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Prison Reform—Addressing Overcrowding in French Prisons

a. The Current Situation: Statement of the Prison Problem

France faces accusatory fingers and severe condemnations from the Council of Europe,(1) non-governmental organizations, and human rights watchdogs for housing the most decrepit prisons in Europe. In theory, every inmate is accorded the right to an individual cell, but in practice, this is rare. France’s Observatoire International des Prisons (OIP) attributes France’s inhumane prison conditions to its overcrowding, which is concentrated in maisons d'arrêt—jails for both the accused standing trial and convicts serving relatively short terms of two years or less. (2)  Criminal justice specialists suggest that short jail sentences can lead to increased recidivism rates by launching prisoners into a vicious cycle of re-offending, which ultimately contributes to overcrowding. (3)  French prisons are overflowing—68,000 prisoners are packed into a 56,109 accommodation capacity—and the inmate population has ballooned since President Nicolas Sarkozy introduced minimum sentences for repeat offenders in 2007. (4)  Particular crimes, such as attacking public officials, would automatically receive fixed sentences. The nation’s leader introduced a 30-year prison term for killing a police officer. (5)

Harsh sentences and cramped quarters have been compounded by waves of prison suicides. Since January 2011, 33 suicides have taken place in French prisons at the time of this report, and since 2002, the annual average is between 18 and 20 suicides for 10,000 incarcerated persons, a continuing trend since the 1990s. (6)  Pre-trial inmates are the most vulnerable to self-harm. Approximately 24 percent of inmates in France who are pre-trial and non-convicted commit suicide within 24-48 hours of being incarcerated. (7)  People who have not yet received a verdict are faced with such overwhelming emotional pressure and anxiety that several take their lives.

Furthermore, the vanishing of asylums from the French institutional landscape has increasingly made prison a space for people with diagnosable psychiatric conditions, and the number of prisoners with mental problems continues to climb. (8)  Some studies suggest that up to 20 percent of inmates suffer from some form of mental illness, ranging from anxiety to personality disorder, which the infrastructure of French prisons could exacerbate. (9)  While France faces a shortage of psychiatric hospitals and therapists, the country has one of the highest densities of psychiatrists in the world with 13,000 registered in the profession in 2007. (10)

A fundamental aforementioned facet of the French prison system is its population serving short sentences. Thirty-four percent of inmates are incarcerated for under six months, and thirty percent of inmates spend less than 1-3 years behind bars. (11)  The vast majority of people are imprisoned only for a short time, which is often insufficient to implement cultural, vocational, community service-based or other educational programming that would facilitate productive reentry into society or serve a rehabilitative purpose.

With respect to positive developments, according to the Ministry of Justice website, in the past couple of years an effort is underway to introduce new programs within prisons, giving those incarcerated greater access to a variety of activities and skills such as the opening of the first prison bakery (12) and the addition of gardening as a hobby that inmates can participate in. (13)  

Short Sentence/Yet-to-Be-Convicted Prison Population

Provided that a significant slice of the prison population is incarcerated for less than two years, people with such short sentences are denied access to cultural, service-learning or other productive programming which rehabilitates and ensures the transition into society is more seamless. Inmates would benefit more from community activities, educational services and vocational training than a short time in degrading conditions, isolated from society.

b. Efforts to Address the Prison Situation

Problems within France’s prisons have been primarily addressed by private groups and non-governmental agencies working to raise awareness of prison conditions. One such organization is the OIP, which lobbies for penal reform; educates the public, government agencies and organizations on human rights abuses; and informs detainees of their rights and supports efforts to enforce them. There are also student groups such as Le Groupement Étudiant National d'Enseignement aux Personnes Incarcérées (GENEPI), which provide education to inmates and champion advocacy efforts to inform the public about prison issues. On the part of the state, more prisons are currently being built to address overcrowding. Further, in the past ten years, two reports have been filed by the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights on French prisons declaring that France’s incarceration system is not in accordance with the European Prison Rules, a European Union document which outlines the rights of prisoners but is not obligatory for the countries in the union to follow; thereby allowing France to interpret the rules at its will with limited accountability.  

c. Successful and Unsuccessful Efforts at Prison Reform

While these efforts have succeeded in addressing a small component of the large and systematic problems within French prisons, none have successfully initiated a comprehensive reform of the French penal system. European Court recommendations have been repeatedly ignored by the French government—such as basic rights to an individual cell—which underscores the need to make the European Prison Rules compulsory for all European Union member countries.

d. Recommendations for Prison Improvement

Provided that an overhaul of the prison system as it exists is an unrealistic short-term solution (for it requires comprehensive reforms in education, vocational training, community service, cultural programming, sanitation, and surveillance practices), France can take strides toward creating incarceration alternatives by addressing the problem of overcrowding, a problem central and specific to its system. We propose that the French government: 

