Admission and evaluation
All inmates are admitted to prison with a valid commitment order
Prisoners can inform their families about their imprisonment
There is a reception area for arriving prisoners
in most establishments
Inmates are placed in new arrivals units or cells. The observation period may extend no longer than three weeks. Inmates are then placed in regular detention.
A copy of the prison regulations is made available to the prisoners
A prison’s internal regulations are, in theory, available to prisoners. In practice, a full copy is generally kept in the library and is sometimes hard to obtain. An extract from the document is often given to prisoners when entering prison, and from time to time is posted on the walls. Nevertheless, it is often out of date or incomplete.
The establishment director is responsible for assigning cells. Many factors must be taken into account relating to the inmate (e.g. age, medical situation, language, suicide risk, etc.) but, also the rules requiring the separation or isolation of certain populations (e.g. remand and convicted, minor and adult, first-time and repeat offenders). In practice, these rules are not always respected, given the chronic overpopulation that affects French remand centres.
Staff members assigned to the arrivals block are usually trained to recognise prisoners presenting potential suicide risks. “Prison shock” generally occurs at the end of their time in the arrivals block, when an inmate is moved to regular detention.
Sentencing plans, called parcours d’exécution des peines (PEP), have been generalised since 2000 in all prisons for convicted prisoners. In theory, they are the purpose of the inmate observation and evaluation period. Since the 2009 Prisons Act, the French Code of Criminal Procedure provides for the implementation of a PEP for each sentenced inmate. In reality, the possibility of carrying out integration measures is unlikely or impossible in remand centres.
Access to rights
Prisoners can be assisted by a lawyer throughout their incarceration
Prisoners may solicit the lawyer of their choice or a court-appointed lawyer. In the event of insufficient resources, inmates may benefit from partial or full legal aid.
Prisoners have access to a legal aid centre
in most cases
On 1 January 2017 there were legal assistance advice centres in 158 prisons. Their staff is qualified to intervene on all kinds of legal issues, with the exception of those relating to the prisoner’s sentence itself. The structure varies enormously, both in terms of organisation (available once a day, once a week, or once a month) and in terms of independence. Prisoners and their family members and friends may call a number to obtain information on legal and social issues. Calls are free, anonymous and confidential, and can be made from all prisons (99#110) and from outside (01 43 72 98 41). The platform is run by the CASP/ARAPEJ organisation and is open Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Inspector General of Prisons delivered a recommendation to the Official Bulletin on 6 February 2020, advocating internet access in prison. When prisoners do not have contact with digital technology and the internet, this precludes them from exercising many of their rights. They cannot visit human rights or legal information websites, or indeed their own solicitors’ websites in order to prepare their defence. The recommendation notes: ‘there is no law allowing prisoners to be deprived of all access to the internet’.
Confidentiality is guaranteed during meetings between inmates and their lawyer, but the physical space is often very restricted.
Deaths in custody are logged in a register
The key figures of the prison administration for 2017, published in October 2018, indicate the number of suicides and homicides. It has been several years since these figures have addressed the total number of deaths. In 2013, there were 243.
Number of deaths in custody
(last published data)
In Villepinte Prison, a 20 year-old prisoner being held in the segregation unit set fire to his mattress. The smoke reached other floors of the prison and other prisoners heard him call for help. The intercom was not working and although an alarm went off, it did not sound in the right building. Prisoners in neighbouring cells said that they had been banging at their door for ‘almost an hour’, had inhaled ‘black and toxic’ smoke and ‘could smell burnt flesh’. The prisoner burned to death. A complaint was lodged and 11 prisoners signed a collective document entitled ‘We do not Want to Die in Prison’. An inquest has been opened.
Number of deaths attributed to suicide
119 committed suicide in prison and 12 outside (hospital, permission to leave…)
“On 21 August the justice minister launched an inspection mission to reinforce the prevention of suicide in prisons. This announcement followed the suicide by hanging on 2 August of a former maths teacher on remand in Baumettes prison (Marseille). The mission also aims to assess the progress made by the government’s 2019-2022 programme relating to the health of prisoners.
In Roanne Prison, a 27 year-old prisoner died after lighting a fire in his cell in the segregation unit. Prison officers tried to intervene but the prisoner died of cardiac arrest. The initial investigation suggests suicide. The prisoner was showing signs of fragile mental health and was waiting to be transferred to a dedicated unit.
Suicide rate in custody (per 10,000 prisoners)
Every year, a group of organisations list the names of a number of people who died while incarcerated and organise a tribute. Observers estimate that approximately 250 people die each year in prison. In 2017, there were three deaths by homicide in prison (six in 216). Illness and suicide remain the principle causes of death in prison. Almost half of the deaths in prison each year are attributable to suicide. According to a study by the National Institute of Demographic Studies1, there are seven times more suicides committed by prisoners than in the general population.
