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Alterity 101: The Development of a Status: Becoming a Prisoner

"How can anyone not want to get rid, and by means without appeal, of someone who is fundamentally a 'criminal', essentially a 'danger', and naturally a 'monster'. The safety of all of us is at stake."

- Foucault, The Proper Use of Criminals


Alterity 101 is a set of articles that strive to understand the phenomenon of alterity from a socio-anthropological perspective. The subsequent six articles will embark on a definition of alterity and its power dynamics; it will also enable the reader to understand how alterity takes form under societal institutions by using the example of prisons. In a world that is disoriented towards the Other, we must ask ourselves which representations have been ingrained in the population and if these representations originate from dominant mechanisms.

Alterity 101 is divided into six different chapters:

2. Alterity 101: The Power of Alterity

3. Alterity 101: The Alarmist Discourse

4. Alterity 101: Social Institutions as a Solution for Separating the Other from Society

5. Alterity 101: Hyper-Incarceration

6. Alterity 101: The Development of a Status: Becoming a Prisoner

The Development of a Status: Becoming a Prisoner

Imprisonment will give incarcerated individuals a common alterity. In fact, all arriving at prison will or will not have experienced being Othered in a free society. The prison will, however, cause common alterity to all and is, therefore, a development from society’s Otherness and brings forth a new stage. The penal institution asserts the opposition of an individual in correspondence to the rest of the population, and this opposition becomes justified under the name of the law. Being sentenced to prison allows society to turn its back on the ones who have committed an infraction (Foucault, 1975). As a result, a societal common enemy is born. The prisoner has broken the social contract which every individual has supposedly signed (Foucault, 1975). They do not belong to society anymore and they can therefore be treated as society wishes. From the moment that individuals are caught transgressing a norm, they will be perceived as individuals to whom no trust can be given (Becker, 1985). The transgressor is perceived as someone who cannot live by the norms of society and therefore has to be sentenced and be separated from the main group. Transgressors can be sentenced to prison for different reasons and can have a different experience with the legal system, but the things they have in common are the labels they receive once sentenced to imprisonment, the spatial environment in which they will be constricted to live, and the cultural environment of prison to which they will have to adapt.

Figure 1 : Photo from the series Prisons (2011-2014) by Sébastien Van Mallenghem.

The majority of the prison’s population is made up of individuals who were already Othered in society. Although, prison imposes a different alterity; It imposes a name, the one where 'prisoner' signifies the belonging to defined categories. Incarcerated individuals gain the label of prisoners and enter into a world obsessed with the aim of dividing the Them of incarcerated individuals from the Us of society. Individuals who go to jail are leaving a whole world behind them and entering into a new one in which they are solely prisoners and nothing else (Harvey, 2007). All the roles that incarcerated individuals had before being sentenced to prison disappear – fathers, workers, and so on – and are first and foremost solely prisoners. Incarcerated individuals will arrive at prison with their own culture and landmarks, but the institution will break those and offer them a new world (Goffman, 1961). The history of the detained individual will begin in a free society and continue in prison. Individuals of free society that are sentenced to prison will have to draw a new reality because of them gaining the label of prisoners that does not only qualify an act but the whole individual who performed the criminal act (Foucault, 1975). Because the punishment is focused on the will and the heart of the inculpated instead of their body, it will give astonishing importance to the individuals behind the crime (Foucault, 1975). They are the ones who will acquire the privileged position over the crime itself; it is not the crime that is punished but the individuals behind it. A discourse on the evil takes place, and the justice will not only analyse the crime committed but, moreover, it will inspect the individuals who committed it (Foucault, 1975). The person sentenced to prison is now seen as an evil being, i.e. a prisoner.

Figure 2: Obscuring Self by Rolf Kissman.

