Appointing the headman of a prison yard (Chad): a process of miniature bureaucratisation

Supervisor: Felix Kaguenang

“I am A. S., the headman of the prison yard… Here we have our own internal organization … I am the yard chief –it’s like the state administration! So, prison is our territory … We organize our life and security ourselves … we have a disciplinary brigade, and a kind of mayor’s office that manages the sanitation of the yard, bedrooms and toilets, etc … You can find this type of organization in all the remand centres (in Chad)… For example, I was transferred from the prison in Moussoro where I’d done 18 months… things are organized the same way there …

I’m the leader but I have a team who work with me. The people who work with me aren’t chosen by accident. For example, we can’t assign a task to someone disorderly or who’s always trying to escape!”

When I first made contact with my ethnographic research site, the prison in Bongor (a town in southern Chad) in 2015, I was given a guided tour immediately after the security formalities. The director of the prison asked one of the prisoners, whom he calls “yard chief” [chef de cour], to guide me around the prison. I then realized that the prisoners’ daily lives are organised in a way that may well be informal, but which seems to be structured in a fairly bureaucratic manner. This organization of prisoners involves security, hygiene and social discipline in the prison yard.

The “anti-gang” members of the disciplinary brigade calling the names of their fellow prisoners from a list

The “anti-gang” members of the disciplinary brigade calling the names of their fellow prisoners from a list – Image credits : Félix Kanguenang – CC-BY-SA

This contribution presents some of the research I carried out for my master’s thesis. It is the starting point for my doctoral research about the bureaucratization and informalization of penal practices in Chad. The snippet I present here focuses on some of the prisoners’ informal practices, which can be seen as a “bureaucratization” of the prison yard and.More specifically, I will look at the appointment of A. S. as a “yard chief”. The “yard” refers here to the whole penitential environment inside the prison walls. It is made up of a community of prisoners living inside the prison walls, whatever their legal status (on remand, sentenced, accused or as convicted prisoners, etc.).

The entrance to the “high security” block

The entrance to the “high security” block- Image credits : Félix Kanguenang – CC-BY-SA

In addition to the prison administration and surveillance authorities, which are public institutions set up by the state and regulated by specific laws, inside the prison there are also other “prison institutions” run by the prisoners themselves. In organizational and functional terms, these institutions are not part of the prison’s official administration. However, prisoners call them by the names of Tchad’s public state services, in order to identify and assert themselves, which happens even vis-à-vis the authorities in charge of governing the prison. Thus, the “yard” and the “yard chief”are designated and recognized by the prisoners as the main people in charge of their prison space. Within the “yard”, there is also a “disciplinary brigade”, a “mayor’s office”, “room chiefs”, an “ANS” (National security agency), a “kitchen chief”, a “pastor” and an “imam”1, all of whom form an organizational structure responsible for security, hygiene and social order within the four walls of the prison. It is important to stress that these “institutions” were set up and continue to be organised  by prisoners themselves.

This self-organization of the prison community resembles a miniature state bureaucracy, reflecting the tendency to formalise informal practices, or, in other words, a normalization of fairly dynamic, non-(pre-)codified practices. The material and symbolic effects of this form of normalization seem to be limited to the prison community alone, however. It is an internal organization, which is specific to the prison but which functions in a very similar, perhaps even parallel, way to the official public services.

Are prisoners turned into security personnel to make up for a lack of human resources?

This is at least the case with the appointment of A. S., the aim of which seems to be to help with difficulties in managing the very high number of prisoners at Bongor. The prison administration functions with just two governors and eight wardens, who work alternately for two days in two groups of four. It is also for this reason that the headman of the prison yard at Bongor takes on functions, which would, in other state contexts, be reserved to the prison administration. My empirical observations indicate that the tasks executed by the yard headman indeed closely resemble those of a prison administration and surveillance personnel as set out in legal texts. For example, the decree setting out the internal regulations of prisons in Chad stipulates that “the decision to assign [prisoners] to cells is at the sole discretion of the head of the prison”. In Bongor, however, it is clear that it is the headman of the yard, who exercises this prerogative., even if, formally, it is supposed to be reserved for the prison director. On the one hand, this can be explained by the reality of prison life with its observed difficulties and failings, which leads those in charge to adjust to the situation on the ground. On the other hand, giving prisoners responsibility for maintaining social order and involving them in daily management of prison life may also be a conscious strategy on the part of prison officials, so as to help control the emotions and behaviour of prisoners known to be deviant.

How does onebecome headman of the prison yard? Are there formal selection criteria and are certain personal qualities required?

The aim here is to describe the practices and criteria contributing to the appointment of a yard headman. A. S. is a prisoner designated by the prison administration in consultation with other prisoners.He was given the power to ensure order within the prison walls. By studying the process by which A. S. was appointed, our analysis seeks to understand the combined dynamics that lead to different responsibilities being exercised by prisoners within the Bongor prison community.

