As France and other European nations experience an intense heatwave, the situation across 188 French prisons is especially concerning.
France’s prison population has steadily increased for the last 20 years: Since 2004, the number of detainees has increased by 45.4 percent, with at least 70,651 inmates reportedly incarcerated in French prisons as of January 1, 2020. Yet this increase hasn’t been adequately handled, as prison expansion remains at a standstill, leaving inmates stuck in overcrowded cells. With 49 prisons across the country dealing with an occupancy rate of over 150 percent — figures matching the country’s incarceration rate during World War II — conditions have only worsened for those locked up inside.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has drawn attention to the issue of overcrowding in French jails, stating that, "the occupancy rates of the concerned prisons reveal the existence of a structural problem." It advised France to "adopt general measures aimed at eliminating overcrowding and improving material conditions of detention."
However, there is a genuine political impasse on prison expansion as it involves complex bureaucratic procedures and resistance from neighbourhood committees — no one wants a prison next to their home. One of the country’s newest prisons — set to open in Caen, Normandy, at the end of this year — took seven long years to be built due to bureaucratic and social hurdles.
In addition to the challenges faced in building new incarceration centres, increasing the number of prison beds alone is costly — and counterproductive. More than 36,000 beds have been built in thirty years, but the effort has failed to resolve the issue of overcrowding. As a result, the adage "the more you build, the more you fill" sounds all too familiar in French prisons.
In addition to overcrowding, living conditions within France’s prisons remain dire — and are only worsening during an already intolerable heatwave.
In January 2020, the ECHR brought to light the living conditions of 32 inmates held in six incarceration centres, describing the treatment they were subjected to as cruel and degrading. And the ‘Controleur General Des Lieux de Privation de Liberte’ (CGLPL) — an independent administrative organisation established in 2008 to oversee sites where freedom is deprived — recently issued a damning report, highlighting rights violations in several French prisons. One violation cited in the report detailed how inmates in the Seysses correctional facility in the suburbs of Toulouse were forced to cover their ears to keep cockroaches out.
Given these poor conditions, it’s no wonder that France ranks second among 47 countries with high prison suicide rates, with the most recent suicide occurring on July 19 when an 18-year-old detainee ended his life in the Lyon-Corbas prison.
Like the ECHR, the International Observatory of Prisons (OIP) and several non-profits have condemned France for years, but apart from some minor changes vis-a-vis access to facilities, nothing much has changed.
Judicial reforms — including the most recent one in 2019 — have failed to address both the mechanisms at the heart of the continuous prison inflation of the last fifteen years and the issue of overcrowding. And since building new prisons has become a political matter, successive governments have completely abandoned measures to develop alternatives to incarceration such as community work or electronic tagging — the latter already used in some parts of the world to monitor convicts facing court orders.
In fact, instead of implementing alternatives to prison, the French justice system has been incarcerating more and more people for minor offences. With the prime minister seeming more inclined to strengthen the prison system after stating her desire to build 40,000 additional prison spaces, people who have never faced the justice system — including ‘yellow vest’ protesters — are now finding themselves in prison for two to four months for simply wearing a gas mask.
As the country fails to build new facilities, yet continues to incarcerate people at an ever-increasing rate without improving living conditions within its existing prisons — all this during an excruciating heatwave and at a time when the country is navigating numerous social and political tensions — France seems headed down a dark path in which conditions inside its facilities will only deteriorate unless some actionable judicial reforms are put in place.
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