What a French Prison Taught Me About Ethnography

Maison d’arrêt de Paris, La Santé, Paris

This is a note from when I had the opportunity to be around families waiting their turn to meet their kin in prison. For obvious reasons, to be in and around an area of high security while in a prison is not common. To study people’s behaviour and interaction in an environment like this can hence be very insightful.

Illustrations by Shagnik Chakraborty

The administrative space of Paris’ Remand Center was monitored by police officers and had tight protocols in place to enter. People waited outside the building, leaning on the large walls that contoured the prison, waiting for their turn to enter. 


I took the opportunity to visit the Remand Center with one of my neighbours, Madame K. She had been volunteering there for over 30 years. Madame K was part of a catholic women’s association that worked closely with the prison. . The women took weekly shifts to make this cold, intimidating waiting space pleasant.


 On a chilly Thursday morning, I accompanied Madame K to the remand centre. I went with her to quench my curiosity about human behaviour in a state-run centre with the tightest of security.


The interiors looked like any other waiting room, but its atmosphere felt strangely like a nursery for kids. I was greeted by two officers as soon as we entered. After exchanging a few niceties, they rushed to begin their work for the day. 


The purpose of this place was simple. To allow families to


(a) wait for their turn to enter the prison space and meet their kin

(b) deposit personal belongings in the locker room before attending the meeting

(c) declare items that were brought for said kin

(d) and finally, to make the next appointment (using a kiosk)


The family members filled a few forms and patiently waited for their names to be called out. Every thirty minutes or so, a new batch of families came in. They would first consult officers, who would assign them specific lockers. After locating them, they deposited their belongings and found a socially distanced space to be seated at to fill their forms. 


The waiting room was filled with an ethnically mixed crowd. There were mostly women. mothers, sisters, wives. They were occasionally accompanied by children. This was a prison for men.


I quickly learned the role I’d play from Madame K. I was made incharge of the beverage station, from where I was to offer the crowd pleasantries. It was important for me to understand how this place functioned and to learn about the people that were a part of this unique experience before I could just stroll up to them and offer a cup of coffee.


I will go on to write in detail about how the role of a waitress is an excellent disguise to study people in peculiar surroundings. But before that, I will anecdotally relay my observations about the people that came in.


Wife, Sister and Friend

The officers addressed everyone that came in by their family name. From the demographic of those who came to visit, it was easy to identify who was being visited. It was also fairly easy to predict if it was the visitor’s first visit or their fiftieth.  Each family could visit their kin twice a week, but had to take appointments.


I’d like to describe in detail some experiences that stood out. This will paint a clear picture of the ongoings of the prison and can also be useful for some readers to build realistic personas based on these people.


As I familiarised myself with the place, the first person I noticed was a fit, Black woman in her mid-forties. She was wearing a green tank top, khaki pants and heels. She had her hair cropped very short and carried herself with grace. 


She was holding a crisp, brown fnac bag with her. The contents of the bag included a handwritten letter for her husband and a picture of their daughter. While others sat quietly in alternate chairs (maintaining a safe distance), she spent her time addressing what looked like a birthday card, to her husband. Her fingers moved swiftly as she counted the brand new Marvel CDs that she brought for him as a present. He had probably asked for it the last time she visited. She entered the identities of all the contents of her bag into a declaration form. She was meticulous with the forms–she double checked and wrote every detail to the T.

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It seemed like she was not only familiar but also comfortable with the procedures of the prison. She didn’t allow the bureaucracy in her vicinity to bother her. It looked as if she had made peace with what had happened to her family, and was now doing her best to make this visit as close to home. I only say this because the rest of the families in this room were either confused about formalities, nervous, or as quiet as a lamb while they waited. 


The air of the room was positive, but it resembled a waiting room at a doctor’s office.


There was a Romanian family– a mother with two of her sons. The mother was skinny, and short, with long black hair loosely tied in a pony. Her teeth looked unkempt, but the sons were neatly dressed and well-mannered. She spoke no French and her anxiety due to it was very evident. As soon as I offered her a drink, she felt startled, and her son immediately spat a “Non, Merci  (no, thank you)” on her behalf before he dragged her away. I sensed their embarrassment and felt like I had misjudged the situation.


Being an immigrant is not easy, and when you don’t know the language, questioning can easily feel like interrogation. I should have known that a place like this could only exaggerate this angst.


A tall Arabic woman in her mid 30s sat dressed in a hijab (niqabs were not allowed here, but wearing a mask overruled that). She was with her plump, 3 year-old toddler and a girl in her late 20s. She had come to visit her husband- the child’s father, and who must have been the girl’s brother.


While the mother was busy attending to the formalities, the toddler demanded a piece of paper to draw on. She had clearly been here before, because she knew the protocol. Even though she spoke Arabic, a language Madame K and I didn’t understand, she made her intentions clear to us. She sat on the kids’ table, colouring in  a few pictures. The little girl refused to accept anything less than the entire pile of colouring sheets. She was hyperactive, but she managed to maintain decorum even at her age. 


For her to grow up and realise what place it was that she visited twice a week, just to meet her father, is an experience not many people will ever have. I couldn’t help but ponder over how huge a role this experience would play in her narrative.

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A Black mother-daughter duo also came in. The daughter, like any teenager, looked annoyed and uninterested, as if dragged to an event she didn’t plan on going to. “Elle voyage (she’s travelling)”, her mother announced proudly after she asked me about where luggage was to be kept. Flushed, the daughter snapped at her mother and (rightly) stated that I’d be the wrong person to ask. She was clearly not happy to be here, and asking for help from someone her age, someone who was not in the same boat as her, was not going to make her feel any better.


