Daily life

The law ensures a right to individual cells since 1875, re-affirmed in 2000. This right is, however, not respected. Moratoriums follow one another seeking an impossible balance between the number of prisoners and the number of places.

As of 1 April 2016, there were 51,001 cells, 28,372 of which were in remand prisons (maisons d’arrêt). The cells are divided up into 23,225 single, 3,757 double and 1,390 multiple cells.

The overpopulation is such that not every prisoner has a bed: as of 1 January 2017, 1,638 prisoners sleep on a mattress on the floor, an increase of 35.4% in one year. This number reached a record of 1,883 in April). There may be three people placed in a single cell, and four in a double cell. Judges, parliamentarians and prison administrators still tolerate the placement of several people in one cell.

In 2017, detention conditions at Fresnes Prison were the subject of several legal decisions following charges by the Observatoire international des prisons - Section française (OIP-SF). The Administrative Court of Melun acknowledged, in April, that the prison was too small and that some cells of 10 m² were holding as many as three persons – a situation that affected private and family live. It indicated, however, that the prison administration’s resources must be considered, and re-emphasized that a jail is meant to hold everyone in confinement “no matter what space is available”. It asked the facility direction, therefore, to take “every measure possible to improve the physical conditions for the prisoners until a permanent solution is found”. The Council of State rendered a similar decisionon 28 July 2017, and denied the implementation of an emergency plan.

The newer facilities which are supposed to guarantee single cells are not doing so. The Baumettes-2 Prison was overcrowded in May 2017, a few days after it opened.

The cells are usually equipped with one bed, a chair and a shelving unit or a wardrobe per person. A small shelf is shared by all. Those who share cells deplore not having cupboards they can lock. Everyone complains about the gratings that obstruct the windows. There are frequent ventilation and lighting problems in the cells of old facilities.

An inventory of the Cherbourg prison showed that “for 59 prisoners, the following were available: 37 closets, 56 seats and 67 blankets, of which only 23 were in good shape”. The report of the Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty (CGLPL)’s visit published in 2017, cites that this situation is due to the lack of resources and that urgent requests are being addressed first.

The Administration provides three meals a day, at the usual times. Meals are eaten in the cells and the quality and quantity are often insufficient.

The CGLPL has reported that the Cherbourg jail serves meals from frozen foods and good quality canned foods. Expiry dates are respected. The price for three meals a day is 3.10 Euros.

Few inmates at the Brest jail, complained about the quality of food.

A report published by the CGLPL in 2017 following its visit to the Melun Detention Centre, lists some of the complaints about the meals “quantities are not always sufficient and the same foods can be served several times over a week, […], menus do not always match what is on the board, vegetables are served simply reheated without any kind of preparation, almost no cooked meats.”

In older facilities, inmates can also cook in their cells with makeshift utensils; newer prisons have hotplates. It is possible to buy (canteen) food products or rent a refrigerator. Under outsourced management, prices are often higher than on the outside. Under direct management, the administration tries hard to control these prices.

In theory, consideration is given to cultural and religious practices and special diets. But many think it is insufficient. The lack of Halal products in the menus that are offered is the reason for so many vegetarian menus.

One person mentioned the problem of maintaining a vegetarian diet in an email received by FARAPEJ in September 2017: “When we arrived, we were asked if we wanted a vegetarian diet. But in fact, this freedom is only an illusion as it is not really enforced”.

Hygiene conditions in the new facilities are usually acceptable. The older facilities do not meet the minimum standards despite their renovations. There is a lack of maintenance; there are pests, and the showers are deteriorated and dirty.

Rats are an ongoing problem. The baking teacher at Poissy remand prison has refused to give his course as long as rats escape from the oven whenever he tries to light it. The Regional Health Agency was given notice by the OIP-SF, in April 2017, to begin an “urgent rat extermination”. The Melun Tribunal asked the State in 28 April 2017 decision, to exterminate the rats in Fresnes Prison within three months.

Inmates are responsible for looking after their cells. The cleaning products provided by the administration do not always meet their needs. The administration only covers cleaning of the bedding. Personal laundry is done by inmates or by loved ones who can bring laundry when they visit.

The maintenance kit is handed out once a month at the Cherbourg jail consisting of: a cleaning sponge, 300 ml dish soap and 300 ml multi-surface cleaner. A garbage bag is handed out daily and garbage is picked up each day without sorting garbage.

