“A prison within a prison”: this is how many prisoners describe their experience during the pandemic. From March 2020, prisoners in France were subjected to a number of restrictive measures, including the cessation of workshop labour, socio-cultural and sports activities, education provided by the national education system, and visiting hours.
In prisons, where the average occupancy rate before the pandemic was 138 percent (compared to 90 percent in detention centers), inmates were confined to their cells for 22 hours a day. A walk with a small group of prisoners was the only activity permitted. In detention centres, which typically have an “open doors” policy during the day, doors were in fact closed, bringing them ever closer to the prison system.
In a sociological study of the prison experience during the Covid-19 public health crisis, researchers Léo Farcy-Callon, Lara Mahi and Vincent Rubio explain that all workers deemed “non-essential” were encouraged to stay at home, while many others, such as prison probation officers or medical professionals (psychiatrists, dentists, etc.) were forced to cancel their appointments with prisoners.
The “prison within a prison” was also created by the lack of any continuity between the different phases of the pandemic. Outside in the free world, schools established “educational continuity” via digital platforms; in prisons, everything simply stopped.
Cessation of visiting hours was the most difficult measure for detainees to swallow. The policy even triggered mutinies in certain prisons, for example in Uzerche prison in Corrèze on 22 March 2020. After a total suspension during the first lockdown, visits from family members resumed on 11 May 2020.
From one institution to the next, a status quo emerged: prisoners are entitled to a weekly one-hour visit. Physical contact and laundry gifts are prohibited. Some visiting rooms are equipped with Plexiglas windows. “Visitors describe a very unsatisfactory atmosphere in facilities with glass partitions. Masks, distancing, ambient noise and lack of human contact hinder any interaction. Some visitors say they would rather not visit their imprisoned relatives”, reports Prison Insider .
Then, with the resumption of visiting hours and the possibility of taking leave, prisons implemented a reinforced isolation policy. Cells, generally located in the arrivals section where new prisoners begin their incarceration, are used to quarantine prisoners returning from the outside world, as well as those presenting symptoms that qualify them as “contact cases”.
Compensatory and alleviating measures
A number of measures have been adopted in an attempt to compensate for the isolation of detainees. On 23 March 2020, the Ministry of Justice announced the allocation of 40 euro credit for each detainee, for use in their facility’s telephone booths. Television is free, and financial aid for the most disadvantaged prisoners has been increased by 40 euro per month. In some prisons where there is no shower in the cell, daily showers have been introduced (instead of two or three per week). Despite these measures, the French General Prison Inspector (CGLPL) stresses “the insufficiency and inefficiency of these compensatory measures”.
The most impactful decision was taken on 25 March 2020. An ordinance allowed for the early release of prisoners at the end of their sentence, for the duration of the public health crisis. “This relative opening of prisons was intended to relieve overcrowding. It was based on the recommendations of a number of civil society actors and institutions such as the ECHR and the CGLPL”, says Carolina Nascimento, head of the Prison Insider information desk.
In just three months, the occupancy rate of French prisons dropped from 115 to 96 percent on 1 July 2020. “This drop has mainly affected facilities in Paris, Bordeaux and Lyon, while the prisons of other inter-regions like Toulouse have remained overcrowded,” says sociologist Lara Mahi.
These measures turned out to be indispensable. When the first lockdown was announced, social distancing seemed an impossibility in France’s overcrowded prisons. “The pandemic confirmed that in facilities where the minimum standards of access to rights and healthcare were upheld the epidemic was more easily managed,” explains Carolina Nascimento. “Of course, France does not have the same detention conditions as Brazil or Venezuela, where detainees have to rely on their relatives for even food and medicine. But overcrowding has been a central issue. Comparisons make this clear: in Norway, for example, where individual cell confinement was already practiced before the pandemic, it was easier to control the contagion”.
“Systemic threats to health”
In March 2021, Prison Insider published a study conducted in collaboration with Amnesty Int