In France, isolation is not the answer to anything!

In the manner of black French citizens, as recently described in the documentary Too Black To Be French, “you know you are black when…” the question of social, racial categories reappears in prison. Today inside the prisons in France one may ask: “You know you are being radicalized when the French prison system isolate you to treat you as a person of no rights (personne de non-droit).“

Since the occurrence of various acts of sectarian violence, the discourse of Islamic radicalization has occupied the political scene, with the help of media propaganda. The January attacks in Paris triggered diverse types of responses from the French government. In October 2014, Prime Minister Manuel Valls had already taken a “radical” approach, ordering an experimental isolation of about ten inmates labeled “radicalized” in the prison of Fresnes, in the suburb of Paris. In the aftermath of the attacks, it was easy to extend this experiment to three other prisons.

However, the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira expressed her reservations about this approach, and demanded an evaluation of the procedure. The method included a series of interviews of all the inmates concerned.

The report came out recently. It details in eight points the reasons they advise against this approach. The report debunks many of the myths of the security mentality of our time. “To group together the inmates who are labeled radicalized presents some risks that were not evaluated properly.” As the detainees themselves explained, a major risk is the creation of new ways of casting out sections of the population already frequently discriminated against.

The fact that two of the three perpetrators had been in prison fueled the idea that Islamic radicalization was occurring mainly in French prisons. The report demonstrates that although proselytizing in prison has grown, prison is not the main place of radicalization. Only 16% of the people who have been incarcerated for acts of Islamic radicalism had been in prison before.

In fact, the report describes the absence of legal structures for inmates who are designated as “radicalized.” They are removed from the array of possible recourses, restraining their rights and worsening their condition of detention. The report draws attention to an eventual drift toward more isolation of inmates.

Since these special units are mainly located around Paris and in the North, the report points out that geographic distance between inmates and their families aggravates the risk of becoming vulnerable to the influence of radical doctrine.

In previous years, the Sarkozy administration put in place many appearance-based prejudices while reducing social aid, radically isolating many according to racial criteria that don’t pertain to the civil legal code. This approach tainted many processes of identification and incarceration. The report remarks that there is no reliable and just mode of selection of these inmates since many have various levels of self-identification and understandings of their own origins.

As a result of the toughening of sanctions under the Sarkozy administration, the prisons are grossly overpopulated and for that reason provide a fertile ground for all kinds of radicalization. Fleury-Merogis prison has a capacity of 2600 inmates. It currently houses 4200 people. Moreover, about 50 % of the prisoners are of Muslim origin while only 5 to 10% of the French population has Muslim roots. The report recognizes that the current government has taken seriously this issue but has not been able to significantly reduce the number or proporations of inmates.

The report asks if programs of “de-radicalization” would not weaken the reintegration of this new category of inmates, often arbitrarily selected. Moreover, these programs are being contracted and no reliable evaluations have been published thus far. It would be better to allocate public funds to already well-established programs of reintegration that have been defunded in the past.

After the January attacks, the Association of Victims of Terrorism was asked to survey the prisons to improve the identification of inmates in need of de-radicalization. In response, the Association warned against the isolation of inmates according to sketchy criteria that belong to the mythology and rhetoric of fear. The prison personnel also don’t support such measures of isolation.

In this time of economic unrest with the neoliberal order dictating civil norms, the proper response to all forms of radicalism and narrow parochialism and nationalism must be more freedom and more democracy, not less. The problems are in society; prisons are just the reflection of the formation of a society of global exclusion.

(Photo Credit: Liberation / Fred Dufour /  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.