Let’s hope France does not vote for US-style prisons

As France goes to the polls in May, I think of women in prison in France and those in the United States, and I shudder. Consider the following.

These are the rules applied to pregnant women in prison in France, and they are clear:

No restriction of rights and access to Public Health Care during pregnancy.

Women are automatically covered by the health care system, mothers with babies under 18 months of age may receive maternal subsidy in prison the same as any woman in the “free world.”

No surveillance during delivery or at any stay at the public hospital where women who are incarcerated have to go for their regular visits and delivery.

The stay after delivery is the same as for any other, that is to say a minimum of 4 days and for as long as the doctor judges they have to stay.

Mother can be sent to a special section of the prison and keep their infant if they want to. The child is not incarcerated, and so receives all regular subsidies from the state, without restriction, and the mother manages the money, if she so chooses.

The hospital director may ask for surveillance outside the room, if deemed  necessary.

Those are the rules, and they’re a far sight better than those in the United States. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the distances, in France, between conditions as they for women in prison are and the claims made in official documents. Life for pregnant women in prison is difficult and not often talked about.

In France, for instance, there are 64 000 people incarcerated and 2500 are women. Women in prison often complain that because they are so few, their conditions are not taken seriously. There are political women prisoners, the majority of whom are Basque activists. Women may have private visits with their spouses, so it is possible, within the rules, for a woman prisoner to become pregnant.

Take the much-publicized story of Véronique Le Gall.

Véronique Le Gall was in jail for having killed and stored her newborn baby in a freezer. That was most likely a case of post-partum depression. At any rate, while in prison, she became pregnant. The authorities didn’t know and so only at the last instance was she sent to the hospital to give birth.

The point of the story of Véronique Le Gall is that it’s not unusual. It’s not unusual for women prisoners in France to become pregnant. There are several, formally sanctioned ways to get pregnant in prison. If a couple is incarcerated in the same institution, they have access to an internal visiting room. Women prisoners may be released on weekends. Finally, women can meet their family for 6 to 72 hours in a unité de vie familiale, or family life unit, which are small private apartments.

From one perspective, the standards in prisons in France are much better than those in the United States, but that’s not saying much.

What remains an issue is the prison environment in which a no-exception rule reigns. Pregnant women are trapped in this no-exception rules situation. Their parental right is not going to be compromised but their parenting is. Women prisoners in France can become parents, but they can’t be parents. They can’t act as parents, because they can’t make autonomous decisions about their children.

The last few years has seen both an improvement and a degradation of detention conditions. Recently, both the Controleur General des Lieux de Privation de Liberté, Jean Marie Delarue, and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment have identified disturbing, new elements: increased use of force, lack of training among wardens, increased use of solitary confinement, inadequate food provided by outsourced provisioners, slow psychiatric response to needed attention, and increased use of hand cuffs, especially for male prisoners. In France, doctors oppose the use of any restraints on medical grounds.

The International Observatory of Prisons sent a letter to both President Nicolas Sarkozy and to his main election contender Francois Holland. Neither said much. Hollande declared that French prisons should remain in conformity with principles of dignity. His chargé d’affaires explained that they wanted to render prison “useful” and work to decrease the rate of repeat offenses. As for Nicolas Sarkozy, he announced that he wanted to add 24 000 beds to the 56 000 already in place, and to rework the sentencing reduction program in place as a kind of zero tolerance program. He calls this “reinforcing the authority of justice”.

Prisons reflect as they participate in the evolution of the political economy of a society. That has certainly been the case in France. Let’s hope that the May 6th election marks a positive turn that keeps France’s prisons distant from those of the United States.


(Photo Credit: Robin des Lois)