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As France releases thousands, can Covid-19 end chronic prison overcrowding?

Prison guards stand in a corridor of the Sante prison in Paris.
Prison guards stand in a corridor of the Sante prison in Paris. © Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP

Contingency measures dictated by the coronavirus pandemic are on the verge of achieving a historic goal of human rights campaigners: bringing the overall population of French prisons down to the number they were designed for, not more. But the good news stops there.

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In the century and a half since it was first enshrined in French law, the principle that prison cells should have only one occupant has been ignored, postponed, reaffirmed and flouted time and time again.

With France now in the midst of a health emergency and its prisons likened to “epidemiological bombs”, is that elusive principle finally being put into practice? 

At first glance, the figures suggest so.

On the eve of the country’s Covid-19 lockdown, France had more than 72,000 people behind bars for a prison capacity of around 61,000 – an all-time occupancy record of 119 percent.

A month later, the head of the country's prison authority told lawmakers that emergency measures designed to contain the spread of the virus had reduced the prison population by around 10,000, bringing the occupancy rate tantalisingly close to the symbolic threshold of 100%.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, quipped the influential lawyer and blogger Maitre Eolas on Twitter, marvelling at the speed with which a “supposedly irreducible” prison population had been cut back.

However, experts have questioned the notion of “will”, noting that the government’s arm was effectively twisted by an unprecedented health emergency.

In facilitating the release of some detainees, the government “was motivated first and foremost by the health crisis, not by substantive considerations”, says François Bès of the International Prison Observatory (OIP), in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“They were effectively compelled by the epidemic,” he adds. “Hence our concern that we’ll soon plunge back into the catastrophic situation we had before.”

Breeding ground for the virus

With their combination of cramped quarters, poor sanitation and desperate overcrowding, prisons in France and in other countries have been described as epidemiological bombs, an ideal breeding ground for the novel coronavirus.

“If you set out to create an institution with the express intent of concentrating and transmitting Covid-19, it would probably look much like a prison,” Richard Garside, the director of Britain’s Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, told the Guardian newspaper last week, pointing to the UK’s overcrowded prisons in particular.

Garside’s centre has launched a Europe-wide project to compare measures taken by different governments, warning that inaction by the UK government is endangering the lives of prisoners, staff and the general public.

In France, where the state was reprimanded this year by the European Court of Human Rights for failing to tackle prison overcrowding, officials have moved to defer short prison sentences for non-dangerous offenders and facilitate early release for detainees who only had two months left to serve. 

Those measures, combined with a sudden decrease in the number of new sentences (largely owing to the lockdown), account for the sharp drop in the overall prison population witnessed over the past month.

>> Coronavirus: France extends detentions and suspends trials, raising rights concerns

“It’s a clear improvement, but we must go further,” says Anne-Sophie Wallach, national secretary of the Syndicat de la Magistrature, a magistrates’ trade union. 

“We’re still a long way from reaching the 100 percent mark across the board,” Wallach tells FRANCE 24, noting that some prisons – particularly those for shorter sentences – operate at “130 percent, 150 percent or even 180 percent” of their official capacity.

“As a result, 100 percent occupancy nationwide doesn’t necessarily translate into single-occupancy cells,” she adds. “There are still facilities where inmates sleep on the floor, two or three per cell.”

‘Pressure cooker waiting to explode’

Far from easing the pain for detainees, contingency measures hurriedly introduced inside prisons have aggravated the overcrowding in some cases.

“Inmates have been crammed together in designated areas, in order to free up space for suspected Covid-19 cases that need to be isolated,” says Bès, whose organisation has collected numerous witness accounts of inmates holed up three per cell in just nine square metres.

In the absence of proper testing for the virus, there are fears Covid-19 cases are being lumped together in quarantined areas with people suffering from ordinary ailments, thereby putting lives at risk, says Bès. 

“And despite the best efforts of some prison workers, basic protection measures that are taken for granted elsewhere, such as sanitation and social distancing, are almost entirely lacking inside prisons,” he adds.

According to the OIP, the lack of testing also casts doubt on infection figures provided by the French prison authority. Its latest bulletin, released on April 23, spoke of 101 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among inmates – including one fatality – and 259 cases among prison guards –  also including one death.

The coronavirus lockdown has also taken a heavy toll on the psychological health of inmates, who have been deprived of family visits – their only link with the outside world – since the start of the crisis. 

To make up for this severed link, which triggered angry protests at several prisons in March, the authorities have expanded access to television and phone calls, and warned that early releases would be conditional on prisoners’ good conduct.

However, strict confinement rules and a critical lack of information have exacerbated inmates’ isolation, compounding the sense that they are “twice being punished”, says Bès.

“Inmates are kept in the dark about what is going on,” he explains. “And if there’s one thing they have no shortage of, it’s time to ruminate and brood dark thoughts.”

In leaked video messages collected by investigative website Mediapart earlier this month, detainees can be heard voicing their fears, anger and sense of abandonment.

“Every day we watch the news and see people outside talking about protection we don’t have,” says one prisoner in the Paris region. “If the virus gets inside, you can’t imagine the chaos, the number of dead you’ll be counting.”

The prison is a “pressure cooker waiting to explode”, says another detainee, in the south of France, turning on his feet to reveal the cramped cell he shares with two other inmates.

‘The taboo has been lifted’

In recent days, prison observers have reported some improvements at the country’s facilities, notably on the vexing issue of protective gear.

At most jails, prison guards and inmates performing “general service” duties – such as cleaning, cooking and maintenance chores – have finally received face masks after going several weeks without them.

Generally speaking, the current crisis has helped raise awareness of the plight of France’s prisoners – and offered a chance to expand early-release schemes.

“Now we know it’s possible to reduce the prison population, without doing harm to society,” says Wallach, of the magistrates' union. “Those released are people who were going to leave jail anyway – there is no reason to be fearful.”

“Which begs the question, what were they doing in jail in the first place?” adds Bès.

Though she is not confident that the one-off contingency measures witnessed during the pandemic will lead to durable change, Wallach concedes that the precedent could have some effect on future rulings, “perhaps tilting the scale in favour of probation over prison”.

In this respect, the strongest pressure may come from the jailers themselves, says Bès, pointing to the strong language used by prison directors in recent weeks.

In an open letter published on April 20, the main union representing prison directors urged the French president to build on the “enormous hope” raised by the sudden decline in France’s prison population.

“The epidemic that is hitting us hard has brushed aside all prohibitions and apprehensions: never again will it be possible to argue that single occupancy is an unattainable objective,” read the letter by the SNDP union.

“The taboo has been lifted,” the union added, urging President Macron to show “courage and coherence” once the virus has been vanquished.

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