Abolished in a 1981 law, the last execution took place 10 September 1977.
Life sentences are for the most serious crimes.The number of life sentences on 1 January 2017 was 497. Eleven of them were handed down in 2016.
Minors under 16 cannot be sentenced for life. Minors between 16 and 18 may, under certain circumstances, be sentenced for life.
— Detention conditions
Prisoners given long sentences endure the following problems: distancing from loved ones, aging, over-reliance on prison life, and difficult re-entry into the community. People sentenced for criminal offences are usually sent to maximum security prisons, facilities where detention is largely based on security. Jean-Marie Delarue, the Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty (CGLPL) from 2008 to 2014, pointed out in a Prison Insider document on life sentences: “I don’t think maximum security prisons have changed very much in their configuration, except the last ones built in Orne and in the north of France are worse, even more deprived of ‘nature’ than the traditional maximum-security prisons”.
** — Unconditional imprisonment**
“Unconditional imprisonment” excludes the possibility of adjusting a sentence for a period of 18 years. This detention can be shortened or extended, under certain conditions, for a maximum of 22 years.
Life imprisonment without possibility of release is the most severe sentence under French law and is subject to an unlimited, unconditional period of detention. Three particularly serious crimes (certain kinds of murders and terrorism) lead to a “real” life sentence.
A possibility of release exists, in practice, for people condemned to life imprisonment without possibility of release. The article 720-4 provides for the possibility of re-examining the case after thirty years of incarceration. The judge’s decision may only be taken after a panel of three experts chosen from the list of experts accredited to the Court of Cassation has stated its opinion as to the danger of the convicted person.
— Long sentences
The number of people sentenced to more than ten years of imprisonment, excluding life sentences, is 9,091; 102 of these persons have 20 years left to serve.
Deaths in detention
The prison administration (PA) has not published the number of prison deaths since 2013. There were 243 at that time.
Some 250 people die in prison every year.
Almost half of these deaths are due to suicide. According to a study conducted by The French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED 2014), there are seven times more suicide related deaths in prison than on the outside. Illness is the main cause of death. There were six homicides in 2016.
The PA published some key figures from 2016. It did not mention the total number of deaths in prison. Deaths occurring after leaving prison are not taken into account (at the hospital following attempted suicide in prison, for example).
Every year, a group of associations obtains the number of deaths in prison and conducts a memorial for those who died in prison.
— Suicides in prison
The PA includes the number of suicides among its key figures for 2016. There were 113 in prisons, and 11 while in custody (held under electronic surveillance, etc.). The numbers were 113 and 16 in 2015 respectively. There were 1,166 attempted suicides in 2015 and 1,033 in 2014.
The rate of suicide was 15.7/10,000 prisoners in 2016. On 7 January 2018, Mediapart, in partnership with the International Prison Observatory (OIP) and Ban Public published a report on suicides in 2017. The number of suicides was 72. The study was biased, since it resulted from only media reports.
Factors that lead to increased suicide risk are such things as entry into prison, being held in custody, solitary confinement, and the severing of family ties. Prevention policies have been tried but have failed to reduce the numbers in a significant way.
In 2017, the French National Public Health agency released a report on deaths in custody. It confirms the high rate of suicide in prison, which is especially high among women: between 2000 and 2010, men committed suicide 7.2 times more in detention than outside and women 20 times more. The report underscores that death certificates show that prison suicides are about three times less related to illness//psychiatric disorders than in the general population. The phenomenon could be “due to the combining of three elements: an absence of mental health problems among some incarcerated people who died by suicide, an undiagnosed psychiatric disorder while incarcerated, or even a psychiatric disorder unknown to the doctor issuing the death certificate”.
On 13 December, around 20:00 hours, a 16-year-old adolescent was found hanging in his cell at Laveur juvenile prison centre; this is the third suicide in the last ten years in France.
