The penitentiary system

On the 1st of January 2015 there were; 188 prisons, 91 remand prisons (maisons d’arrêt), 88 sentencing facilities (établissements pour peines) (including 6 security prisons (maisons centrales) and 11 day parole centres (centres de semi-liberté), 6 prisons for juveniles and 3 national assessment centres (one at Fresnes). Women are separated from men, and juveniles from adults.

There are 57,841 (+ 0.6 % since 2014) “operational” places (number of available detention places in the prisons).

There are three types of prisons:

  • remand prisons (maisons d’arrêt) are for people awaiting sentencing or with short sentences (less than two years).

  • detention centres (centres de détention) are for people with medium to long term sentences, who are preparing for their release

  • security prisons (maisons centrales), are maximum security facilities for people serving long sentences.

An increasing number of facilities, known as centres pénitentiaires, include two of the above three establishments in specific quarters. They are criticized for the strict restrictive conditions they apply to all prisoners. Establishment size varies greatly, from fewer than 30 places (MA de Montluçon, 21 places) to about 3,000 (Fleury-Mérogis, the largest one in Europe with 2,857 places, but 4,014 inmates).

The smallest establishments are the oldest. These are listed to be demolished, as they are too costly to maintain (the Auxerre and Cherbourg jails, built in 1853 and 1862).

Three new facilities were opened in 2015 (5 in 2014); Bois d’Arcy Day Parole Centre (60 places), Beauvais Penitentiary (594 places) and Valence Penitentiary (456 places). MA Majicavo is in the process of building an additional building (2nd phase, with 161 places in total). These are all larger, with increased security, located further away from towns or cities, and are equipped with more sophisticated electronic surveillance. By the end of 2015, the number of prisons in France was down by one, but the number of places increased by 720. This explains the increasing size of new facilities.

The construction and management of these new facilities are shared with the private sector. On the 1st of January 2015, 54 facilities were under public private partnership (PPP). They admit more than half of the prisoners in France. The private sector is responsible for meals, accommodations, vocational training, work opportunities and maintenance. The Administration is responsible for management, security, prisoner registry and follow-up documentation, and probation and re-integration services.

Even though Public/Private Partnerships (PPPs) have some advantages in terms of mobilizing public funds in the short term, they are regularly scrutinized for their medium and long term outcomes;the excessive costs, very little chance of input from the public and the rigid prison budgets.

The total number of prison administrative staff was 36,535 on the 1st of January 2015 (35, 863 on the 1st of January 2014).

Distributed as follows:

  • 502 management personnel
  • 26,734 security personnel
  • 4,538 integration and probation penitentiary staff (service pénitentiaire d’insertion et de probation (SPIP)) who ensure the follow-ups of persons going through the justice system. They assist in sentence adjustments, and in the re-integration process. They are also responsible for the facilities’ cultural activities.
  • 2,915 management personnel
  • 618 technical staff
  • 1,228 others (on contract, chaplains etc…)

The numbers of health care staff and teachers were not published by prison administration on the 1st of January 2015, (On the 1st of January 2014, there were 483.5 teaching positions for primary and secondary levels. Health care staff comes under the Ministry of Health, whereas teachers fall under the Ministry of National Education.

There is a common tendency seen throughout; the lack of financial resources and the absence of staff filing grievances against it. Some significant social movements were formed amongst prison staff during 2015, including prison guards and social workers.

The selection of guards is lacking, given the requirements for new personnel and the little consideration given to the occupation. The rotating training program at the École nationale de l’administration pénitentiaire (ENAP) is eight months long. A new student, being of at least 19 years of age, must have a National College Diploma or a recognized equivalent. The recruitment process of guards (who are the first point of contact for inmates) does not take sufficient account of personal qualities needed for this type of work. Their duties are especially difficult, when prison cells are overcrowded.

Guards-inmates ratio


/ Penitenciary Administration

Social workers-inmates ratio


/ Penitenciary Administration