Ethnography Inside: Female Imprisonment, “Prison Pain” and the Criminalization of the Acehnese in Indonesia

Silvia Vignato


This article analyses the practical and theoretical process of structuring research fieldwork in a prison, and the specific research topics that it has led to shape. In 2011, my former research-assistant in Aceh, Indonesia, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for drug dealing. I subsequently carried out ethnography in the prison where she was detained, in the area of North Sumatra. My main argument concerns the relationship between a prisoner and the State as it is constructed before, during and after prison, and the subjective feelings and prison narratives which such relationship originates. I shall question how the researcher can make sense of prison through the prisoners’ own efforts to that end. I shall analyse the hypertrophic role that the ethnographic vis-à-vis encounter plays when the research develops in a restricted place and consider the “prison mind” as the totalisation of thoughts typical of incarceration. I shall conclude on the possibility of self-rescue that narratives of lived heterosexual love can provide the convicted women with, thus enabling them to tolerate or overcome “prison pain”. Conversely, I shall underline how such individualization of suffering also leads to obliterate the political weight of female criminal sentencing in a post-conflict, post-disaster social environment.


Prison, Indonesia, Aceh, ethnographic methodology, anthropology of confinement, anthropology of drugs

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