Cells have sinks and toilets (with toilets now mostly separated from the rest of the cell). Older facilities have common showers. Prisoners can use them at least three times a week. A kit of personal hygiene products (toilet paper, toothpaste, soap, etc.) is handed out upon arrival, but it doesn’t cover all the needs (such as feminine hygiene products) and is only renewable for destitute prisoners.

A CGLPL report of its visit to the Marseille Women’s Prison indicated that showers are old despite regular cleaning:* “the paint is peeling, humidity and foul mould odour. Ventilation repair, […] has gotten old with time”.*

Health care has been the responsibility of public hospitals (Ministry of Health) since the enactment of Law No. 94-43 dated 18 January 1994. There are two types of health services available: basic health care and psychiatric care.

  • Level 1 care refers to doctor’s visits, external procedures and outpatient care. Medical units, formerly outpatient consultation and treatment units (unités de consultation et de soins ambulatoires (UCSA)), provide consultations and physical examinations pertaining to general practice that do not require hospitalisation. They are found in nearly all prisons and are served by general practitioners and nurses.
  • Level 2 care refers to short-term hospitalisation. This allows people to receive comprehensive, individualised, or intensive care and physical examinations during the day. Medical procedures are carried out in hospitals, with psychiatric care provided inside the prisons through the medical units.
  • Level 3 care refers to full hospitalisation. Medical care is provided in converted sections in the nearest hospitals (for urgent medical treatment and short-term stays). Long-term admissions (longer than 48 hours) go to specially secured hospital units (unités hospitalières sécurisées interrégionales (UHSI)). Psychiatric hospitalisation is available in specially adapted hospital units (unités hospitalières spécialement aménagées (UHSA)), with or without consent.

As of 1 January 2017, there were:

  • 1 medical unit per prison.
  • 8 UHSIs in the university hospitals (centres hospitaliers universitaires (CHU)) in Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nancy, Paris-La Pitié, Rennes and Toulouse for hospital stays longer than 48 hours. A total of 170 UHSI beds are currently available.
  • 1 national public health facility in Fresnes.
  • 26 regional medical and psychological services (services médico-psychologiques régionaux (SMPR)) in 26 prisons.
  • 7 UHSAs in general hospitals. Psychiatric beds are available (with or without consent) in Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Nancy, Orléans, Rennes, Toulouse and Villejuif. Anew UHSA opened in Marseille in June 2017 with a total capacity of 440 beds.

The 2017 Senate report on the cost of prison health care shows that, despite progress, some UHSIs are still underutilised, such as in Strasbourg, where the occupation rate was 51% in 2016. This is due, in part, to prisoners refusing to be hospitalised for some of the following reasons:

  • lack of patient confidentiality
  • not being allowed to smoke, or not being allowed to access outside smoking areas
  • occasional delays between admission and scheduled treatment
  • the release of certain individuals
  • hospitalisation being re-scheduled or cancelled at the last minute
  • not having someone to escort them to the hospital

UHSAs, however, have an occupancy rate greater than 75%.

Access to medical units is not the same in all prisons. General medical care is mostly satisfactory despite some problems with the facilities (conflicting scheduling, disciplinary procedures that are underway, etc.). Specialised treatment, namely eye and dental care and treatment for chronic disorders, is seriously lacking, as there are not enough medical specialists. Requests for appointments must be made in writing and can take several months to come through. The most frequently cited problems concern the safeguarding of patient confidentiality and the lack of resources in the medical units.

In 2017, several prisoners were admitted to the Lille UHSA at their own request. After refusing to take medication that they deemed excessive, they found themselves forcibly hospitalised after phony hospital admittance requests were produced that should have been written by an exterior psychiatrist.

One prisoner reported to the Ouest France daily: *“Some prisons have no patient confidentiality. When you get your meds, everyone knows what you’re taking”. *

He also indicated that making requests in writing is difficult for those who are illiterate or do not know French. Doctors of the World is trying to resolve this issue by recommending that a card be made on which a prisoner could select the care or treatment that they need.

There are times, particularly in solitary confinement wards and during medical transfers, when the conditions of consultations become problematic and affect the quality of care and the safeguarding of patient confidentiality.