Placement in a disciplinary cell increases the risk of suicide. Entry into custody, pre-trial detention and the rupture of close relationships also contribute to an increased risk of suicide. In 2017, the National Institute for Public Health Surveillance published a report (in French) on the death of people in detention. The report confirmed the increased risk of suicide observed in prisoners. This increased risk especially affects women: between 2000 and 2010, male prisoners committed suicide 7.2 times more often than men in the general population, while women committed suicide 20 times more often than women in the general population. The report highlights that suicides in detention are linked three times less often to mental illness as stated in the death certificate than in the general population. The reports asserts that this could be the result of one of three factors: an absence of mental illness among people who die by suicide while in prison; an undiagnosed mental illness; or a psychiatric diagnosis that is unknown to the doctor completing the death certificate.
Duthé G., Hazard A. et Kensey A., 2014, “Suicide des personnes écrouées en France : évolution et facteurs de risque”, Population, ↩
The prison service must notify a judicial authority for
for some deaths
All deaths must be immediately brought to the attention of the prefect, the prosecutor and the Minister of Justice by the establishment director. A criminal investigator is required to visit the premises. All deaths in detention are the subject of an investigation into the causes of death, and an autopsy is systematically required. This investigation is typically very succinct.
The French Code of Criminal Procedure provides that in the event of an inmate’s death, the establishment director inform, without delay, their family or loved ones of the circumstances in which the death occurred.
The remains of a person who dies while in custody are treated with dignity and returned to the family.
Suicide prevention policies are implemented
Prevention policies have been tried but have failed to reduce the numbers in a significant way.
Cases of ill-treatments have been registered.
The prohibition of torture is enshrined in the Constitution and the legislation
The United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) was
ratified in 1986
All allegations and suspicions of ill-treatment inflicted on prisoners are logged
If so, the prison service must notify a judicial authority
Number of recorded violent acts between prisoners
(including three homicides)
The existing regulations provide for protections against physical and verbal abuse and against sexual harassment among inmates. Inmates who are victims of violence are often placed in solitary confinement in order to ensure their safety, but this is not considered a satisfactory long-term solution.
Each prison facility keeps an updated record of violence between inmates
Acts of violence between prisoners are investigated
Any civil servant who, during the execution of his/her duties, acquires knowledge of a crime or an offence is required to bring it to the attention of the prosecutor without delay.
Violence is exacerbated by overpopulation, the lack of privacy and recent choices in designing the institutions (such as architecture, limited contact between guards and inmates and the large size of the prisons).
Inmates are allowed to make complaints against the prison administration, especially for abuse of power or if they are victims of a criminal offence. Like any citizen, inmates may file a complaint before the criminal courts. They can also refer to various regulatory agencies that are capable of carrying out investigations outside of the justice system.
Following the death of a prisoner at Villepinte prison due to a fire in his cell, a fellow prisoner’s lawyers, upheld by the Bar Council in the town of Bobigny, filed a petition. They called into question the prison’s fire safety standards and highlighted ‘significant failures’. The petition was rejected.
In a judgement delivered on 30 January 2020, the European Court of Human Rights held that “preventive remedies in place – an urgent application to protect a fundamental freedom and an urgent application for appropriate measures – were ineffective in practice”. It considered that prisoners did not have the adequate means to bring about the “full and immediate cessation” of breaches of fundamental rights. The Court stated that the powers of administrative judges to make orders were “limited in scope”.
The inmate who wishes to file a complaint must send a letter directly to either the public prosecutor for the place of detention, which is the recommended option, or to the closest gendarmerie or police station. The complaint must be submitted within a certain period, and it is best to send it as soon as possible. It may be sent in a sealed envelope.
The inmate can also speak to the administrative and judicial authorities – investigating judges, sentence enforcement judges, children’s court judges, MPs, etc.
An article in the French newspaper Le Parisien reported that the Villepinte prison had been visited repeatedly by a sub-commission of Sdis, the local authority fire and rescue service (Service départemental de sécurité et de secours). Sdis noted that there was no response plan and considered the staff fire safety training insufficient. However, the inspection result was positive.
In 2017, Sdis had identified up to 300 electrical system faults.
It is difficult to quantify the number of complaints against the administration due to pressure, difficulty accessing the procedure, and the absence of statistics.
National Preventive Mechanisms and other external control bodies
The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) was
ratified in 2008
An NPM has been established
yes, in 2007
Name of the NPM
Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty (CGLPL)
The NPM has come into office
yes, in 2008
The NPM was appointed by
the executive power
(This appointment occurs with the agreement of the President of the Republic and the Presidents of both chambers)
Term of office of the NPM
6 years, non-renewable, irrevocable
The NPM reports are made public
All reports can be accessed online. A document summarises all of them. Called Dossier de press, it is released every year.
