Daily life

The law, enacted in 1875 (which was reaffirmed in 2000), provides prisoners with the right to be placed in an individual cell. This law is not respected. There have been many moratoria whilst waiting for the right balance between the number of inmates and number of places.

On the 1st of January 2014, there were 49,681 cells. 3,500 to 4,000 of these cells were less than 8m² in size. There were also 6, 553 shared cells.

On the 1st of January 2015, there were 1,006 inmates who did not have a bed, but instead slept on mattresses on the floor. Three inmates can be found sharing a cell intended for one place, and four inmates can be in a cell for two. Magistrates, parliamentarians and prison administration continue to create situations where several people occupy cells intended for one person.

The cells usually have one chair, one small cupboard per person and one table. The inmates, who share the same cell, complain that their cupboards cannot be locked. All of them complain about the bars that block the cell windows. There are also problems with ventilation and access to proper lighting in old facility cells.

When the OIP-SF reported to the Conseil d’Etat on the prison conditions and overcrowding at the Nîmes Prison it confirmed, on the 30th of July 2015, that inmates are exposed to inhuman or degrading treatment, which seriously contravenes the principle of basic freedom.

Three meals a day are served in the cells at the usual hours. Their quality and quantity are often said to be unsatisfactory.

Inmates in older facilities can also prepare food in their cells, with their own “make-shift” utensils. The more modern prisons have hotplates. They can buy food in canteens, or rent a refrigerator. The prices in “outsourced canteens” are often higher than on the outside. An investigation carried out by an inmate in July 2015 at the Lyon-Corbas Remand Prison, reported that some items can cost up to 57 % more in prison, than outside them. The prison administration makes a special effort to control these prices, when it is the sole provider.

Cultural, religious and dietary practices are, in theory, taken into account, but this does not always happen. Since there is not enough halal food for Muslim prisoners, they ask for the vegetarian menu.

Hygiene is usually considered adequate in the new facilities. The older establishments do not meet the minimal requirements. in spite of renovations that have been made. Maintenance is inadequate. The buildings are infested and the showers are dirty and falling apart.

Inmates are responsible for keeping their own cells clean. The prison administration provides cleaning products, but they are not enough to ensure the cells are fully clean. The administration is only responsible for cleaning the bathrooms. Inmates launder their own clothes, or they depend on their loved ones to bring in clean clothes at visiting times.

Cells are equipped with a sink and toilet (which are now separated from the rest of the cell). Older establishments have common showers. Inmates can shower three times a week. On admission, they receive a toiletry kit (toilet paper, toothpaste, soap, etc.) But their kit does not cover all their needs (particularly sanitary products for women), and they are only replenished an inmate has no income.

At the Digne (Alpes de Haute-Provence) Remand Centre, fifty 30 L garbage bags are allotted monthly to each cell (for up to six occupants), as well as a roll of toilet paper and a container of 120 ml of 3.6% bleach per inmate. A cake of soap is also provided on request.
The facility has a laundry with a professional washer and dryer. This equipment enables staff to wash the inmates’ allocated clothing, their work clothes, the clothes of low-income inmates and those who have no visitors.

Medical care services have been the responsibility of the service public hospitalier (Ministry of Health) since the 18th of January 1994, when it became law. They consist of two components: physical and psychiatric care.

  • Primary care consists of consultations, out-patient services, and ambulatory services. The medical care units (unités sanitaires) provide basic medical care such as consultations and examinations not requiring hospitalization (formerly Unités de consultation et de soins ambulatoires). They exist in almost all establishments, with nurses and general practitioners.
  • Secondary care includes short term hospitalizations. This is meant for patients requiring various tests, individualized and intensive medical care on a one day basis. Treatment for physical ailments is carried out in hospitals; psychiatric care is carried out in the prison medical care units.
  • Tertiary care means full hospitalization. Medical care for physical ailments is provided in special sections at the nearest hospitals (short-stay hospitalizations or emergencies). Longer hospital stays (longer than 48 hours), are in specifically assigned facilities (unité hospitalière sécurisée interrégionale). Psychiatric hospitalizations take place in specially assigned hospital units, with or without consent.

