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European rights body ‘extremely concerned’ about treatment of French prisoners

·3-min read

The Council of Europe has once again criticised the poor conditions in French prisons and detention facilities, raising concerns about overcrowding, bad hygiene, and poor psychiatric care.

“Despite the recommendations made on numerous occasions… the material conditions of detention in police establishments, the issue of prison overcrowding and the conditions in which detained persons were transferred to and treated in hospital, as well as the lack of psychiatric places for persons in care without consent, remained sources of serious concern,” wrote the Council’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) in its report published Thursday.

In December 2019 the CPT visited 12 police stations in Paris and around the country, four prisons (in Bordeaux, Lille, Maubeuge and Vendin-le-Vieil) and a psychiatric unit outside Bordeaux.

This was the committee's seventh visit to France, and two previous reports, in 2012 and 2017, were similarly critical.

The latest report highlights overcrowding in some prisons, with occupancy rates “exceeding 200 percent”, and with almost 1,500 prisoners sleeping on mattresses on the floor, some sharing 10 m² cells with one or two other people.

The CPT “calls upon the French authorities to take urgent measures to ensure that each detainee has a bed and at least 4 m² of living space in a collective cell”.

The report also pointed to ageing or run-down facilities, with heating problems, broken windows and "the presence of rats".

While most inmates and detainees interviewed by committee members reported no physical mistreatment, some said they had been beaten during their arrest or in police stations, and some alleged they had received racist or homophobic insults.

There were reports of excessive force by prison guards, and the CPT said that cells in disciplinary and isolation units lacked natural light, were poorly insulated and were often under-equipped.

The committee also noted that prisoners needing psychiatric care were too often kept in prison because of a lack of space in hospital units.

“The CPT considers that it is unacceptable that persons suffering from severe psychiatric disorders remain detained in prison,” it wrote, adding that the transfer to facilities, when it does occur, is “still often carried out in unacceptable conditions: almost systematic use of shackles and frequent presence of escort staff during consultations.”

Covid response

The French government response to the report said prison conditions have changed since the CPT's 2019 visit, partly because of the Covid pandemic.

France’s prison population was reduced after March 2020, the start of the first Covid lockdown, with early releases approved in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

However, the French prison rights controller, Dominique Simonnot, has pointed out that the number of prisoners is once again increasing.

Like the CPT, Simonnot has called on French authorities to consider alternatives to incarceration, like probation or mandatory community service.

The committee “welcomes the drastic reduction in the prison population during the Covid-19 pandemic and asks the authorities to inform it of their intentions as to the sustainability of this situation”.

The CPT conducted a spot check of a prison, detention centre and police stations in the eastern city of Strasbourg in July 2020, and said that anti-Covid measures had been "constructive", but that there was room for further improvement in the treatment of prisoners.

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