Here, I think that the capacity for an alternative treatment of the individuals having committed crime is depended on the equal capacity of them for promise to restore the object protected in the public order which defines what the crime is; and such capacity of the individual for promise to restore is depended on the reason of conscience and therefore on the free will of the person.

    However, I do not see how the walls could be removed for those cases, in which an alternative treatment by the polity, due to the nature of the crime, could not be depended on the promise of the individual to restore the object of his / or her crime.

    Namely, the nature of the act might show the lack of capacity of the individual for true promise to restore.:

    The ”Promise” could be substitute of the walls of jail (or, the define better the alternative treatment of the criminality, here, we would indicate the ‘‘replacement of the jail’’), if we accepted that the promise of the individual to restore would establish a ‘‘bridge’’ of moral legitimacy by mutual acceptance, between the polity and the person; showing a common ground defined by the object of the crime between the regime, representing the law of polity and the space of conscience of the subject expressing the will to restore the object, as promise.

    In that case the promise could be defined by a specific content, in which both the subject of an individual, who accused for a crime, and the regime representing the law of polity the space of which was violated (whoever represents that law) can define and accept by consensus, for the first, to restore the object of the law. (For example a promise could be the accepted obligation of the individual, accused for a crime, to provide social or productive work enhancing the local economy and the needs of the community for a specific period of time – which work may be provided in the place of the individual or in a public establishment or store – , or to provide part of his / or her property to restore the consequences of the crime (not in value of money) by providing his / or her things for the needs of a community or the state representing the community, as for example by providing a building or offices or networks of services belonging to the property of the individual as well as the promise of the individual to develop capacities for a better life for the community. The content of the promise could also be defined by the obligations of the individual to co-operate with the competent authorities in the definition of his / or her state in particular time period, or the promise to avoid any action, or to possess any means by which the individual had committed the crime, or the obligation of the individual to participate to a social campaign).

    We might accept (could we?) that the ”declination” from the public order by violation of the space of the regime of law could be restored by the ‘’Act of Promise’’ in accordance with the aforementioned observations decided by the court, or by the highest institutional organ of a polity, which might be represented in the person of President and in the execution of authority belonging normally to the field of justice.

    The Promise presupposes capacity for judgement by the subject. Which means the capacity of a person to understand the nature of the object of the crime, which might represent also the object of an imperative Law in humans, corresponding to embedded attribute in the human being.

    That is why that object of the law in the human provides the source of the natural dynamic which the promise of a human includes and which is more precious for the existence of the society than any wall of jail providing the external obstacle of a regime out of the nature of human being, as something which wall may retain, or reflect the paradox in the nature of the crime as paradox of the society.

    But the real challenge, here, would be the effacement of the paradox of the crime from the society.

    Therefore crimes committed by individuals might be recognized in two cases:

    First Case: When there is Capacity of the Individual for Promise to Restore the Object of the Crime committed by Acts (for example):

    -Acts by good faith but defined as crimes by the regime of law, namely acts corresponding to an imperative Law in the conscience of human, for example by saving lives, or to retain the means of life.

    -Acts of political reason that belong to the nature of the promise by free will, if such acts correspond to a wider good of the society although the acts breach the space of the regime of law and by exception of acts which harm the life of people.

    -Acts by human who would be in state of lack of capacity to recognize the space of the regime of law and namely who would present the lack of capacity for the right decision at the moment of the act by objective cause and who, therefore (in the case of the objective cause), could recognize the results of his /or her act, afterwards, asking forgiveness by free will, when the act would not belong to other case of the following.

    Second Case: Showing The Lack of Capacity for Promise by the Individual to Restore:

    The opposite case represents crimes by:

    -Acts committed by instinct to harm people without provocation, which shows the lack of capacity for conscience and reason.

    -Acts of organized crime.

    -Acts in the exercise of public authority, or any authority equal to public, violating the space of the regime of law by intention to the crime, or by self interested purpose, including acts of conspiracy, or treason.

    -Any act, apart of the above case, violating the space of the regime of law by intention to the crime, or by self interested purpose.

    -Acts that harm life or depriving human of the necessary means of life.

    – Acts presenting Crimes Against Humanity lying beyond the capacity for promise to restore due to the nature of the act in the crime.

    However exceptions could be for individuals who contribute to the prevention of a major crime by their will, or who restore the things as they were. Such exceptions are not referred to Crimes Against Humanity, or to the crimes by instinct, or by acts harming life, or depriving human of the necessary means of life, or the adequate treatment to retain life.

    Thank you for reading this. Gregory Tzanetos.

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