The “Total Institution”, as a closed body, isolated from the outside world, doesn't exist; neither as an absolute nor as a standard ideal to which, for instance, the penitentiary institution would be compared. Some human, material and temporal interfaces always exist between the different social spaces, even when they are delimited by walls and barbed wire. In order to understand the prison universe, the one in which we are enclosed and on which we focus our research, it is better to speak of an “all-encompassing” institution where a permanent conflict takes place between formal and material rationalities, but also where a powerful conflict of socialization and a reconfiguration of the behaviours and subjectivities of the actors take place. Our detention center presents an example of these conflicts between a normalized and repressive universe and another, filled with pragmatic strategies of survival or re-socialization. The complexity that results is the same as the one we can find in the entire society and on the permanent relation between people and their institutions.
According to what precedes, our present work endeavors to deal with two important notions: Gift Paradigm and Theory of Recognition, the two of them articulated with voluntary work in prisons. First of all, we want to explain that many aspects of the Gift paradigm and of the theory of recognition are also to be found in jail. But these aspects have one particular consequence: they maintain the life of the institution enclosed on itself.
The Gift Paradigm, through benevolent commitment, leads to the reconsideration of the penitentiary space as a space of fully-fledged socialization and of eminent interaction with the outside. It is precisely because it is in constant relation with society that the “all-encompassing” institution needs voluntary work and voluntary commitment. Within the benevolent relational act, in the sense of Gift Paradigm, the convicts are placed in a context of being in charge of their exchanges with the outside. Then, in terms of rationalization, as a meaning given by the actors to their actions and to their needs of relationships, the aims are at the same time pragmatic, utilitarian, and altruistic. The convicts themselves redefine the settings of reciprocity, return and offer, rather than those of debt, stigmatization and punishment.
The social link is at the basis of the “voluntary/gift”. It is beneficial to the reinsertion of the current or former prisoners, to their struggle against stigma and to their role in society (outside mercantile or professional roles). In the same way it is beneficial to the volunteers. In a case of “positive mutual indebting”, it is socialization itself that is expressed.