French prison guards strike for global incarceration and dehumanization

May 6, 2014, following other strikes by prison guards across Europe, French prison guards blocked about 100 of the 192 prisons in France. They protested their working conditions in the overpopulated prisons. Several unions joined forces for the occasion. They claimed to have lost authority over the inmates. They advocated against a tolerant approach of managing inmates. At the same time, the automation of prison work has resulted in a substantial reduction of personnel. The rising number of inmates has combined with the rising number of administrative tasks into a rising tide of aggression against guards.

The guards feel that they are at the mercy of this or that policy. None of this is surprising. Many had predicted this crisis. At the same time, the condition for inmates has been aggravated, both in sentencing and detention, which are intimately related.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, modifications of penal laws have sent more people to prison. At the same time, inequality has increased in France and around the world. The economy of debt has allowed transfer of public monies to private hands. The previous Sarkozy administration accelerated the Americanization of the French penal system: increase of incarceration, fewer sentence reductions and longer time in prison, fewer resources for reinsertion programs, longer distance between inmates and their families, higher prices for goods inside prisons, fewer jobs.

Between 2002 and 2012 in France, the politics of security served as an excuse to enact as many as 50 laws. These laws replaced the independence of justice with a political economy that favored building more prisons by so-called private public partnerships. These partnerships were a construction of a debt system through the public sector. For example, an investment of 679 millions of Euros by a private prison builder will generate 2.7 billion Euros for the private lender, paid for by the public over 27 years.

These laws brought more video surveillance into prisons and reduced the number of guards while sending more people to prison, 35.4% more over ten years, especially in recent years with the minimum mandatory sentencing system. The conditions in French prisons are untenable. The laws are ineffective, as evidenced by the rise in repeat offenses.

After her nomination in 2012, the Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira announced that she would end this spiral that serves neither justice nor civil society. She had grand ambitions for a much needed reform of the penal system. The “conference de consensus de la prevention de la recidive” (consensus conference on the prevention of recurrent offenses) worked well and helped her to articulate a better vision.

This situation is endemic in Europe. Although the numbers cannot be compared with the United States’ figures, the change of policies associated with the diminution of financial means for public services, which include prisons, have contributed to a remarkable rise of incarceration in the past 15 years.

In Europe women are more incarcerated than ever before. Their offences reflect their social conditions and are often minor. In France 2 275 women are behind bars. 76% of them are mothers. They represent 3.7% of the total inmates. 50% are under the age of 30, and the duration of time behind bars has increased 50 % in 15 years. They are too many and too few to have adequate conditions of incarceration, if such a thing exists. They are marginalized in prisons built for men. In these quarters, they don’t exist as women but as incarcerated bodies.

Though the guards unions concerns were about the men’s prisons, women have been subjected to the modifications of penal laws in a harsh way.

The guards deal with these new conditions every day, with their own vision of their work and the limits of this system of hyper-incarceration. The demands are real as drug and weapons trafficking are more common than before. However these realities hurt inmates as well. In prison, everything is 30% more expensive; it is difficult to talk and report; where much power resides in a few hands. It is a place to which the general public does not want to be connecte

A prison psychiatrist who was recently taken hostage inside a prison by an inmate, said, “Apart from all the ethical and humanistic considerations, if we want to protect ourselves, we are going the wrong direction. The absence of hope and possibility of release pushes a person to the worst side of himself.”

Christiane Taubira will soon present a reform package to the parliament. The President has forced her to remove what the French section of the International Observatory of Prisons considered the coherence of the project. Nonetheless, some parts remain. For instance, it will overturn the mandatory sentencing and create more alternatives to prisons. The conservatives have already warned that they will oppose it. Taubira, a woman who has galvanized many women’s energy, has also been the target of unthinkable racist attacks. These issues are the reflection of the malaise that the neoliberal order creates and counts on to thrive.

The guards’ demonstrations may bring more populist responses or they might force society to consider what is happening in the penal system. A change of direction is needed in France and in the global prison orchestrated by the politics of impoverishment and control.

(Photo Credit: Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP / Libération)

About Brigitte Marti

Brigitte Marti is an organizer researcher who has worked on reproductive rights and women's health initiatives in France and in the European Union and on women prisoners' issues in the United States. She is a member of Women Included, a new transnational feminist collective, that is part of the Women 7, a coalition that advocates for the inclusion of women's rights in the G7.