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Challenges abound for prisoners released early from French prisons due to Covid-19

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

The release of more than 11,000 people from French jails has eased overcrowding and reduced the potential for Covid-19 contamination, but has created a new set of problems, advocates say. 

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In response to the coronavirus crises, France has released roughly 11,500 people who were within three months of completing their sentences or awaiting trial from its infamously overcrowded prisons. Short sentences were deferred. While that may sound like good news for the not-yet-incarcerated and newly liberated, in many cases it presents a whole new set of issues.

The rate of recidivism in France is more than 60 percent. To help reduce the chances that people will re-offend, an organisation called Wake up Café begins working with many detainees while they are still incarcerated and provides training and support once they are released. Those lucky enough to be part of Wake up Café’s program re-offend at a rate of less than 10 percent.

With all the newly liberated in the past few months, the demand for such services has spiked. “The need is enormous,” said Domitie Bourgain, sponsorship and communication manager for the organisation. The group is currently working with 215 people—a stretch for the five-year-old organisation but a drop in the bucket when compared to the total need.

The stakes are particularly high as the first few months out of prison are decisive. Roughly half of those who re-offend within five years do so in the first year after release.

“The need for support for wakers [as participants in the program are called] is going to be even greater than we imagined,” Wake up Café President Pierre Bouriez said in a statement. “The challenge is unbelievable: thousands of people coming out of prison find themselves thrown into the wilderness at a time when nature is not very welcoming.”

Wake up Café is experiencing the same kinds of disruptions the pandemic has caused everywhere, much to the detriment of “wakers”, as people in the program are called. The organisation has been unable to provide the individual, in-person support it normally does and has been relying on Zoom and on telephone calls—sometimes daily. Virtual contact often falls short for those who need help with administrative processes.

“The challenges for those getting out of prison are immense,” Bourgain said.

Being released early means that many prisoners didn’t have time to fully prepare for their freedom. Many of them are now living with family members in often small and over-crowded apartments, said Marion Bonnot, development and sponsorship officer for Wake up Café. They don’t have jobs and aren’t able to get the training to help them find one. With the economy at a virtual standstill, doing so will be harder than ever. And while being released from prison may bring with it the promise of liberty, with France on lockdown, former detainees are going from “one confinement to another”, Bonnot said. That has its own psychological impact.

Given the pandemic, those in jail are left with only difficult options: to be incarcerated in overcrowded prisons and risk infection or face the challenges of early release in a deteriorating economy.

“I think in one sense it’s which problem do you want to try to avoid and which problem do you accept that you might be causing,”  said Richard Garside, director of the Center for Crime and Justice Studies in the UK, who is studying the responses of different governments in Europe. “It depends which you think is more of a problem.”

The public can play its part by doing what it can to help people re-integrate into society, Bourgain said. That includes hiring those recently released, volunteering to work with them and providing financial support to groups such as Wake up Café. If they are unable to find their place, the likelihood is they will be back in prison before long. "That’s the issue of today,” Bourgain said. “It won’t be surprising if there is a huge overpopulation [in prisons] in six months.”

But while the prospect of releasing people from prison before they are prepared to re-integrate into society is less than ideal, it beats the alternative, Garside argued. “I’d rather see people alive and potentially posing a recidivism risk than dead,” he said. “Most people get released from prison. Some of them would have gone on to be reconvicted anyway, some of them wouldn’t have been.”

You can contribute to Wake up Café’s efforts here.

 

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