Contact with the outside world

Everyone, whether on remand or convicted, has the right to visits from family members and friends. Visitors must obtain a permit and make an appointment by telephone or online. Requests for a visiting permit may be refused, and an appeal procedure was introduced in May 2016.

Prisoners on remand are entitled to three visits per week, and convicted prisoners are allowed one visit a week. Each facility sets its own days and hours. In general, a visit may last between 30 and 45 minutes in remand centres, one hour in prisons and several hours in high-security prisons. Visits can take place in common rooms or individual cubicles.

Some prisons have family parlours and family visit units (unités de vie familiale (UVF)), which are made available to prisoners at least once every three months as a general rule. The length of the visit depends on the distance the visitor has to travel. Family parlours measure 12 to 15 m² and are closed to allow privacy and intimacy. Prisoners (whether on remand or convicted) can receive visitors for a maximum of six hours. The UVFs are two- to three-room apartments, allowing longer family visits of 6 to 72 hours. Because there are so few, the administration puts those who are eligible on a waiting list, thus reducing the effectiveness of the mechanism. Yet new UVFs are sometimes left unused for several months after they have been constructed.

As of 1 January 2017 most prisons did not have family parlours or UVFs : 71 family parlours exist in 21 prisons and 120 UVFs are in use in 37 prisons. Reception areas for families awaiting parlour visits are set up near the prisons and are run by private organisations and/or service providers. Other organisations focus on maintaining contact between incarcerated parents and their children, and, if necessary, they escort them to the parlours.

The inaccessibility of prisons often makes it difficult to maintain family contact. The cost of travel, the remoteness of some prisons and the lack of public transport constitute real barriers.

The arrangements for mandatory searching of prisoners and their family members and friends are also an obstacle, causing some prisoners to refuse visits in order to spare their visitors the ordeal. Contact with children is another difficult issue. Some people prefer not to let them know about their situation. According to a 2014 study, two out of three parents said that “some, or all, of their children were aware that they were in prison” and half of them said that they never saw their children.

Family members and friends are not always informed about visiting protocols. Difficulties are routinely observed: computer errors, defective equipment, prisoner transfers.

Family visits do not always go well. During a workshop on the rights and responsibilities of parents in prison held in November 2017, one man complained that officers would not let him see his son’s exercise book so that he could follow the boy’s schoolwork. Some families also complained about the excesses of some of the wardens: “Visitors are humiliated, often young women with young children. Wardens speak roughly and aggressively, as though we are the prisoners”.

If they provide justification for their request, prisoners may ask to be transferred in order to be nearer their families. The request must be addressed to the prison governor and the procedure is lengthy.

Basque and Corsican prisoners are often placed in prisons far from home, so their families are forced to travel long distances to visit them. They estimate that the journey takes an average of 7.5 hours one way. On the 9 June 2017, the Paris administrative court (tribunal administratif de Paris) overturned a decision refusing to transfer a Basque prisoner from Tarascon to Mont-de-Marsan, more than 800 km from his family. The court ruled that the decision infringed his right to maintain family ties: it was difficult for his father, partner, and young child to visit. The court pointed out there was no proof that he was more likely to escape from the second prison.

Prisoners are permitted to correspond freely by mail. In theory, they are supposed to be given a “correspondence kit” when they arrive in prison consisting of paper, envelopes and a pen. They pay for their own stamps. Sending and receiving mail is the responsibility of a duly authorised post clerk.

Incoming and outgoing mail may be read, with the exception of correspondence with:

  • certain independent administrative authorities (Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty (CGLPL)), The Human Rights Defender, chair of the National Commission on Information Technology and Freedoms (Commission nationale informatique et libertés), chair of the Commission on Access to Administrative Documents (Commission d’accès aux documents administratifs), etc.);
  • some judicial authorities (Council of State, General Secretariat of the Council of Europe, president and members of the Court of Justice of the European Union, etc.) ;
  • chaplains;
  • lawyers. Prisons may hold back mail for security purposes. There is little information available on this form of control. Untried prisoners’ mail is sent to the judicial authority.

Confidential mail is often opened and read. Prisoners are allowed to make a limited number of telephone calls to a restricted list of numbers approved in advance by the administration, but they are not permitted to receive telephone calls. Untried prisoners must receive authorisation from the judicial authority. Conversations may be tapped, except for those with the Human Rights Defender, the Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty (Contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté), lawyers, humanitarian centres ((CASP/ARAPEJ helpline (Protestant Social Welfare Centre which now incorporates the Association for Reflection and Action on Prisons and Justice), the Red Cross Prisoners’ Helpline (Croix-Rouge Écoute les Détenus) etc.).

