The “new normal” in the prison system?

In Portugal, the Law no. 9/2020, 10th of April, approved an exceptional regime for loosening the execution of sentences in times of the COVID-19 pandemic. The law provides, amongst other measures[1], for the amnesty of crimes with a prison sentence (i) of no more than two years or (ii) whose remaining period does not exceed two years, if the convicted person has already served at least half the sentence. [2]

The measures included by the Government in this legal diploma were subject to the most trenchant criticism by some opposition parties, who considered them to be excessive and prone to a dangerous social alarmism, based on the fear that the release of convicted individuals would pose a risk to the security of the population. Almost four months after the entry into force of this Law, and according to information provided by the Directorate‑General for Reinsertion and Prison Services, the crime rate of the individuals released due to the pandemic was almost nil. According to what was reported by the Jornal de Notícias, “only 24 out of the 1314 individuals released from prison (1.8%) under an amnesty measure (…) committed new crimes and returned to the prison system“.[3] These figures dismantle the prediction, at times apocalyptic, of a significant growth in crime that would stem from the implementation of such loosening measures.

But if the application of the aforementioned measures does not seem to have brought up negative outcomes with regards to recidivism, the same cannot be said about social reintegration, an indicator as relevant as the previous one to assess the efficiency of a prison system. Truth being said, these new measures have uncovered a long-perceived reality: the profound difficulties of social reintegration for people who have been subject to a custodial sentence. According to the reported data, cases occurred of individuals who preferred seclusion to freedom: five people voluntarily returned to a prison establishment and eleven did not provide the necessary consent for a renewal of their leave. [4] It is urgent to reflect about these cases.[5]

One of the main purposes of a sentence is the social reinsertion of the convicted person. This is, from the very beginning, the first of the aims listed in article 2 of the Code of Enforcement of Sentences, according to which “the execution of sentences and security measures involving deprivation of liberty aims at the reinsertion of the agent in society“. But how can the prison system prepare an individual for a return to society if the deprivation of liberty is lived, from beginning to end, in segregation? Can the isolation of an individual, over a long period of time, enlighten him or her on how to live in a community? In many cases, such rupture can be difficult to restore. This isolation is so marked that, when the moment of freedom came, some preferred to voluntarily go back to prison. Now, this result is clearly the opposite of what a prison system purports to achieve. Many people had no back‑up solution at the time of their release for pandemic reasons: some reached out to hospitals, others knocked on the door of the Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa in search of a room to sleep, others ended up living on the street and there were still those who stayed in a campsite, an emergency response prepared for no more than 40 people.[6]

But what could and should be different, then? How could a prison system be more efficient in achieving its purposes? Going deeper, in light of what criteria should a prison system be assessed? Are the recidivism rates and/or reinsertion metrics sufficient? Even if these are, in themselves, valid criteria for evaluating the ends (or results) achieved, what will be the best criterion for choosing the means to adopt?

The normalization principle, expressly enshrined as the fifth fundamental principle of the European Prison Rules of the Council of Europe, according to which “life in prison shall approximate as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in the community“.[7]

Using a simplified narrative about the purpose of a sentence, it is valid to say that those who have caused a harm to society – by committing a crime – are deprived of their freedom, so that the period of imprisonment becomes a real opportunity [i] to have a greater insight on the extent of the damage caused, [ii] to gain a better understanding of the conduct that would have been expected from them and [iii] to acquire the tools and skills that are necessary to maintain a socially responsible conduct. Now, a socially responsible way of living is not learnt in theory. It is necessary that life in detention comes as close as possible to a community life, in practical terms. And this normalization must be poured into daily routines, into spaces, into decision-making. How can anyone learn how to better make decisions, individually and jointly, if there is even no freedom to choose what to eat? How can one get used to the responsibility inherent to a job if working in prison is still a perk, a rare opportunity? How can someone learn to better live in society if there are no dialogue forums – where decisions about community dynamics and tasks can be discussed democratically – and, instead, all decisions are imposed from a higher hierarchical level? How can someone acquire the necessary and tailor‑made tools for a full re-socialization, if the attention of one reintegration technician is shared by dozens, sometimes hundreds, of incarcerated persons and if detention is lived in an undersized space – which still happens in about half of the Portuguese prison establishments?

