Incarceration rate (per 100,000 inhabitants)
The authorities publish official statistics on prison population
yes, every three months
The administration publishes quarterly statistics on the prison population. These statistics were monthly until May 2019. The key figures of the prison administration are published once per year.
The prison service has a computerised record keeping system
Total number of prisoners
Variation in the number of prisoners
(-11.4% between 2020 and 2021)
The Controller-General for Places of Deprivation of Liberty called for new measures to reduce prison overcrowding in order to stop the coronavirus from spreading within prisons, such as “the ones successfully implemented in the spring”. An open letter was sent to the Ministry of Justice about this, explaining: “the directives that were sent to the jurisdictions were (…) obviously not followed”.
Number of people serving non-custodial sentences
Variation in the number of people serving non-custodial sentences
(1.4% increase between 2020 and 2021)
Variation in the incarceration rate
Average length of imprisonment (in months)
Variation in the prison density
Overcrowding is an issue for specific types of prison facilities
Overcrowding is mainly concentrated in institutions where untried prisoners and people condemned to short sentences are held. In theory, these two populations are separated. This overpopulation also affects overseas facilities.
Tarbes prison is the most overcrowded in the country, with an occupation level of 192,6%. The authorities described this as “quite a new, situational phenomenon, almost entirely due to sanitary constraints (COVID-19), when a unit was assigned for new arrivals and prisoners returning from temporary leaves, who were quarantined there”. 14 prisoners were forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor.
The country has been condemned by an international court for its prison overcrowding
The European Court of Human Rights condemned France 17 times due to the conditions of detention, which violated Article 3 of the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture, which prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.
On 30 January 2020, in a judgement considered ‘historic’ by observers, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against France once more. The Court decided that Article 3 had been violated (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) due to poor conditions of detention. The Court ordered that the French authorities “must put an end to overcrowding in prisons and to degrading conditions of detention” (See press release). It noted that there is a “structural problem” and made recommendations on how to remedy it.
Between 2015 and 2018, a number of appeals were made by 32 prisoners held in the following prisons: Baie-Mahault (Guadeloupe), Ducos (Martinique), Fresnes, Nice, Nîmes, and Fa’aa Nuutania (French Polynesia). The European Court made a joint judgement “to broaden the scope” and ordered France to compensate the plaintiffs for damage suffered. The penalty is in excess of €500,000.
Government representatives decided in favour of a text responding to the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECHR) condemnation of France in January 2020. The bill “meant to guarantee respect and dignity while in prison” introduced the recourse to a judge for anyone in prison, whether convicted or on remand, in order to put an end to undignified prison conditions. If it is a well-founded request, the judge can then order prison authorities to resolve the situation within one month, by any means possible, including a change of facilities. The Minister of Justice, Éric Dupond-Moretti, applauded the “clear, readable and effective provisions” which “respond to the need for humanity and dignity which must accompany all deprivation of liberty measures”. The law is not expected to be a tool for regulating the prison population. Some say it does not go far enough and emphasise the “structural” overcrowding as pointed out by the ECHR. One member of the Union des démocrates et indépendants (UDi) party criticised the bill as relying basically on transfers: “How is going from one overcrowded prison to another overcrowded prison an improvement?”
A supervisory body has issued a decision on prison overcrowding
In 2017, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture published the following report: “The situation was of particular concern at Fresnes and Nîmes prisons, where the overcrowding and the lack of activities were compounded by serious problems with heating, damp, and infestations”. The CPT called on the French authorities to take urgent measures to address these problems, which could be considered as inhuman and degrading treatment.
Name of authority in charge of the prison service
Ministry of Justice
Budget of the prison service
dollars - 3.3 billion euros
The prison service outsources the management of the facilities to private companies, either partially or fully
The private sector is responsible for the day-to-day operations in 71 prisons: food services, accommodations, training, work, maintenance. For the past several years it has also been in charge of family visits. The penitentiary administration is responsible for the management, the surveillance, the registry (follow-up of imprisonment), probation and re-integration.
