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Prison wardens blockade France's overcrowded jails

Tony Cross

A woman prison warden was hospitalised in clashes with police outside a prison in eastern France on Thursday, trade unionists said. On a second day of protests over conditions in France’s overcrowded jails, wardens blockaded the entrance to prisons, while their unions lobbied presidential candidates for support.

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Police used tear gas and truncheons to try and clear the entrance of a prison in Colmar, Alsace, on Thursday, knocking down one woman worker who was sent to hospital after hitting her head in the fall, according to union representative David Daems.

Demonstrating prison employees blockaded the gates of at least 10 jails with burning tyres and palettes throughout France, from Toulouse in the south to Arras in the north, in an attempt to prevent prisoners being moved.

Unions called two days of protest this week, following two days last week, and have organised visits to the campaign headquarters of the candidates in the forthcoming presidential election to “remind them of the situation in French prisons and the personnel’s expectations”.

A delegation to President Nicolas Sarkozy was unable to see him, however, because he was already in a meeting with representatives of carworkers at PSA-Peugeot-Citroën’s factory at Aulnay-sous-Bois who fear that it is going to be closed.

France’s prison population hit a record 66,445 on 1 March but there are only 57,213 places.

It hit 50,000 in 2001 and has risen ever since, boosted by government decisions to crack down on crime.

France has the highest suicide rate in Europe, at about 100 per year, according to independent observers.

The French section of the International Prison Observatory counted seven suicides in French jails between January and November 2011.

While understanding that “the rise in the number of prisoners and wardens’ new tasks can create tension”, the justice ministry says that 4,850 jobs have been created in the prison service since 2007 and that 6,017 are planned between now and 2017.

New prisons are to be built, the ministry says.

On Tuesday a group of prisoners at Vezin-le-Coquet, near the Brittany capital Rennes, attempted to start a riot,  trying to grab the keys from a warden and set fire to objects in one wing of the prison.

The prison, which opened in 2010, was built for 690 prisoners but now has 740 in the cells.

Last Friday night a prisoner in a women’s prison in Lyon committed suicide by putting a plastic bag over her head.

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