A. Eliminate blanket minimum sentencing

Sarkozy’s law-and-order policy crackdown catalyzed the prison population spike with harsh sentencing. This blanket minimum sentence mandate should be eliminated, as it has contributed to substantial overcrowding, over-extension of resources and inhumane living conditions. The criminal justice system must ensure that each person is given a sentence that corresponds to his or her compliance, good behavior, and personal circumstances. Parole must be governed by a case-by-case procedure that views prisoners as individuals, in accordance with the Prison Fellowship International Charter of Fundamental Rights of Prisoners that declares “the right to separation, classification, and different legal treatment.” (14)

B. Expand the use of electronic tracer bracelets to monitor those who have not been convicted

Non-convicted people should not be mixed with convicted people, but instead regulated using the electronic tracer bracelet program, proposed by Justice Minister Rachida Dati to reduce overcrowding. (15)  These bracelets monitor convicts serving their sentences outside prison walls and prevent them from entering places forbidden by the judge while ensuring they participate at community programs. This will also lead to a drop in suicides, which are concentrated among the non-convicted awaiting sentences. 

C. Reinstate partnerships and programs

Examples of prison alternatives for this population can include social enterprises and associations committed to hiring people with criminal backgrounds and providing them with full-time employment. This option would benefit the economy and provide the convicted with useful skills which could lead to a decrease in the recidivism rate. Other options include programs for offenders to contribute to their local communities either through engaged beautification efforts or mentoring programs with organizations that work with high-risk persons. Such programs encourage people who would otherwise face incarceration to relate with their communities in productive ways and stay busy through positive, engaging activities. 

1. McNicoll, Tracy. "French Prisons Are Becoming An Embarrassment." The Daily Beast. 1 Aug. 2008. Web. 28 Sept. 2011. <http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/08/01/incarceration-nation.html>.
2. Allan, Beatrix. "Raising Awareness about the Condition of Inmates in France and Protecting Their Rights." HIA Lecture. HIA Office, Bastille, Paris. 20 June 2011. Lecture.
3. McNicoll, Tracy. "Incarceration Nation: French Prisons Are Becoming an Embarrassment." Newsweek 2 Aug. 2008. Web. 25 June 2011. <http://www.newsweek.com/2008/08/01/incarceration-nation.html#>.
4. "Still Miserable: Deteriorating Conditions Increase the Pressure to Improve French Prisons." The Economist [Paris] 14 May 2009. Print.
5. "Sarkozy Vows Tighter Measures against Criminals." Global Times. 31 July 2010. Web. 20 June 2011. <http://www.globaltimes.cn/NEWS/tabid/99/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/558181/Sarkozy-vows-tighter-measures-against-criminals.aspx>.
6. "Prison Reform Interview." Interview by Beatrix Allan. 27 June 2011. Print.
7. Allan, Beatrix. "Raising Awareness about the Condition of Inmates in France and Protecting Their Rights." HIA Lecture. HIA Office, Bastille, Paris. 20 June 2011. Lecture.
8. Fernandez, Fabrice, and Samuel Lézé. "Finding the Moral Heart of Treatment: Mental Health Care in a French Prison." Social Science & Medicine 72.9 (2011): 1563-569. SciVerse ScienceDirect. Web. 26 Aug. 2011.<http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21489669>.
9. "Still Miserable: Deteriorating Conditions Increase the Pressure to Improve French Prisons." The Economist [Paris] 14 May 2009. Print.
10. Verdoux, Hélène. "The Current State of Adult Mental Health Care in France." European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience 257.2 (2007): 64-70. Print.
11. Allan, Beatrix. "Raising Awareness about the Condition of Inmates in France and Protecting Their Rights." HIA Lecture. HIA Office, Bastille, Paris. 20 June 2011. Lecture.
12. Prison Fellowship International. "Charter of Fundamental Rights of Prisoners." (2011): 4-6. Web. 27 June 2011. <http://www.pfi.org/cjr/human-rights/prison-conditions/charter/english/view>.
13. Department of Justice and Freedom. “Garden Activities in Detention” (August 30, 2010) Web.
14. Prison Fellowship International. "Charter of Fundamental Rights of Prisoners." (2011): 4-6. Web. 27 June 2011. <http://www.pfi.org/cjr/human-rights/prison-conditions/charter/english/view>.
15. Viscusi, Gregory. "Rats, Disease Plague Prisoners in France's Overcrowded Jails." Bloomberg. 31 July 2008. Web. 20 June 2011. <http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=a2jxTjq6EHVc>.
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