Prison, the forgotten territory of the French Republic

The attack on guards at Alençon prison by a radicalised prisoner on 5 March triggered a massive protest movement in prisons across France. On 6 March, at least 18 prisons were “blockaded” by prison guard protests, and further action is expected to follow. The protest echoes back to the events of 2018: prison guards had forewarned the authorities and organised widescale strike action, the most far-reaching the sector has seen in 25 years.

Attacks (verbal and physical) on prison guards are by no means uncommon: the prison authority records 4,000 to 5,000 attacks a year, relatively stable figures. But their intensity is rising. Added to that are the poor working conditions: guards remain undervalued, underpaid (€1,543 a month at Grade 1 in 2015), and under protected. They are, above all, understaffed.

According to the latest figures provided by the Ministry of Justice, there are 27,849 surveillance employees for a penal population of 78,796.

The recent strikes and protests are a strong and disturbing reflection of their working conditions, which they consider outdated and, above all, dangerous. Such action had not been seen since 1990, the historic year of prison guard discontent.

Today, the focus is on the issue of religious radicalisation. The latest assaults on prison guards were perpetrated by individuals suspected of being radicalised or of having adopted jihadist rhetoric. There are said to be some 500 perpetrators of terrorism-related offences and 2,000 detainees within this configuration. This unprecedented figure within French republican society represents a problem from every perspective and demonstrates the perplexity within governments and therefore within prisons, over how to manage these singular individuals. At the Fresnes prison, in 2014, the warden tried to group the most radicalised prisoners within a specific unit to avoid contagion. The latest assaults are, above all, a warning signal and the symptom of a prison system in turmoil, in a society that is itself in upheaval.

What has happened since the Senate report on detention conditions in France, dated June 2000? The report referred to “the forgotten republican prisons of society”, or even “a disgrace for the Republic”, as former president Nicolas Sarkozy reminded the Congress of the French Parliament on 22 June 2009.

Overcrowding in prisons worsens working conditions and hinders rehabilitation

The work of the CGLPL, the independent public authority in charge of ensuring respect for the fundamental rights of persons deprived of their freedom, set up in 2007, has made it possible to examine the entire French prison infrastructure and has produced several reports, including on the chronic and structural issue of overcrowding in prisons. In 1990, the prison occupancy rate was 124 per cent. It is currently around 117 per cent, with 68,432 prisoners for 58,681 places at the beginning of 2017.

The overcrowding is at its worst in remand centres, which accommodate people awaiting trial and those sentenced to short prison terms.This overcrowding not only results in cells occupied to the limit, it disrupts the overall workings of the prison, which, in turn, makes rehabilitation all the more difficult, as well as undermining working conditions and heightening staff dissatisfaction.

Prison, already through its insalubrious, old, rundown premises, generates violence. France’s 187 penitentiary establishments vary widely in terms of size, architecture, age, etc. They are divided into two main categories: remand centres (maisons d’arrêt), for persons on remand or sentenced to less than two years, and correctional facilities for those serving longer-term prison sentences (établissements pour peine). Then there are the penitentiary institutions bringing together different wings falling within these two categories.

Programmes to build new prisons, launched in 1987, have led to the creation of ultra-modern, stark institutions, which by their sheer size reinforce the isolation and dehumanisation of the inmates.

Thirty years later, on 24 January 2017, the prime minister at the time, Bernard Cazeneuve, proposed a White Paper Commission on Prison Infrastructure proposing new generations of prisons aimed at bringing an end to prison overcrowding. The White Paper, submitted at the end of March, revealed the shortcomings and ineffectiveness of building new prison places as the only solution to the current problems.

Combating recidivism

If we want to reduce the prison population, we need to fight against reoffending. The initiative led by former justice minister Christiane Taubira, in 2012, was a step in this direction: under her mandate, members of the justice system and civil society worked on the issue for five months. Under this approach, incarceration should be “useful time” but the ultimate aim of the penalty is, above all, to rehabilitate the offender. It is a vision that questions the effectiveness of prison and paves the way for alternative sentencing, advocating a total rethink of the penal system.

Several countries are starting to experiment in their approach to fighting crime, as incarceration continues to be a very costly measure, and is widely deemed to be ineffective in terms of preventing recidivism.

From community service to socio-judicial supervision, suspended sentences to electronic surveillance, temporary work release permits or parole, there are many alternatives to incarceration at every stage of the criminal justice process. But there is still inadequate resort to such measures as real alternatives to prison, which continues to be the standard sentence.

These alternatives are now being undermined by the recent outbursts of violence at the hands of detainees who are increasingly difficult to channel. Among the measures advocated is free access to telephones (which are already, in fact, circulating on the ground). This may pave the way for the authorisation of restricted mobile phones within prison cells.

Other reforms have been considered, such as recognising the right of prisoners to collective expression or facilitating easier access to legal information to enable them to better organise in defence of their rights within prison institutions.

Current events are bringing into focus the impossible issue of prison reform, which is more or less contemporaneous with prison itself. If we are to believe the writings of Michel Foucault [sociologist, author of the seminal work on prisons Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish), such an endeavour is destined to failure. The French Republic has long mobilised, convinced that resolving the penal question would help to resolve the social question – a project that has since slowly been abandoned.

This is why the issue of incarceration needs to be opened up and rethought, and, beyond that, the purpose of the sentence. The current approach is rarely called into question and is, increasingly at odds with the developments within society, the growing regulatory turmoil and those behind it.