Prisons: no more brick in the wall

The Ministry of Justice has recently published the statistical series of persons in custody[2] in France between 1980 and 2020. One of the major findings: more and more people are being incarcerated. Indeed, the number of people in custody has increased from 36,900 in 1980 to 82,300 in 2020, including 70,700 people in prison. A record number was reached in April 2019: 71,828 people in prison. It must be said that France is regularly singled out for its inhuman detention conditions. In January 2020, France was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights in a landmark ruling recommending to take measures to end prison overcrowding.

Over the centuries, France has developed a prison complex composed mainly of large institutions. Of the 186 prisons in existence today, 130 have a capacity of more than 100 persons. The small scale prisons built in the 19th century are slowly but surely being replaced by large institutions. These “city-like prisons” now dominate the prison landscape, while other smaller institutions, which we will discuss later, are struggling to develop.

As described by Manu Pintelon in his latest blog, the Belgian government is pursuing two seemingly incompatible objectives: the expansion of the prison complex with the construction of new facilities with several hundred places, while promoting small detention houses for certain target groups.
In the same way, in France, political decisions in terms of imprisonment sometimes seem inconsistent to us.

On the one hand, the new Minister of Justice, Eric Dupond-Moretti, wants to develop alternatives to incarceration, in particular with the use of house arrest under electronic surveillance for sentences of less than 6 months, as well as alternatives to prison from the moment of the hearing for sentences of less than one year. In other words, the Minister of Justice reminds once again that prison, as mentioned in the law[3], should not be the reference sentence in criminal matters, and that other measures should be developed in order to avoid detention.

On the other hand, the government plans in its Programming and Reform Law for Justice 2018-2022[4] to build 7,000 new places by 2022 and then 8,000 additional places, for a total of 15,000 places in addition to the current 60,626 places. This law continues the ongoing attempts to solve the prison overcrowding and more specifically the Chalandon plan, which promised the construction of 13,000 additional places as early as 1988. It has become clear, however that the curve of the increase in prison places only follows the curve of the increase in incarceration without ever catching up. The words spoken in 1819 by Duke Decaze are still valid: “as construction expands, the number of prisoners increases”. As a result, living conditions in detention are marked by difficulties in maintaining ties with relatives, lack of privacy, conflictual relations between detainees and with prison staff, limited access to work posts. New prison places will not necessarily contribute to improve these conditions, especially if they are built in the same way as the previous ones, far from the cities, in the form of large complexes of dehumanizing size. This is all the more problematic since investing in new prison places seems to be prioritized over the maintenance of existing facilities, and over the development of non-custodial sentencing options. This is particularly unfortunate because these are more humane, less costly and much more effective solutions to prevent recidivism and remedy prison overcrowding.

Lutterbach penitentiary center (in the Grand Est region, near Mulhouse), construction started in 2018, to be completed in 2021. Lutterbach penitentiary center (in the Grand Est region, near Mulhouse),
construction started in 2018, to be completed in 2021.

In order to promote the rehabilitation and desistance of incarcerated people, the Prison Administration has launched several experiments. Of the 7,000 new prison places pledged between now and 2022, 2,000 are part of the SAS program (“Structures d’Accompagnement vers la Sortie”). These facilities receive between 60 and 180 people with a sentence shorter than one year, or at the end of their sentence. The promise: an enhanced program of activities and greater autonomy. Another project that will be launched in 2021 is InSERRE (Innovating through Experimental Structures for Empowerment and Reintegration through Employment): prisons with a capacity of 180 people, all enrolled in a vocational training program or work. These experiments are interesting, but will they be enough to challenge the entire prison system?

In addition, the Prison Administration encourages the development of “outdoor placement”. This allows a person who is sentenced to prison to serve all or part of that sentence outside of a prison, while being supervised by an NGO that collaborates with the Prison Administration. Today, around 600 people are being taken care of by organizations during their transition from prison to freedom. One example is the Emmaüs farms, presented in a blog by Inês Viterbo. This measure when it is carried out in NGOs with small numbers of persons allows for individualized support. We know how an appropriate tailored approach helps reintegration and facilitates desistance. We have everything to gain from the development of this type of initiative.

In sum, we can see a contradiction in these policies: alternative sentences are encouraged, while at the same time promoting the extension of the prison facilities. Efforts to reduce overcrowding should focus on developing alternatives measures to detention. When detention is necessary, it should be carried out in a context that respects the dignity of the individual. Let us make the sentence useful both for the detained person and for society. Let us put reintegration back at the heart of the sentence through individualized counseling, in small-scale centers such as detention houses where everyone’s responsibility is engaged.

[1] In reference to the song ” Another brick in the wall “, from the band Pink Floyd.
[2] This legal act (“être sous écrou”) covers several realities. A person in custody may occupy a place in prison or be accommodated outside the prison (at home, in a shelter or in other accommodation) when his or her sentence has been adjusted.
[3] Law n° 2009-1436 of November 24, 2009.
[4] 2018-2022 Programming and Reform Law for Justice, which entered into force on March 24, 2020.


