French prison's conditions 'inhuman and degrading', official report

The conditions in a major French prison constitute inhuman or degrading treatment of inmates, the country's official prisons watchdog reported Wednesday. Inspectors found prisoners sleeping three to a 10m² cell, a plague of rats and bedbugs and frequent violence by wardens when they visited the jail at Fresnes, just seven kilometres from Paris in October.

The Fresnes prison
The Fresnes prison wikipédia

Conditions at Fresnes, in the Val de Marne region east of the capital, are "inhuman or degrading" according to the European Court of Human Rights criteria and there is a "permanent climate of tension" there, the chief inspector for prisons Adeline Hazan has told Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas in an official report published Wednesday.

The prison has more than twice as many inmates as it is supposed to have, the former Socialist MP writes after a visit by inspectors from her office for two weeks in October.

The situation has deteriorated since their last visit two years ago, while the prison's population has soared 52 percent in the last 10 years to 3,000.

Meanwhile, staffing levels have stayed the same, there is a shortage of management and supervisory staff and an estimated 70 percent of wardens are trainees.

Understaffing and overcrowding in a 19th-century building that, according to Hazan, urgently needs renovation mean that:

  • More than half of inmates share 10m² cells with two others, while toilets lack privacy and hygiene is "deplorable", conditions that do not measure up to the requirements of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture;

  • Visiting rooms are dirty and too small, body searches are almost universal and prisoners are kept for hours at a time in waiting rooms, which are sometimes the scene of "brutality and violence";

  • Rats infest the prison courtyard, "the persistent smell of their fur, their excrement and their corpses being added to the smell of piles of rubbish", and have also invaded parts of the building, their urine leaking through artificial ceilings in the cells and their bites leading to two cases of leptospirosis, while bedbugs and cockroaches are also common;

  • Discipline is "rigid, incomprehensible and brutal", leading to a "climate of tension and panic" in which the use of violence is "immediate and seen as banal", and wardens give false accounts of incidents where they have used excessive force against inmates, three of them having recently been disciplined for brutality;

  • Violent incidents between prisoners are frequent, especially in the showers, where they are not supervised, and the waiting rooms and exercise yard, where surveillance is "illusory".

"Respecting the fundamental rights such as health care, work, contact with family, education etc are therefore structurally impossible," Hazan concludes and she calls for urgent action to modernise the prison and reduce the number of inmates.

Reacting to the report wardens' trade unions compared Fresnes to a "pressure cooker waiting to explode" and point to "new dangers" arising from the detention of Islamist radicals.

Urvoas replied by pointing to a 900,000-euro programme to rid the prison of rats in 2017 and the plan to build three new prisons in the Paris region next year to ease overcrowding.

France's prison system is badly overcrowded, with nealy 69,000 inmates in jails built to house 58,683.

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