If the context of the current pandemic has created enormous difficulties – namely because of the greater isolation of prison communities, for reasons of public health – it has also enabled the implementation of innovative loosening measures and, with it, the access to data that should not be ignored, but rather used for a deeper reflection. To what extent should (or could) more normalized solutions for detention be offered? Isn’t the securitarian focus given to imprisonment too excessive, insofar as, by restricting the simplest daily decision-making and the most basic family, social and professional interactions, it also coerces the necessary learning of an adequate life in society? Isn’t such a strong isolation from local communities counterproductive? How can I learn to relate to something that is increasingly distant from me?

The truth is that new solutions for detention are emerging throughout the European Union. This includes both “detention houses” and “transition houses”, the latter dedicated to serving the final sentence of a custodial sentence. In contrast to the large prisons of the 19th century, which tend to manage large groups of people within infrastructures that are standardized and separated from local communities, these houses – implemented, with the context-specific adaptations, in several Member States, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy and Malta – are small-scaled, integrated in the community and provide a differentiated treatment to each person, three pillars that, while not being an end in themselves, are essential precisely because they allow a normalization of life in detention. Small houses allow the acknowledgement of each resident as a unique and unrepeatable individual, the creation of personal relationships and the tailoring of individualized reintegration paths. Houses integrated in a local community allow – even if not instantly, but thoughtfully and progressively – the creation and development of bonds between each resident and the local community. This way, it becomes possible (i) to demystify a certain alarmism of dangerousness (that was on the basis of the opposition to the measures recently adopted in Portugal), (ii) to gradually restore the harm caused to society, namely through services or works carried out by residents, for the benefit of the community and (iii) to establish relationships, either personal or professional, that may last and support the convicted person in the transition to freedom.

In addition, these solutions have proven to be more efficient in fostering reintegration, in reducing recidivism and, consequently, in building a safer society. Now, going back to what was said at the beginning: recent data shows that, in Portugal, the crime rate did not increase as a result of the amnesty given to sentences of no more than two years. If this is the case, a fortiori, the execution of the last two years of a prison sentence in a transition house is not expected to pose a risk to general safety. Will this be an opportunity for such houses to become the “new normal” in our prison system? With great crises come great opportunities, times for change. Could this be the chance for normalization to be the new normal?

[1] Among these measures are (i) the possibility of presidential pardon granted to those who are over 65 years of age and have physical or mental illness or lack autonomy; (ii) the possibility of renewable leaves granted for periods of 45 days, provided that specific requirements are met – such as, for example, the successful exercise of previous leave, the protection of the victim and a founded expectation of a socially responsible behaviour; and (iii) the possibility of anticipating parole for a maximum period of 6 months, provided that the aforementioned leave has been successfully exercised. Both the leave and the anticipated parole are cumulated with the obligation of house permanence under surveillance.
[2] Excluded from the scope of this amnesty was a specific list of crimes, among which are the crimes of homicide, domestic violence and ill-treatment, rape, human trafficking, criminal association, laundering, corruption and drug trafficking. Under the terms of this law, the said amnesty is determined by a penalty enforcement judge and granted “under the condition that the beneficiary does not commit any willful offense in the following year, in which case the penalty applied to the supervening offense accrues to the pardoned penalty” .
[3] Jornal de Notícias, article. Additionally – under distinct loosening measures – 59 people have returned to prison establishments, for failure to comply with the required obligation of house permanence.
[4] Article 
[5] Accordingly vide opinion article 
[6] Jornal de Notícias, article 
[7] Council of Europe, Recommendation Rec(2006)2

La ferme de Moyembrie

In Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique, about a two-hour drive from the heart of Paris, there is a homestead that may be compared to an airport.

In 1990, a couple of retired agriculture engineers, Jacques and Geneviève Pluvinage, decided to invest their life savings in the purchase of a 24-hectare plot, planning to work and live there, welcoming people excluded from society that had nowhere else to live. Jacques, who was also a visitor in a local prison, began to receive letters from inmates that were about to be released, but without any support and without knowing where to go. Jacques and Geneviève were willing to welcome in their homestead these people, with whom they shared family life, the fieldwork, and all the incomes from production. Thus, the way was paved for “La Ferme de Moyembrie”, a place that still exists today, with an ever more enlightened and delimited vocation.

In the early 2000’s, a penalty enforcement judge discovered the homestead and launched the challenge for “La Ferme de Moyembrie” to start welcoming sentenced persons who were not yet released, but who were serving time under a regime of placement outside a prison facility (‘placement à l’extérieur’ or work release).

In 2004, the first agreements were formally signed with the Reintegration Prison Services that gave La Ferme de Moyembrie the statute of a “placement à l’extérieur”, making it possible for the homestead to accommodate detainees, in order to prepare them for release.

