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As France releases thousands, can Covid-19 end chronic prison overcrowding?

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Contingency measures dictated by the coronavirus pandemic are on the verge of achieving a historic goal of human rights campaigners: bringing the overall population of French prisons down to the number they were designed for, not more. But the good news stops there.

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In the century and a half since it was first enshrined in French law, the principle that prison cells should have only one occupant has been ignored, postponed, reaffirmed and flouted time and time again.

With France now in the midst of a health emergency and its prisons likened to “epidemiological bombs”, is that elusive principle finally being put into practice?

At first glance, the figures suggest so.

On the eve of the countrys Covid-19 lockdown, France had more than 72,000 people behind bars for a prison capacity of around 61,000 – an all-time occupancy record of 119 percent.

A month later, emergency measures designed to contain the spread of the virus have reduced the prison population by around 10,000, bringing the occupancy rate tantalisingly close to the symbolic threshold of 100%.

Where theres a will, theres a way, quipped the influential lawyer and blogger Maitre Eolas on Twitter, marvelling at the speed with which a “supposedly irreducible” prison population had been cut back.

However, experts have questioned the notion of “will”, noting that the governments arm was effectively twisted by an unprecedented health emergency.

In facilitating the release of some detainees, the government “was motivated first and foremost by the health crisis, not by substantive considerations”, says François Bès of the International Prison Observatory (OIP), in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“They were effectively compelled by the epidemic,” he adds. “Hence our concern that well soon plunge back into the catastrophic situation we had before.”

Breeding ground for the virus

With their combination of cramped quarters, poor sanitation and desperate overcrowding, prisons in France and in other countries have been described as epidemiological bombs, an ideal breeding ground for the novel coronavirus.

“If you set out to create an institution with the express intent of concentrating and transmitting Covid-19, it would probably look much like a prison,” Richard Garside, the director of Britains Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, told the Guardian newspaper last week, pointing to the UKs overcrowded prisons in particular.

Garsides centre has launched a Europe-wide project to compare measures taken by different governments, warning that inaction by the UK government is endangering the lives of prisoners, staff and the general public.

In France, where the state was reprimanded this year by the European Court of Human Rights for failing to tackle prison overcrowding, officials have moved to defer short prison sentences for non-dangerous offenders and facilitate early release for detainees who only had two months left to serve.

Those measures, combined with a sudden decrease in the number of new sentences (largely owing to the lockdown), account for the sharp drop in the overall prison population witnessed over the past month.

>> Coronavirus: France extends detentions and suspends trials, raising rights concerns

“Its a clear improvement, but we must go further,” says Anne-Sophie Wallach, national secretary of the Syndicat de la Magistrature, a magistrates trade union.

“Were still a long way from reaching the 100 percent mark across the board,” Wallach tells FRANCE 24, noting that some prisons – particularly those for shorter sentences – operate at “130 percent, 150 percent or even 180 percent” of their official capacity.

“As a result, 100 percent occupancy nationwide doesnt necessarily translate into single-occupancy cells,” she adds. “There are still facilities where inmates sleep on the floor, two or three per cell.”

Pressure cooker waiting to explode

Far from easing the pain for detainees, contingency measures hurriedly introduced inside prisons have aggravated the overcrowding in some cases.

“Inmates have been crammed together in designated areas, in order to free up space for suspected Covid-19 cases that need to be isolated,” says Bès, whose organisation has collected numerous witness accounts of inmates holed up three per cell in just nine square metres.

In the absence of proper testing for the virus, there are fears Covid-19 cases are being lumped together in quarantined areas with people suffering from ordinary ailments, thereby putting lives at risk, says Bès.

“And despite the best efforts of some prison workers, basic protection measures that are taken for granted elsewhere, such as sanitation and social distancing, are almost entirely lacking inside prisons,” he adds.

According to the OIP, the lack of testing also casts doubt on infection figures provided by the French prison authority. Its latest bulletin, released on April 23, spoke of 101 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among inmates – including one fatality – and 259 cases among prison guards – also including one death.

The coronavirus lockdown has also taken a heavy toll on the psychological health of inmates, who have been deprived of family visits – their only link with the outside world – since the start of the crisis.

To make up for this severed link, which triggered angry protests at several prisons in March, the authorities have expanded access to television and phone calls, and warned that early releases would be conditional on prisoners good conduct.

However, strict confinement rules and a critical lack of information have exacerbated inmates isolation, compounding the sense that they are “twice being punished”, says Bès.

“Inmates are kept in the dark about what is going on,” he explains. “And if theres one thing they have no shortage of, its time to ruminate and brood dark thoughts.”

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