There are:

  • 175 medical care units (unités sanitaires) inside prisons.
  • 8 inter-regional security hospital units (unités hospitalières sécurisées interrégionales-UHSI) within university hospital centres (centres hospitaliers universitaires-CHU). for hospitalizations expected to last longer than 48 hours. These are ; Nancy, Lille, Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse and Marseille, Paris Pitié-Salpêtrière and Rennes. The UHSIs have a total of 181 available beds.
  • 1 National Public Health facility at Fresnes.
  • 26 Regional Medical-Psychological Services (services médico psychologiques régionaux -SMPR) inside 26 prisons.
  • 7 specialized hospital units (unités hospitalières spécialement aménagées-UHSA) within the following hospitals; Lyon, Nancy, Toulouse, Orléans, Paris, Lille and Rennes. They admit patients for psychiatric hospitalizations (with or without consent). Two UHSAs will open in Bordeaux and Marseille in 2016.

According to the prisons, access to medical care units still varies. But, on the whole, accessing basic medical care is satisfactory, in spite of facility constraints (activities at the same times, punishments underway, etc.). The problems most often cited are in maintaining patient confidentiality, and the lack of resources in the medical care units.

Specialist care, particularly by ophthalmologists, dentists, or for chronic diseases, is seriously lacking. There are not enough medical specialists. Appointments have to be made in writing, and it may take several months to obtain one. There is no guarantee of patient confidentiality.

In its urgent recommendation on the 13th of May 2015, the General Inspector of Confinement Centres (CGLPL) referred to violations of patient confidentiality, because of surveillance cameras in medical treatment units. The nurses, who protested the presence of these cameras, were removed from their posts.

The OIP-SF points out that Mohamed D., an inmate at the Clairvaux security prison, who has been in medical care since March 2015, has been a victim of continuous, serious violations of patient confidentiality. X-rays, blood collections and medical consultations are done in front of prison staff, who may be covered up with helmets and anti-riot gear inside the treatment centres. During their consultations, patients also have their hands handcuffed behind their back. These measures are taken against the advice of health staff.

On the 15th of July 2015, a press release by the OIP revealed that during the last part of 2014, at least 300 requests for dental appointments in the Bourg-en-Bresse Penitentiary were not followed up. The reason was due to a lack of human and material resources allocated to the prison health units, as well as the problem of finding dental surgeons to perform work in a prison environment. One of the dentists at the facility indicated that there are no replacements for their assistants, in cases of absences or holidays.

In a report from July 2015, the CGLPL pointed out that many medical procedures planned for inmates in health care facilities were either cancelled or delayed, because of the lack of escort guards. The report particularly addressed the medical procedures, patient confidentiality, and the conditions of their hospital stays, especially in security rooms. There is also mention of a sheet of metal covering the entire bay window of the security rooms, in the Mulhouse hospital. Sometimes there is no furniture. There is no outdoor walking space for inmates who are patients at the UHSI of the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. Patient confidentiality is not respected, and the use of constraints is still problematic.

Prisoners can take part in activities. The range of activities offered to prisoners varies from one institution to another. Since 2009, they have to engage in at least one.

Access to the exercise yard is a right (usually 1 hour 30 minutes per day).

Available activities are not enough to cover the prisoners’ needs. The prison administration estimates the average activity time is one hour per day per prisoner, with all activities combined (excluding recreational walks). Activities are not organized outside of working hours, or on weekends. Registration criteria is not transparent, and is subject to approval by the prison administration. Practical constraints such as the lack of rooms, budget shortfalls and miscommunication, sometimes prevent activities from taking place. Similar observations have been made in regards to sporting activities.

It is often difficult for prisoners to know what activities are being offered. For example, at the Roanne detention centre, activities are only posted on single sheet of paper.

The OIP-SF noted in April 2016, that the range of activities proposed are limited, and are insufficiently oriented towards prisoner release. The Carcassonne remand prison (with an occupancy rate of 190%) only offers three types of activities: traffic code, the library and first aid.

Each establishment has a library. They are attached to city or district libraries. There are few books in foreign languages, and opening hours are too restricted (21 hours per week on average).

Prison work can take three main forms:

  • General service: this refers to all jobs related to the running of the prison (maintenance, the cooking or distribution or meals and the cleaning of collective living spaces).

  • Production workshops of the Correctional Facility Industrial Organization (RIEP) are managed by the Department of Prison Employment (SEP). This department organizes the production of goods and services by prisoners, and their commercialization (IT, desktop publishing, printing, carpentry, manufacturing, metalworking and agriculture…). 1200 prisoners work in 48 workshops, located in 27 institutions. Annual revenue (excluding taxes) is 22.8 million Euros. Six million Euros are paid in wages.

  • Private contractors: prisoners work for private companies, who set up workshops in prisons. Work often consists of simple manual tasks, such as envelope stuffing or packaging).