The prison administration is part of the Ministry of Justice. It consists of a central administration (Direction de l’administration pénitentiaire), decentralised services (nine inter-regional prison boards and one authority for overseas départements and territories), integration and probation services, a prison employment service and the National School of Prison Administration (École nationale de l’administration pénitentiaire).
The detention regimes vary by institution and sentencing category. Most institutions fall into one of three regimes:
• an open regime, honour system or autonomous system is one in which inmate are free to move about within the lodging area or go to activities
• a semi-open regime or general system is one in which moving about is restricted to certain hours
• a closed regime, strict regime or controlled regime is one in which inmates are confined to their cells and may only leave if a guard opens the door for them.
Semi-custodial facilities accommodate inmates admitted into outside or day placement systems. The prisoner may leave the prison during the day to practise a professional activity or take classes or training courses.
Blocks for adjusted sentences may accommodate sentenced individuals who are subject to day placement measures or an exterior placement as well as sentenced individuals whose remaining prison time is less than a year, in order to allow them to complete a reintegration plan.
Recent construction contracts have been carried out by public-private partnerships (PPP). Even if they represent short-term savings for the public sector, the decision to engage PPPs is often questioned. In December 2017, the Court of Auditors presented a report (here) in which it strongly recommended that the future use of PPPs for justice-related construction projects be avoided. In the report, the Court of Auditors states that the extra cost of changes made during construction, as well as the inflexibility of PPPs, stalls the public prison service’s construction projects, which in turn leads them to question the savings incurred through the use of private contractors.
There are two types of correctional facilities:
(1) Jails (maison d’arrêt) house people who are awaiting trial or sentencing or who have received sentences of two years or less.
(2) Prisons (établissements pour peine) for people who have been sentenced, including:
- prisons, which house at least two units for different types of prisoners
- detention centres and sections
- maximum-security prisons and sections
- semi-custodial facilities and sections (QSL)
- sections for adjusted sentences
A national assessment centre has three sites: Fresnes (capacity of 56), southern Paris (capacity of 231) et Lille-Annœullin (capacity of 30). Six penitentiary establishments for minors are spread out over the nation. The national public health facility in Fresnes has a capacity of 84 individuals.
Total number of prison facilities
Total official capacity of the prison facilities
Variation in the capacity of the prison facilities
The capacity of the French prison system decreased by 0.7% between January 2020 and January 2021. The number of available places in prisons (“operational” capacity) went from 61,037 to 60,583.
In 2017, early in his term as President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron announced a programme to expand the country’s prison estate and to build 15,000 additional places over 10 years. Seven thousand places are expected for the end of 2022. The remaining places should be available by 2027.
The programme provides for the construction of new types of correctional facilities:
Support programmes for the re-integration of offenders (les structures d’accompagnement vers la sortie, or SAS) with 2,000 places. They are expected to admit offenders with sentences under one year and those who are nearing the end of their long sentences.
Two experimental prisons that will partner with prison companies to develop an employment programme that will enable prisoners to continue working after their release.
Correctional facilities are spread out over the entire national territory.
Prison facilities are accessible by public transport
All newly constructed institutions are on the outskirts of cities or far from them. La Santé prison in Paris is an exception.
Number of prison guards (FTE)
Guard to prisoner ratio
1 : 2,7
Number of socio-educational workers (FTE)
(imprecise measure of the number of staff in the probation services)
The prison staff is represented by (a) union(s)
The major unions are: Force ouvrière (FO), Syndicat pénitentiaire des surveillants (SPS), UFAP-UNSA and CGT-pénitentiaire.
Prison guards receive training at the National School of Prison Administration (École nationale de l’administration pénitentiaire). The duration of training is 6 months (formerly 8 months), followed by a 12-month internship in a correctional setting. Applicants to the program must be at least 19 years old and have earned a secondary school diploma or a recognised equivalent.
Entry-level guards are paid €1,567.