WORK AND LIVE IN LA FERME DE MOYEMBRIE

La Ferme de Moyembrie still exists today, with the same vocation and is co-directed by Jean-Claude Simon and Éric de Villeroché, who generously welcomes all those who want to get familiarised with the work developed in the homestead, while emphasising that a “one-day visit will always fall below an in-depth knowledge of the true essence of that place”.

La Ferme de Moyembrie reckons that work plays a structural role in reintegration. The residents work and live in the homestead. Éric says that, from the foundation of the project, the invitation for the inmates is “you come, you live and work here, we work and live together, in a worthy and useful job and we live from that same work, from what we produce”.

You come, you live and work here, we work and live together, in a worthy and useful job and we live from that same work, from what we produce.
 

All residents work in activities in the homestead which can be related to agriculture, the rearing of goats and laying hens, the production of cheese and yogurt, cooking and the construction or maintenance of machines and vehicles. Each resident celebrates, to that effect, a social insertion contract that predicts 20 hours of weekly work.

Special skills and abilities aren’t required, but the approach to work is professional and the economic challenges are real: La Ferme de Moyembrie is a certified homestead in organic agriculture that compromised itself to provide 140 vegetable baskets per weak, during the entire year. The professional work educates for responsibility and gives back structure and organisation to the everyday life of the residents. Éric explains that organic agriculture has two special variants: the evidence of fruitful rewards in the production – enhancing a sense of pride for the achieved results – and the act of “taking care of the earth and the animals, which is an invitation to take care of life, the self and the others”.

The residents work in the farm and live in a house therein. Each resident has a key for their individual room, where they can receive visits and restore intimacy bonds. Only this way the residents can regain the privacy that was taken from them during imprisonment. “The first night of the residents is always tumultuous, many of them can’t sleep”, says Éric. “And notice, we are in a calm and silent village. These people were deprived of their own space for so long that they don’t know how to deal with silence and with a safety and privacy environment anymore

The daily routine seeks to be as similar as possible with the reality after release. The breakfast is served in the common meals room. The work journey starts at 8am and ends by 12am, with a brief pause for coffee in the middle of the morning. At 12:15am the lunch is served and necessarily shared. After lunch, there’s a free schedule so the residents relearn to manage their own time. All of them are encouraged to move forward on priority issues and are supported in their efforts. Some, if they wish so, attend driving lessons, courses or specific trainings – such as creative writing or relaxation – others have the initiative to suggest recreational activities within the community or take advantage of this time to start restoring ties with their loved ones, to regularise their administrative situation or to legalise their residence. The community dinner is served at 7pm, but residents can choose to dine on their own. Some activities, with voluntary adhesion, also occur at night and may consist of a simple shopping trip or of badminton and football trainings at local sports associations, on a weekly basis.

Family and friends’ visits take place on weekends from 9am to 7pm. Community life in the homestead, just like any other, isn’t always easy. There is a relearning to be done at this level as well. For this reason, every Monday afternoon there is a pivotal moment of reflection in plenary, where the previous week is evaluated and the following week is projected. During that time, responsibilities for house dynamics are also divided and shifts are defined to help prepare meals and clean common areas.

At the core of the success of this project are the life rules that are clearly displayed and explained to residents and relate to hygiene (personal and spatial), work, daily life, prohibited consumptions and mutual respect. The latter is an inviolable principle at La Ferme de Moyembrie, where no physical violence is allowed and where it is expressly “forbidden to evoke the past” as a weapon of verbal violence. It is even a rule of the homestead that residents do not reveal the crime they have committed, as a means to prevent the perpetuation between them of hierarchies which, in the common system, tend to be established on the basis of the crime committed.

 

SELECTING THE RESIDENTS

When questioned about the process of selecting the residents, Éric starts by clarifying a point that he finds less expectable: the crime committed by an inmate is irrelevant, as are the skills that he may have acquired in the past to carry out the works developed on the homestead.

This project, as it exists today, was born from letters that, in 1990, inmates would write to the founder of the homestead. Thirty years later, this tradition continues. The access to La Ferme de Moyembrie is voluntary: any inmate can write to the homestead, asking to live there. After a first visit by a volunteer of the project to the inmate’s prison facilities, the candidate visits La Ferme de Moyembrie for a day, contacting for the first time with the reality of the homestead and having the opportunity to talk individually with all the supervisors present in the homestead that day, which range from 4 to 8 and may include Éric or Jean-Claude.

