In France, Urvoas’ prison decision: More prisons, less humanity

Fresnes Prison

Fresnes Prison

In France, last August, Prime Minister Manuel Valls with his Minister of Justice Jean Jacques Urvoas advertized that a feasible and concrete plan would be announced soon to remedy the carceral disgrace of French prisons and jails, plagued with overpopulation and squalid conditions. They talked about building 6000 cells. This week, the Minister of Justice Jean Jacques Urvoas declared that 10 000 to 16 500 prisons cells will be added.

The minister made the announcement from Fresnes prison, an aging prison with about 200% occupation rate. As a congressman Mr. Urvoas opposed the building of additional prisons. Now as Minister of Justice he has succumbed to the populist vision sweeping Europe of increased imprisonment for more security. Consequently, the budget of 3 billion Euros would be mainly invested in bricks rather than in alternative restorative justice programs, as inscribed in the last bill passed by former Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira.

Instead, Mr. Urvoas declared that the administration would be adding cells, not places or spaces in an attempt to nuance the decision. This rhetoric comes from a principle of law conceived in 1875 in the French legal system that said that each detainee should have his or her own cell. In Fresne for instance they are 3 prisoners in a 9 square meter cell (30 square feet).

On the day of the announcement the French Public Radio France Inter recorded its programs in Fresnes in an effort to bring to public attention the reality of this shameful situation. They interviewed former detainees, a warden’s union representative, judges and penal counselors for reintegration, and Adeline Hazan, the president of the magistrate union, an independent body that controls all places where people are deprived of liberty.

The former detainees and wardens made clear that the place looks like a 19th century prison, filthy and sordid. They called prisons like Fresnes a pressure cooker for disaster. The union representative insisted that their mission should be to work with the detainees on their reintegration. This mission is made unattainable. In addition, in Fresnes, women’s quarters are 6 times smaller. Women are the forgotten population in prison.

The director of the prison explained that the detainees are eager to participate in activities, but, because of the lack of personnel, access to them is limited although mandated by law. Many would like to work; there too there are limitations including low wages and the non-respect of labor laws applied outside. In this environment of frustration and humiliation, it is not surprising that 62% reoffend within 5 years after their release. By comparison, only 32 to 34% who have received alternative sentences reoffend.

Many criticized Mr. Urvoas’ proposition. Magistrates explained that the judicial system is becoming harsher, emphasizing that because of the lack of appropriate budget and public pressure in this period of instability the judges are often forced to send the convicted or pretrial person to prison and jail.

In 2014, Christiane Taubira passed a bill that should have made alternative sentences the common law. Her idea relied on another principle: the principle that prison should be the last resort. Despite claims of good intentions, this law has not been enforced with adequate financial means. Meanwhile, private contractors are entering the jail and prison world, following the neoliberal search for investments with fast returns.

In France, 11 000 out of the 68 000 detainees are sentenced to 6 months and 28 % of the carceral population is in pretrial detention. If most of these sentences were commuted into open-space alternative individualized sentences, as prescribed by the Taubira’s bill, the population in jails would decline rapidly.

The approach adopted by the French Government signals yet another alignment to the logic of incarceration and tough-on-crime policies in the context of pre presidential election, with the combination of fear, security and neoliberal investments looming in the background.


(Photo Credit: BrunodesBaumettes)

In France, isolation is not the answer to anything!

Fresne prison

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: Matthieu Alexandre /