It is an unprecedented event in the world of literary awards. The first Inmate Goncourt, which was given to Sarah Jollien-Fardel on December 15, is an original initiative designed to promote reading in the prison environment as a vehicle for social inclusion.

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First Goncourt Award for Inmates, launched last September, gave nearly five hundred detainees from 31 prisons the opportunity to immerse themselves in the reading of the fifteen authors selected by the Goncourt Academy. This event, launched in the context of the year of the reading declared «great national cause», contributes to the commitment of the Ministries of Justice and Culture to develop cultural action in prisons and to promote reading in prisons as a means of social inclusion. It was given Thursday, December 15 to Sarah Jollien-Fardel for the book His favorite.

This award, created under the patronage of the Goncourt Academy, is carried by the State Penitentiary Services and the National Book Centre. Interview with Régine Hatchondo, President of the CNL.

The Prix Goncourt – the most prescriptive literary prize in France – has many variations: the Prix Goncourt for high school students, first novel, short story, etc. Why did you launch a Goncourt today?

In the context of the reading declared «great national cause» and in view of the wish of the President of the Republic to position reading from the angle of social inclusion, we wondered about the place of reading in closed centres, detention centres and detention centres.

Inmates, given their confinement and being cut off from the outside world except through visits, can sometimes feel disconnected from the news. But the literary season is a major event, one of the most covered in cultural life and it seemed interesting to us to consider it under an unprecedented prism: that of a person in a situation of deprivation of freedom. Thus came the idea of creating a Goncourt of prisoners.

Then we went to see Goncourt Academy Philippe Claudel (the Secretary General) who has long taught French in prison and therefore has a particular sensitivity to writing and reading workshops. We then discussed the subject with the Ministry of Culture and the Guard of the Seals and the enthusiasm having been general, the Goncourt prize for prisoners was launched in Nancy (last September) as part of the festival of the Book on the square. 

The prisoners-jurors met with academics or authors before or after reading the books. What emerged from these exchanges?

We went to the Nancy Detention Centre with five members of the Goncourt Academy who spoke with detainees who had expressed their desire to follow this Goncourt of detainees. Academicians asked them about what reading brings to them. In their answers, there was a desire to escape, to «get out of oneself», to «obsess» and to think about something else. Some also pointed out that reading gave them “hope”, waiting for their judgment or their release. Very clearly, the reading appears to them as a "lock to oneself", especially since this return to oneself is in a very specific concrete context, where the question of noise often comes up, the sound of keys, doors, voices…

On the authors' side, we see it every day: they are very enthusiastic! For them too, this is often not the first experience in prison and we had no trouble setting up meetings, whether in video or in real life.

In terms of reintegration, what do you think this Goncourt award will do for those detained?

Language, words, are the first of the fundamentals. We have to understand what we are being told and what we are writing, how to express ourselves in order to defend ourselves and convince others. Mastery of the language, comprehension of linguistic finesse, sense of nuances, oral expression are the first factors of freedom. This unprecedented experience can only be positive when you are released from a period of imprisonment or awaiting trial.

The literary season is – among other things – a window on our world. This year, for example, we have among the fifteen finalists, several books evoke, directly or indirectly, Russia, intraconjugal violence, various facts, mourning... It’s a reflection of our collective concerns. Social inclusion is actually inclusion in the real world.

Inmates emphasized that reading gives them “hope”

This Goncourt prize for prisoners is more broadly part of an action programme aimed at developing reading in prison. What other actions are you contributing to the rest of the year?

These are varied projects: for example, there is support for the acquisition of books to enrich the editorial offer of prison libraries. The project Read to get out provided children’s books in the waiting rooms before the visiting room as they are often anxious to find a detained parent. We have developed science fiction reading with musical accompaniment, not to mention writing and reading workshops.

Associations work on a daily basis and develop a lot of projects in prisons every year. These projects are funded by the CNL which follows, evaluates in the field the measures implemented and goes to the restitution of workshops.

Reading has been declared “great national cause” 2022 by the President of the Republic with many actions put in place. What is your assessment of this year that is coming to an end?

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Nearly six hundred meetings of authors and one hundred and fifty residencies of authors of six half-days per month were conducted in schools, which shows that this corresponds to a real need. Students, whatever their age, realize that an author is there, talking to them about the world we are in. These devices, which can create clicks and remove complexes, work and we hope to double their number next year.

I could also talk about the development of our three major events: Going to Books and Reading Night, where we greatly increased reading aloud and the involvement of libraries, but also the “quarter hour of reading”. which already existed at school but which we want to make national and for all. The CNL is therefore getting closer to the corporate world so that on March 10, everyone leaves their mobile phone for a quarter of an hour to read a book.

Apart from the detainees, to which other audiences far from reading have you multiplied the initiatives?

We carried out a series of actions to get the books off the shelves and bring them as close as possible to the French with, for example, readings aloud or in the waiting rooms of PMI centres, which lowers the stress of parents and babies. We worked in the Ehpad with the organization, with the SOS group, of transgenerational readings by fourth and third graders who went to read to the elderly texts prepared beforehand. We created bags of books with the association Bibliothèques sans frontières for young migrants. These bags were prepared by the other students in the class for peer-to-peer advice that makes them want to read and learn French.

The Culture-Justice Protocol structures cultural action in prisons

Since 1986, the Ministries of Justice and Culture have been a protocol broken down into regions, most often in the form of tripartite agreements signed between the Drac, the Disp (Interregional Directorate of Penitentiary Services) and the DIRPJJ (Interregional Directorate of Youth Judicial Protection).

The objective of this interdepartmental partnership is to affirm the fundamental place of culture in the management of persons placed in custody of justice, whether in an open environment for all measures alternatives to incarceration, or in a secure environment for persons in institutions. It therefore formalizes the principles of cultural action in prisons with the programming of activities in all disciplines.

After three first protocols in 1986, 1990 and 2009, a fourth was signed last March with four main objectives. The former defends a demanding and high-quality multidisciplinary artistic and cultural offer in all prisons in France and overseas. A second objective is to foster close ties between the inside and the outside by guaranteeing the registration of beneficiaries to the cultural offerings of their territory and by encouraging the dissemination outside of artistic productions made in custody. A third component includes the need to equip all penitentiaries with spaces for cultural practices with a library in each institution, places for film distribution and rooms adapted to the live performance.

Finally, the last objective reaffirms the importance of training and professionalization for all Department of Justice staff, including supervisors, stakeholders and beneficiaries. In this context, a new convention was signed last September between the Ministry of Culture and the National School of Prison Administration, one of four Department of Justice schools. It provides for cultural training modules for future prison staff and the organization of artistic residences within the school, located in Agen.