 

This conversation will be determinant for the selection of residents. Éric explains that “there isn’t a scientific method for this selection. The key element in the decision is trying to understand and perceive whether there is a genuine interest in breaking the cycle of crime, for whatever reason. There must be a willingness to change the paradigm, to not repeat an offence.” In any case, the final decision will be up to the penalty enforcement judge, who is responsible for determining that the inmate will serve the final phase of his sentence under a regime of placement outside a prison facility.

Usually, the period of residence on the homestead extends from the 6 months to 1 year preceding the release. Although some exceptions may be made to this rule, residents shall be 25 years or older. In fact, since sentences tend to be long, the final phase of their execution usually occurs beyond young age.

FINANCIAL SUSTAINABILITY MODEL

The project’s financial sustainability is guaranteed by revenue coming from different sources. La Ferme de Moyembrie receives from the prison administration a daily amount of €35.00 per resident. This value is three times lower than the cost that the same resident would represent if incarcerated in the common prison system. About 25% of the project’s budget is covered by the resources of the homestead, namely by the sale of produced products. In addition to these amounts, the salary due to residents, by virtue of their “social insertion contracts”, is paid by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security. A portion of that salary is withheld to pay a pension to La Ferme de Moyembrie, as contribution for the residents’ accommodation and food costs.

The project also receives public funding, namely grants for the prevention of delinquency and for social cohesion. The use of patronage or private financing is used only for material and concrete projects, such as the improvement of buildings and machinery used in the work of the estate.

We are asked how we are planning to grow”, says Éric. And he adds: “We don’t want to grow, at least not in terms of numbers in this homestead. The secret of this project’s success also relies on our small dimension, which allows us to keep a close relationship with each one of the 20 residents”.

 
The secret of this project’s success also relies on our small dimension, which allows us to keep a close relationship with each one of the 20 resident
 

SAFETY GUARANTEES

This placement à l’extérieur manages, not only matters regarding logistics and spaces, but also the residents’ routines and security. There are no prison guards in the homestead. This is perhaps the most representative indicator of one of the key elements to the success of this project: the principle of trust in the residents. The experience of being trusted can be transformative in any circumstance, but this transformative potential is enhanced when there is a risk or a space to let down.

The absence of prison guards and of a permanent control of residents, either by caution or by default, holds them accountable. Éric says that, over the years, he witnessed miracles of transformation at La Ferme de Moyembrie triggered by this attitude of trust that residents are not used to in the common prison system. “Especially because they come from an environment of distrust between them, distrust of themselves, distrust of the justice system”, explains the co-president. Trust is also in the small details: each resident’s room, which must be clean and organised according to the house’s rules of life, is also a private area per excellence and, for this reason, it is never visited, except by invitation.

During the 24 hours of the 7 days of the week, there is always in the homestead a representative of La Ferme de Moyembrie, either a volunteer or an employee, who the residents can call if needed. As a rule, and under the law, the residents’ leaves must be authorised by a judge. In practical terms, those who are in charge of La Ferme de Moyembrie (be it the co-presidents or the supervisors) have delegated powers to authorise, in writing, leaves related to health matters, employment or reintegration.

Despite the absence of prison guards, there are points of contact between La Ferme de Moyembrie and the common prison system. The homestead is visited every two weeks, by a representative of the Reintegration Council of the nearby prison facility, where a good half of the residents were serving sentence before being admitted to La Ferme de Moyembrie. In such regular visits, individual talks with each resident take place, in order to evaluate their situation and to establish a connection between them and the court, if needed.

Security is also based on a clear definition of the fundamental rules for the proper functioning of the homestead. The violation of these rules necessarily implies consequences, which, depending on the gravity of the situation, can range from a formal warning by the court to a return to the common prison system.

RELATIONSHIP WITH THE COMMUNITY

The relationship with the enlarged community started to be worked on from the first moment, by Jacque and Geneviève, who were an esteemed couple in the community and maintained a close relationship with the local authorities. The founders had an early sensitivity that still remains today in Moyembrie: that, although a real reintegration of ex-offenders requires the involvement of society, there are fears in local communities that cannot be underestimated, namely regarding the risk which is commonly associated with interaction with people who, at some point in their life, committed a crime. In order to avoid a counterproductive social alarm, these fears from the communities should not be disregarded, but rather deconstructed daily, through personal knowledge of concrete stories.

