“We have to allow as many people as possible to get out of this vacuum”

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© Albert FACELLY
At the Riom prison center on January 16.

Several associations as well as the general controller of places of deprivation of liberty are asking the government for urgent measures to relieve congestion in prisons. The consequences of the spread of the virus could be disastrous.

How will French prisons, unsanitary and overcrowded, cope with the epidemic which is inexorably spreading? Several associations fear devastating effects behind bars. This Wednesday, the International Prison Observatory (OIP), the Syndicat des Avocats de France (SAF), the Association of Lawyers for the Defense of Prisoners’ Rights, the National Association of Sentencing Judges and the Magistrates Union (SM) issued a joint press release to urge the Chancellery to take prompt action: “Today we need to allow as many people as possible to get out of this vacuum immediately.” Impossible, in fact, to apply the health instructions in the various establishments: “The prisoners live in 2, 3 or even 4 in cramped cells – when they are not in dormitories of 6 or 8, as in some prisons […] In addition to the overcrowding in the cell, there is a growing number of contacts during walks or collective showers. “ France was notably condemned on January 30 by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for an absence of “Decent conditions of detention”.

For the moment, only one detainee has tested positive for the coronavirus, it was confirmed at the Chancellery this Wednesday. The 74-year-old man imprisoned in Fresnes (Val-de-Marne) died on Monday at the hospital. “He was old and very vulnerable, with health problems. He was diabetic “, explained the Ministry of Justice. But what will happen if the virus infiltrates again between the walls? A catastrophe, predict the signatories of the press release: “The health units of penal establishments, already overcrowded and understaffed, would not be ready to face a massive influx of patients.” The various associations therefore recommend taking immediate action to relieve the congestion in prisons, by favoring, at entry, alternative sentences or placement under judicial supervision. “And, above all, to severely limit immediate appearance hearings, particularly those providing for imprisonment”.

“Relieve the overdue prison administration”

At the other end of the chain, we should increase the number of sentencing arrangements, anticipate the release of people at the end of their sentence, suspend medical sentences for the most vulnerable, they detail. “In addition, exceptional measures could be taken in addition to these measures: increase in sentence reductions, consideration of requests for forced release without the meeting of the commission for the enforcement of sentences, amnesty law, etc.”, specifies the press release. “The idea is not to empty the prisons but to relieve the overdue prison administration, explains to Release Cecile Dangles, President of the Association of Sentencing Judges (JAP). JAPs and prosecutors need to work together to find an effective solution. ” Two days ago, she went to jail for a meeting of the sentencing commission, alone with her clerk. The prosecutor was not there, impossible to pronounce certain measures. “We need emergency arrangements to be able to hold these commissions. We are asking that the government help us manage the situation by giving clear directives. ”

In addition, in this context of crisis, the part of the justice reform amending the prison sentence regime will come into force on March 24. “Not all measures can be applied. For example, the establishment of house arrest will not take place because the agents no longer put on bracelets “, explains Anne-Sophie Wallach, vice-president of the magistrates’ union. Likewise SPIP [service pénitentiaire d’insertion et de probation, ndlr] will not be able to conduct inquiries from personalities who should allow accommodation. “ However, she sees a new lever that could be useful in the immediate future: the adjustment of sentences for those who have a remaining six months in detention.

“We must lighten detentions”

Now, between the walls, according to the instructions of the Chancellery after the announcement of the confinement of the population, the activities (library, sport, courses, workshop …) and the visiting rooms have been eliminated. These measures raised a bronca in several establishments, the prisoners finding themselves cut off from the world and their relatives. So much so that professionals fear an Italian scenario. Following the brutal suspension of visiting rooms on March 9, mutinies broke out in 27 establishments across the country, killing 12 detainees and leaving 40 wardens injured. For his part, Adeline Hazan, general controller of places of deprivation of liberty, also asked the justice and interior ministers to request “Immediate and concrete measures”. “It is often people sentenced to short terms or at the end of their sentence who occupy these establishments. Their security is no longer guaranteed; the administration will therefore breach its obligation to protect the people it has placed in its care if it does not take the necessary emergency measures “, she said in a statement released Tuesday evening. It recommends reducing the establishments to a level of population that no longer exceeds their accommodation capacity.

In a press release published on Wednesday, the CGT prison union adds its voice in unison: “The speed of spread of the virus will inexorably catch up with us and in the very near future, placing colleagues and detainees in a situation of extreme danger.” And to conclude: “There is an urgent need to lighten detentions, a pardon order seems essential” for short sentences. According to our information, it does not seem that this is currently on the agenda. Contacted by Release, Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre, spokesman for the chancellery indicates: “Today, the general directives are the application, in each jurisdiction, of the business continuity plan. In this context, the judge responsible for the enforcement of sentences is one of the essential functions which must always be able to be exercised “. As a reminder: at 1er January 2020, 70,651 people were detained in French prisons, for 61,080 places. Over 1,600 inmates sleep on mattresses on the floor every night.

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