Specific population

The number of prisoners on January 2017 was 78,796, compared to 76,601 in 2016 (+2.8%). This included:

  • 68,432 imprisoned (+2.6% more than 2016)
  • 10,364 serving their sentence outside of prison (+4.4% more than 2016)
  • 9,801 under electronic surveillance (+3.9% more than 2016)
  • 563 overseas (+14% more than 2016)

The increase in prison population has been a major phenomenon of the last 40 years. It was especially high between 2002 and 2017: the detained population increased by 40%, from 48,594 to 68,432.

** — Overpopulation**

Prison overpopulation remained a major concern in 2017. The fear of seeing the number of prisoners surpass 70,000 finally became a reality for the first time on 1 April (70,230), followed with 70,018 on 1 July.

The prison overpopulation is a consequence of more severe sentences and longer detentions (an average of 8.4 months in 2002, to 10.6 months in 2014, according to the most recent numbers published) and not due to an increased number of intakes. It is also related to the proportion of persons awaiting sentencing, which represented 28.5% of prisoners on 1 January 2017.

This overpopulation is mainly seen in detention centres, where untried prisoners and people condemned to short sentences are held (map). In theory, these two populations are separated. This overpopulation also affects overseas facilities.

The prison administration only releases a global indicator of overpopulation. This minimizes the extent of the phenomenon because it is based on the overall capacity of the facilities while some of the facilities have vacancies and others are very overpopulated. Publishing the exact number of people exceeding the capacity would be a better reflection of the problem.

On 1 January 2017, there were 14,055 prisoners exceeding the capacity. There were 88 facilities with an incarceration density of over 120%, such as Niort (147%), Nanterre (183.4%) and Basse-Terre (173.8%) detention centres. Four surpass the occupation rate by over 200%: the detention centres of Faa’aNuutania and Nîmes, and the temporary release centre of Gagny.

In 2017, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture published an alarming report. “The situation was of particular concern at Fresnes and Nîmes prisons, where the overcrowding and the lack of activities were compounded by serious problems with heating, damp, and infestations”. The CPT called on the French authorities to take urgent measures to address these problems, which could be considered as inhuman and degrading treatment.

Following this report, the concurrent mobilisation was given further impetus with two press releases, one in April and one in October. They urged candidates for the presidential election to engage in extensive debates on the incarceration policy in order to reduce the prison population.

In 2017, the Council of State admitted on two occasions that it had no jurisdiction after referrals from the International Prison Observatory (OIP-SF) concerning prisons with serious overcrowding problems. It acknowledged that the conditions at Nîmes detention centre expose prisoners to “inhuman or degrading treatment, seriously jeopardizing fundamental freedoms“, but believes that its role is limited to emergency measures, which is not possible in this case. It also refused to give in to the request for an emergency plan for Fresnes prison stating that there is no “obvious illegal infringement of basic freedoms”. Following that decision, a dozen prisoners and their lawyers, supported by the OIP-SF, referred the matter to the European Court of Human Rights to bring charges against the facility. They also hope for a pilot-judgment which will compel France to reform its prison policy.

Villepinte detention centre reached a record occupation rate of 201% in March 2017, causing the facility director to refuse new arrivals; she sent letters to the presiding judges and prosecutors of the courts in Bobigny and Paris, asking that the release of those who are eligible for sentence adjustments be expedited.

A 4 May 2017 decree amended the penal procedure code by specifying the procedural rules on the placement of persons under arrest. From now on, if the conditions for receiving people in the first assigned facilities are not met, for example in case of overpopulation, the prisoner must be transfer to another facility. The prison administration must then inform the judicial authority about the detention centre’s intake capacity and its occupation rate.

On 18 May 2017, the National Human Rights Commission (la Commission nationale consultative des droits de l’homme) stated its position on the prison issue on overseas territory. It pointed out that detention centres, as well as prisons, are seriously overpopulated on overseas territory. This leads to a particularly intense climate of tension and violence. Several recommendations were made, for instance, the implementation of a regulation framework for the prison population, based on numerus clausus.

Pre-trial detainees

28.5 %

/ Prison administration

On 1 January 2017, there were 2,265 female prisoners; or 3.3% of the prison population. The previous January 1, it was 2,147 (+5.5%).