What prison for the world after the pandemic?

The virus in prison is going to be the death knell“. This sentence was read and heard from the first cases of the COVID-19 virus in France last March. And with good reason. Prisons are overcrowded. Despite the legal right to an individual cell (established in 1875), the law is not applied. Thus, on January 1, 2020, the occupancy rate of prisons was 116% with 70,651 prisoners for 61,080 places. Overcrowding mainly concerns remand prisons. These establishments receive two types of populations: persons awaiting trial and others who have been sentenced to short prison terms. The average occupancy rate of remand prisons is 138%. Concretely, two, three or more people are forced to share the same cell, some of them sleeping on the floor, on a mattress on the ground. France was condemned last January by the ECHR for its prison overcrowding and the undignified conditions in its prisons. Since the 1990s, the response of successive governments to prison overcrowding has been to create more prison places. Unsuccessfully… Mechanically, the more you build, the more you fill. But prison inflation in France is also largely the result of a penal system where prison is the reference sentence.


As early as March, many actors called for strong measures to avoid the dreaded hecatomb. First of all, to speed up exits from detention to ensure that a person in detention can be alone in his cell. The government has introduced orders for the early release of people sentenced to less than five years in prison with less than two months left to serve (excluding those convicted of terrorism or domestic violence) and reductions in sentences for people with good behaviour in detention. The decrease is also attributable to the reduced activity of the police and courts. Thus, in two months, the number of persons detained has been reduced by more than 13,500.


It took a health crisis to ensure that, for the first time in 20 years, there are fewer people in prison in France than there are prison places. There were 72,500 inmates for 61,000 places before the pandemic, the number had been reduced to 58,926 by 24 May 2020. But these figures hide disparities between prisons. Some prisons are still overcrowded.


Second, prison staff had to improve the material conditions of detention to prevent the spread of the epidemic. And the implementation of these measures was facilitated by the decrease in the number of people detained in the prisons. Certainly, having to take care of fewer persons facilitates the work of prison staff as well as the relations maintained with them. In addition, many persons in detention have responded by making cloth protective masks in prison. The workshops, which have been closed since the beginning of the confinement in March, have reopened and have enabled some people detained to have a salaried activity (it should nevertheless be remembered that people in detention are not subject to labour law and their remuneration is very low, between 20 and 35% of the minimum hourly wage, i.e. less than 5 euros per hour of work). The prison world has contributed, even in a confined area, to the national mobilization. The production however – about 5000 masks per day – is not directed towards the people in detention but towards the nursing and prison staff.


Thanks to the measures taken and the cooperation of the people in detention, the prison has largely been spared by the virus. From the beginning of the epidemic to the beginning of June, the prison administration has identified 66 prison staff and 186 inmates who tested positive for COVID-19.


The situation of overcrowding in French prisons is not inevitable, as the last few months have shown. Things can change if politicians show courage and take into account the demands of the actors mobilized on the issue for so many years. There has been no negative reaction from citizens to the reduction in the number of people in prison. Should this be seen as an opening up of the public to ambitious prison reforms?


Recent events force us to make prison visible and to talk about it when we would rather look away. We know that today’s prisons cause more damage than they solve. It is time to seize the opportunity presented by the health crisis to reflect on the meaning of sentencing and prison. What is the purpose of prison? How effective should it be? What kind of prison do we want for the years to come? Do we want large prisons in which it is difficult to control the spread of disease? These are complex questions that question, among other things, the architectural design of the prison (organization of space, location) and the place of the prison in society.
Picture of Fleury-Mérogis remand prison.


Reform movements in prison are not new. But what are the concrete solutions proposed? How can we think of prison differently? The RESCALED movement proposes a paradigm shift. What if we replaced the current prisons with detention houses? As the name suggests, these institutions operate on the model of a house: a small number of people are taken in and offered individualized support. For France, this is an important change. Instead of the gigantic size of several French prisons (the Fleury-Mérogis remand prison, whose construction was completed in 1968, is now the largest prison in Europe with 2855 operational places), RESCALED proposes a change of scale. It is a different way of looking at detention from the point of view of both detained persons and staff. Taking care of 10 to 30 people in a detention house allows for a more personal follow-up, relations and attention compared to the management of hundreds of persons. But while size is an essential prerequisite, the detention house also operates on two other pillars: differentiation and integration into the community. Detention houses differ according to the level of security and the programs offered. And they are not isolated from the rest of society but interact with the surrounding environment. People in detention can use the public services (medical-psycho-social, cultural, sports, etc.) offered to people “outside” and through their activities carried out in the house (catering, market gardening, repair workshops, etc.), they participate in the social, economic and cultural development of the neighbourhood.


The three pillars complement each other and work together to ensure that people are released from detention house in such a way that they can be reintegrated into society. You go into prison, you also come out of prison. But overall, the current conditions of detention do not allow for proper reintegration and rehabilitation.


There are many proposals to build a new world in different fields, ecology, economy, work, health… Let’s do the same with the prison.