A doctor at Baumettes Prison reported to the OIP-SF that there is a general lack of personnel for adequate medical care to be provided: “I’ve had ten patients arrive all at once with only an hour left to see them all”. Some patients with chronic disorders cannot get certain drugs, which can have serious consequences. The doctor mentioned the case of a diabetic prisoner who was late getting insulin :“One day, he didn’t get it and we ended up taking him to the emergency room”.

In a March 2017 report, the Human Rights Defender (Défenseur des droits) noted a lack of coordination between prison management and the fire brigade, which came to light, after a prisoner was attacked while walking. The prisoner was forced to wait for hours while complaining of pain in his eye, ribs and skull. The report found the endangerment of the prisoner’s health, owing to delays in access to care, to be unacceptable and called for a clarification of the way medical transfers are carried out.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) pointed out in its 2017 report that the use of restraints during medical transfers is commonplace: “These measures appear to be disproportionate to the actual danger a prisoner poses or the possibility of their escape. For instance, one disabled prisoner in a wheelchair said that his hands and legs were tied while being transported to a hospital appointment”1.

In December 2017, the Lille administrative court criticised the government for the pain and suffering experienced by a 70-year-old prisoner who was undergoing a medical procedure. The presence of guards in the doctor’s office and the wearing of handcuffs during the check-up were deemed to be unjustified.

  1. Committee for the Prevention of Torture, “Rapport relatif à la visite effectuée du 15 au 27 novembre 2015, p. 45. 

Prisoners can take part in a number of activities that vary from one facility to another. Since 2009, prisoners have been obliged to participate in at least one. Access to an outside walking area is a right (usually 1.5 hours a day), although it is supervised.

There are a number of activities available but not enough to meet demand. In general, each activity can accommodate up to ten people. The prison service estimates that, on average, each prisoner participates in an activity for 1.5 hours a day, in addition to walking outdoors.
The criteria for registration are unclear and must be approved by the prison service. There are also practical constraints that prevent the activities from taking place (lack of rooms, budget limitations, difficulties in informing everyone, etc.). Similar observations were made with respect to sport.

Each prison has a library that is partnered with municipal and regional libraries. On 1 January 2017, a professional librarian was available for 37% of the prisons. There were also 217 prisoners working as assistant librarians.

The 2017 CPT report is critical of the serious lack of activities offered in prisons: “In contrast to the situation observed at Condé-sur-Sarthe prison, most of the prisoners at Fresnes, Nîmes and Villepinte prisons have no access to stimulating activities or work opportunities. They often spend more than 21 hours in their cell. The CPT recommends that all prisoners be able to leave their cell for a reasonable portion of the day to take part in stimulating activities”.

In an interview with Vice, one prisoner cited the importance of sports in prison: “It’s obviously a good way of overcoming boredom in prison. The prison suggests either going to the gym to lift weights or playing football outside. But to get access to the gym, you have to wait eight months – and for football, a year. […] In the walking area, there’s always at least 50 people running, doing press-ups together, or doing pull-ups on the fence”.

Nearly 300 sport instructor guards (2015 data) and outside help from the prison service’s partner federations contribute. This works out at around one guard for over 200 prisoners.

There are three sources of employment in prison:

  • General services, which refers to the work done by prisoners to keep the prison operating (maintenance, food services, cleaning of public areas). 13.4% of prisoners worked in general services in 2016.
  • Production areas, which are operated by the Prison Industrial Management Service (Régie industrielle des établissements pénitentiaires (RIEP)) and managed by the Prison Employment Service (Service de l’emploi pénitentiaire (SEP)). This service organises the production of goods and services by prisoners and ensures their sale and distribution (computing, computer-aided manufacturing, printing, woodwork, garment manufacturing, metalwork, agriculture, etc.). 1.5% of prisoners worked for the SEP in 2016. 25 out of 186 prisons have a total of 46 workshops.
  • Concession work, which refers to prisoners working for private companies that set up production areas inside prisons. These usually entail simple manual operations (stuffing envelopes, packaging, etc.). 13.2% of prisoners worked for concessions in 2016.

Prisoners can work independently or for an employer. The above-mentioned forms of employment only give access to a job to one-quarter of prisoners.