They are dispersed throughout 58 facilities. 2,458 places are reserved for them throughout the system. The female prisoner population density varies from one facility to another.

Most of the women are incarcerated in specific sections of prisons that are mainly for men.

There are three exclusively dedicated facilities: Rennes Penitentiary Centre, Fresnes and Fleury-Mérogis detention centres. The guards are female, but management personnel may be male.

Overpopulation affects female units in some of the detention centres. At sud-francilien de Réau prison, there are 67 women for 89 places, while at Nîmes detention centre there are 51 women for 24 places, that is an occupation rate of 213%.

A statement by the CGLPL on 18 February 2016 identified the main issueswhich women face in detention: maintaining family ties is made difficult by a disparate mailing system throughout the facilities, a more complicated individualized detention management, a very limited choice of feminine hygiene products (tampons or sanitary napkins, personal toiletry soap…), limited access to semi-custodial regime, and common equipment and activities due to the strict separation rule.

In its 2017 report, the White Paper Commission on Prison Premises (Commission du livre-blanc sur l’immobilier pénitentiaire) recommended implementing mixed activities in detention, as a result of the positive reports from several trials. For example, at Lille-Loos-Sequedin Prison, a newsletter is published five times per year by an editorial committee made up of female and male prisoners.

During the summer of 2017, women at Rennes Prison informed to the OIP-SF that there were new rules on clothing. The prison direction issued a reminder about the ban, “subject to disciplinary action”, on several types of clothes, such as the djellaba, shorts above the knees and t-shirts that “are cut low showing the breasts and bared arms”. One woman said that she had to wear leggings because her dress came above her knees and another said that some of them were forced to change during Ramadan, while they only go out to break their fast.

— Maternity in detention

Women who give birth during their incarceration may keep their child with them until 18 months of age. Some facilities have nursery units, with few places, to house pregnant women or mothers incarcerated with their child. The cells contain specific equipment: bathtubs and a separate space for mother and child. Pregnant women or mothers in prison may request a suspended sentence for family reasons. The number of women benefitting from this measure is unknown. In spite of the measures implemented to ensure that pregnant prisoners receive adapted medical care (obligatory prenatal follow-up, the provision of prison escorts for medical procedures), gynaecological exams, and sometimes deliveries, are done with the presence of prison staff. This situation sometimes leads to the refusal of care.

There are some sixty children born during their mothers’ incarceration every year. Around thirty facilities have nurseries.

The White Paper Commission on Prison Premises recommends: “The detention centre building program be permitted to systematically accept mothers with children under 18 months of age. The situation of children admitted to the centre should also be improved, especially in terms of their living space and access to care”.

Number of specific institutions for women


/ Prison administration

Female prisoners

3.3 %

/ Prison administration

Children may be incarcerated from the age 13. Their imprisonment remains exceptional below 16 years.

Under the Act of 2 February 1945, children and young people under 18 are subject to a special justice system. The Juvenile Judge, Juvenile Court, and the Assize Court for minors follow a different process than those for adults (taking into account the mitigation of responsibility, closed door hearings, etc.). Minors cannot be sentenced for life, except under extraordinary circumstances.

On January 2016, there were 708 children in confinement. On January 2017, there were 758 (+7%). This number represents 1.1% of prisoners.

On 22 June 2017, several associations and trade unions signed a press release to denounce the significant rise in the number of incarcerated minors: as of 1 June, 851 were in confinement (+16.2% more than in October 2016). This increase is the largest since 2002, the year of the opening of education centres (CEF) ─which had led to a considerable decrease of incarcerated minors ─. The rise in the number of juveniles in prison resulted in an overpopulation situation in certain facilities, such as Nanterre, Baie-Mahault, and Porcheville; the latter surpassed its intake capacity on two occasions this past year.

** — The facilities or sections for minors**

On 1 January 2017, 268 minors were housed in six detention facilities for minors (établissements pénitentiaires pour mineurs (EPM)); the others are dispersed among the 47 juvenile units (quartiers pour mineurs (QM)).

The EPMs are facilities for minors under the age of 18 and have an average capacity for 60 persons, while the QMs are juvenile units into adult facilities. The penitentiary system counts 1,151 places reserved for minors; the average occupancy rate is 66%.

The experience shows that these facilities are difficult to administer once the occupancy rate surpasses 50%.

— Assigning principles

The assignation of the juveniles to the different centres must take into account their interests, such as the place of residence, their education needs, and the proximity to the court in charge of the dossier. The separation of minors from adults is not always effective. Young girls can only be admitted in three EPMs. In 2017, the Judicial Youth Protection Directorate (Direction de la protection judiciaire de la jeunesse (PJJ)) envisaged reducing territorial disparities of the detention centres for young girls.

The detention regime in the QMs needs to be adjusted in order to prevent any contact with adults. Juveniles are usually housed in single cells, but this is not always the case, especially when there is overpopulation.

In April 2017, the National Union of Education and Social Workers (Syndicat national des personnels de l’éducation et du social) reported that, “two adolescents had slept on a mattress on the floor and had to share a 9m² cell with a toilet, which did not allow them any privacy”.

— Supervising

The Judicial Youth Protection (Protection judiciaire de la jeunesse) provides teaching staff to the EPMs and QMs. The other staff members (guards, health) are, in principle, specially trained. Guards assigned to QMs do not always receive specialized training to deal with minors. Prison and teaching staff have reported problems they encounter when there is overcrowding. Schooling is mandatory until age 16, as on the outside.

The detention system in the EPMs is a mixture of repression and education. Group events (cultural and sport activities) are held, and sometimes are deemed to be excessive. Minors are usually housed in single cells.

The CGLPL visited the Orvault EPM in May 2016. The delegation praised the teaching staff. Parents are kept informed about their children situation, and family ties are adequately ensured. It deplores mostly the staff shortage and poor working conditions, “Some of them […] seem burned-out professionally, especially from the unpredictable and impulsive behaviour of the population they deal with”. The situation seemed worse following the cancellation of the training in the supervision of minors, given before being assigned to work at an EPM.

On 13 December 2017, a 16-year-old youth hung himself in his cell at Lavaur (Tarn) EPM; this is the third suicide in the history of EPMs. The first one occurred in 2008, at Meyzieu (Rhône) EPM, the second in 2010, at Orvault (Loire-Atlantique).

Juvenile prisoners

1.1 %

/ Prison administration

The number of foreigners behind bars on 1 January 2017 was 16,029 (compared to 14,690 on 1 January 2015); a significant increase of 9.1% in two years. This percentage includes: 48.8% from Africa, 37.4% from Europe, 8.4% from the Americas, 4.9% from Asia and 0.6 % from other countries.

Even though there is no obligation to group foreigners in specific units, the practice of non-institutional and non-generalized “ethnic sorting” persists. It leads to a division within quarters based on nationality or origin, real or supposed, on the sole criteria of a person skin colour. Some prisoners request to be with a cellmate with whom they can communicate.

** —Inequality in access to rights**

Foreigners are often victims of discrimination when it comes to obtaining work, sentence adjustments and in maintaining family ties, and they are even more vulnerable when they cannot speak French. All requests must be made in writing, which is not always possible for foreign prisoners. In theory, an interpreter must assist them during the entire procedure, including the disciplinary one, but there are not enough interpreters, or they may even be unavailable.

In August 2017, a Polish prisoner contacted La Cimade, an association which provides support to foreign prisoners, asking: *“I need Polish-French dictionaries, please. There are no dictionaries in the library. PS: I am Polish and cannot speak French. It is difficult for me”. *

** — Prison and migration**

Illegal residency is no longer considered an indictable offence per se, but its consequences may be.

The issues associated with the right of residence also contribute to daily stresses of prison life. Incarceration is an obstacle in terms of undertaking the necessary steps, which have become very complicated. The process of obtaining a residency permit requires obligatory meetings in the prefecture. Prisoners are required to apply for temporary absences, which are often not granted. Interviews for asylum seekers may now be carried out inside the prisons with audio-visual methods of communication - complete with all the difficulty that these methods entail, including: lack of confidentiality, mistrust, interpretation, etc. Persons ordered to leave French soil usually benefit from a 48-hour appeal period, but the process for people in detention is complex.

