Solidarity with the women prisoners of Fleury-Mérogis!

In Fleury-Mérogis, France’s biggest prison and one of its worst, women detainees have been organizing against new conditions of detention arranged by the new software GENESIS (Gestion nationale des personnes écrouées pour le suivi individualisé et la sécurité, National management of imprisoned people for individualized monitoring and security), an acronym that blurs its material reality for women incarcerated in Fleury-Mérogis. The software was sold under the aegis of efficiency and harmonization between the men’s quarters and the women’s quarters. In practice, this harmonization meant worsening the conditions of detention: reduction of the number of promenades, limitation of access to the gym and cultural activities, and reduction of visiting room sessions.

In December 2002, France ratified the United Nations’ resolution, Optional Protocol to the Convention Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). As a result of that ratification, in 2007 the French parliament passed a law creating an independent public body “contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté” in charge of monitoring all places and institutions where people are locked up.

This independent body released a report in January 2016 concerning the conditions of detention of women, which includes women in jails, prisons, administrative (immigration) detention, and psychiatric detention.

Women prisoners represent 3.2% of the prisoners in France with 5 to 6% of women prisoners in administrative detention. Juvenile delinquents may be locked up in educational centers, which resemble a prison anyway. Girls make up 6 % of incarcerated minors. Proportionately, women in psychiatric hospital are in greater number; 38.21% of those committed to psychiatric detention are women. Historically, women have been the targets of psychiatric control.

The report points out that women are more susceptible to suffer from separation from family circles, and especially from their children, than men. Although by law women are entitled to the same rights as men, the gap between them is even wider in prisons and jails.

With the consolidation of detention centers, women have been sent further away from home. This situation is well known in the United States but is relatively new in France. The report insists on the inherent injustice of this situation since about 75% of the incarcerated women are mothers. The law demands that women’s incarceration respects their familial responsibilities. Further, most of the women are incarcerated for minor offenses. Among the 188 detention centers and prisons in France only 43 may receive women. Often the women’s side in a prison is simply very basic compared to the men’s side.

The report stresses the lack of services for women detainees and disparities among the various prisons and jails receiving women; these services go from health services to judicial services such as parole and day parole. The carceral administration justifies the inequality by claiming that there are too few women to merit more equipments or services.

The report recommends adding services, improving the conditions of detention, implementing the required access to school and other activities, all in the respect of the principle of equality.

Despite this detailed and clear report that demanded actions for revising the conditions of incarceration for women, Fleury-Mérogis’s administration launched GENESIS March 3d.

Immediately, the Basque women political prisoners incarcerated in Fleury-Mérogis organized women prisoners against this injustice. A support group has also been organized. Citizens outside the prison have written letters to the prison administration. Signs of solidarity with the women inside are key when women are locked up and may feel isolated. So each rally outside has to be heard inside.

The women prisoners’ demand is simple: “We call for dignified living conditions, they talk about rules. We talk about mutual assistance and sharing, they talk about logistics and “traffic.” We talk about humanity, they talk about laws. We talk about communicating and coming together, they answer with security and solitary confinement.” The response of the prison’s management has been harsh, 4 women have been sent to solitary confinement. Since May 10th, 5 men and 2 women have been on hunger strike in solidarity with the women in isolation.

This is a struggle against the logics of over incarceration producing a carceral and societal aberration that started in early 2000. It is a fight against a higher degree of materialistic dehumanization of prison conditions, another step toward a harmonization with the United States’ penitentiary hell. Solidarity with women prisoners is required, today in Fleury-Mérogis, tomorrow …

(Photo Credit: L’Envolée) (Image credit:

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)