How are prisons in France?

France opens prisons in the corona crisis

Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet announced on Wednesday that the government had decided by urgent action to end certain prison sentences. The last two months of imprisonment should be "given" to them if they had behaved "exemplary" in the past few weeks. Certain crimes such as terrorism or marital violence are excluded in principle. Belloubet estimates the number of prisoners released at 5,000 to 6,000.

At the same time, the minister tried not to hang the measure on the big bell in order - as the newspaper Liberation noted on Wednesday - "not to frighten public opinion". A week ago, Belloubet had stated that such a step was "not an option" for them. She has since changed her mind.

The 186 French prisons are notorious for their poor hygienic conditions and a chronic lack of space: 70,000 inmates now crowd 58,000 cells. Individuals have to be content with a mattress on the cell floor. Promiscuity in French prisons increases the risk of corona infection. Several prisoners are already infected with the virus in France. An elderly inmate suffering from diabetes has died.

Mutinies in Paris

The other inmates are isolated from the outside world: hours of conversation and professional activities have been stopped; Sport is only possible on a case-by-case basis. Mutinies have already broken out in several dozen towns, including the large Fresnes and Fleury-Mérogis institutions in Paris. The police had to intervene to get the inmates off the roofs - where they burned mattresses - and bring them back to their cells.

To alleviate the pressure, Belloubet donates 40 euros to prisoners for calls from landline telephones or TV rentals. She promises the guards protective masks and disinfectant gel. Both have always been forbidden for the prisoners in the cell.

Since the judiciary is currently working much more slowly, only around 30 convicts are behind bars per day in France, six times fewer than in normal times. The Ministry of Justice has been promoting the early release of elderly and sick inmates for a few days, whereby the criterion of "good conduct" is apparently interpreted more generously.

Doubts about effectiveness

Detention experts question the effectiveness of all of these measures. The International Prisons Observatory (OIP) describes the release of 5,000 other prisoners as "very unsatisfactory". OPI representative François Bès suggests the release of 12,000 prisoners in order to at least keep the number of beds according to the regulations.

In Sainte-Etienne, however, a former inmate returned to custody on the instructions of the public prosecutor's office. He must have been so excited about his recent release that he absolutely refused to comply with the current curfew. After he was run into a police check eight times, the judiciary put him under lock and key for four more months. (Stefan Brändle from Paris, March 25, 2020)