Nowadays, explains Éric, residents give life to the local economic activities, not only for the goods they produce but also for the services they consume locally and for they make themselves known, approaching the community and deconstructing negative myths that tend to be associated with prisoners and ex-prisoners.

The community’s involvement is even reflected by the local Maire (Mayor) – who is an ex officio member (‘membre de droit’) of the association’s board of directors – and by his wife, a volunteer in the kitchen of La Ferme de Moyembrie. The preparation of the residents’ future also covers their personal relationships, either within the family or friendship circles. On average, 70% of residents receive visits on weekends or visit their loved ones during permitted leaves.

THE IMPACT OF THE PROJECT

La Ferme de Moyembrie receives annually around 50 residents, responding to just 1/3 of the 150 requests for admission that the project receives. Since 2000, more than 500 people have benefited from this project. Each resident stays on the homestead for an average of 9 months, a time that must be delimited and is considered sufficient to intermediate a life in freedom: La Ferme de Moyembrie must serve as a springboard for an exit that is desired to happen. All residents have a housing solution once they leave the homestead and, in the three subsequent months, 60% of the ex‑residents find a life orientation or occupation, whether it is a job, training, retirement or integration in an Emmaus community.

La Ferme de Moyembrie also impacts the lives of 40 volunteers and 9 employees, hired not only to supervise agricultural or technical activities (such as farming, cheese production, livestock and maintenance of vehicles), but also to manage the daily life of the farm: these workers provide social support for residents, develop partnerships and make part of the decisions to welcome or exclude a resident.

Generally, in France, the recidivism rate between ex‑inmates who served part of their sentence in a ‘placement à l’extérieur’ is lower than the one verified amongst ex-inmates who entirely served their sentence in the common prison system. That being said, the impact of La Ferme de Moyembrie on recidivism isn’t easy to measure because some former residents gradually lose contact with the homestead. Éric explains that this lack of contact is often a good sign. “There is a cycle that comes to closure in their lives – that of serving a sentence – and a new cycle that is generated, that regenerates them.” La Ferme de Moyembrie, despite being a ‘placement à l’extérieur’, is still where they served a sentence and, to that extent, is associated with an old cycle. On the other hand, there are former residents who, by their own choice, keep in touch with the homestead and do so as a form of gratitude, essentially to share with Éric and the other employees of La Ferme de Moyembrie the progress they have achieved.


A HOMESTEAD LIKE AN AIRPORT

La Ferme de Moyembrie is a transformed project. It started by being a shelter for people excluded from society and it was transformed into a house for ex‑prisoners, to be, nowadays, a transition house before and towards freedom. At the time of its foundation, it did not aspire to be what it is today. It became what it had to be, as it responded to the needs felt. And it did so, says Éric, through a solid and committed team of “people who, much more than being competent for the work they do there, deeply identify with the values of La Ferme de Moyembrie” and make a choice for simplicity in living together with residents. The governance of the project is shared amongst all, in a horizontal and not vertical logic. In the words of Simon, one of the supervisors hired at La Ferme de Moyembrie, “on the farm, we try to make all decisions within the team, collectively, and also make as many decisions as possible together with the residents”.

It is a transformed project that transforms lives both inside and outside. Upon their arrival at the homestead, residents are accompanied to a general medical visit, where an individualised health plan is designed. The La Ferme de Moyembrie takes care of the residents’ image because it believes that the outside triggers the most important inner work of self-esteem and awareness of our intrinsic dignity.

And lives are transformed gradually. “While imprisoned, these men dream of what they will be able to do after release. The period in the homestead, more than a timefor dreaming is a time for readjustment”, explains Éric. The 9-month period at La Ferme de Moyembrie shall be an opportunity to relearn the reality, to normalise routines and to reconnect with the self and personal ties.

 

One of the residents, in his testimony, says that when he got out of prison he was really lost. “I no longer knew what money was. To buy a laptop, I gave the employee my wallet and said, “Help yourself”. I didn’t understand anything and was lost. Now I am ready to get out and capable of trusting.” In Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique, there is a homestead that might be compared to an airport since it is an intermediate place for freedom.

Life’s a train. When we leave a train, he doesn’t wait for us. We can’t release prisoners from prison with their belongings inside a bin bag and say: “That’s it, you’re free”. Is that freedom? Without money, without anything? No. The passage through the homestead, for one year, with time and support for us to rebuild ourselves, that indeed, is the beginning of freedom.”

Philippe’s Testimony (ex-resident), available at www.fermedemoyembrie.fr

 
 

With the support of: