In 2017, nearly 4,000 physical assaults against prison guards in France were reported, just short of eleven per day. It was the last straw. Frustrated, angry, or simply ill at ease, prison guards in France are blockading the prisons, commandeering ordinary prison situations to argue their claims. And why not? It’s fair game…except when you consider it.

We are “on the side of those who are imprisoned”1, and we must define what this blockade means: it is the abolishment of visiting hours and mail delivery, the denial of temporary release to a hospital or courthouse, the withdrawal of permission to meet with lawyers, and more.

These major events in the dismal lives of detainees often provide a glimmer of hope, a ray of warmth, health care, or the possibility of a reduced sentence. The guards demand consideration, but what consideration do they give to their prisoners?

The recent communiqué of the corrections officers’union FO Pénitentiaire, entitled “State of emergency in our prisons”, is in line with our findings, but the anger of the union is misplaced.
Would a shepherd, rammed by one of his flock, maliciously attack the entire herd? To what end? Blockading the prisons is tantamount to punishing everyone, and it is unacceptable.

Corrections officers are influenced by their environment. They are assigned a role by our society and its institutions. By building oversized, inhuman prison facilities, the authorities provide inadequate workplaces and serve only to aggravate routine problems. Since 1875 our elected officials have tolerated the overcrowding of prisons. This not only degrades the daily lives of detainees, but also complicates the problems of the staff.

According to sociologist Didier Fassin, through the pursuit of punishment, which is their “current passion”,politicians seem to find salvation solely in the continuous construction of new prisons: expensive, senseless and inefficient.

One warden says that in his slightly under-crowded prison, he closed the disciplinary and solitary confinement cells – areas of conflicts and suicides.
Prison guards deserve consideration for acting in a mature and compassionate manner towards the individuals whose confinement they oversee. Some do achieve this, and detainees recognize it. But others inhibit any consideration they could benefit from, through their authoritarian and sometimes violent behavior and their scorn for the families of the detained, not to mention their appalling support of colleagues who resort to violence and end up in court 2.

Our prevailing culture discredits offenders to the point that when they are mistreated, it seems legitimate. No one is bettered by the experience, and certainly not those who are entrusted with their care. And so goes the vicious circle.

Bernard Bolze

  1. A 1959 quote from Edmond Michelet, Minister of Justice: “I am on the side of those who are imprisoned,” an appropriate reminder by Adeline Hazan, Controller General of Places of Deprivation of Liberty. 

  2. “Violent Prison Guards and the Law of Silenced”, a documentary by Laurence Delleur, France TV 5, June 2017. More info here in French and Spanish only