From Paris to Baltimore, our prisons are full but empty of sense

Christiane Taubira

The majority left French Senate has rejected the 2013 budget for Social Security presented by the socialist government. Amazingly, right wing and communist senators joined forces to vote the budget down, although not for the same reasons. The Communists opposed the austerity measures arguing that they add up to social injustice whereas the right wing senators would like to have more austerity and reduce the social/health care welfare that is one of the pillars of French society.  Despite this seeming setback, many hope that social security and the French Health Care system will remain a key part of a societal structure of public service.

To understand the reason for this hope, we must turn to the justice department and its rhetoric of welfare and criminalization. The previous ministers of justice under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, inspired by the American approach of “le tout incarceration” (every thing converges into incarceration), had planned to build more prisons. In order to fill these new cells, the Sarkozy’s justice department designed a series of programs, including charging youth as adult; instituting immediate sentencing which often meant no jury and little time for the accused to prepare for trial; and introducing mandatory sentences. In 2007, a bill requiring minimum mandatory sentencing for repeated offenders passed. And so the prisons and jails filled up.  At the same time, under the rule of austerity, a series of welfare programs were cut.

After the election of a socialist president, Francois Hollande, his justice minister, Christiane Taubira, presented a “new penal politics of the government”. She broke with the policies of her immediate predecessors. She sent an official memorandum to all public prosecutors recommending sentencing reduction and favoring alternative sentences. As for repeated offenders she said, “All decisions must be personalized, including for repeated offenses.” She went on to clearly delineate the limits of mandatory sentencing and as well as its ultimate suppression.

Taubira went further and refused the logic of immediate trial, responsible for one third of the 66 748 people incarcerated in France, and asked the public prosecutor to stop using it. Christiane Taubira declared: “Nos prisons sont pleines, mais vides de sens.” “Our prisons are full, but empty of sense.” Her predecessors were eager to send people to jail; their motto was “tough on crime.” In the past 10 years the tally of prisoners increased by 20,000, creating “inhuman conditions” as was noted by the European committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), which also recommended “a zero tolerance of ill-treatments” by police officers. Christiane Taubira wants to remedy these conditions by quickly reducing the number of people in French prisons recognizing that incapacitating people in over-populated cells only creates more precarious lives.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore the debate about the construction of a new juvenile detention center rages, with no signs of a change in paradigm. Juveniles may be tried as adults, and the majority of women in prisons are single mothers. Meanwhile, welfare support is shrinking. Where is the Commission in Baltimore that will declare zero tolerance of ill treatment of the city’s most vulnerable?


(Photo Credit: Liberation / Bertrand Langlois / AFP)


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.