Covid in France

Prisoners' advocate sounds the alarm on Covid restrictions at French jails

The Fresnes prison, south of Paris, which had a Covid cluster in January 2021.
The Fresnes prison, south of Paris, which had a Covid cluster in January 2021. © Stephane de Sakutin/AFP

French prisons have been spared the massive Covid outbreaks seen elsewhere in the world, mainly because of restrictions put on inmates’ liberties. As the population behind bars continues to increase, France’s prison controller is sounding the alarm and calling for early releases.


“I believe that you’re sentenced to prison, but not to live with rats and cockroaches, and getting Covid,” said Dominique Simonnot, France’s prison controller, a position to which she was appointed by the president and in which she serves as an advocate for prisoners.

Simonnot’s priority when she took the position in November 2020 was Covid, both to avoid its spread in already overcrowded and degraded facilities, but also to address the impact of measures put in place to slow transmission of the virus.

This story is part of the Spotlight on France podcast:

Spotlight on France episode 52
Spotlight on France episode 52 © RFI

Covid clusters have recently been identified in several prisons. The Tours prison has stopped accepting inmates after a quarter of the 206 prisoners and some guards tested positive at the start of March.

But since the start of the pandemic a year ago, this has been more an anomaly than the rule.

“It's a bit of a miracle that Covid has been rather contained,” said Simonnot, pointing out that it is because prisons have put in place drastic measures that mean a lot of strain for prisoners.

Visits have been restricted and glass partitions have been put up to separate families and inmates so they have to yell to be heard. Children are no longer allowed to visit some facilities.

“Visits have become hellish,” added Simonnot.

Work, educational courses and training programmes have been suspended. Some prisons have limited outdoor time to avoid inmates’ mixing with oneanother.

“People are in their cells 23 hours a day. And when there are three of them in a cell, it’s dreadful,” said Simonnot, making reference to the already overcrowded situation, with prison capacity at 116 per cent, and prisoners forced to share small cells in unsanitary conditions.

“We have been receiving some absolutely desperate letters,” added Simonnot, who with her team regularly inspects detention facilities.

Going public

Her power is limited. The controller position, created in 2007, is advisory. She can issue reports and recommendations to the justice ministry, lawmakers and magistrates.

“Sometimes they listen to what we say. Sometimes not at all,” she said. 

But she has one powerful tool: the media.

A former journalist who covered prisons, Simonnot knows how to go public with information that can push the government and lawmakers to change, and she is trying to do this with Covid.

In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, authorities encouraged judges to use alternative sentences, and the justice ministry allowed prisoners with two months or less left in their sentences to be released early.

From a pre-pandemic prison population of 70,651, in January 2020, there were 58,621 by July.

The numbers are increasing again, with 1,000 new inmates a month, which Simonnot says not only exacerbates existing problems of overcrowding, but is also “completely irresponsible” given the Covid situation.

At the beginning of March she wrote an open letter calling for early releases again.

Politics getting in the way

But the political situation, a year ahead of presidential elections, in which President Emmanuel Macron is tipped to be up against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the second round, is such that the current justice minister is unlikely to make the same decision as his predecessor.

“We are unfortunately entering an election period and Macron’s party does not want to give any ammunition to the far right,” said Simmonnot.

Releasing prisoners, or making them a priority group for vaccination would play into the hands of the far right, even if the measures are reasonable.

“These are people at the end of their sentences, with only a few weeks to go. We’re not releasing terrorists, or violent people,” said Simmonnot. Released prisoners remain under the control of a surveillance judges (juges de l'application des peines) until the end of their sentences.

“These are not irresponsible measures, that’s what’s frustrating,” she said.

Prisoners have the right to complain

Simonnot does not expect any change in the short term, but she is looking ahead to changing more generalised attitudes towards sentencing, encouraging judges to use probation or community service instead of incarceration.

French prisons have long had a problem with overcrowding and degraded conditions.

Some prisoners took their situation to the European Court of Human Rights which accused France of holding prisoners in degrading conditions.

Last month parliament passed a law under pressure from the Constitutional Council which ordered the overturning of an article in the penal code that had kept prisoners from denouncing bad prison conditions. Prisoners can now file official complaints, which they could not do before.

Simonnot finds the law to be “mediocre”, but even watered down, it is a step in the right direction towards reforming prisons in France.

This story is part of the Spotlight on France podcast, episode 52.

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