In 2017, the procedures for obtaining a residency permit were relaxed. Emailed responses from the prefectures are sometimes sent directly to the prison intake and probation counsellors or to the correspondents. They indicate whether the person can obtain a residency permit because of the incarceration, or that the request will lead to a deportation process. This phenomenon is emphasized in recent ministerial orders of October 2017: “The deportation of foreigners at the end of their prison sentences must be a priority, regardless of whether they are illegal residents or represents a threat to public order, and calls for the implementation of steps to carry out this measure be implemented at the beginning of their incarceration”.

In December 2017, the OIP-SF, La Cimade and the GISTI published an alarming report on the obstacles faced when contesting the orders received, while in detention, to leave French soil. The conditions of the order and information on their rights, as well as the lack of interpreters, make it difficult for prisoners to understand. The time allotted for notice of appeal is not always sufficient to obtain the necessary legal support. This is compounded by the fact that the makeup of the file is very complex in the context of detention. These findings have led these associations to file a priority inquiry of constitutionality, denouncing the infringement of the right to effective remedy.

La Cimade received correspondence from someone transferred to another facility while in the process of filing papers:* “I would like to ask if we could meet before the 27 October 2017 as I have forms to send you that will expire […], I prepared them almost three months ago and I was supposed to meet with a man who looks after renewing the forms on the prison but unfortunately I was transferred here”.*

Foreign prisoners

23.4 %

/ Prison administration

LGBTI persons cannot be convicted for their sexual orientation or their sexual identity.

** — Assigning inmates to prison**

The assigning of trans inmates to prison is based on their marital status. The adjustment of their daily life is determined, on a case by case basis, by prison staff. They are often placed in isolated quarters for their own safety. Access to work and other activities is difficult, if not impossible. The Fleury-Mérogis Prison has a section reserved exclusively for trans inmates, which usually include between 20 to 30 persons. The ACCEPTESS-T Association provides them with support.

The rules for assigning trans inmates are not always applied. Buzz Feed reported a testimony from a trans inmate : “I asked to be placed with women, and was told ‘No, you haven’t had surgery’”, even though their Argentinean passport indicated female civil status. Another told about having to go back and forth twice between a prison for men and a prison for women. They were finally transferred to a women’s facility after a gynaecological exam. The same report denounces the lack of information and the lack of accommodation for the situation of trans people in prison.

** — Acts of violence**

While in prison, LGBTI person are often victims of homophobic or transphobic acts of violence, including: verbal, physical and sexual assaults.

In August 2017, David and Jonathan, a LGBTI association, published a white paper on homophobic violence in prison from the testimonies of people they were visiting. Their organisation intercedes in prison on behalf of the LGBTI population. Five testimonies were reported over the year.

One was from a 46-year-old prisoner:“Since I entered …, it’s been hell. I don’t know how, but everyone (guards and inmates) knew since I arrived that I am gay and the insults started […] Last week, I had my face smashed in my cell”.

One particularly salient testimony was: in addition to other prisoners being insulting and violent towards them, a female guard had also hurled insults and harassment. It stopped when one of the members of the association reported it to the authorities. This led the young inmate to attempt suicide by jumping from a second-floor window. He suffered multiple fractures and must undergo several operations.

David and Jonathan came up with three proposals to stop the ongoing violence: make the heads of the facilities aware of the situation of LGBTI persons, keep track yearly of homophobic acts and accept in principle the process that an inmate goes through to file a complaint and support that person.

** — Access to health services**

Accessing health services is a major problem. Trans persons do not receive any information on the type of medical care they can get. They receive the same basic medical care as others in the facility.

Les Inrockuptibles reported the situation of a gay and HIV positive prisoner. After having hidden his sexual orientation and illness for several months, a medical file labelled “HIV” was seen by other patients on a consultation table. The next day, he was violently assaulted in the courtyard. Despite his complaint, the assault was never recorded, and the case was closed.

The French Constitution states that “no one should be affected due to their opinions or beliefs, even religious, provided that their presence does not disturb the public order”.

Certain prisoners, notably the Basque and the Corsicans, consider themselves as political prisoners; however, they are not incarcerated for their political opinion, but for the offences they have committed on behalf of those opinions.

