France’s overcrowded prison population reaches all-time high

Since the start of 2023, month after month, France has been breaking records. Prison populations hit an all-time high on July 1, according to the justice ministry, continuing to rise after reaching 120 percent capacity in April.   

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For the sixth time in almost as many months, the country’s prison population has reached an all-time high. And for the first time ever, the number of people behind bars exceeded the 74,000 mark on July 1, according to statistics published by the justice ministry at the end of last month.  

There are now 74,513 people incarcerated in a country with a prison capacity of 60,666. That is 2,446 more than last year and drastically more than at the start of summer 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic led to a drastic fall in the number of inmates.  

Occupancy rates have surged in some areas, reaching a staggering 212 percent in the Perpignan prison in the south of France, for example. Now that a new wave of sentences has been handed out following a week of riots in response to the fatal shooting of Nahel M. at the hands of police on June 27, those percentages are set to balloon. 

Read moreCan Covid-19 end chronic prison overcrowding?

Tougher justice system means more inmates

Overcrowding in prisons is a recurring debate, both in France and in Europe at large. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly criticised France for its “structural problem” regarding occupancy, underlining the “degrading conditions” that come with over-packing jails. 

Some French politicians have justified the record-breaking numbers by saying the overcrowding is proof that the French justice system is simply rigorous. In other words, it’s proof that things are working. But Dominique Simonnot, who heads an independent public watchdog group that monitors incarceration in France, says nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it may be part of the problem. 

According to Simonnot as well as the International Prison Observatory, among the factors leading to prison overpopulation is the steady increase in immediate hearings, a fast-track procedure that allows a prosecutor to bring a person to trial soon after being taken into custody. More of these immediate hearings mean more people can be sentenced in a shorter amount of time, funneling people into prison at a faster rate. Simmonot says that, 90 percent of the time, the outcome of these fast-track hearings is detention, whether pre-trial or to serve out a sentence.

“The defendant is sent straight into prison or detained on remand,” says Simonnot. “So more immediate hearings mean more incarcerated people.”  

Then there are the political factors. Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti, reacting to accusations the French justice system is not strict enough, has consistently called for a “firm” and “rapid” response to crime. As a result, penalties are becoming tougher and sentences are being extended. Penalties for squatting were tripled on July 27, for example, and now squatters risk up to three years in prison and a €45,000 fine whereas before they only faced one year in prison and a €15,000 fine.  

“People are spending more time in prison, and fewer people are being released,” says Simonnot.  

The issue seems to have reached a deadlock in France politically, despite demands from prison authorities across the country to bring down the soaring population. “There is a fixation on corporal punishment,” says Simonnot, saying some of the challenges are rooted in the culture that surrounds the French justice system. “[The debate] quickly turns into the good guys versus the bad guys; people are quick to think that I am on the side of thugs,” she sighs. 

Moreover, she points out, the way people are treated while incarcerated can have a significant effect on recidivism.

“[It feels like] nobody really cares, which is a huge mistake, because the way people are kept behind bars and how they spend their time will inevitably affect how they behave once they’re out.”  

‘Everyone is on edge’ 

The consequences of prison overcrowding are difficult for inmates across the board. Even female prisoners, who only represent 3.3 percent of France’s prison population, are living in overcrowded, under-equipped spaces.  

“It’s a disgrace,” says Simonnot, who has seen incarcerated women using overturned cupboards as bedframes.

These living conditions can no longer be considered humane due to the lack of space, says Simonnot. “Three inmates can be piled in a cell, and then all that is left for them to move around in is four metres squared, not counting the other amenities in their cell like the bed or toilet,” says Simonnot. “That’s around one metre squared per person to live in, and they spend 20 to 21 hours a day confined to that space.” 

Under French law, it is actually illegal to have more than one prisoner per cell. Articles 716 and 717-2 of the French Code of Criminal Procedure stipulate that prisoners must be placed alone in a cell unless they explicitly request otherwise.   