Prisoners can also be self-employed or work for a non-profit organization.

All the work mentioned above employs only one quarter of prisoners.

Labour laws, for the most part, are not applied in prison, as there is no minimum wage or work contract. Daily wages and piece rate work prevail in prison workshops. Provisions of the law (enacted on the 24th of November 2009) are still not fully applied, which leaves the prison administration with immense powers.

Prisoners working for private manufacturing companies or for the Department of Prison Employment (SEP), should earn a gross hourly wage equal to 45% of the SMIC (French minimum wage) (4.32€ on the 1st of January 2015). The rate varies in general service depending on the job classification; 33% of the SMIC for a class I position (3.17 € on the 1st of January 2015), 25% for a class II position (2.40 euros on the 1st of January 2015), and 20% for a class III position (1.92 euros on the 1st of January 2015).

Despite the help from 375 academics and a large network of non-profit organizations, the Constitutional Council ruled on the 25th of September 2015, that the lack of a legal framework for prison work was not against the rights and liberties guaranteed by the French Constitution.

The CGLPL commented on this decision (in French): “Without disregarding the necessary constraints related to detention, it is abnormal that under the rule of law prisoners who work are not guaranteed rights regarding working time, work safety, social security. (…)

Detainees working

25 %

In general, the prison population suffers from a low level of education. Almost one prisoner out of four (22%) fails at reading tests, almost one prisoner out of two has no degree (43.5%) and over three-quarters do not have an education level above a vocational training certificate (76%). Actions have been taken to prevent illiteracy, but not in a systematic manner.

General training in prison is under the authority of the Ministry of National Education, and Professional Training and has been delegated to regions since the 1st of January 2015. In 2014, a quarter of prisoners have been sent to school and 22,514 prisoners have undergone professional training.

Barriers related to prison operations, lack of funds, equipment and staff have largely limited prisoner access to training and schooling. Available schooling opportunities are drifting apart from the requirements of the outside society.

Access to information, such as newspapers or television is guaranteed, but its is subject to the security of institutions. Informational services are available for a fee. Some local daily newspapers are released for free, by their editor.

Access to the Internet is forbidden in prison despite several experimentations. Access to computers, because of an individuals’ request or as part of training, turns out to be insufficient. It is also subject to security requirements set by institutions. The gap between the limitations set by the prison administration and technological changes, is staggering.

The principle of secularism guarantees freedom of religion.

The chaplaincy staff includes chaplains who are either paid, volunteering or are volunteer assistant chaplains. On the 1st of January 2015, there were 1628 chaplaincy staff including 453 paid chaplains, 972 volunteer chaplains and 203 volunteer assistant chaplains.

Breakdown by religion is the following: 760 chaplaincy staff for Roman Catholicism, 377 for Protestantism, 193 for Islam, 111 for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, 75 for Judaism, 52 for Orthodox Christianity, 10 for Buddhism and 50 for other religions.

Catholic & Protestants chaplains make up more than half of the paid chaplains. Muslim chaplains make up about a third.

Large inequalities exist, in terms of means between religions. Pay is different between religions, regardless of whether chaplaincy staff are in short term positions or their pay is supplemented by a church. There is also a difference between authorizations which are granted to certain religions. . This results in challenges to the practice of some religions, especially Islam or those which require regular observance.

The requirements of spiritual life are not always fulfilled. Prisoners are not always allowed to keep religious objects with them. Few institutions offer food in compliance with ritual requirements.

Religious practices are not always held in adequate and well-equipped places. In particular, the oldest institutions do not have adequately equipped places. Services can be interrupted because of time limits imposed on them. Moreover, many services are significantly delayed to begin with, because of circumstances which are outside of the control of the prisoners.

Actions performed by outside social workers are diverse: visitations, sport, culture, religion, teaching, material support and legal support. Some actions take place outside of the institutions: welcoming family and relatives for visitation, actions aimed at exiting prisoners (reintegration into the job market and accommodation).

Outside social workers are mostly volunteers.

The prison administration have set up contracts with 21 associations at a national level, in various areas; legal counsel, visitation, health prevention, rehabilitation, etc. Most contracts come with financing agreements under the form of an annual subsidy, where the amount changes from one year to the next.

The network of associations is also densely developed at the local level. Almost every institution benefits from an association network, which operates within it. An agreement can be made with the relevant prison institution.

The number of social workers varies wildly from one city to another. Geographic isolation of some prisons can make the involvement of outsiders a difficult task.

