Prisons have played a major role in the filmmaker Philippe Lacôte’s life since he was 7 years old, when he would visit his mother who was a political prisoner in the Ivory Coast’s largest penitentiary during the regime of former President Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
Known as the MACA (Maison d’Arrêt et de Correction d’Abidjan), the prison is a concrete hulk on the edge of a forest in Yopougon, the most densely populated suburb of Abidjan, the country’s largest city. For a year, Lacôte would travel once a week in a collective taxi that drove along the perimeter of the trees to the MACA.
Speaking to New Lines from Abidjan during a telephone interview, Lacôte recalled his experiences with vivid clarity.
“The visiting area in the MACA doesn’t have individual spaces. It’s a large room and people find a corner for themselves. There are prisoners who sell beignets and cakes; you meet other prisoners and interact. I would come to see my mother, but I would see the other prisoners as well. The noises are what come to me first, the sound of keys and doors. At the far end of the visiting room there was a door; the prisoners would arrive one by one, and we could see all the other prisoners waiting behind that door.”
As an adult, Lacôte remained fascinated by prisons. In the course of his work shooting documentary and fiction films, he visited prisons in a number of African countries as well as in Europe. In France, where he studied and continues to spend most of his time, he organized film clubs in prisons, as he gradually realized that penitentiaries were a world unto themselves. This compelled him to wonder about the stories that emerge from unexpected places.
In the MACA, there was an unusual practice that lent itself all too well to Lacôte’s curiosity. Akin to a ritual, it involved what has come to be known as the “Roman” — French for novel. Every night, a prisoner is chosen to tell stories to fellow inmates. For as long as the narration lasts, the incarcerated audience gets a glimpse into another life, another world, helping them to escape their own reality within the drab prison walls.
Lacôte first learned about this practice sometime in 2013, through a childhood friend who had just been released from the MACA. It didn’t take much for Lacôte to formulate a plan: He would make a film that showed prison from the inside; how it functioned as a society in its own right, with emphasis on the primordial impulse of communities stripped of the distractions of modernity to gather round and tell stories.
In 2021, the World Prison Brief estimated there were over 11.5 million prisoners worldwide. It touched upon some of the issues pertaining to human rights, overall health and well-being, overcrowding, recidivism and the root causes of mass incarceration — all of which vary from country to country. But there was one constant that spanned cultures and geography: No matter where, when or for what reason, prisoners had a fundamental need for self-expression.
Indeed, numerous studies of penitentiaries have shown the benefits of arts programs, which give inmates a sense of purpose, self-respect and community. These programs also correlate with a higher level of self-discipline among the incarcerated. No matter the locale — whether on the African continent, in the Americas or in Europe, prisons offer some form of storytelling, reading and writing.
In the case of the MACA, these activities appear to have grown organically among the prison population. Built in 1980, the MACA was intended to hold no more than 1,500 prisoners at any one time. Yet today, according to Amnesty International, it is home to nearly 8,000 prisoners, making it one of the most overpopulated penitentiaries in West Africa. Surrounded by high walls, the prison inmates run the place via what Lacôte describes as a fully fledged unofficial government, with its own laws and mythologies.
There is, indeed, no real input from the MACA’s administration regarding rehabilitation programs, writes the social anthropologist Frédéric Le Marcis, who spent five years of regular fieldwork observing daily life in the prison. Activities are run by the inmates themselves, including the now-traditional storytelling “Roman” routine.
The “Roman” is the basis for Lacôte’s narrative in his award-winning 2020 fiction film “Night of Kings,” which highlights West Africa’s oral tradition of the griot, or bard. Inmates use “storytelling to loosen their noose, pushing back the walls via their imagination,” says Lacôte about his film.
All this began to tie back to his childhood. He often speaks about how, as a child, the MACA became a fantastical kingdom for him, complete with queens, kings and servants. In the mesmerizing “Night of Kings” (a reference to Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”), the viewer is left feeling on the cusp of entering a fairytale as the narrative interweaves magical realism with strong documentary elements. The story follows the arrival of a young prisoner — a character based on a real-life bank robber nicknamed Yacou le Chinois — who is quickly chosen by the head of the inmates’ informal government to be the Roman. True to the ritual, Lacôte’s Roman must tell the prisoners a story. But, unlike at the MACA, “Night of Kings” introduces a dramatic Scheherazade-like element: When the Roman’s story comes to an end, he must be killed.
