Prison Overcrowding in France
Like many countries around the world, the prison population in France had fallen as a result of the Pandemic. Unfortunately, since the resumption of judicial activity, the number of people incarcerated has drastically increased, and the space to hold those people has not.
According to France's Ministry of Justice, a total of 68,472 detainees were languishing in French prisons back in September 2021. Crammed into an outdated prison system with only 60,374 operational places, those detainees have been forced to live in overcrowded spaces.
However, the figure compiled by the Ministry of Justice does not paint the full picture, as it was recorded just after the summer, a period in which prison populations are naturally lower due to traditional French vacations.
The figure has since then continuously increased. By October, the number of prisoners reached 69,173 people, and by December, it was 69,992 people.
The current situation has happened even though the European Court of Human Rights condemned France for its chronic overcrowding back in January 2020.
The consequences of having such a cramped prison system are numerous. France will have "racketeering" and "proselytism" according to Emmanuel Baudin, general secretary of the national union of justice. He went on to further comment, "Prison overcrowding is a brake on reintegration and contributes enormously to recidivism." The tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend.
More than half of the inmates incarcerated in France were ordered to serve their sentences in prisons overcrowded by more than 120%. Another 1,299 of them were forced to sleep on the floor. The right to access a safe place, a fundamental human right in France, has been disregarded in France's current detention conditions.
French prisons were cited by the Council of Europe's Committee for the prevention of torture (CPT) for outdated equipment, unsanitary conditions, and ageing infrastructure last June.
"Over the last twenty years, the prison stock has deteriorated significantly," noted the Committee. "Because of overcrowding, the presence of rodents, and the lack of maintenance of aging buildings are common." Some prisons are "in an advanced state of dilapidation:" decrepit cells with defective or broken windows, cold, humidity, mould, cockroaches... "a situation that made detention unbearable, as did the working conditions of staff," added the Committee during its visit of the Bordeaux-Gradignan prison center.
The complete reconstruction of this prison is planned only for 2025; until then, the situation worsens month after month. The CPT is also concerned about idleness. Offering the detainees activities and work and spending time outside their cell is extremely important but almost impossible in an overcrowded prison.
The Committee reported on several important objectives that needed to take place.
Firstly, "The objective should be that each person can spend a good part of the day, eight hours or more, outside his cell, engaged in motivating activities of a varied nature: work, training; studies; sport; and leisure activities adapted to everyone's needs."
Secondly, "Particular attention should be paid to the level of remuneration of jobs and qualifying training."
And lastly, prisoners and staff members should be equitably treated when given punishments for offences. The CPT reported cases of violence committed by staff members against detainees that may lead people "to think that some officers would allow themselves wrongdoing without fear of consequences." Those acts included prisoners being "reportedly pushed violently and/or punched, kneed, or kicked in different parts of the body, including the face," By prison staff.
The consequences for staff members committing criminal acts of violence against prisoners are, according to the CPT report, "generally a few months suspended from the prison." And the penalties for "most convictions did not result in a ban on practicing and the agents, temporarily suspended from their duties, then returned to their home institution." Allowing them to continue their abuse of prisoners.
In contrast, prisoners face much heavier sentences for similar or lesser acts.
The double standards have resulted in a "generated misunderstanding," according to CTP, that the prison staff members have almost total impunity.
How should France fix this problem?
The first thing France should prioritize is to increase the justice budget to build 15,000 prison places. Those projects could help the creation of prison jobs to help detainees change their depressing routines.
Secondly, it is crucial to end the impunity of Prison Staff being violent with detainees and apply fair sentences against those who commit crimes.
There is also a need to rethink the scale of punishments. (one-month prison sentences abolished, and community servies along with an electronic tracking bracelet should be advised for sentences between one to six months).
As political decisions have driven France to overcrowded prisons, new political decisions are urgently needed to resolve the situation.
The French government must move from its repressive culture to an educational and preventive one to maintain fundamental human rights in French Prisons and help those detainees by giving them the best chances of reintegration without recidivism.
Council of Europe. (2021, June 24). France: Committee for the prevention of torture deplores conditions of detention, prison overcrowding and lack of psychiatric beds. Human Rights and Rule of Law. https://www.coe.int/en/web/human-rights-rule-of-law/-/france-anti-torture-committee-deplores-conditions-of-detention-prison-overcrowding-and-lack-of-psychiatric-beds
The Editorial Board. (2020, February 6). Prisons : Une surpopulation chronique. Vie publique.fr. https://www.vie-publique.fr/en-bref/273154-prisons-une-surpopulation-chronique-la-france-condamnee-par-la-cedh
FRANCE 24. (2021, June 24). Le Conseil de l'Europe s'alarme de la surpopulation carcérale en France. France 24. https://www.france24.com/fr/france/20210624-le-conseil-de-l-europe-s-alarme-de-la-surpopulation-carc%C3%A9rale-en-france
Le Figaro with AFP. (2021, September 29). Prisons : Nouvelle hausse de la population carcérale. LEFIGARO. https://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/prisons-nouvelle-hausse-de-la-population-carcerale-20210929
Lostau, Shana. (2021, October 28). La surpopulation carcérale s'accentue en France. CNEWS. https://www.cnews.fr/videos/france/2021-10-28/la-surpopulation-carcerale-saccentue-en-france-1143132
N° 652 - Rapport d'information de M. Dominique Raimbourg depose en application de l'article 145 du règlement, par la commission des Lois constitutionnelles, de la legislation et de l'administration generale de la République, en conclusion des travaux d'une mission d'information sur Les moyens de lutte contre la surpopulation carcérale. (n.d.). Assemblée nationale ~ Les députés, le vote de la loi, le Parlement français. https://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/14/rap-info/i0652.asp
Observatoire International des Prisons. (n.d.). Surpopulation carcérale. oip.org. https://oip.org/decrypter/thematiques/surpopulation-carcerale/