It is still difficult to access a telephone. The booths located in the recreation yards and in hallways, and the phone stations are not available outside working hours, and there is hardly ever any privacy. High call charges are another barrier, especially for calls to overseas territories and to foreign countries.

According to the 2017 report of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) “the high cost of telephone calls was mentioned in all establishments that were visited, and even more so in Condé-sur-Sarthe prison. Some of the managers we met acknowledged the high cost, particularly for calls to mobile phones and calls out of the country.” In a press release on the 9 October 2017, International Prison Observatory (OIP) reported that the governor of Meaux-Chauconin prison does not authorize prisoners to call the organisation and the Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty (Contrôleure générale des lieux de privation de liberté (CGLPL)) repeated its recommendation that “prisoners must be authorised to contact the organisation if they wish to do so”.

Mobile phone use, although strictly forbidden, is a constant feature of prison life and leads to trafficking and many disciplinary sanctions.

The authorisation of mobile phones in prison came up for discussion again at the end of the summer of 2017. When 19,339 mobile phones and accessories were discovered early in 2017, many people pointed out their importance for maintaining family ties or for emergency purposes. The French section of International Prison Observatory (Observatoire international des prisons (OIP SF)*) *obtained a testimonial from the mother of a prisoner contemplating suicide: *“if I had not been able to talk to him that night, he would have topped himself”. *

In August 2017, the Minister for Justice announced that the installation of landlines in prison cells was being studied following an experiment conducted at Montmédy prison in 2016.

On 1 January 2017, there were 1,861 people serving probationary sentences (penal constraint). 429 prisoners were released under constraint, but were still serving their sentence out of prison (no data available on other types of release under constraint).

According to the Act, sentences can be adjusted while they are being served, on the basis of the prisoner’s behaviour. Certain sentence adjustments are automatic, as are certain sentence reductions. But these may be overturned by the sentencing judge. Others are subject to specific conditions, such as conditional release (liberation conditionnelle (LC)), electronic surveillance (placement sous surveillance électronique (PSE)), day parole (semi-liberté (SL)), supervised outside placement (placement extérieur (PE)) or even the recently introduced release under constraint (libération sous contrainte). Each of these measures has its own particular procedure.

Sentence adjustments are made by the sentence enforcement body. Decisions are based mainly on the existence of employment, housing, vocational training and family ties.

The changes made to the rules for allotting places in emergency housing in 2016 make it difficult for people who are putting together a conditional release application to find housing prior to release. In the Paris region people who are homeless or have no one to stay with cannot benefit from conditional release.

Ad hoc adjustments are possible for two specific groups: those who are seriously ill and pregnant women. Detention may be avoided under certain conditions according to a specific procedure, known as suspension of sentence.

The 15 August 2014 Act provides for non-custodial sentences and for release under constraint. A non-custodial sentence is used as an alternative to imprisonment and release under constraint is a way of making gradual release the norm. These two measures are slow to be implemented.

In September 2017, Citoyens et Justice published a white paper on sentencing alternatives to incarceration, sentence adjustments and community integration after release from prison. The organisation made 79 recommendations to improve these measures.
On grounds of preventive detention, someone may continue to be held after completing a sentence if he/she is deemed to be dangerous. In his July 2017 report on prison health expenditure, Senator Antoine Lefèvre pointed out that the secure health and welfare centre (Centre socio-médico-judiciaire de sûreté) which occupies a whole floor of Fresnes prison hospital “has housed only about a dozen people since 2008, was heavily criticized by the Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty (Contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté) and was completely empty during his visit”.

A prison’s internal regulations are, in theory, available to prisoners. In practice, a full copy is generally kept in the library and is sometimes hard to obtain. An extract from the document is often given to prisoners when entering prison, and from time to time is posted on the walls. Nevertheless, it is often out of date or incomplete, in spite of the considerable work on updating it to bring it into line with the Prison Act.
On 1 January 2017 there were legal assistance advice centres in 158 prisons. Their staff is qualified to intervene on all kinds of legal issues, with the exception of those relating to the prisoner’s sentence itself. The structure varies enormously, both in terms of organisation (available once a day, once a week, or once a month) and in terms of independence.

Prisoners and their family members and friends may call a number to obtain information on legal and social issues. Calls are free, anonymous and confidential, and can be made from all prisons (99#110) and from outside ( The platform is run by the CASP/ARAPEJ organisation and is open Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Figures for the number of complaints against the administration are not easy to obtain (pressure, problems accessing the procedure, lack of statistics). Complaints are made mainly through civil rights organisations such as the French section of International Prison Watch (OIP-SF) and specialist lawyers who came together in 2015 in an association of lawyers defending prisoners’ rights (Association des Avocats pour la défense des droits des détenus (A3D)). The OIP-SF listed the prisons which have been deemed by the French courts or the European Court on Human Rights to be “exposing prisoners to inhuman and degrading treatment”. They numbered 36 in November 2017.