Prison work can have the following benefits: prisoners can earn an income to use in the canteen or to support their family, they can leave their cell and stay active, and they get the opportunity to meet other prisoners. One prisoner described it thus: “When you work, it gives you a totally new perspective. You can bond with other people, sometimes even with non-prisoners. Work has really helped me deal with my sentence”.

Most of the time, labour laws do not apply to those in prison. For instance, there is no minimum wage and no work contracts. The Prison Act of 24 November 2009 provides for the implementation of a contract and the end of piecework, but these provisions have not yet been fully applied.

The minimum wage provided by the Prison Act varies from one-fifth to one-third of the minimum wage (salaire minimum (SMIC)) for service jobs. It can be as much as just under half of the SMIC when prisoners work for private firms or for the SEP. On 1 January 2017, the least-qualified positions were paid €1.95 an hour. The Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty (Contrôleure générale des lieux de privation de liberté (CGLPL)) issued an advisory in February 2017 denouncing the lack of respect for basic standards.

In the same advisory, she underscored the many legal deficiencies of prison work that constitute human rights abuses. In a 2017 advisory, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights recommended that the right to a work contract be applied during detention. It also called for the creation of a national agency for prisoner employment that would both act as the employer and seek out contractors.

Detainees working

28.1 %

/ Prison administration

In general, prisoners are poorly educated. In 2016, one in five prisoners (20.2%) failed reading tests, one in two had no school leaving qualification (49%) and more than three-quarters only had vocational training (81%).

While efforts have been made to address illiteracy, they have not been applied consistently. The provision of basic education in prisons is the responsibility of the Ministry of National Education. At the beginning of the school year in September 2016, 483 full-time teachers at primary and secondary level were assigned to prisons, in addition to temporary staff. In total, the Ministry provides a little over 700 FTE teachers, offering training to around one-quarter of prisoners.

These training programmes either focus on basic subjects, such as French as a second language, literacy, or preparatory and refreshment courses for the general education certificate (certificat de formation générale(CFG)), or lead to a qualification(CAP, BEP, national diploma (diplôme national du brevet), baccalaureate, DAEU or university degrees).

In an interview, the rector of Bordeaux Academy and of the larger Nouvelle-Aquitaine region discussed the state of teaching in prisons. In 2016, 1,483 prisoners attended classes in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, or one-third of the prisoners in that region. He noted that the teachers in the prisons are volunteers and that their focus is mainly on those who are illiterate, as well as minors and young adults. 176 CFGs, 28 CAPs, 23 national diplomas, seven baccalaureates or DAEUs and ten post-baccalaureate diplomas were awarded at the end of the 2016-2017 year.

In 2016, 19,000 prisoners were enrolled in vocational training. This figure was 22,514 in 2014. Since 1 January 2015 when a trial period introduced in the Prison Act came to an end, the offering of vocational training has been in the hands of the regions. A report on the trial period, prepared by the General Inspectorate of Social Affairs (Inspection générale des affaires sociales (IGAS)) in 2013, highlighted “a significant improvement” in the offering of training. The Aquitaine region had created eight new training programmes and upgraded eleven others that were already in place.

Two years after the transfer of responsibility to the regions, the CGLPL published an opinion piece on 9 February 2017 on vocational training in prisons, presenting a different perspective. It points to the Île-de-France region, which cancelled all its vocational training at the beginning of 2016, blaming a change in the method of funding. The CGLPL also noted the positive aspects of the training, namely that it complements prisoners’ employment and gears them toward social reintegration. The CGLPL also called for the training to be expanded.

Access to information (newspapers, television, etc.) is guaranteed unless it affects the security of the prisons. There is a charge for these services. A few regional dailies are distributed free of charge, such as the Ouest France.

In July 2017, management at Argentan Prison was criticised by the Caen administrative court for charging too much for television rentals, which can vary from €0 to €40/month depending on the prison. The court called for the rate to be standardised with the rate used in public prisons, which has been set at €10/month since 2011. This standardisation was postponed for privately run prisons, but the court deemed the difference in treatment to be unjustified.

Internet access is banned in prison. Access to online information (individual requests or for training purposes) is lacking and is subject to prisons’ security restrictions. The gap between the restrictions imposed by the prison services and technological developments is glaring. This makes it difficult for prisoners to reintegrate into society, especially those serving long sentences.

