Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-FRANCE: Overcrowded Prisons Feel the Heat

Julio Godoy

PERPIGNAN, France, Jul 23 2003 (IPS) - This summer, the overcrowded prisons of France are beginning to feel the heat as never before.

Protests are breaking out, and the number of suicides is rising.

As of July 1, French jails housed 61,000 inmates, when they have a capacity for no more than 48,600 prisoners. Some, like the prison at the Mediterranean city Perpignan have three times as many prisoners as they were built for.

“The situation in French prisons is outrageous,” Francois Faugère, a lawyer in Perpignan told IPS. In some places “eight to ten prisoners are crowded in cells meant for four inmates,” he said.

The French National Bar Council which has launched a campaign to improve the situation in prisons, calls these conditions “a violation of human rights and human dignity.”

Frederic Grandcolas, general secretary of the French Union of Prison Workers (UFAP, after its French name), says the situation is frightening.

“Due to the overcrowding of prisons, inmates are forced to sleep on the floors,” he told media representatives at a press conference. “Practically everything is ruined beyond imagination. We in France are very far from fulfilling European imprisonment norms.”

The leading French union, the General Federation of Workers (CGT after its French name) says overcrowding is creating a volatile situation in the hot summer months. “An outbreak of violence during the summer would be no surprise,” the CGT says in a statement.

Grandcolas and several other law and human rights experts blame the policies of the government of President Jacques Chirac for imprisoning offenders even in minor cases. “Chirac and his government have instituted a policy of zero tolerance towards criminality, putting people in prison for the most ridiculous minor offences,” Grandcolas says.

“The French judicial system focuses only on incarceration,” Dominique Barella, director of the Magistrates’ Union told IPS. “Even if our law offers alternatives such as labour or suspended sentences, imprisonment is the measure most frequently applied. The situation is really explosive.”

Many are being imprisoned for new offences such as “loitering in the common space in social housing blocks”. This offence was introduced by interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy last summer, and is aimed at young immigrants living in these blocks in the outskirts of Paris and other big cities.

In a recent case, three 17-year-old girls were sentenced to four months of prison for “loitering” in a hall after a basketball match in Pierrefite, some 20 kilometres north of Paris.

The prison population has been swollen also by a large number of undertrials waiting for their cases to be heard. Jean-Luc Warsmann, a member of Chirac’s party UMP, suggested about 200 measures in a recent report to avoid useless prison sentences. The government ignored his proposals.

“The government has the prison situation that it wanted to have,” Pierre Tournier, president of the French Association of Criminology told IPS.

“If the prison population continues to grow at this rate, the number of inmates will double in five years,” Tournier said. “This is politically and socially unacceptable.”

Between 1996 and 2001, Tournier said, the French prison population came down. “In those years, France was among the Western European countries with the lowest number of inmates, without having to face a rise in crime,” he said. “But since September 2001, the trend changed, and the prison population grew 14 percent in one year.”

This growth corresponded with the approach of the presidential and the parliamentary elections in the summer of 2002. The UMP made a crackdown on crime one of its chief election promises.

But now, several recent incidents in the most overcrowded prisons seem to confirm the apprehensions of many experts. On July 14, some 120 inmates at Loos prison in the north of France staged a protest against their conditions. The prison houses about 1200 inmates though it has room only for 485.

On July 8, protests took place in prisons at Saint Maur in the centre of the country, in Chambery in the southeast, and in Perpignan.

An official report published that day came as renewed warning. Most French prisons are “timeworn, systematically overcrowded, and pose considerable difficulties to the authorities in terms of security and working conditions,” said Gérard Lemonnier, chief engineer at the main French state building authority, and author of the report.

Many prisoners try to commit suicide in these conditions, although direct links are difficult to establish. This year, 28 inmates have committed suicide. Last year, 120 inmates took their lives, against 104 in 2001. The suicide rate reached 22.8 per 10,000 prisoners last year. This rate was less than 10 per 10,000 in 1980.

The ministry of justice says there is no reason for alarm. “The situation is under control,” it said in a statement. “There are no more risks today that there were a year ago.”

The ministry says that construction of new prisons means that by the year 2007, prison capacity will increase by 7,000. It says the prison population is still relatively low, with 61,000 prisoners in a population of 61 million.

France has 99 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. The rate in Britain is 135. In the United States it is more than 700. (END/IPS/EU/HD/JG/SS/03)

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