Prisoners keep the right to vote unless it has been removed by a judicial authority as part of their sentence. There are no ballot boxes in prison during elections, but prisoners may vote by proxy or may request leave to go to a polling station. In practice, permission is rarely granted and the right to vote is rarely exercised.

4 % of prisoners voted in the 2012 presidential elections. The Robin des Lois organisation conducted a campaign from November 2016 to the spring of 2017 to have polling stations in prisons and to make the right to vote easier in the 2017 presidential and legislative elections. The Paris administrative court turned down the organisation’s application to make it compulsory for the government to install ballot boxes in prisons. None were provided.

The French National Preventive Mechanism is the Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty (Contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté (CGLPL)). It was created by the 30 October 2007 Act, after France ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. The first Controller-General was appointed in the summer of 2008.

The CGLPL is an independent administrative authority whose role is to ensure that persons deprived of their liberty are treated humanely and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. It ensures a fair balance between respect for basic rights and the maintenance of public order.

Adeline Hazan was appointed head of this administrative authority in July 2014 for a period of six years. She cannot be removed during her term of office nor can she serve a second term. Her team consists of:

  • a secretary-general and three assistants;
  • 16 full-time inspectors;
  • 27 external agents who act as inspectors, occasionally or on a continuous basis;
  • 13 staff members assigned to the services and to the referral centres. Staff of the referral centres act as inspectors.

The CGLPL may visit prisons throughout French territory at any time. It has wide discretion in how the visits are conducted and it publishes a report and recommendations. The CGLPL may also be asked to investigate any infringement of the basic rights of prisoners and any issue regarding conditions in the prison. Complaints may be submitted by prisoners, their family members and friends, an organisation, prison staff or public authorities. The CGLPL may also initiate its own investigations. Submissions are sent by mail only to:

Mme La Contrôleure générale des lieux de privation de liberté
CS 70048
75 921 Paris Cedex 19.

Human rights organisations maintain ongoing contact with this highly regarded body.

In 2016, inspectors visited 26 prisons and visits averaged 6.19 days each. During the CGLPL’s 9 years in operation, 263 prison visits have been conducted. In 2016 alone, the CGLPL received 2,877 complaints about prisons. Most of them came from prisoners and their family members and friends, and were mainly about transfers, physical conditions, prisoner/staff relations, access to medical care and contact with the outside.

Ms Hazan has made four recommendations and issued five public opinions since she was appointed.

** — Other external inspection bodies**

The office of the Human Rights Defender (Défenseur des droits) is another inspection body. It intervenes in prisons in pursuit of its four missions: fighting discrimination, defending children’s rights, relations with the administration, and security ethics. Its representatives operate within the prisons. Prisoners and their family members and friends may refer complaints to the Human Rights Defender.

By the end of 2016, 146 representatives were active, each dealing with one or more prisons. That means one representative per 466 prisoners, with a representative being available in 168 of France’s 185 prisons.

Parliamentarians have the right to visit and may be accompanied by journalists.

The 15 June 2000 Act allows parliamentarians (deputies and senators) to visit prisons at any time without notice. The 2009 Prison Act extended the same visiting right to the French members of the European Parliament. “According to the 2015 prison administration’s key figures, 74 of the 999 parliamentarians in the French and European parliaments (only 7.4% of them) visited prisons in 2014”. Visits were conducted throughout the entire territory in 2017. In September, a member of the lower house visited Perpignan prison at the invitation of one of the prison officers’ unions and another made an unannounced visit to Nancy prison.
In October, several members of the France Insoumise party from the lower house visited prisons. In November, some thirty members of the Law Commission exercised their right to make simultaneous visits throughout France, an unprecedented initiative by its chair. In early December, a member of the lower house visited Meaux-Chauconin prison. On several occasions parliamentarians were accompanied by journalists who published a number of press articles. The parliamentarians reported their own findings.

The prison evaluation board (conseil d’évaluation des établissements) and the prison inspectorate (inspection des services pénitentiaires) also conduct visits. Every prison has an evaluation board made up of the prefect, senior representatives from the department (département) (lawyers, mayors, etc.) and members of civil society (chaplains, organisation representatives), and it assesses the prison’s operations and suggests improvements. The board’s activities appear to be minimal.

Lastly, the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) have the power to visit detention centres in France in order to assess how prisoners are treated.

In April 2017 France finally agreed to publish the latest CPT report which it received in 2016, following the CPT’s visit to four prisons in 2015. The report pointed to poor detention conditions which, when combined with overcrowding and lack of activities, could be “considered as inhuman and degrading treatment”.

Thirteen organisations signed a press release calling for France to agree to automatic publication of CPT reports in the future, as many other member states of the Council of Europe have done.