The principle of religious neutrality guarantees freedom of religion and falls under the responsibility of the prison service. Chaplaincy personnel consist of salaried and volunteer chaplains and volunteer chaplain assistants. On 1 January 2015, there were 1,628 chaplaincy personnel, comprising 453 salaried chaplains, 972 volunteer chaplains and 203 volunteer chaplain assistants.
However, on 1 January 2017, there were 1,546 chaplaincy personnel, comprising 556 salaried chaplains, 790 volunteer chaplains and 200 volunteer chaplain assistants.

The religions represented are:

  • 690 Catholic chaplaincy personnel (70 less than in 2015)
  • 350 Protestant (-27)
  • 221 Muslim (+28)
  • 145 Jehovah’s Witness (+34)
  • 66 Jewish (-9)
  • 45 Orthodox (-7)
  • 18 Buddhist (+8)
  • 11 Others (-39)

Catholic and Protestant chaplains make up more than half of the salaried chaplains, with Muslims about one-third. There is a great deal of disparity between the religions in terms of resources, salaries (some chaplains perform shift work and some do not, some receive supplementary payments by their religion and some do not) and the number of approvals issued. This makes it difficult to practice some religions, especially Islam and those that require regular practice.

Spiritual needs are not always met and prisoners are not always permitted to keep their religious articles with them. Furthermore, few prisons cater to the special food requirements mandated by some religions.

According to the 2017 CGLPL report, there is no Muslim chaplain at Cherbourg Prison, meaning that Muslims can only interact with Catholic chaplains. Guards also have problems obtaining Muslim religious articles, such as the Koran and prayer mats.

Religious services do not always take place in planned and well-equipped spaces. Older facilities in particular do not have such dedicated spaces. Services are known to have been interrupted if they run over, even if the service starts late and the prisoners are not to blame.

Some chaplains, namely those of the Muslim faith, have pointed out that in trying to prevent radicalisation in prison, the prison service has made certain expectations of chaplains that do not fall within their remit and may even be prejudicial.

Following a decree on 5 May 2017, future chaplains of all religions are required to receive training in civics, a move that not all chaplains support. While one Christian pastor stressed that “the fight against radicalisation is not our responsibility”, Hassan el-Alaoui Talibi, the chief Muslim prison chaplain in France, maintained that it “will be good for our chaplains”. On the whole, the chaplains said that they should have been consulted first and they also questioned the training methods.

Outside assistance comes in many forms: visits, sport, cultural, and religious activities, teaching, material support, legal aid, preventive health care, etc. Some activities take place outside of the prisons, such as welcoming families and loved ones waiting in the visiting rooms and the activities surrounding release (reintegration into the workplace, housing, etc.). These programmes are usually run by volunteers.

In 2017, the prison service signed agreements with 23 associations, on a national scale. The agreements covered different domains: legal aid, visits, preventive health care, reintegration, etc. Most of them have financial protocols in the form of annual grants, the amount of which varies from year to year.

There is also a network of associations at the local level. Almost every facility has a network of associations that provides assistance, with agreements signed with the prison service concerned.

The number of external personnel varies greatly from city to city and entry clearance procedures are also highly variable. In November 2017, the chair of the prison visitor association for the Saint-Brieuc Prison was denied access to the facility following a decision by its director, who deemed that he had acted negligently by booking a flight for a prisoner at the end of his sentence. The prosecutor called the director’s complaint a closed case and did not overturn the decision. Two other visitors to the same institution were also denied access at the same time, reducing the volunteer headcount to six.

The isolated locations of some prisons often makes it difficult for external parties to contribute. They are also directly affected by overcrowding and staff shortages.

A directory of the associations that provide assistance in or around prisons is available (in French only).

Imprisonment represents a financial disruption for prisoners (loss of wages, benefits, etc.) as well as their families and loved ones (loss of remittances, travelling for visits, etc.). Most of the prison population is poor.

Prison management opens a bank account (“compte nominatif”) for each prisoner and manages the money. Any money acquired (from a money order, work, etc.) is divided monthly into a portion for the prisoner, release savings and, if necessary, compensation for civil parties.

Managementmay decide to allot a sum of money to so-called prisoners in need. The Code of Criminal Procedure defines these “persons without sufficient resources”in itscriteria for their bank account funds. The threshold is fixed at €50 a month. This type of aid varies greatly from one facility to another. It is usually given inkind (clothing, refilling toiletry kits, etc.), but may also be monetary.

