To avoid unrest and the spread of the coronavirus in French prisons, Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet has decided to close visitation rooms and distribute 100,000 face masks.
Over the past 24 hours prisons in Grasse, Perpignan, Reo, Bois d'Arsi, Nancy-Maksewil, and Mobёzhe have faced riots among prisoners. The 17 March riot at the Grasse Prison was the first riot triggered by the coronavirus in France, as dozens of prisoners expressed their dissatisfaction with the government’s decision to close visitation rooms to stop the virus from spreading.
They set a guardhouse on fire, damaged fences, and threw various objects at the guards, who responded with warning shots. There were no wounded, although there could have been after what had happened in Italy, where 27 prisons faced riots that resulted in 10 dead prisoners and 70 escapees from the Foggia Prison. In Brazil, where similar events took place, some 600 prisoners escaped.
François Korber, representative from the organisation Robin Hood and who served a 25-year sentence in a French jail, has revealed how long protests against the closure of visitation rooms in detention facilities are likely to continue, and whether the French authorities will be able to cope with them.
According to Korber, large-scale riots are unlikely, while the situation in Italy is more alarming.
The former prisoner recalled his experience when there had been riots among inmates:
“When there is a riot, say a prisoner blocks a corridor, special units arrive immediately, and stand next to the prison. Guards circle the prison to avoid escapes, and a few hours later, after negotiations they enter the prison and beat up everyone. They don’t hesitate to do that. So the rare riots that France has faced were very quickly suppressed. I don’t think we will face something similar to what happened in Italy, because our security is quite strong", he said.
In addition to closing visitation rooms, Minister of Justice Nicole Belloubet promised on 18 March to distribute 100,000 face masks to 188 French prisons with more than 70,000 prisoners.
That's not enough for Adeline Hazan, chief controller of prisons, as well as certain public organisations that point to “high health risks” in light of prisons being overcrowded up to 116 percent. On 13 March, the first inmate was infected with COVID-19. This happened at the Fresnes jail, where three guards also tested positive.
Jérôme Massip, Secretary-General of the Prison Guards Union in Perpignan, provided some details about the measures taken, pointing out relative understanding on the part of prisoners.
“Everything that helped prisoners relieve tension – sports facilities, fitness equipment, social and cultural events – is now temporarily unavailable. Therefore, of course, there is tension, but generally prisoners understand that this is a matter of protecting them and their families".
However, about a hundred prisoners in Perpignan protested on 17 March against closing visitation rooms: they refused to return to their cells after a walk, and the guards had to restore order.
François Korber described the measures taken by the government against the French people to reduce the risk of infection as “absolutely unsuitable” for prisons. He said that all prisoners are facing “great stress”.
“So far, the fact that this is a closed place has stopped the spread of the virus. But now, on the contrary, it could become a real viral bomb because of overcrowding. (…) There are two, three, four people in a cell. It is there that the danger is greatest. (…) There are no means of protection yet. No gloves, no masks, no hand sanitizers".
The chairman of the prison guards union agrees with him: “... the authorities turned out to be insufficiently prudent, and the guards don’t have enough means of protection”:
“Like the medical staff, the guards have no masks, no sanitizers, no protective equipment. […] 100,000 face masks are not enough, given that the mask has to be changed 4-5 times a day. This is completely insufficient", he said.
Jérôme Massip said he is worried, like most French people, about the direct consequences of the epidemic, but believes that concerns about closed places like prisons are exaggerated.
“Everything has been done to limit contact between the inside and the outside. So there is no reason for an epidemic of this kind to become stronger in prisons. I think it will be weaker in prisons".
Chief Controller of prisons Adeline Hazan suggested releasing “all prisoners with short sentences, as well as elderly prisoners".
François Korber agreed with such a measure. For example, the Iranian authorities decided to temporarily release 85,000 prisoners with terms of less than 5 years. The Robin Hood organisation appealed to the ECHR on 16 March to ask the French authorities to release persons in pre-trial detention, prisoners serving short sentences as well as those whose sentences are drawing to a close, even if they have to put electronic bracelets on them.
“It is quite possible. By order of the Minister of Justice, prosecutors petition for immediate release. […] Of course, terrorists or murderers won’t be released", Korber said.
According to recent data provided by the Centre for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), France has registered 10,891 cases of the novel coronavirus, while the death toll is currently at 371.
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