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As France simmers, prisoners struggle to cope with the heatwave

Dominique Faget, AFP | A prison guard circulating in a corridor of Santé prison, in Paris, on July 12, 2019.

As the second heatwave of the summer of 2019 hits France, prisoners are forced to endure stifling temperatures in overcrowded cells.

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France has been experiencing record temperatures during another extreme heatwave this week and conditions in French prisons have been steadily deteriorating. More than 71,000 prisoners in 187 French incarceration centres have to cope with temperatures sometimes exceeding 45°C in overcrowded facilities.

During the last heatwave in June, temperatures reached 46°C in some cells. From the corridors to the workrooms, the searing heat was felt everywhere.

"There are sometimes as many as three prisoners living in a nine metres square cell, with no possibility of ventilation," says Adeline Hazan, Inspector General of detention centres in France.

Since 2003, a heatwave plan has been implemented in French prisons from June 1 to September 30 every year. Detailed instructions are given to prison staff: distribute fresh water free of charge, increase surveillance of particularly vulnerable prisoners (the elderly, pregnant women, etc.), extend the duration of walks and facilitate access to medical services.

While the intention is laudable, the actual application of these measures varies greatly from one institution to another. The lack of resources becomes all the more glaring during hot weather.

"Prison directors do what they can with the means at their disposal," explains François Bès, coordinator of the investigations unit at the International Prison Observatory (IOP).

No showers in cells

"On paper, misting machines are meant to be installed on external prison walls. But some prisons don't even have water or toilets in their backyards, so of course we have to wait for anything more," says Bès. Another problem is the deteriorating condition of the prisons. Built at the end of the 19th century, the old prisons -- half of the institutions in France, according to the OIP -- do not even have showers in the cells.

It is also difficult to create a draught in these establishments, as the doors of the cells must remain closed by definition and the windows don't always work. "In the women's section of the Fleury-Mérogis prison, the windows only open about ten centimetres," says Bès.

The prisons have introduced extended walks and water is being regularly distributed. But poorly adapted electrical systems do not always allow refrigerators to be connected to the cells. "In Fresnes prison, water quickly becomes hot and food does not keep,” explains Bès.

Increasing the number of showers for prisoners is also complicated, given the lack of staff. "Some people are not even able to wash themselves once a day," notes Hazan. In order to endure the heat, some prisoners wet their sheets and hang them through the window to try to create a draft. Others turn on their taps until they flood the cell, exposing themselves to disciplinary sanctions.

But none of these provisions to deal with the heat address the fundamental problem: "Prisoners will continue to suffer from heat as long as the prisons remain overcrowded,” says Bès.

This article was translated from the original in French. 

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