It was peculiar to see how everyone seemed visibly at ease in the waiting room after they re-entered it, following their rendez-vous at the prison. They looked less tense as they collected their paraphernalia from the lockers. Those who had politely rejected refreshments while waiting for their turn felt comfortable approaching the station for some beverages after it.


The glib ones here found confidants in Madame K and I, as we became a part of this place. They felt comfortable enough to express how the officers were always kind and welcoming. It was true. One of the officers with Indian roots expressed that he was elated to see me there.




The people who walked in had starkly different levels of emotion written on their faces, nothing in common between them except for the purpose of their visit. This made me curious about their accounts. Some looked well off and others not so much. I speculated how the incident which led them to add ‘visiting day’ to their schedules impacted each of these families. 


My purpose here was just to serve them, and though the job seems simple at a shallow glance, it is easy to go overboard with engagement, especially as an observing ethnographer. I quickly learnt that I could not interfere with what they came here to do by mindlessly asking them if they’d like something to drink. 

This was a space of grave consequences, which filled the air with an inherent amount of anxiety and fear. Some people were confident enough to make use of their window of family-time without being intimidated but others needed time to figure out the system. 

I also found that I could learn so much about each of their mindsets by simply asking them “voulez vous quelque chose?” (“Would you like something?”). 

If I were to interrupt their experience, I had to gauge how and when to do so. I had to understand when someone was at ease and had their guard down. Only then would my otherwise harmless question benefit them.


The place got busy and slightly chaotic mid-morning, and it got harder for the people there to complete their tasks in peace while making sure they made no errors.

Learning from people’s micro expressions in order to pick up on cues that suggest a safe window to converse is a skill, and it must be explored cautiously. 

For example, if your job is merely to offer a beverage to people, you cannot mechanically go around offering drinks to each new person that walks in. This would disturb the atmosphere and only add more friction to an already difficult experience. 


I noticed that the territory came with its own adversities. Accepting a drink could make a person feel indebted to the place, and they would hence choose to avoid the extra baggage by simply refusing. To ensure an agreeable experience (which they would have if they got to make the choice of their drink), I realised that it was important to approach an affable member of the group who could ease this tension.


In anticipation of their visit, some people were lost in thought or in conversations with themselves, and to approach them at a point like this, regardless of good intentions could make them nervous and defensive. Even if they were prepared enough to handle an intrusion, they might have responded politely only because they felt obligated to, and that fails the purpose of making their visit modest. 


It was crucial for me to keep in mind the boundaries that must in no case be stepped on, no matter the level of inquisitiveness that comes with a place like prison. 


As an observer, I felt like I had an upper hand in the power dynamics here. By merely volunteering, I knew that I was not as vulnerable as the families around me, yet I had the privilege to be in an inaccessible capacity without trading much. I understood then that I would be abusing my power if I made unnecessary conversation with each family and that that would be a move only an immature ethnographer would make in the name of ‘research’.


I was fortunate enough to have Madame K show me a few forms of declaration that had to be filled by visitors. She showed me their schedules and the pantry log books as well. There was data on how many visitors came in on each day of the week and which slot of the day was the busiest and the slowest. 


Naturally, I was not allowed to take photographs of the forms, but it was interesting to see what items were allowed to be given to the prisoners by their families. There was even a list of items like candy, fruits and music, that you could purchase for them at the prison store. 


There were some obvious restrictions on objects (sharp, heavy, etc) that could be sent in. Clothes with hoods, long/ill-fitting attire were also included in the list of prohibited items. I was intrigued by the existing restrictions on colours and patterns of clothing as well. Khaki or camouflage-printed clothes that resembled the French military, navy blue clothes that resembled the French police and other such patterns were forbidden.

With or Without Sugar


A place like this called for observational analysis and not for interviews to understand the essence of the system. To break the flow of this system would only provide a false picture and pollute its findings, which in this case would be to start interviewing a key actor. This would not only draw attention but also change levels of comfort for every other participant and provide a skewed account of what often occurs here.


I also recognised the value of improving an interaction, or the experience of a place like this simply by offering tea, coffee, hot chocolate and other pleasantries free of cost. The unexpectedness of this has a positive impact on the people, especially if you would like them to feel comfortable. The feedback is generally constructive. 


To do a participant study often seems unfairly transactional, even if it is observational in nature. But to become part of the system very seamlessly makes the insights fairly authentic. As a researcher, to take on the guise of someone who doesn’t directly belong to the process yet manages to communicate (verbally or nonverbally) with her audience can be supremely gratifying. Often, being a third party (like me as a waitress here) gives your presence purpose and makes your position less suspicious, gives you access and makes you invisible at the same time.


I understand that it comes easily to some people, interacting with strangers, but sometimes it is necessary to tread lightly when the place in question is sensitive and notable. To be overly inquisitive can ruin an experience but to not be hospitable at all would lead to missed learning opportunities for a researcher.


To Design for,

Often, families of prisoners are treated unfairly. I was satisfied to see the details that made sure that that didn’t happen in this waiting room. I wrote this piece so people could get a quick look into parts of a system that are often overlooked in terms of design for people.


I also want to reiterate that it is definitely harder and more intimidating for children and people who don’t speak the language (migrants) to interact with these systems. To design in order to make these encounters as simple as possible is necessary for those that have already given up a lot by losing family to the prison. 


Etiquette as a designer, researcher or ethnographer is most important in spaces that make people feel exposed. The stigma that comes with a scenario like this is a burden for the family, and there is nothing worse than intruding on them. Studying people in hospitals, immigration centres or shelters must be done in a way that the people leave with more than they came if they are allowing themselves to be exposed.