Number of visits made by the NPM during the year
without mentioning the other places of deprivation of liberty visited
The legislation allows the NPM to carry out unannounced visits
The Controller-General of the Places of Deprivation of Liberty (Contrôleure générale des lieux de privation de liberté) may be referred to by any individual, any legal entity working for the protection of fundamental rights, or public authorities. The Controller-General may also self-refer. He must be referred to by letter, addressed to his office. Referrals carried out by telephone, email or any other method must be confirmed by post. The exchange of correspondence with the Controller and his team is confidential. For several years, the Controller has reported cases of non-compliance of this principle as well as suspicions of repercussions faced by inmates who have referred to him.
The NPM can monitor all prison facilities, units and premises
The NPM recommendations are effectively implemented
in some cases
A mechanism is in place for following up on the NPM’s recommendations. Each visit to an institution by the Controller-General is the subject of a report, drawn up in several steps. An interim report is sent to the director of the establishment, which the Controller then approves and sends to the competent ministers. These ministers have a period of five weeks to nine months to respond to the report. The visit report as well as the ministers’ observations may then be published on the website of the Controller-General. A new visit can be completed in order to follow up and confirm that the recommendations were put into effect.
The Controller-General brings all evidence to suggest the existence of a criminal infraction to the attention of the prosecutor of the Republic. The prosecutor informs the disciplinary authorities of the evidence in order to establish criminal proceedings.
NPM’s findings are considered to be close to the ones from civil society organisations. Human rights organisations maintain ongoing contact with this highly regarded body.
Correctional facilities are monitored by other external control mechanisms, notably the Human Rights Defender and the Institutional Review Board.
The Human Rights Defender intervenes in matters involving one of its four missions: fighting discrimination; defending children’s rights; administrative relations and security ethics. Delegates of the organisation intervene inside prison facilities. The Human Rights Defender may receive complaints from prisoners or their loved ones.
The Institutional Review Board and the Prison Inspectorate also conduct visits. An assessment committee is put into place with each institution, composed of the prefect; leading figures in the département, such as lawyers or mayors; and members of civil society, such as chaplains and representatives of organisations. The committee evaluates the operating conditions of the institutions and makes suggestions on how to improve them. The assessment commitee’s work seems most unassuming.
Adeline Hazan has been the head of the Controller-General of the Places of Deprivation of Liberty (CGLPL) for six years, since July of 2014.
The majority of referrals originate from prisoners or their loved ones. Referrals principally concern transfers, living conditions, staff/prisoner relationships, access to care and relations with the outside world.
Sentence adjustments policies
The law provides for a sentence adjustment system
Certain sentence adjustments are automatic, as are certain sentence reductions. But these may be overturned by the sentencing judge. Others are subject to specific conditions, such as conditional release (liberation conditionnelle (LC)), electronic surveillance (placement sous surveillance électronique (PSE)), day parole (semi-liberté (SL)), supervised outside placement (placement extérieur (PE)) or even the recently introduced release under constraint (libération sous contrainte). Each of these measures has its own particular procedure.
Sentence adjustments are made by the sentence enforcement body. Decisions are based mainly on the existence of employment, housing, vocational training and family ties.
The sentence can be adjusted as soon as it is pronounced (ab initio)
Sentence adjustments can be granted during the incarceration
According to the Act, sentences can be adjusted while they are being served, on the basis of the prisoner’s behaviour.
Prisoners can contest a negative decision of sentence adjustment
Specific categories of prisoners are ineligible for sentence adjustment
The law provides for a temporary release system
The law provides for a sentence adjustment for medical reasons
Prisoners who become ill may obtain early release if they have a life-threatening condition, or their health situation is too compromised to remain in prison. There were 238 requests for suspended sentences for medical reasons in 2013 and 207 were granted.
The Senate report on the cost of prison health care showed that this measure is not often taken because of the lack of structures to admit people upon their release.
The 15 August 2014 Act provides for non-custodial sentences and for release under constraint. A non-custodial sentence is used as an alternative to imprisonment and release under constraint is a way of making gradual release the norm. These two measures are slow to be implemented.
The changes made to the rules for allotting places in emergency housing in 2016 make it difficult for people who are putting together a conditional release application to find housing prior to release1. In the Paris region people who are homeless or have no one to stay with cannot benefit from conditional release.
Ad hoc adjustments are possible for two specific groups: those who are seriously ill and pregnant women. Detention may be avoided under certain conditions according to a specific procedure, known as suspension of sentence.
Prisoners at end-of-life can benefit from conditional release. Another sentence adjustment available for medical reasons allows prisoners with a life-threatening prognosis to spend their final days with loved ones. These procedures are not always adopted, mostly, because of the lack of housing upon release.
The Senate report on the cost of prison health care re-iterated social workers are responsible for finding housing upon release, especially in residential care facilities for dependent seniors. In practice, the latter are often reluctant to accept released inmates.