In July 2017, there were 73 Basque prisoners, including 15 women, in 21 prisons. On average, they are 630 kilometres from their families.
The administration spreads them throughout different facilities and the maintenance of their Family ties is seriously affected. The Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty (CGLPL) has requested longer visiting time, greater use of family living units and relaxing of the rules around lateness.

In 2017, associations for the defence of Basque prisoners organised a prison tour around France to bring attention to the “system of exception” under which they are living. They dispute the almost systematic refusal of requests for sentence suspension for medical reasons made by Basques who are seriously ill.

The Pèa Corsica Nationalist Coalition won the territorial elections in December 2017. They tried to negotiate family reunification measures for prisoners serving sentences in mainland prisons. All requests have been denied until now. Emmanuel Macron, now president of the Republic, claimed during his election campaign, to be favourable to a case-by-case examination of the files.

As of 1 January 2015, 3,021 prisoners (most recently published figure) were aged 60 or older (4.4% of the total). This constitutes a six-fold increase over 25 years.

** — Prison conditions**

Older prisoners are not divided off into groups in the facilities or into specific units. The facilities are not designed to accommodate them: the pace of daily prison routine and its organisation are sources of anxiety. There appears to be a lack of appropriate activities, limited access to work and little medical care. Doctors have also reported problems with procuring medical equipment. Older prisoners find it difficult to receive human assistance and are often forced to get help from other inmates. In 2017, the OIP-SF conducted a survey on end-of-life in prison, and questioned the sociologist Aline Chassagne : “inmates who are becoming less independent say that they can no longer keep up with prison life, such as work and activities. They also had problems with going for walks. So much so, that prisoners who are sicker and older must get help from the other inmates, or more rarely by carers”. For Catherine Fac, Prison Physician, “Life in prison is made for young people. This is a difficult world requiring physical strength.”

** — Sentence adjustments**

Prisoners at end-of-life can benefit from conditional release. Another sentence adjustment available for medical reasons allows prisoners with a life-threatening prognosis to spend their final days with loved ones. These procedures are not always adopted, mostly, because of the lack of housing upon release.

The Senate report on the cost of prison health care re-iterated social workers are responsible for finding housing upon release, especially in residential care facilities for dependent seniors. In practice, the latter are often reluctant to accept released inmates.

Some seniors have to spend the rest of their days in prison, with personnel who are neither trained nor have the resources to assist them.

** — Inmates with physical disabilities**

Few facilities have adapted structures to house people with disabilities. Some services (visitor parlours, activity rooms) are inaccessible due to lack of elevators and access ramps, for example.

The lack of accessibility in these facilities also affects loved ones who visit and who themselves are disabled.

** — Inmates with mental disabilities**

Mental health can be particularly affected in prison. In August 2017, the Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty (CGLPL) warned about the proportion of inmates with serious psychiatric problems (here). Between 25 to 30% of inmates should not be in prison since, she reiterates: “a prison is not a health care facility”.

Sometime before she had published, a report on the Château-Thierry Prison, which had inmates deemed to be unable to adapt to ordinary detention. The Controller- General reported that the large majority of them have severe and persistent psychotic issues and there are insufficient human resources to treat them.

An inquiry into the mental health of the incarcerated population (here) in the Hauts-de-France region, conducted by the Collaborating Centre of the World Health Organisation (WHO), reported similar results and questioned the health and penal policies

A Doctors of the World experiment is currently being conducted in Marseille to propose an alternative to incarcerating people with psychiatric disorders. This measure is being proposed to the judges for immediate court appearances.

** — Sentence adjustments**

Prisoners who become ill may obtain early release if they have a life-threatening condition, or their health situation is too compromised to remain in prison. There were 238 requests for suspended sentences for medical reasons in 2013 and 207 were granted. The Senate report on the cost of prison health care showed that this measure is not often taken because of the lack of structures to admit people upon their release.

Health care has greatly improved since the 90s (see the dedicated health section), however, there are still some glaring deficiencies.

In December 2016, a male prisoner went for a check-up for a vision problem; the personnel did not take him seriously for several weeks, and when he saw a doctor at the hospital, in February 2017, was told he had a rare disorder leading to progressive vision loss. He had lost 90% of his eyesight; he has since regained some (6/10th) with appropriate treatment, but the prolonged delays caused him some side effects, including an internal ear problem.