French prison guards vow ‘total blockade’ after latest attacks
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French prison guards resumed a nationwide strike on Monday after the latest in a string of assaults that have highlighted worsening conditions in the country's notoriously violent and overcrowded penitentiary system.
Two prison guards were taken to hospital on Sunday after being assaulted with a table leg by an inmate at a jail in northern France, the latest in a spate of prison attacks that has led to nationwide strike action.
Unions pushing for better safety and wages have vowed a "total blockade" of France’s notoriously overcrowded prisons on Monday as their dispute with the government worsens.
Overnight France's justice minister Nicole Belloubet said she would meet with union leaders on Monday in a push to end the crisis, after earlier proposals failed to soothe guards’ anger.
"The Minister of Justice wishes to resume dialogue immediately," the ministry said in a statement adding it was the responsibility of all sides to ensure that prisons were functioning.
But the latest attack on guards is likely to harden attitudes among the major French prison unions ahead of Monday's blockade and follows a week of tension and strikes over security and employment concerns.
‘Tired and furious’
The male and female guards were attacked with a table leg in a detention centre at Longuenesse prison near Calais at 6:30pm, when the cells were still open, according to a prison union official.
"This is once again an attack on the staff, we cannot stand it anymore: it's a daily thing," said Yannick Lefebvre from Ufap-Unsa union.
On Saturday, the CGT and Ufap-Unsa unions rejected proposals to end the standoff. The third union representing prison guards -- the FO -- has taken a more hardline approach to government talks.
"The staff are tired and furious, the movement will be hard on Monday," warned Christopher Dorangeville, secretary general of CGT's prison section.
The spate of prison attacks began on January 11, when German convict Christian Ganczarski, a former top al Qaeda militant, attacked three officers with scissors and a razor blade at a high-security prison in northern France.
Two other attacks followed in less than a week, prompting guards to launch the nationwide strike.
In a further attack at a Corsican jail on Friday, three inmates, including one under surveillance for Islamic radicalisation, attacked two guards with a knife, wounding one of them seriously.
President Emmanuel Macron has promised to outline plans to overhaul the prison system by the end of February, expected to include facility renovations and plans to build new ones. He also suggested a "massive" shift to alternative punishment such as obligatory public service or electronic bracelets.
As a presidential candidate, Macron promised to build 15,000 new prison places over five years. But in November the justice ministry said it would take ten years to complete such an ambitious construction programme.
Late last year, French prisons held nearly 70,000 inmates, a number that has been steadily rising for years, according to the French prison authority. One in three inmates is detained pending trial.
The average occupancy rate in French prisons is 118 percent but the southeastern Nimes jail has seen it climb to 220 percent, the prison authority said.
In addition to low pay, insufficient staffing and overcrowding, prison guards warn they are increasingly at risk from inmates under the sway of Islamic extremists.
The government has made stopping the spread of Islamic radicalisation in prisons a priority following a string of deadly terrorist attacks, some of which carried out by former detainees who were radicalised in jail.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)