Those imprisoned or detained are in forced confinement, states Didier Fassin. He has published a forum on the Liberation website. He questions whether the “sense of responsibility and solidarity” advocated by Emmanuel Macron stops at the doors of prisons and overcrowded detention centres.
Didier Fassin is an anthropologist, sociologist and doctor. We have reproduced his forum here.
Almost all cells are double occupancy, this means bunk beds, and a mattress has had to be added in 1,614 of these.
On Monday, appealing to the “sense of responsibility and solidarity” of the French people, the President of the Republic asked them to stay at home in order to “protect themselves from the spread of the virus”. He also referred to the state’s commitment “to the most vulnerable, deprived and isolated people”. With the exception of medical staff, there was no mention of those who are most exposed as they are confined in prisons or administrative detention centres.
Currently, there are two types of confinement in France and elsewhere: voluntary confinement, a form of protection as it prevents contact with people who may be infected, and enforced confinement, a threat as it brings a large number of people together in a single restricted space, which makes the maintenance of social distancing almost impossible..
Prison conditions pose a particularly high risk. On the 1st January there were 70,651 detainees, of whom 3,157 were women, 10,000 more than ten years prior for 61,080 places.
Overcrowding affects 40,848 people imprisoned in 133 detention centres where density reaches 138%. In reality, the overcrowding of cells is far worse than these figures indicate due to cells being reserved for prisoners in isolation, often due to health. Almost all cells are double occupancy, this means bunk beds, and a mattress has had to be added in 1,614 of these.
Three prisoners have to share a nine metres square space, despite the fact that individual cells have been enshrined in law since 1875, reiterated in the Prisons Act of 2009 as well as being backed by the European Court of Human Rights.
It must be added that almost a third of these prisoners are defendants on remand, meaning they are presumed innocent whilst awaiting trial. The remaining two-thirds are mostly condemned to short sentences relating to minor offences.
Prisoners and detainees are, therefore, forcibly confined, their imprisonment in overcrowded spaces exposing them to a higher risk of infection.
In addition, every year more than 45,000 foreign nationals, including children, are placed in the 50 administrative detention centres with the prospect of either deportation or a court order to free them. Since the law passed on 10th September 2018, the maximum length of detention has increased from 45 to 90 days, as a result, doubling the number of people detained for more than one month and increasing the number of places in the country by 50%. Prison conditions are tough; buildings are dilapidated and overcrowded at times and minimum hygiene regulations are disregarded.
Tensions arising from these conditions lead to regular cases of violence, self-harm and suicide.
Victims detained due to an escalation to deportation, which is actually ineffective, include foreign nationals with close ties to France and asylum seekers affected by the Dublin Procedure. More than half are freed by ordinary or administrative courts, proof that imprisonment was not justified. Prisoners and detainees are, therefore, forcibly confined, their imprisonment in overcrowded spaces exposing them to a higher risk of infection.
Should a case arise, all prisoners and detainees will be at risk and it will not stop there. The wardens in the prisons, the law enforcement authorities in the detention centres, as well as all other officers involved in these institutions, are also very vulnerable due to frequent contact with the prisoners and detainees.
Prison warders, and sometimes police officers, are the first to complain about working conditions, which are also the living conditions of prisoners and detainees. They feel legitimately penalised by the indignity of the treatment of those in their care. For everyone, the risk of infection is real.
The first cases of Covid-19 appeared in Fresnes, France’s second largest prison, with 2,200 prisoners in 1,700 cells. An elderly detainee developed a severe case and at least four members of staff tested positive.
It is not hard to imagine the concern among hundreds of confined prisoners and the anger of those condemned to even further overcrowding of cells.
This is aggravated further as visiting hours have been reduced, exercise limited, sporting activities cancelled, visits by lawyers a rarity and permits to leave difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. Restrictions placed on family visits in Italy led to mutiny, resulting in 12 deaths.
The situation in France could become equally explosive as hundreds of prison warders are already in quarantine, resulting in more restrictive working conditions for their colleagues’ and even more degrading conditions for prisoners. Several cases of Covid-19 have also appeared in Administrative Detention Centres leading to CIMADE (Comité inter-mouvements auprès des évacués [Committee for the Inter-Movement of Evacuees]) suspending its activities there, challenging the Minister of the Interior on the risks being run .
ne must remember that the only crime of those locked up in holding centres is that of being in an irregular situation, a charge which is sometimes inaccurate
Escaping the downward spiral
The solutions to this untenable situation are simple. If they are implemented, they will protect prisoners and detainees from the spread of infection and will give France the opportunity to escape the downward spiral which it has been in for decades, while the Netherlands, Germany and Portugal are reversing the trend.
The law which enforces accommodation in individual cells and to which several recent parliamentary reports have referred, must be applied to prisons. If the Minister of Justice takes into account that there is an excess of 13,887 prisoners, 21,075 awaiting trial, plus more than 20,000 sentenced to under one year of imprisonment, often for only a few months, it is clear that many should not be in prison, especially during the current pandemic.
Several European countries have sought and found alternatives to short prison sentences, such as those France itself applies elsewhere when those condemned are politicians.
One must remember that the only crime of those locked up in holding centres is that of being in an irregular situation, a charge which is sometimes inaccurate. The release of detainees, started by certain centres and demanded by the Observatoire de l’enfermement des étrangers [Monitoring Centre for the Detention of Foreign Nationals], is a sensible decision as there is no way to remove them from the country due to a lack of transport.
Exposure to infection
So the question arises: can the French state continue to disregard the type of people it imprisons, often without trial, retained, often without legal foundation?
Do the lives of prisoners and detainees have less value than those of other members of society since we allow them to be exposed to an infection from which the rest of the population is protected?
Does the “sense of responsibility and solidarity” stop at the front door of prisons and detention centres? The government has taken no steps in favour of these at risk prisoners and detainees, although it says it relies on the advice of its researchers. The members of the Scientific Council must therefore demand that all lives be equally protected.