Notorious ‘VIP’ prison in Paris closed for renovations

Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP |The Santé Prison in Paris

A temporary home to some of the world’s most notorious criminals, from dictator Manuel Noriega to Carlos the Jackal, the Santé prison in Paris has been emptied of its inmates ahead of major renovations.


The towering dark stone walls of the Santé prison in Paris's 14th district are an imposing sight in what is otherwise a quiet, family-oriented corner of the French capital. Inside, after 146 years of restive history, the country’s most notorious detention centre has gone deadly silent.

The final 60 prisoners were transferred from the sprawling compound on Sunday, ahead of major renovations that are expected to last five years.

Justice Minister Christiane Taubira has declared that Santé, as the last remaining prison in Paris is commonly referred to, was in a state of “advanced decay”. Returning it to good health is part of her widely-toted effort to modernise France’s overburdened prisons and rehabilitation system.

An official report published in 2012 made note of the building’s “decrepit and humid walls,” floor coverings that were “damaged or missing” and “faulty window locks”, among other defects.

François Bès, a regional coordinator for the Observatoire internationale des prisons, a French-based prison watchdog group, described the state of disrepair in more graphic terms. “Pieces of the ceiling were falling on people’s heads,” he told the AFP news agency in a recent interview.

Several of the Santé’s prison block units were shuttered off in 2006 because they were no longer up to code. Its inmates have been gradually transferred to other incarceration centres in recent months before the building is to be overhauled, beginning this year.

Cast of criminals

While the Santé first became infamous as the site of most of France’s public executions in the early 20th century, it has since built a reputation as the prison for France’s high-profile criminals.

Venezuelan left-wing terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” and the French criminal Jacques Mesrine – both of whose murderous exploits and daring prison escapes have become the subject of feature films – did time at the Santé.

Guillaume Apollinaire, considered one of France’s most important poets of the 20th century, was locked up for a week in 1911 after he was briefly linked to the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre Museum.

La Santé Prison, named because it is located on Rue de la Santé in Paris 14th district, was inaugurated in 1867.
La Santé Prison, named because it is located on Rue de la Santé in Paris 14th district, was inaugurated in 1867.

More recently, the prison was a temporary home to Jérôme Kerviel, who lost 4.9 billion euros in illegal trading at bank Société Générale in 2008, and to former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, found guilty in France on money laundering charges in 2011.

The exhaustive prisoner A-list has also included disgraced French politicians, including Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon, and businessman Bernard Tapie, found guilty in 1995 of corruption linked to a match-fixing scandal.

Fact and fiction

The detention of popular fictional characters inside the Santé has undoubtedly helped contribute to its legendary status.

Arsène Lupin, the famous gentleman burgler invented by French crime novelist Maurice Leblanc, spends time behind bars there. It was also the setting of the 2012 television movie “Médicin-chef à la Santé” (Surgeon at the Santé), starring French actress Mathilde Seigner.

The prison also owes its fame, and its exclusive company of flesh-and-bones occupants, to the reputedly more humane treatment of its inmates.

Despite the dangerous disrepair of its facilities, some prisoners have expressed concern that they would be transferred to less accommodating centres, according to their lawyers. Nevertheless, lawyers have said the prison is no “four-star hotel”, and should not be confused for a luxury prison.

While the Santé is now free from criminals, the exact design and costs of the prison’s renovation will not be released until later this year. Visitors will be able to tour the building for free during two days as part of France’s annual Journées du Patrimoine, or “heritage days,” in September.

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