Friday, July 22, 2005
French prisons follow the American model—downhill
Conditions in France’s prisons have severely deteriorated in the past decade. The recommendations of parliamentary committees and well-meaning statements by charities have done nothing to slow, let alone halt, the downward trend. Recent government measures to tighten discipline are worsening an intolerable situation. The current policy is based on the beliefs that prison is the cure for all ills and that authority must be restored.
Despite the different language, it is easy to identify the simplistic ideas of United States conservatives at work. With increasing use of casual labour in the workplace and zero tolerance in the courts, prisons are again a crucial mechanism for protecting society from the “dangerous classes”, which particularly means those in the most vulnerable circumstances. Never, since the bad old days of deportation, has prison policy played so essential a role in social segregation.
As the French emulate American legal and prison policies they quickly find themselves with American problems: first overcrowding and its attendant abuses—
Physical and mental violence now play a bigger part in the running of prisons, to keep a potentially explosive situation under control and quell thoughts of resistance....
Since autumn 2004 there has been an atmosphere of physical confrontation. At Lannemezan more and more guards go on duty in combat gear. Use of handcuffs (a symptomatic gesture) is widespread. In the solitary wing at Fleury-Mérogis, a huge prison south of Paris, prisoners are cuffed US-style for any movements inside or outside buildings. Handcuffs seem to have become standard equipment. In the prison hospital the senior supervisor for each floor wears handcuffs and riot gloves on his belt, although 90% of patients cannot get out of bed unassisted.
In December 2003 the story of a woman at Fleury-Mérogis kept handcuffed while she gave birth prompted an outcry. But there was much less response a year later when the ministry issued instructions that all patients should not only be restrained, but handcuffed behind their backs. Whenever they go to court, or anywhere else outside, detainees spend several hours cuffed in prison vans. You can only understand the pain if you have experienced this treatment. So prisoners are refusing to leave their cells for medical treatment.
Slave labor, anyone?
It seems to have become deliberate prison policy to cut the standard of living of inmates and reduce the range of services available to them. This operates together with a drive to extort as much money as possible from those serving sentences; the official reason is the need to boost the finances of criminal injuries compensation schemes.
Contrary to recommendations by parliamentary committees, pay for work in prison has not improved. The worst abuses involve piecework reminiscent of the 19th century, often done under health and safety conditions that disregard current regulations.
The French have a unique feature in their system whereby the parole board considers the amount of compensation that a prisoner pays in return for cutting the length of the sentence.
.... The courts, prison service and ministry criminologists believe that if a prisoner voluntarily pays money he or she has accomplished an act of expiation signifying acceptance of the sentence. In the past believers washed away their sins by paying for a mass to be celebrated. In our world prisoners demonstrate their redemption by paying hard-earned cash. In its correspondence with prisoners the parole board puts a clear price on more favourable terms. A €15 contribution to a compensation scheme buys an extra day on temporary release. An undertaking to pay €30 a month knocks a month off the sentence.
Sounds good, right?—a policy to "encourage" prisoners to make restitution? Well, not as the French do it—
French prisons have always brought out the baser instincts in humanity, in relations between prisoners, and between them and the prison service and courts. Hypocrisy is the prime quality. Treachery and lies are always rewarded. Here is a story that shows how these may be used to pay fines and compensate injuries. Two inmates of a prison in the south of France, whose sentences were due to come up for review, began to refuse to work in the prison workshop. Under no illusions about the attitude of the parole board, they dealt drugs from their cells to raise funds for the compensation scheme. Their trade was highly profitable and they were able to negotiate a reduction in sentence and early release. A few months later a non-French prisoner ran into financial difficulties. Besides endless working, he had been voluntarily repaying €100 a month in compensation. But problems at home suddenly prevented further repayments. The board refused to allow for his difficulties and docked a month from his early release package for failing to comply with the compensation contract.
US investigators, including CIA agents, will be allowed interrogate Irish citizens on Irish soil in total secrecy, under an agreement signed between Ireland and the US last week.No word whether the treaty grants equivalent rights to the Irish government for U.S. citizens. If I lived in Boston, I would be worried. [back]
Suspects will also have to give testimony and allow property to be searched and seized even if what the suspect is accused of is not a crime in Ireland.
Under 'instruments of agreement' signed last week by Justice Minister Michael McDowell, Ireland and the US pledged mutual co-operation in the investigation of criminal activity. It is primarily designed to assist America's so-called 'war on terror' in the wake of the September 11 atrocities.
The deal was condemned yesterday by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) as "an appalling signal of how the rights of Irish citizens are considered by the minister when engaging in international relations". The ICCL said it appeared to go far beyond even what has been agreed between EU countries.
Although the Department of Justice insists that the arrangement merely updates existing agreements, it goes much further. The US may ask Irish authorities:
To track down people in Ireland.
Transfer prisoners in Irish custody to the US.
Carry out searches and seize evidence on behalf of the US Government.
It also allows US authorities access to an Irish suspect's confidential bank information. The Irish authorities must keep all these activities secret if asked to do so by the US.
The person who will request co-operation is US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the man who, as White House counsel, instigated the notorious 'torture memo' to US President George W Bush which advised how far CIA agents could go in torturing prisoners. The person to whom the request is sent is the Minister for Justice.
ICCL director Aisling Reidy said: "An extraordinary aspect to this treaty is, despite its scope and its potential to violate basic constitutional and human rights, that all this happened without debate or transparency.
"To agree to give such powers to a government which has allowed detention of its own citizens without access to a lawyer for over a year, which has legitimised Guantanamo Bay and the interrogation techniques there, without public debate, is an appalling signal of how highly or not the rights of Irish citizens are considered by the minister when engaging in international relations."