Financial aid for prisoners in needis sometimes provided by local volunteer associations.

In Fleury-Mérogis Prison, for example, Christian charity Secours Catholique distributes Christmas gifts to prisoners in need. 850 prisoners received gifts in December 2017, or about 20% of the 4,500 prisoners at Fleury-Mérogis. In the same prison, the Soutien Ecoute Prison association has a clothes roomthatprovides shoes and clothing to those most in need.

On 31 December 2017, the year ended with the abolitionof money orders by French postal bankLa Banque Postale. This system hadallowed peopleto go to the post office and send money to other people, andwas often used by prisoners to transfer money to loved ones. The prison serviceestimates that 17,000 money orders were sent by prisoners to their loved ones inthe first halfof 2017, withan average amount of €177. Money orders represent nearly 50% of money transfers between prisoners and loved ones. A new system, the justice money order (le mandat-justice), is to be implemented differently. It will be made available to loved ones during visits.

Prisoners’ means of communication, whether individual or collective, are controlled by prison management. Prisoners are, in fact, not permitted to meet or associate, even though these rights are not taken away at the point of conviction. Some meetings are allowed, but any collective movement, even peaceful, is subject to disciplinary action.

Amnesty International’s 10 Days to Sign (“10jours pour signer”) campaign was organised for the first time in prisons due to the initiative of a prisoner in Melun. More than 600 signatures were collected thanks to the efforts of three prisoners, two association members and an integration and probation officer.

Since the 24 November 2009 Prison Act, prisoners must be consulted with regard to the activities that they are offered. The legislation leaves a very wide margin for facility managers (for example, this consultation may come in the form of simple questionnaires or meetings with prisoners chosen by management or appointed by the prisoners themselves). This obligation has yet to materialise and has not yet met EU recommendations.

Corentin Durand conducted a study on free speech in prisons, which was published in December 2017. He points out that most of the collective free speech experiments carried out in the form of regular meetings between prisoner representatives and prison authorities “were, for the most part, short-lived”. He notes that these experiments only resulted in questionnaires that, again, “prevent prisoners from expressing themselves”.

In-house newsletters are sometimes available, but they rarely mention prisoners’ concerns. L’Echo d’Arcy was launched in early 2017 at Bois d’Arcy Prison. Written by prisoners as part of their press workshop, the first issue recommended a sports regime to follow while inprison, gave recipes and provided information on how to vote while in detention.

Internal video channels make it possible to broadcast information relating to a facility. In 1 January 2017, 46 prisons had their own internal video channel.

Prisoners’ rights to self-expression are curtailed. Prison request forms (to meet with a probation officer, see a doctor, request employment, contact loved ones, etc.) must be completed in writing and submitted to the relevant authorities. Once sent, the request forms are not always easily traced, and responses, if received at all, are not sent on time and are often terse.

Prison environments are not conducive to personal interactions, and staff are not always trained to deal with requests.

Sometimes prisoners get involved in prison activities as volunteers, assisting in sport activities or servingas part of theprisonersupport programme. The latter are considered to be part of the suicide prevention programme.

According to the Ministry of Justice, there were 684 collective movements in prison in 2015 and 741 in 2016.

These movements usually protest against prison conditions or how poorly the prisons are run. Protests can take the shape of refusing to return from walks, refusing to eat meals, or protesting in the workshops. Any collective action constitutes an offence and members may have to appear before a committee and face disciplinary action.

Specialised regional response teams (équipes régionales d’intervention spécialisées (ERIS)) comprised 332 officers in December 2016. Their role is to re-establish and maintain order in the event of individual or collective action. In 2016, they conducted 2,026 assignments, 48 of which were responses to collective protest movements.

Several riots broke out in 2017. In July, some thirty prisoners at Baumettes Prison refused to return from their walk. Their demands concerned the frequency of their walks, ongoing problems with the canteen service, and general prison conditions. Inside Bourg-en-Bresse Prison, 20 prisoners set fire to mattresses and rubbish bins in October 2017. Tensions arose mainly due to poor laundry conditions and a judge imposing “harsh” sentences.