However, this new world in which the persons sentenced to prison enter is not only one that socially classifies its population as prisoners but is also a spatial environment in which the individual ought to live as being separated from society. The socially-classified criminals need to be separated from free society and placed in a secured and distant place from which they will not be able to escape from. This space is prison and by being enclosed in this space, criminals become prisoners. Prisons are environments that will materialise the societal classification of being the Other of society, i.e. of being prisoners. In fact, most prisons were constructed with the objective of separating the incarcerated individuals from society and surveilling them. For example in Belgium, Ducpétiaux, a Belgian journalist and penitentiary reformer, created thirty Belgian jails constructed in the form of a star to enable complete surveillance and control of the detained (Claus et al., 2015). The architecture of prison has a meaning and purpose. The prison’s architecture permits discipline through maximal control with minimum staff, and it gives society a message of dissuasion as the citizens can only see its watchtowers amidst its high walls and ramparts with barbered wire (Claus et al., 2015). The surface of the prison can be seen by anyone who passes by, but its inside is reserved for only those who have the right to enter it or are condemned to enter it. The surface is solid and compact, and the entrance is large enough to allow individuals to penetrate but small enough to keep them inside (Warnier, 2006). The outside of the prison must allow passage but must simultaneously contain the ones who are bound to stay inside. It is a space that does not permit anyone to enter and exit freely, instead, in order to enter the persons have to be forced to enter or must perform a ritual that will permit entrance (Foucault, 2004). Every space in the prison is made to control and separate the dangerous criminals; security prevails and Otherness is felt.

Figure 3: Aerial view of the prison of Saint-Gilles (Brussels).

Lastly, from being socially classified as prisoners and thrown into a space that separates them from society, the incarcerated individuals will live in a world that has its own culture and rules, i.e. the world of prison. Not for nothing, Goffman (1961) defines prison as being a total institution, i.e. institution in which the individuals are cut off from society and lead an enclosed and formal administrated life cycle. In prison, individuals will have to live by new rules and shape their world all while being enclosed in an environment that is defined by alterity and having a social position that defines them as the Other. The shaping of these impositions will give rise to a world that has different codes and habits in comparison to free society. However, it is not possible to say that prison is totally disconnected from society as interactions do happen and some mechanisms of free society continue to take place (Bony, 2015). Yet, the interactions which are present are marginal to the entirety of the life of incarcerated individuals, and the mechanisms which will take place will always pass through a development. Prison has its own culture and rules which make it a world different from the one of free society. Having one’s own habits and modalities is normal as the incarcerated are influenced by the reality in which they are constrained to live (Foucault, 1975). The more marginal communities are distant from the hegemonic centre, the more their imaginary will be powerful and will be subject to every object (Appadurai, 1990). Prison has its own culture because it is a reality that is separated from the hegemony, and that functions by opposite structures to free society. It is thus normal that incarcerated individuals will live in their own microcosm and recreate reality through their alterity status and environment.

Figure 4: An inmate at Sing Sing Prison (1974), by Arthur Tress.

Becoming a prisoner entails the changing of a social name, the changing of an environment, and the forced adaptation to a world that is altered and has its own rules and culture. The common experience of being a prisoner is being the Other of society who is given a societal role (i.e. the one of the prisoner) and a stage (i.e. the environment of the prison). The prisoners will only be able to shape what happens within the limits of the stage. Instead, the public (the society) watching, is the real entity that shapes the prisoners' experiences as they are the one that gave them the space and the role that they ought to play. Incarcerated individuals are dominated by society and they are its reflection in the mirror of alterity.

Bibliographical References

Appadurai, A. (1990). Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy, Theory Culture Society, 7(295), 295-310.

Becker, H. S. (1985). Outsiders, études de sociologie de la déviance. Paris, FR: Éditions Métailié.

Bony, L. (2015). La prison, une « cité avec des barreaux » ? Continuum socio-spatial par-delà les murs. Annales de géographie, 2-3, 702-703, 275-299.

Claus, H., Beyens, K., De Meyer, R., Gryson, M., Naessens, L., Harford, A. (2015). Les Maison, Vers une approche pénitentiaire durable. Bruxelles, BE: Academic and Scientific Publishers sa.

Foucault, M. (1975). Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison. Paris, FR: Éditions Gallimard.

Foucault, M. (2004). Des espaces autres. Empan, 54, 12-19.

Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York, NY: Anchor Books Edition.

Harvey, J. (2007). Young Men in Prison. Devon, UK: Willan Publishing.

Warnier, J. P. (2006). Inside and Outside, Surface and Containers. In Handbook of Material Culture (pp. 186-195). London, UK: Sage Publications.

Image References

Figure 1: Van Mallenghem, S. (2011-2014). Photo from the series Prisons [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Kissman, R. (2015). Obscuring Self [Illustration]. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: Aerial view of the prison of Saint-Gilles (Brussels). (1973). [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

Figure 4: Tress, A. (1974). An inmate at Sing Sing Prison [Photograph]. Retrieved from:


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Altea Vaccaro

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