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French inmates try farming to prepare for life after jail

An organic farm in Picardy, northern France, welcomes prison inmates nearing the end of their sentences as part of a reintegration initiative. France’s controversial justice minister, Christiane Taubira, is hoping to expand the system.


To the government, they are considered inmates.

But to their boss, they are workers and residents.

Just two hours north of Paris, in the region of Picardy, roughly 15 prisoners are completing their sentences far from their jail cells. Instead, they are working on the Moyembrie Organic Farm, run by Anne-Marie Pery, a one-time school teacher and former prison social worker.

“The corn stalks over there are like the prison bars,” Pery explained, pointing to the edge of the property. “The inmates can’t go beyond them without being accompanied by a guard. But within the twenty acres of the farm, they can roam freely. One mustn’t forget that they are coming from tiny cells.”

The 15 prisoners on the farm, which opened in 1990, were selected by judges and psychologists according to their profile and personalities. The candidates were then submitted for approval by the farm’s directors.

Admission to Moyembrie is selective, with those who succeed in making the cut expected to prove that they have ambitions they plan to pursue after completing their prison sentences.

‘Learning everyday life, all over again’

Aurélien, 21, is the youngest of the inmates currently living at the farm.

“I have a degree from cooking school, but this is this the first time I’m actually raising livestock,” he told FRANCE 24 as he ushered goats into their pen. “I’m happy to be here.”

In two months, Aurélien will be a free man. In the meantime, he is learning a trade and works every morning for a 620-euro ($839) monthly salary. He also spends his afternoons completing the administrative procedures required to find a job upon his release.

One of Aurélien’s fellow farmers, Philippe, is a former inmate who finished his sentence in August 2012, but has stayed at Moyembrie to harvest vegetables. He is gradually learning how to handle his newfound freedom.

“Given that I spent many years in prison, the farm has allowed me to work again, to learn how to talk with people from the outside world – people who don’t judge us,” he explained. “It’s learning everyday life all over again: how to cook, take care of an apartment and a car.”

Norway expands on a French model

The Moyembrie Organic Farm has proven to be a success over the 23 years it has been operating. Only 10 percent of the inmates who completed their prison sentences on the farm have ended up returning to prison, and approximately 60 percent have ultimately found employment (often short-term contracts) or pursued career training when they left.

“Open prisons” (in which inmates reside in an enclosed space other than a traditional prison) are a major part of the penal reform package presented by French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira at a cabinet meeting on October 9. After leading the successful legislative fight to legalise same-sex marriage and adoption in France, Taubira has turned her attention to finding alternatives to traditional prison sentences and lowering rates of repeat offense.

The approach has already been deemed effective in other European countries. Norway, for example, has been developing an open prison system for years. Today, 70 percent of its penitentiary establishments are considered “open prisons”, and according to a 2010 report, only 20 percent of former Norwegian inmates end up returning to prison within the two years after they leave.

The recidivism rate is 40 percent in the US.

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