And so the fictitious Roman begins narrating his story on the night of a blood moon. At first hesitant in his role, he eventually hits his storytelling stride, cheered on (and sometimes jeered) by the other prisoners, who participate in the tale by acting, dancing and singing. The story the Roman tells is also based on a real-life character, Zama, the head of a gang who met his death when he was set on fire by the people he had victimized.
It is a collective narrative in which the entire group must be addressed. “The evening is trance-like, and the strength of the story is that the prisoners live it, it’s not a passive storytelling space,” says Lacôte. It is a reflection of the magic that can sometimes arise during story hour inside the MACA.
Almost a decade before the MACA was established, across the Atlantic Ocean, an infamous prison riot broke out. It happened on Sept. 9, 1971, in the overcrowded prison of Attica, in upstate New York. More than 1,000 prisoners broke discipline, demanding better conditions. The revolt lasted five days and left 33 prisoners and 10 prison guards dead.
It was a turning point in the United States, which shed light on conditions for the incarcerated, and could have granted the much-needed apparatus of self-expression to America’s prisoners. Since then, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program has been established, providing mentoring to inmates who write, holding an annual writing contest and helping bring inmates’ writing to the public. In 2022, the program published “The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison,” a book on the process of writing, with contributors offering advice on how to work “within and around the severe institutional, emotional, psychological and physical limitations” of writing in prison.
Caits Meissner, the director of Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America, edited the book. With a grant from the Mellon Foundation, she was able to distribute 75,000 copies to people in prison. She works with formerly incarcerated people and writers to develop pilot programs in prisons and lead writing groups, creating resources so that local communities can learn and run their own programs. Meissner and her team have also embarked on “a huge project about prison libraries — not every prison has a library … It’s really hard to work with prisons, there’s no easy way to get a handle on this, it’s very opaque. Some prisons are really interested in the concept of rehabilitation and some prisons are completely averse and have no programs,” she told New Lines over Zoom.
As a writer herself, she believes deeply in the benefits of writing for prisoners. “Writing offers a flow state. Time falls away, your environment falls away. The self-connection is so satisfying. I think about people in solitary confinement and that writing can be a portal — there is something to the life of characters and it’s also pro-social in sharing your condition. Maybe there’s relief because you’re lost in the act of creation.”
Meissner’s colleague Robert Pollock, manager of the Prison Writing Program at PEN America, served eight and a half years in three New York prisons on a felony conviction, of which five were at the notorious 19th-century Sing Sing facility. Although Sing Sing is known for its now-retired electric chair “Old Sparky” (in which two members of the Communist Party, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage), it’s also “a hub for volunteers running prison programs,” Pollock told New Lines, also via Zoom.
Before Pollock was sentenced, he was involved in the slam poetry scene and had started playing songs during open mics. He had always been a reader and, as a child, went to his local public library in South Jamaica, Queens, where he still remembers how “the block the library was on was one of the hottest drug-dealing scenes in the neighborhood.”
In prison, he signed up for writing, theater and music programs. “I realized after getting to prison that I had not been understanding how to process a story. I’d thrive off action scenes but didn’t internalize characters’ journeys … It’s hard to think about how I was human before the storytelling,” said Pollock. In his job today, “people ask me to facilitate spaces where they can tell their stories and share, and that comes from an appreciation of a story and being able to see its resonance in life.”
Books took on a whole new meaning for Pollock when he was behind bars.
“You’re only allowed to have a certain amount of property in your cell. The books you have are really special and the ones you swap are so important,” he said. Besides works of fiction, several nonfiction books stood out for Pollock as being precious for prisoners. There was the go-to reference tool “Black’s Law Dictionary,” a must-read for any prisoner. There was the civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” which was banned in the states of New York and New Jersey until protests reversed the ban. (The book is still banned in many other states.)
Pollock recalled that there was a long waiting list to obtain Alexander’s book, and by the time he received his copy “it was a weathered book (but) I needed to get it to other people.” He added that “every single book is a vehicle for shared thought.” So intense is the book exchange universe among the incarcerated that Pollock remembered crying when he finally read the public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.” “I loved the book so much, I couldn’t give it up, because I was afraid it might get lost,” he said. “I lost an uncountable number of books and small pieces of writing. But then, all that transience and fragility leads to an understanding that it’s not the work that’s important but the process, sharing it, talking about it,” he added.