A registry lists associations operating within or around prisons (French only).

Incarceration represents a financial hit for prisoners (a loss of a salary and minimum welfare benefits), but also for their families and relatives (money transfers, visitations, etc.). The prison population is mostly poor.

Financial management is performed by the administration, which opens a “nominative account” for each person. Each month, earned money (as a result of a money transfer or work) is divided between what is available to the prisoner, savings kept for release and compensation for plaintiffs, if applicable.

The prison administration can decide to allocate a certain amount of money to, so-called, ‘destitute people’. The penal code defines these as “persons without sufficient means”, based on the resources in their nominative account. The threshold is set at 50€ per month. Aid can be heterogeneous, from one institution to another. It is primarily dispensed in kind (clothing, renewal of toiletry items), but it can also be given in cash. Financial aid to destitute people can sometimes depend on local charities.

Prisoner speech, either individual or collective, is subject to the control of the prison administration. Prisoners are de facto deprived of the freedom of assembly and association, without these rights being taken away by their criminal conviction. Any kind of collective organization, even peaceful, is still subject to disciplinary sanctions.

Since the enactment of the 2009 prison law, prisoners must be consulted (by way of surveys or meetings, for instance) about the activities that are available to them. This requirement is still struggling to become a reality, and remains well below levels recommended by the European Union.

Internal newspapers are sometimes published, but they rarely mention the concerns of prisoners. The interval video channel (which can broadcast institutional news), when broadcast, can be used for informational purposes.

Individual expression of prisoners is difficult. Requests related to detention, such as seeing probation staff, physicians, asking for work or contacting relatives, must always be presented in writing and sent to whoever it may concern. Their traceability is not always well identified. Answers may not always given, or given in time, and can often not be explicit enough.

Correctional facilities do not facilitate interactions well. Staff are not always trained to receive requests.

Prisoners are sometimes associated with certain aspects of life in detention, most of the time on the basis of volunteering. For instance, they can become assistant sport coaches or “support inmates”. The latter are consulted as part of the design and implementation of the suicide prevention plan.

In 2014, the prison administration accounted for 679 collective actions, including 44 which required the intervention of Special Forces whose action is limited to use of force. Figures for 2015 have not yet been released. Regional Specialized Intervention Teams (ERIS) are made up of 313 officers, and are involved in enforcing prison rules in instances of collective or individual actions.

Collective protests usually aim at denouncing detention conditions or institutional malfunctions. This can involve refusals to leave the exercise yard, refusing food trays or gathering en masse in the workshops.

189 prisoners from the Rémire-Montjoly (Guyane) jail refused, on the 16th of June 2015, to go back to their cells at the end of yard time. In a petition, they protested about “a slow justice system, lack of activities, unhealthy facilities, deplorable hygiene and nutrition, but also problems accessing health care. They also protested about the harassment by prison guards…”.

The law allows for full or partial body searches, justified by the presumptions of violations or by risks to personal or institutional safety, because of a person’s behaviour. The 2009 prison law only allows searches in extraordinary circumstances, when other means of control (frisking, electronic detection) have proved insufficient. In practice, it is a struggle to fully apply these principles. They have been met with vigorous opposition from some of the prison guard unions. Body cavity searches are forbidden except for imperatives with special justifications, subject to the decision of the prison guards.

The disciplinary system and its procedures, even if some procedural guarantees exist, still remains largely discretionary. The prison administration often responds to violence and tensions by using repression (transfer to a disciplinary cell, otherwise known as “mitard”), even if less coercive punishments exists (warning, suspension of activities).

After the Paris attacks in January 2015, units dedicated to so-called “radicalized” persons have been created in four prisons, with a total capacity of 117 prisoners.Public officials assess that 1500 prisoners are susceptible to terrorist radicalization , in the name of a destructive Islamist ideology. 15% of those would have been radicalized in prison.

Lawyers, associations or administrative authorities have expressed criticism about gathering together “radicalized” prisoners.

Indeed, the CGLPL writes, in a notice published in July 2016: “ Gathering of radicalized prisoners in dedicated quarters, announced by the Prime Minister in January 2015, present risks which do not appear to have been taken into account, especially with prisoners with wildly different levels of engagement in the radicalization process living together. Challenges related to the identification of targeted persons remain, despite a review of solutions which have recently been started by the prison administration.The gathering of prisoners in dedicated quarters does not fall under any existing legal provision, this sui generis regime is not affiliated with regular detention, nor with disciplinary confinement.“