How are authorities protecting prisoners from the second wave of the epidemic?
The average prison occupancy rate fell below 100% in May. The country then had more places available than people incarcerated, fulfilling the wishes of many human rights organisations that had sought this for decades. What is the situation today? Is this decrease of the prison population a long-term phenomenon?
Charline Becker is a coordinator from the French section of the International Observatory of Prisons in the Auvergne Rhône Alpes Region. Prison Insider asked her three questions.
It would seem that coronavirus has been present in numerous prisons in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region
Prison Insider. What is your assessment of the prevalence of coronavirus in French prisons today? What are you seeing at a local level?¶
Charline Becker. It is hard to have a global overview; the figures at our disposal are partial, obtained over time from screening campaigns that are not systematic. By November 12th, a total of 80 clusters had been identified overall. The recorded cases more often involve staff – both prison and medical staff – than inmates. This is probably because staff are primarily targeted by testing campaigns. Moreover, these screening campaigns are only carried out if a case is declared, and so cannot give a complete picture of the situation.
By this time, it would seem that coronavirus has been present in numerous prisons in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, at least in the following facilities: Saint-Étienne, Valence, Villefranche-sur-Saône, l’UHSI et l’UHSA de Lyon, Lyon-Corbas, Riom, Moulins, Roanne, Saint-Quentin…
When cases of coronavirus are confirmed amongst prisoners, this brings about the further confinement of other people that have been in close contact with a case and their contacts. At times this can go as far as the confinement of entire wings.
Despite the drastic health measures implemented, several prison guard unions seem unsatisfied and have been calling for the suspension of prison visits. Yet, given the installed barrier devices, it would seem that it is not through visitors that the virus can enter…
A unique opportunity to tackle the problem of overpopulation head-on offered to us, but we missed it.
PI. Is the second wave of the pandemic as dreaded as the first wave in March?¶
CB. The pandemic seems to have brought different sources of worry with the second wave. Whether by telephone, e-mail, or mail, prisoners and their loved ones seem less anxious than during the first wave – in any case, we have fewer calls regarding this. This is probably due to the enactment of a very different health protocol; unlike during the first wave, the wearing of facemasks has become obligatory for inmates as soon as they leave their cells. Prison visits and workshops are still allowed, although in a limited manner; life on the inside is, therefore, less ‘suspended’ than in March.
On the other hand, all other activities have been suspended, gyms are closed, and external actors, except for advocates and chaplains, are prohibited. This deprives of activities a good number of inmates that then have no choice but to stay in their cell for a large part of the day. These restrictions have psychological and social consequences; for example, they have more difficulty preparing their exit project, meeting social workers, etc.
From the structural side there have been some measures taken, such as to grant 30€ telephone credit to all prisoners to make up for the decrease in visitation. However, this is less than given during the first confinement, when 50€ telephone credit was provided, as well as additional allowances.
Overall, no particular measure has been taken to decongest prisons. In March, exceptional sentence adjustments, coupled with a decrease in court activity, permitted a drastic decrease in the number of prisoners.
For the first time in France, there were more places in prison available than people detained. Naturally, this overall number hid huge disparities, and some county jails remained heavily overpopulated. A unique opportunity to tackle the problem of overpopulation head-on offered to us, but we missed it. The number of prisoners started to increase again after the first confinement, again reaching absurd levels above 100% occupancy in several facilities: 176% at Bordeaux-Gradignan, 157% at Tours, 169% at Douai, 155% at Villepinte, 213% at La-Roche-sur-Yon, 195% at Carcassonne, 188% at Nîmes, etc. However, during this second wave, no ad hoc decision has been taken: the Minister of Justice limited himself to reminding prosecutors to use tools already in existence (sentence adjustments ab initio, and alternative measures in particular).
While visitation is considered a justifiable reason for travel, some prisons refuse to send proof or supporting documents to facilitate this.
PI. The measures implemented further isolate prisoners from the outside world? What information do you receive?¶
CB. Prisoners are, in effect, more isolated than usual. To start with, families are visiting less. The frequency of visits has been decreased, certain prisons prohibit parents from bringing their children, Plexiglas windows prohibit all contact… Under these conditions, some families prefer not to make the trip (particularly when it is difficult to find childcare).
Moreover, while visitation is considered a justifiable reason for travel, some prisons refuse to send proof or supporting documents to facilitate this. Since reservation kiosks have been closed, visiting rooms can be reserved over the phone, but no proof is issued. In the event of a check, families are supposed to produce proof that a loved one is in detention (such as a visitation permit), but some prisons are reluctant to send this proof.
In the end, fewer people are coming to visit those in prison. No figure demonstrating this has been published, but this has been observed by almost all prison facilities.
In these conditions, the telephone continues to be a key tool for maintaining familial ties. More and more inmates are using telephones in cells, but the provision of this is far from effective in all prisons in the territory.
On the other hand, one initiative established during the first confinement has been maintained: the messaging service. Families cannot call their loved ones while in detention, but they can now leave them a voicemail message, which simplifies and streamlines exchanges.
However, isolation from the outside world has been reinforced in other ways: judiciary and medical extractions have decreased, and virtual hearings are becoming more common, along with all the shortcomings that these entail. The blocking of external actors (prison visitors, Cimade, other rehabilitation associations) also deprives prisoners of human contact and puts a stop to the work that these associations previously carried out.
In short, this usually closed world has become even more so.
Translated by Antonita Pratcher and Harriet Drage.