Part of Pollock’s work with PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program includes participating in workshops and panels at universities championing the power of the arts in prison education and restorative justice practices. He now works as an illustrator and writer on top of his job. Pollock has also been closely following a study launched by PEN America called the “Right to Read in American Prisons Project,” led by the anthropologist Anthony Johnson, which focuses on how prisons in the U.S. restrict access to literature and educational material. Book censorship is a hot topic in the U.S. these days; besides books being banned in schools in 32 states, thousands of books are banned in prisons, particularly in the state of Texas. They include a family medical guide by the American Medical Association, banned because it contains photographs of a nude child; Neil Gaiman’s “Faeries,” because it contains “sexually explicit images”; and no fewer than 12 books about the Renaissance artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci, also due to “sexually explicit images.” Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” on the other hand, is allowed. As of 2019, in the state of North Carolina, Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye” and Octavia Butler’s novel “Kindred” were also banned, giving the U.S. some of the heaviest curbs on free speech among the incarcerated in the Western world.
In France, for example, no books are officially banned in prison on a national level, though prison directors can refuse certain titles if they feel a book incites hatred or terrorism. Hunting magazines and certain pornographic material can also get the axe, but that’s about it.
Europe’s largest penitentiary, Fleury-Mérogis, is located outside of Paris. There, an interesting independent experiment has been unfolding. The Prix Monte-Cristo — a nod to Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” in which the main character is unjustly held prisoner in a fortress on an island — is awarded by a jury of readers who are themselves behind bars and students in the school in prison. The prize was established in 2018 by three women who are authors and work in publishing; all three had visited prisons either to run workshops or to speak about their books. Michèle Gazier, an author and translator, had given a talk in a prison about one of her novels that had won a prize, and after spending hours discussing literature with inmates she came away deeply moved. So she set up the Monte-Cristo prize with Roxane Defer and Maëlle Guillaud.
In December 2022, a spin-off of the prestigious Goncourt literary prize called the “Goncourt des détenus” (the inmates’ Goncourt) launched, with prisoners also acting as literary judges. Unlike the Monte-Cristo prize, it is sponsored by the government and 31 prisons take part in the process.
In French prisons, education is administered by the Ministry of Education and supervised by the Ministry of Justice.
The books in the running for the Monte-Cristo prize, which is symbolic as no money is exchanged, are always on the theme of confinement but not necessarily incarceration, and must be written by a contemporary author who, if chosen, can come to the prison to receive the prize. The choices of books are uncensored by prison authorities. The jurors work on the list of books each week for part of the school year with Céline Declerck, the Fleury-Mérogis teacher who committed to the program. Gazier, Defer and Guillaud visit the prison once a month to work with the students.
Samia Sedjari runs the seven schools located within Fleury-Mérogis — one in each building — with a total of 800 students. Students can be any age, Sedjari told New Lines; some are young high school dropouts, others are high school graduates and some have begun college degrees. “It’s this crossroads of different paths that make the classes interesting.” One class each year is chosen to be the jury but, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Monte-Cristo prize is currently only on its second round.
In 2019, I attended the first Monte-Cristo prize ceremony in Fleury-Mérogis. Nine male jury members from the D1 block chose a novel by Émilie de Turckheim from among eight on the list. When de Turckheim was handed the award by an enthusiastic jury, she told them it meant the world to her: “Since I was small child I’ve thought about imprisonment. What does the spirit and the body do to continue to exist? Which part of our freedom cannot be taken, no matter what?”
The prize’s 2019 mentor, the author Daniel Pennac, well-known for his involvement in education and social work, also traveled to the prison. The Franco-Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun will be the 2023 Monte-Cristo prize’s mentor. Ben Jelloun was imprisoned for 18 months in an army camp in the 1960s and later wrote about prison in his novel “This Blinding Absence of Light,” which was based on the testimony of a former inmate of Tazmamart, Morocco’s ghastly dungeon for political prisoners, now closed following international pressure.
Gazier told New Lines that, at the beginning of the class sessions, prisoners often behave in a provocative manner, or are withdrawn. “We stay as neutral as possible. We don’t want to influence them. Then they begin to ask real questions, and somehow get back their dignity. They’re offered six months of freedom in which to choose a book.”
Guillaud, who also runs writing workshops in a nearby prison, added, “They’re often excellent readers and don’t know it, there’s a lack of self-confidence. As jurors, they gain a certain feeling of power; it humanizes them and gives them dignity. They read with their life; they find answers in their reading. It’s profoundly relevant.”
“A prison is seen as a place of residue or failure. It is important to say that prison is an unexpected producer of stories and culture,” Philippe Lacôte told me. It is unlikely that his film has been screened in a U.S. prison, but he is still trying to organize a screening for the MACA inmates.
Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox