Manifesto of the Groupe d’Information sur les prisons (1971)


Although the explo­sive events of May 68 in France rad­i­cal­ized entire sec­tors of soci­ety, many rad­i­cals para­dox­i­cal­ly passed the world of the prison over in silence. As an inter­nal cir­cu­lar from the Gauche pro­lé­tari­enne (GP), a rev­o­lu­tion­ary for­ma­tion inspired by Mao­ism, put it, “con­cern for the pris­on­ers does not exist,” and many act as if “an impris­oned mil­i­tant is a dead mil­i­tant.” But the mount­ing wave of repres­sion fol­low­ing the May events even­tu­al­ly pushed activists to recon­sid­er the prison as an emi­nent­ly polit­i­cal space. In June 1968, Min­is­ter of the Inte­ri­or Ray­mond Mar­cellin banned eleven rad­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions. He then pro­ceed­ed to tight­en cen­sor­ship laws, harass rad­i­cal pub­lish­ers, and even pass a law that held that any­one asso­ci­at­ed with any demon­stra­tion in which per­sons were harmed, prop­er­ty dam­aged, or vio­lence com­mit­ted against police offi­cers could be arrest­ed for those crimes, no mat­ter how ten­u­ous the link. The pris­ons flood­ed with rad­i­cal mil­i­tants from all cur­rents.

In response, rad­i­cal gauchistes – espe­cial­ly those from the now ille­gal GP – began to orga­nize in the pris­ons. Yet at first, the Maoists tend­ed to draw a firm line between them­selves, the “polit­i­cal pris­on­ers,” and all the oth­er “com­mon law pris­on­ers.” As Michel Fou­cault explained in a lat­er inter­view:

When Maoists were put in prison, they began, it must be said, by react­ing a lit­tle like the tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal groups, that is to say: “We do not want to be assim­i­lat­ed with the crim­i­nals of com­mon law, we do not want our image to be mixed with theirs in the opin­ion of peo­ple, and we ask to be treat­ed like polit­i­cal pris­on­ers with the rights of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers.1

But when their first actions were crushed in iso­la­tion, they real­ized the need to link up with oth­er pris­on­ers, which in turn dra­mat­i­cal­ly trans­formed their under­stand­ing of the work­ing class itself. 

Col­lab­o­rat­ing with these oth­er pris­on­ers taught them that the very dis­tinc­tion between “polit­i­cal pris­on­ers” and “com­mon law pris­on­ers” was itself a polit­i­cal divi­sion cre­at­ed by the rul­ing class. As Alber­to Toscano puts it, uni­ty now meant break­ing a divi­sion that “was both imposed upon and even­tu­al­ly affirmed by the work­ers’ move­ment, with its debil­i­tat­ing intro­jec­tion of a bour­geois moral­i­ty itself repro­duced by legal and penal insti­tu­tions: the divi­sion between the pro­le­tari­at and the ‘non-pro­le­tar­i­an­ized plebs.’”

This sparked a com­pre­hen­sive rethink­ing of the com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class. In fact, con­trary to the GP’s pre­vi­ous beliefs, the work­ing class turned out to be far more com­plex than assumed. How did the law cre­ate divi­sions with­in the work­ing class? How was the prison a site of class strug­gle? What did the prison regime have to say about state repres­sion in gen­er­al? What was the prison’s rela­tion­ship to the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion? To pow­er?

These were open ques­tions, which demand­ed polit­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion. Indeed, few peo­ple knew any­thing about the pris­ons, espe­cial­ly since in France out­siders were not allowed inside – the first time Fou­cault stepped into a prison was in Atti­ca. A basic under­stand­ing of con­di­tions inside these spaces, then, was deemed strate­gi­cal­ly essen­tial. With this goal in mind, those involved in the ex-GP’s polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion for pris­on­ers, such as Jacques Ran­cière, Daniel Defert (Foucault’s part­ner), Chris­tine Mar­tineau, and oth­ers, set­tled on the idea of inquiry, explic­it­ly recall­ing Karl Marx’s “work­ers’ inquiry” first pro­posed in 1880.

The ex-GP activists were strong­ly encour­aged in this direc­tion by a num­ber of rad­i­cal intel­lec­tu­als who soon joined the cam­paign. After its ear­li­er fail­ures in the pris­ons, the ex-GP real­ized that it had to con­nect the strug­gle inside the pris­ons with those on the out­side. Thus, in Decem­ber 1970, ex-GP rad­i­cals advanced a new posi­tion: they decid­ed to reach out to philo­soph­i­cal and cul­tur­al lumi­nar­ies, such as Michel Fou­cault, Gilles Deleuze, Jean Genet, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. This encounter between the ex-GP on the one hand, and a num­ber of mil­i­tant intel­lec­tu­als, above all Fou­cault, on the oth­er, gave way to a new orga­ni­za­tion, the Groupe d’information sur les pris­ons (GIP).2

On Feb­ru­ary 8, 1971, forty-five years ago, Fou­cault unveiled the GIP to the pub­lic. Co-signed by Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Jean-Marie Dom­e­n­ach, the man­i­festo out­lined a pro­gram of inquiry, research, and polit­i­cal strug­gle. Work­ing with pris­on­ers, their fam­i­lies, doc­tors, lawyers, and mil­i­tants, the GIP suc­cess­ful­ly smug­gled texts in and out of the pris­ons, ulti­mate­ly pro­duc­ing five inves­tiga­tive book­lets. But this cam­paign not only gath­ered vital infor­ma­tion about the pris­ons, it helped give voice to all those pris­on­ers forcibly silenced by the state, play­ing an impor­tant role in the emer­gence of a vibrant, autonomous pris­on­ers’ move­ment in France as well as oth­er coun­tries.