According to governor of the prison of Bongor, the headman of the prison compound, whom his fellow prisoners respect as the main prison authority, must “have a strong character and the skill required to get to know his fellow prisoners well. He also needs to be a good negotiator and a leader of men” (interview, 22/06/2015). The choice of A. S. as yard chief appears to indicate the presence of precise, well-defined criteria that are based on the reality of prison life: one has to be a good leader, have a strong character, be a skilled negotiator and so forth. For the governor, these criteria also relate to the compound chief’s physical characteristics and his ability to negotiate. This can be explained by the very nature of the prison environment, which is made up of “outlaws”. A. S. was “appointed” by the governor, in consultation with the prison wardens, under certain conditions, including gaining the unanimous approval of the prison community.

On top of these characteristics, the Bongor’s prison headman was recruited because of his senior standing as a prisoner and because he can write. More precisely, he is able to copy and read the names of his fellow prisoners on a list, in French. These criteria are decisive factors.. According to A. S. himself, long-serving prisoners know more about the practical rules of prison life and also acquire a certain authority within the prison community (interview, 22/06/2015). He therefore thinks that a prisoner with a maximum sentence of two years would not fulfil the criterion of seniority needed to become headman of the compound. He could, however, occupy other functions such as a chef or a member of the “mayor’s office”, or alternatively within the “disciplinary brigade”, provided he is in remarkable physical condition and a strongly built physique.

Finally, the yard chief and his deputy should not be scheduled to leave prison in the same month, because one of them will have to help train a successor. I cannot discuss the appointment of prisoners to other functions in the prison at length here, but the headman is responsible for this decision. These responsibilities seem to develop according to the following issues.

Roles within the prison compound: a privilege for prisoners

The main entrance of Bongor prison

The main entrance of Bongor prison – Image credits : Félix Kanguenang – CC-BY-SA

The appointment of A. S. as headman and the implementation of an organizational structure with different functional roles is a response to several issues at stake. For the prison authorities, the main advantages of this internal organization are that it makes up for a shortage in personnel and makes prisoners themselves responsible for social order within the prison. For prisoners, on the other hand, being appointed offers small material and symbolic rewards.

Front view of Bongor prison

Front view of Bongor prison – Image credits : Félix Kanguenang – CC-BY-SA

In the opinion of A. S. and other prisoners interviewed at Bongor prison, working for the yard is a privilege. Members of the “brigade”, for instance, or those of the “mayor’s office” and the “kitchen” staff all have the privilege of being able leave the prison during the day (in order to buy items for fellow prisoners, who do not have the same privilege, or because they are sent into town by the prison authorities, etc.).

To conclude, this form of prison organization aims to ensure security and tranquillity within the prison community. It is important to consider which The internal workings of prisons in Chad are regulated by official as well as informal norms and organizational standards. How do the strategic players involved apply these in daily life? What are the forms and socio-historical representations of bureaucratic organisation and practices in the prison environment, as thought out and conceived by the actors involved? And, finally, what are the contextual realities of the daily functioning of this form of bureaucratization in the prison environment? Are there alternative organisations that contradict this model? These are some of the research questions my doctoral research project seeks to answer.

Featured image: Prison Yard by Mark Turner, licence CC-BY-NC-SA.

This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator, revised by Helen Tomlinson.


Cite this blog post
Félix Kaguenang (2018, February 14). Appointing the headman of a prison yard (Chad): a process of miniature bureaucratisation. Anthology. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

  1. These are the terms used by the interviewees with whom I spoke. To avoid confusion between some of these terms and the names of official institutions, I have chosen to use quotation marks. []

Félix Kaguenang

Après un Master en Droit privé à l’Université de N’Djamena (faculté des sciences juridiques et politiques) et un diplôme de Magistrature à l’Ecole Nationale de Formation Judiciaire (ENFJ) de N’Djamena, Félix Kaguenang a intégré la faculté des sciences humaines et sociales pour poursuivre des études de Master en Anthropologie. Il a défendu avec brio un mémoire de master intitulé Ethnographie des pratiques et des représentations liées aux établissements pénitentiaires du Tchad : la maison d’arrêt de Bongor. Chercheur associé au Centre de Recherche en Anthropologie et Sciences Humaines (CRASH), un centre de recherche international basé à N’Djamena, Félix Kaguenang vient d’intégrer l’équipe du programme de recherche IHA-CREPOS basée à Dakar. Il est actuellement doctorant à l’Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey avec un processus de cotutelle en cours avec l’Université Cheik Anta Diop de Dakar. Félix Kaguenang s’intéresse, dans ses travaux de recherches doctorales, aux établissements pénitentiaires du Tchad pour essayer de comprendre les formes concrètes de bureaucratisation et de (in)formalisation des pratiques quotidiennes, les normes et politiques règlementant les prisons et les applications qu’en font les acteurs stratégiques ainsi que les réalités contextuelles de la vie carcérale tchadienne.

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