Trials for those involved in riots at Valence Prison were held in March 2017. The offences took place the previous autumn in the new prison’s wing for offenders with long sentences. The first riot occurred in September. The prisoners refused to return to their cells, destroyed equipment and set fire to mattresses. The three perpetrators were sentenced to two years in prison without parole. The second riot occurred two months later, in November. No one was hurt, and the two perpetrators were sentenced to five years in prison. One of the accused took advantage of the situation to denounce the dehumanising and ultra-secure conditions of a prison that had only opened a few months earlier.

Security is all-pervasive in prison, from body searches to disciplinary sanctions and the full range of control and surveillance systems (video-surveillance, telephone tapping, wiretapping the visiting rooms, mail censorship, etc.).

— Searches

The law allows body searches, whether full or not, if there is a presumption that an offence has been committed or where a person’s behaviour may pose a risk to the security/safety of others or of the prison.

The 24 November 2009 Prison Act allows body searches only as an exceptional measure if other means of control (patting, electronic screening) are not sufficient. These principles are not applied, as they are vehemently opposed by some of the prison officers’ unions. Internal body examinations are banned unless express justification is provided. They must be carried out by a doctor. Since June 2016, naked searches may be carried out in accordance with general guidelines determining where and when they can be conducted, irrespective of any arrangements in place for individual prisoners.

In February 2017, the Human Rights Defender (Défenseur des droits) recommended disciplinary proceedings against the former governor of Fresnes prison. In spite of several court decisions ordering the suspension of systematic full body searches of those leaving the visiting rooms, the governor has not made any changes in prison practice.

Several lawyers, organisations, and prisoners have condemned naked body searches carried out on people visiting a relative or friend at Ajaccio remand centre where a young woman and her baby were subjected to a naked body search during a visit to the prison on the 6 November 2017.

Three mass body searches were conducted between October 2016 and August 2017 at Baie-Mahault prison (Guadeloupe) in which more than 400 weapons were found 1. Faced with this massive find, the state prosecutor (procureur de la République) in Pointe-à-Pitre asked all prisoners to hand over their weapons and promise not to obtain any more, in return for an additional 30-day reduction in their sentences.

** — Disciplinary procedures**

Disciplinary arrangements and procedures are subject to a number of procedural safeguards, such as the presence of a lawyer and the participation of an arbitrator from the disciplinary committee who must be independent of the administration. But they still remain highly arbitrary. The administration often responds to violence and conflicts with solitary confinement even though less harsh penalties are available (warning, cell confinement, ban on taking part in activities).

In 2017, the Human Rights Defender supported the use of video-surveillance on several occasions in cases of disciplinary proceedings against prisoners. The first decision concerned a person who had contested a 10-day penalty in a disciplinary cell after an altercation with a warden. The Human Rights Defender pointed out that the warden’s version of the facts did not match the images on the video surveillance camera and that the warden’s reaction was out of proportion to the attitude of the prisoner. He recommended to take disciplinary action against the warder and to review the penalty imposed on the prisoner.

In a second decision, the Human Rights Defender put forward several recommendations to guarantee that prisoners have access to video recordings: save video surveillance data for six months in a special incident file; ensure that refusals to access video-protection data are based on verifiable objective information; provide avenues of appeal against these refusals and make it possible for videos to be shown at disciplinary hearings.

** — Radicalisation**

In 2017 “radicalisation” remained a top issue in prisons. Almost 1,150 prisoners were considered to be “radicalised” (1.7 % of prisoners). On the 1 January 2017, 390 people were in prison for incidents relating to Islamic terrorism and the number continued to increase over the year.

The radicalisation assessment quarters announced in 2016 opened their doors in February 2017, with the first one in Osny remand centre. Five more are to be opened, bringing the total capacity to 120 places. Before being sent to prison, people are placed in these quarters for four months in order to assess how dangerous they are. The idea of grouping them in the same areas of detention, which had been the original intent, was abandoned after much criticism.

The Central Bureau for Prison Intelligence (Bureau central du renseignement pénitentiaire), which opened on the 21 April 2017, offers an additional channel for obtaining prison intelligence. A press release from the Ministry of Justice noted that, while terrorism is a major concern for this new entity, its purpose is to fight organized crime and enhance prison security. Around 3,000 people are under surveillance throughout France.

Two prisoners were investigated in October. They were suspected of preparing an attack from their cells. They had been under surveillance by the intelligence services for several months.

  1. Home-made weapons usually made from pieces of rigid plastic or wood.