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France fast-tracks prison reform amid unprecedented strikes

Damien Meyer, AFP | Striking prison guards block the access to Vezin-le-Coquet prison in a suburb of Rennes on January 26.

The French government has proposed plans to address the concerns of prison guards, who continued striking for a 12th day on Friday over security and low pay. But penal reform advocates say the measures will do little to tackle France’s prison crisis.


Prison guards backed by unions have launched strike actions across France, in some cases cutting off all access to penitentiaries. At the Fleury-Mérogis prison south of Paris – the largest prison in Europe – mattresses, tires and debris blocked the entrance to the men's jail while access to Nanterre penitentiary and others was halted by dozens of striking guards.

The unrest was sparked by a January 11 incident in which a German inmate attacked four guards with scissors and a razor blade at Vendin-le-Vieil prison as he awaited possible extradition to the United States. Christian Ganczarski, who spent time in Afghanistan and is thought to have once been an adviser to Osama bin Laden, was arrested in France in 2003. A Paris court subsequently sentenced him for helping plan a deadly attack on a Tunisian synagogue with the aid of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the principal plotters of the September 11 attacks in the United States.

>> Facing US extradition, 9/11 suspect attacks French prison guards

In the days that followed Ganczarski’s attack, three French unions called for a “total blockade” of the country’s prisons while demanding more secure working conditions. More than a third of France’s penitentiaries were subsequently involved in a strike action calling for better wages and more protection, particularly regarding inmates that may have been radicalised.

Less than a week later, three inmates attacked two guards at a Corsican jail, wounding one of them seriously. In northern France, two more prison guards were sent to hospital after an inmate assaulted them with a table leg at Longuenesse penitentiary. Other attacks have been reported at several French prisons.

By Thursday, 116 of France’s 188 prisons were seeing some level of strike action, ranging from work slowdowns to total strikes to blockaded prison entrances, according to France’s Directorate of Penitentiary Administration (Direction de l'administration pénitentiaire).

Following promises made on the campaign trail last year, French President Emmanuel Macron had vowed by the end of February to outline his ideas on prison reform, which were expected to include a shift toward alternative punishments such as public service and electronic devices for at-home monitoring.

But in a bid to end the burgeoning mutiny, France’s Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet unveiled four proposals on Thursday aimed at addressing the main grievances of prison guards. The measures included plans for the creation of 1,500 places in “sealed” facilities to handle radicalised prisoners or those who are suspected of “proselytising”; new equipment including personal alarms and bulletproof vests; plans to recruit 1,100 more guards by 2021; and an increase in yearly bonuses from €400 to €1,400, with a modest €10 rise in overtime pay for working Sundays and holidays.

The ministry told AFP that the proposals would be implemented "rapidly".

France's main prison union – UFAP-UNSA, which represents some 40 percent of guards – said on Friday it had accepted the offer while the other two unions, the FO (representing 30 percent) and CGT (15 percent), rejected it.

Nevertheless, by Friday the number of demonstrations had almost halved to affect just 62 of France’s prisons.

‘Increasingly repressive’

While the government's proposals might offer a temporary salve for some of what ails the prison system, those seeking comprehensive reform say the ministry has not addressed the underlying systemic problems.

The Paris-based International Prison Observatory (OIP), which advocates for prisoners’ rights and penal reform, remains “extremely concerned” about the government’s proposals, according to OIP director Cécile Marcel.

“This is not a response tailored to the needs of France’s prison system,” Marcel said, noting that the measures do not address key issues such as “de-stigmatising” former prisoners nor how to reintegrate them successfully into society to minimise recidivism.

“France’s prison population has doubled in the past 40 years,” Marcel noted. “And upon leaving prison, 63 percent of inmates are re-incarcerated within five years.”

She observed that several Scandinavian countries have had great success with minimising recidivism by taking a different approach to crime and punishment. Norway has one of the lowest reoffending rates in the world, with only 20 percent of former inmates ending up back in the system within two years of release. According to the World Economic Forum, Norway also has the "nicest prison in the world" located at Bastoy, complete with private bedrooms as well as a prison shop, a library and a church.

Incarceration rates throughout Scandinavia are also among the lowest in the world, whereas prisons in France – like many of their Western counterparts – are struggling with overcrowding and violence.

Marcel said one solution for minimising prison unrest is to focus on “dynamic security” – which includes fostering better relations between inmates and guards – instead of relying solely on disciplinary measures.

A concept actively promoted by the Council of Europe, dynamic security is based on the idea that authoritarian systems generate more resistance from individuals, who feel their sense of individuality and self-esteem to be at stake. The UNODC Handbook on Dynamic Security and Prison Intelligence suggests providing prisoners with “opportunities to change and develop, gain qualifications, and maintain their health and intellectual and social functioning”, noting that such programmes “contribute to prison security by keeping prisoners active and occupied”.

UNODC Handbook on Dynamic Security and Prison Intelligence

“Treating prisoners with humanity does not hinder security and order in prisons but, on the contrary, is fundamental to ensuring that prisons are secure and safe,” the UNODC says. “[When] the human rights and dignity of prisoners are respected and they are treated fairly, they are much less likely to cause disruption and disorder and to more readily accept the authority of prison staff.”

Despite these recommendations, Marcel said, “France’s policy choices are increasingly repressive.”

Another concern for the OIP is the systematic use of full-body searches in French prisons, what Marcel called a “humiliating” process that should be used only in proportion to the threat posed by an inmate. The European Court of Human Rights has found the French prison system to be in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibiting inhuman or degrading treatment) numerous times for its excessive use of strip searches.

This week's proposals from the justice ministry are likely to be merely a first concession in negotiations for better conditions inside France's prisons. But for now at least, it seems the government's focus will be on placating angry guards rather than ameliorating the living standards of France's nearly 70,000 inmates.

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