We repro­duce Foucault’s state­ment, new­ly trans­lat­ed by Stu­art Elden, below.

– Salar Mohan­desi



None of us is sure to escape prison. Today less than ever. Police con­trol [quadrillage] over day-to-day life is tight­en­ing: in city streets and roads; over for­eign­ers and young peo­ple; it is once more an offense to express opin­ions; anti-drug mea­sures increase arbi­trar­i­ly.3 We are kept under “close obser­va­tion.“4 They tell us that the sys­tem of jus­tice is over­whelmed. We can see that. But what if it is the police that have over­whelmed it? They tell us that pris­ons are over-pop­u­lat­ed. But what if it was the pop­u­la­tion that was being over-impris­oned? Lit­tle infor­ma­tion is pub­lished on pris­ons. It is one of the hid­den regions of our social sys­tem, one of the dark zones of our life. We have the right to know; we want to know. This is why, with mag­is­trates, lawyers, jour­nal­ists, doc­tors, psy­chol­o­gists, we have formed a Groupe d’Information sur les Pris­ons.

We pro­pose to make known what the prison is: who goes there, how and why they go there, what hap­pens there, and what the life of the pris­on­ers is, and that, equal­ly, of the sur­veil­lance per­son­nel; what the build­ings, the food, and hygiene are like; how the inter­nal reg­u­la­tions, med­ical con­trol, and the work­shops func­tion; how one gets out and what it is to be, in our soci­ety, one of those who came out.

This infor­ma­tion is not in the offi­cial reports that we have found. We will ask those who, for some rea­son, have an expe­ri­ence of the prison or a rela­tion to it. We ask them to con­tact us and tell us what they know. A ques­tion­naire has been com­piled which can be request­ed from us. As soon as we have suf­fi­cient respons­es, the results will be pub­lished.

It is not for us to sug­gest reform. We mere­ly wish to know the real­i­ty. And to make it known almost imme­di­ate­ly, almost overnight, because time is short. This is to inform opin­ion and to keep it informed. We will try to use all means of infor­ma­tion: dai­ly news­pa­pers, week­lies, month­lies. We there­fore appeal to all pos­si­ble plat­forms.

Final­ly, it is good to know what threat­ens us, but knowl­edge is also good to defend one­self.  One of our first tasks will be to pub­lish a small Manuel du par­fait arrêté (Com­plete Arrest Guide), paired of course as an Avis aux arrê­teurs (Note for Arrestors).

All those who want to inform us, be informed or par­tic­i­pate in the work can write to the GIP at 285, rue de Vau­gi­rard, Paris-XVe.5

This text was first read at a news con­fer­ence on Feb­ru­ary 8, 1971. It was sub­se­quent­ly pub­lished in Esprit in March 1971. Par­tial trans­la­tions can be found in Didi­er Eribon’s biog­ra­phy, Michel Fou­cault, trans. Bet­sy Wing (Lon­don: Faber and Faber, 1992), 224-5; and in David Macey, The Lives of Michel Fou­cault (Lon­don: Ran­dom House, 1993), 258.

  1. Michel Fou­cault, “Michel Fou­cault on Atti­ca: An Inter­view,” Social Jus­tice 18, no. 3 (45), Atti­ca: 1971-1991 Com­mem­o­ra­tive Issue (Fall 1991): 32. 

  2. The lit­er­a­ture on the GIP, and Foucault’s involve­ment with it, is grow­ing. The doc­u­ments and mate­ri­als of the GIP have been col­lect­ed in Le Groupe d’information sur les pris­ons: archives d’une lutte, 1970-1972, eds. Philippe Artières, Lau­rent Quéro, and Michelle Zan­car­i­ni-Four­nel (Paris: IMEC, 2003). Recent com­men­tary in Eng­lish includes Active Intol­er­ance: Michel Fou­cault, the Pris­ons Infor­ma­tion Group, and the Future of Abo­li­tion, eds. Andrew Dilts and Per­ry Zurn (New York: Pal­grave MacMil­lan, 2015); Julian Bourg, From Rev­o­lu­tion to Ethics: May 1968 and Con­tem­po­rary French Thought (Mon­tre­al & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007), chap­ters 2, 5, 6, 7; and Marce­lo Hoff­man, Fou­cault and Pow­er: The Influ­ence of Polit­i­cal Engage­ment on The­o­ries of Pow­er (New York: Blooms­bury, 2013). 

  3. Translator’s Note: Quadrillage is a grid-like sys­tem­at­ic divi­sion and con­trol of an area. 

  4. Translator’s Note: David Macey notes that Garde à vue “refers to the com­mon police prac­tice of hold­ing peo­ple with­out charge for a peri­od of up to twen­ty-four hours” (The Lives of Michel Fou­cault. 515 n. 1) In the 1970s the British army impris­oned North­ern Irish Catholics with­out tri­al in a pol­i­cy known as ‘intern­ment’. How­ev­er nei­ther deten­tion nor intern­ment cap­ture the visu­al sense of the French term. 

  5. Translator’s Note: This was Foucault’s home address. 

Author of the article

was the author of The Order of Things and The History of Sexuality.