Number of deaths
Number of deaths attributed to suicide
Violence is a daily occurrence in prisons. It takes on many forms: violence between prisoners, violence on the part of prison personnel or directed toward them, self-mutilation. These can be verbal (insults, bullying, harassments) or physical.
— Prisoner violence towards personnel
Every facility must categorize and record each daily incident. For 2017, the prison administration (PA) reported 4,314 physical assaults against the personnel, that is twelve per day. There were 4,077 in 2016. The average for the previous seven years remained at 4,124, even with the significantly increasing number of prisoners -from 60,544 on 1 January 2011 to 69,714 on 1 December 2017. These acts of violence usually resulted from certain disciplinary actions, discrimination, and strip-searching.
— Guard violence towards prisoners
The Penitentiary administration does not publish figures relating to the aggressions of the staff against the prisoners. These aggressions rarely result in disciplinary or legal sanctions.
In 2017, the media reported several incidents of charges or convictions brought against members of the prison administration for violence committed against prisoners. In January, an officer in training at Maubeuge Prison was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison, with a six-month suspended sentence. He was charged with stealing money during a cell search and for several acts of violence. The Cayenne corrections court convicted a guard to three months in prison in November with a suspended sentence for having kicked and punched a prisoner twice.
In May 2014, during a strip search, some guards at Fresnes remand prison used disproportionate force to retrieve a hidden object from a prisoner, who suffered a broken shoulder and was unable to work for six weeks. The Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty (CGLPL) referred the case to the Human Rights Defender. It recommended -in a decision of February 2017- to accurately describe the circumstances that led to the use of force, the actions engaged, and the attitude of the prisoner, “and not, as is too often the case, present them in a cursory manner as “proportionate use of force’”. The lack of explanation from personnel, the absence of violence and aggression on the part of the prisoner, and the gravity of the harm done justify this decision.
In July 2017, the International Prison Observatory (OIP-SF) denounced the climate of tension and violence prevalent at Villefranche-sur-Saône detention centre for the last several years. The organisation received numerous letters and consistent testimonials which mentioned “canteens crushed and mail ripped off”; they also recounted abusive strip searches and physical violence against prisoners. One person reported: “while taking me to the disciplinary unit, they handcuffed me with my arms twisted to the back and then twisted my fingers.” Many prisoners use alternative ways of sending their mail addressed to the Public Prosecutor.
The administrative court condemned the State in January 2017, for systematic strip searches at Poitiers-Vivonne prison. 1,000€ in damages and interest were accorded to a prisoner who was strip-searched seven times in that facility.
** — Violence among prisoners**
In 2016, there were 8,161 physical assaults between prisoners and six homicides. The overpopulation, the crowd, and the recent changes to the facilities (architecture, limited contact between guards and prisoners, the large size of prisons) exacerbate violence.
One young man of 22 years escaped from Uturoa Prison at the beginning of March 2017 to run away from his fellow prisoners: “I was afraid of the other prisoners, they made me wash their clothes, wouldn’t let me sit, treated me like their slave”
Ramses Aly Elsayed, a 21-year-old French-Egyptian, was brutally thrown to the ground and kicked in the head, in mid-December at Baumettes Prison at Marseille.
“He wasn’t a bad person, but he had mental health problems and would make noises during the night. It drove people crazy”, reported a prisoner. “He was the type who answered you crudely”, confided someone who knows the case. The first prisoner said that “Baumettes 2 Prison, as always, operates by the law of the jungle! Many don’t even go out for walks and stay in their cells all day”. The guards took almost 20 minutes to come to the victim, a lifeless body in the corner of the courtyard. “While he was being attacked, some prisoners shouted from the window: ’Stop! Stop!,” said a witness: “No one came to his aid, even though the lynching was happening in an area reached by the camera. He was killed for no reason. The problem is that the guards say they are under-staffed and don’t even bother to intervene anymore.”
He died at the Unité Hospitalière Sécurisée Interrégionale (UHSI) on 3 January 2018.