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

Packed prisons have forced 2,478 inmates to sleep on mattresses on the ground, according to justice ministry figures released at the same time as the study of prison populations. Besides the constraints this puts on cell space, it’s a health hazard. At the Toulouse-Seysses prison in southwest France, Simonnot recounts seeing prisoners put toilet paper in their noses and ears “so cockroaches don’t crawl in while they sleep”.  

Unsanitary conditions from overcrowding in general can increase the risk of vermin and the spread of disease, posing serious health risks to the entire prison population. At a prison in Perpignan, Simonnot was told by supervisors to remove all her clothing before stepping into her house and to place her belongings in a freezer for 72 hours to kill off bedbugs and fleas.

“Whenever I visit a new facility, I think I’ve seen what rock bottom looks like,” she laments. “But it gets worse every time.”

The dire conditions and overcrowding have also had a knock-on effect on supervisors, who repeatedly express a sense of desperation. Hired to oversee around 50 inmates, they end up looking after “120 or even 150” in some pre-trial detention facilities, Simonnot explains. This inevitably leads to rising tensions and fosters a culture of violence. “To be a supervisor in a remand prison today you have to be Batman,” she says.   

“Everyone is on edge, they’re at their wits’ end.” 

And the 74,513 people incarcerated in France’s facilities doesn’t come without a cost to the state. An average day of detention costs €105. “That’s the price of a nice hotel room,” Simonnot says, before adding that “no hotel would host a guest in these conditions”.  

‘Fewer people behind bars’ 

For President Emmanuel Macron’s government, the best way to combat overcrowding in prisons is simply to build more. On July 18, a bill introduced by Justice Minister Dupond-Moretti to increase prisoner capacity with 15,000 new place was passed. But not all members of the French parliament believe this to be the best solution. And neither does the International Prison Observatory, which condemned the bill in a press release entitled, “The more we construct, the more people we lock up.” 

“It’s an announcement, that’s all,” says Simonnot, who is skeptical of the bill. “It’s a promise that has been made in the past and I don’t think it will be acted upon,” she says, drawing inspiration from a damning report published by Les Républicains MP Patrick Hetzel on May 25. The report outlined the government’s recurrent inaction on the construction of new cells to increase capacity, accusing them of “inexorable procrastination”.  

But there does seem to be consensus on one potential solution. On July 19, a report published by the lower-house National Assembly highlighted the “urgent need” to introduce a regulatory mechanism enshrined in French law that could relieve the country’s overflowing prison population. It’s an idea both Simonnot and the prison observatory have encouraged.  

The measure would first establish a critical threshold for a facility’s maximum capacity, beyond which the prison would no longer be allowed to longer function. That threshold “shouldn’t reach numbers we see today”, Simonnot says, and would be agreed upon collaboratively “by prison directors, judges, reinsertion services, jurisdictions, etc.”.

Prisons would be encouraged to release inmates reaching the end of their sentence in a “supervised, monitored and controlled” manner. And lastly, the inflow of incarcerated people would be curbed by decreasing the number of immediate hearings. 

“I think we just need to put fewer people behind bars,” Simonnot says. She is an advocate for sentences that avoid incarceration, like in Germany or the Netherlands, where detention is used less frequently and for shorter periods of time. Both countries rely heavily on fines or other community-based sentences, maintain a focus on rehabilitation and re-socialisation, and make life in prison as similar as possible to life in the community.

“Prisoners learn how to live again. It’s a gateway to freedom,” she says.  

Though alternative solutions exist, France is not looking to them for the foreseeable future. Following the riots that erupted after the police killing of young Nahel, a total of 1,278 sentences were handed out and 95 percent of those sentenced were convicted, according to numbers offered by Dupond-Moretti in a recent interview with French radio RTL.  

The prison observatory has also warned that the run-up to the 2024 Paris Olympics could worsen overcrowding. Authorities have set themselves a “zero crime” target for all areas hosting the Games, with a focus on street crime like illegal occupation of public spaces, street vending and minor drug-dealing offences. 

“It’s going to get worse,” Simonnot predicts. “That is what is so appalling.”  

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