Not yet free or almost free: this is the story of those who are waiting behind bars to go back into a world of fresh air. This is also the story of those still doing time, but on the outside.
Roland looks back on his journey and tells his story to Prison Insider.
You are always waiting for something.
MY NAME IS Roland. I was just released from Moulins prison on July 5th, 2018, after having served 15 years.
Prison Insider: What were you convicted of?
Roland: I was found guilty of armed robberies, sequestration, and gang fraud. In total, I was sentenced to 33 years in prison. But, with the legal limit being 30 years, my sentence was shortened respectively. However, I actually spent four years in pre-trial detention, and after a small break, fifteen years behind bars.
P.I.: During those fifteen years in prison, what place came to mind when you thought of being released?
R.: Getting out is not one of things you think about when you first get into prison. You live through a series of expectations.
You wait for the prosecutor’s decision when you are in custody. Then you wait to be remanded and then assigned. Then you long for the first visit with your lawyer. After that, the prospect of your family visiting you takes over your thoughts. Then, once again, you endure the wait and anxiety from the trial. But also, from the first appeal, and the second one, and so on. You are always waiting for something.
So, I did not really think about getting out of prison during my first few years of incarceration.
Especially since I was a repeat offender; I was not holding my breath for a miracle.
It was not until 2011, after having served eight years and having received my final conviction, that I told myself something. I said to myself, “In three years, it will be 2013. You will be 61 years old and you will be eligible for parole. So, they will kick you out.” But, that’s not what happened.
But yes, from 2011 on, I started thinking about and picturing myself outside prison. I did everything in my power to shorten my prison sentence. I was just as well-behaved at work as I was in custody.
“I will complete your file, but just so you know, I am not the one who makes the decision”: this interview would not get me anywhere.
P.I.: Were you a model inmate?
R.: Model inmate? No. Let’s just say that I kept a clean record apart from when I really helped out my fellow inmates with their trials. That probably ticked off the Court Registry Service (services du greffe), in addition to certain protest movements I participated in.
P.I.: Can you give an example of a protest movement?
R.: The mattresses that inmates had made were confiscated, for example. These mattresses had been installed in the visitation room so that it would be more comfortable for families during visits. Especially since their kids would play and sleep on them. But the Prison director decided one day that these mattresses were a safety concern. We responded with a blockage and refused repeatedly to go back to our cells. They ended up backing off.
P.I.: Were you personally affected by this mattress situation?
R.: No, I didn’t have any young children. Only my wife paid me monthly visits. But I thought this was a justifiable protest movement and that the blockages were necessary.
You know that inside prison is just like outside of prison, if you don’t do anything about it, you won’t be heard.
P.I.: When did your release become a real and concrete prospect?
R.: In 2013, when the administration came and knocked on my door. They told me “Sir, this is your sentencing adjustment period. You are going to have to find a stable job”. I told them: “How do you expect me, someone who has never even worked a day in his life, to find long-term contract at my age?” The SPIP1 took some steps to get me temporary release and a meeting with GREP2 in Lyon.
P.I.: What did you do on your first day on the outside after 10 years?
R.: It was eight in the morning when my wife picked me up at Moulins to bring me to Lyon. I had a meeting at 1 pm with a lady who had a sheltered employment job offer for me. It could have been a job outside, a job in a parcel delivery platform or I could even have been a chauffeur for elderly people. I told her I was ready for anything and she said she would put a gardening job down as my first choice. She ended our meeting by saying, “I will complete your file, but just so you know, I am not the one who makes the decision.” This told me all I needed to know, this interview would not get me anywhere.
P.I.: Maybe you were disappointed with how the interview went, but were you at least happy to be out with your wife?
R.: Yes, of course I was happy. But due to poor weather conditions, we struggled getting out of Moulins. So we had a meal at a restaurant that lasted 45 minutes. After the meeting, we got back on the road in order to get to Moulins before 6 pm.
The Penitentiary Integration and Probation Department ↩
I wanted to be in the countryside and be able to fish. Life in a city centre did not really appeal to me...
P.I.: What were the next three months like for you?
R.: I had a second meeting in Lyon, but not much came from it. Then I was sent to Moulins for training, even though my wife lives in Lyon. The oldest students in my learning centre were 26 years old! That was my third failure. I then was given approval or the fourth time to go to a meeting in Moulins. It was with a specific service with the unemployment agency. The address on the notice was wrong and the supposed meeting was never actually set up. Luckily, the lady still accepted to see me. She listened to me describe my life story and she asked me if they had gone crazy.
P.I.: What did you say to yourself after that?
R.: I said to myself that the prison administration was just a previously constructed sham. I knew from the beginning that I would never find a job once out of prison. And surprise, surprise, I did not find one. So, I was going to get out when I was over 65 years old and I would be able to start getting my pension.
But the prison insisted that “I had to add substance to my reintegration project.”
That basically meant that in order to get released on parole, I had to be taken on as a volunteer with NGO or a charity organization. I tried to land this literal door-opener. I sent out twenty some applications throughout all of France. I applied to places like the Red Cross, soup kitchens, and thrift stores. Some of them got back to me, but said they did not need me. The majority of them did not even respond to my letter. Maybe I made the mistake of telling them that I was getting out of prison. After an unsuccessful year of job searching, a friend of mine put me in touch with Prison Insider. They offered me a volunteer job.
Things would have been a lot simpler if I had made a fake employment certificate right from the start. This phony certificate would have definitely gotten me released sooner. But this would have gotten me back into doing illegal things, and I did not want that whatsoever.
P.I.: What were your first six months of freedom like after being released from Moulins on July 5th, 2018?
R.: I spent a lot of time waiting, kind of like my first six months in prison. I waited to be able to open a bank account after having already been refused once. For five months, I only received monthly payments of 440 € (about 350 pounds) from the EIS. I waited five months before I started receiving retirement benefits. I am still waiting to find a slightly bigger apartment. My wife’s current studio is so tiny.
P.I.: What kind of prison release did you dream about?
R.: I wanted to be in the countryside and be able to fish. Life in a city centre did not really appeal to me.
P.I.: What legal checks and constraints are you subject to?
R.: Every month I must go to SPIP and I must hand in a piece of volunteer work to Prison Insider. Let me be clear that this is a legal obligation, but also a pleasure! I am not allowed to leave France without authorisation nor be away from Rhône County for more than two weeks with no updates.
P.I.: Do you think about prison often?
R.: No, I avoid doing that. But sometimes I think of my friends who are still in there. I spent a total of 25 years of my life behind bars. So, it is impossible for me to forget those I shared the prison adventure with. Because, whether we like it or not, prison is an adventure.
Interview by Marc Giouse. Translation Kelly Field / Proofread by Jeanette Trestini.