They tried to strangle me… A huge warder was squeezing my throat while his colleagues were beating me with fists. I passed over. And each night in the solitary confinement I was going out of my mind that they will come again… to hang me.
Tuesday, May 18. The sun has not risen yet. The vague feeling that the door is opening waked me up. Some shadows immediately jumped over my bed. One hit, then another… I cannot protect myself under the blanket. They are at least two, maybe three? They are holding me while the first one is covering my face with towel. It seems he is trying to force it into my throat while the others are putting the handcuffs… I’m suffocating. I’m trying to breath. A knee, maybe a fist, is hitting me in the shoulder blade. From the strength of the blow I’m raising my head…
Those are the memoirs of Jean-Marc Rouillan, an inmate sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987. Hundreds of detainees in France are being subject to abuse by prison officials every year. Despite considering itself as a democratic country, France hasn’t improved much its attitude towards the increasing prison population since the 1970s. While the riots in France in October 2005 alarmed the world about the poor treatment of minorities and refugees by the authorities in the country, the violence and inhumane treatment of the increasing prison population is somewhat ignored. Is this because the prisoners are not considered to be human beings, and therefore lack human rights? Or it is because the penitentiaries are turning into commercial enterprises that forget their main purpose?
Imprisonments are not reducing the number of felonies because the prisons themselves are sources of criminality. The French penitentiaries, where criminals are supposed to learn how to behave properly and respect the law, are actually arenas of sexual abuse, drug addiction and violence.
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. In February 2003 France’s justice minister, Dominique Perben, set up regional intervention and security teams (ERIS); this sent a powerful message to all prison officers. Since then beatings have increased, without attracting any attention in the media or the courts (2). A duty of ERIS units is to supervise prison searches. These high-profile operations have never produced convincing results (3), but provide an excuse for punitive expeditions and collective punishment after attempted break-outs or minor incidents.
In 2001, two parliamentary commissions issued a report that called for major reforms in the country’s prison system. The reports noted that unsentenced prisoners made up 40 percent of the French prison population, one of the highest such rates among industrialized countries. Various other disturbing issues were also reported in the period 2001-2005 by a number of independent observers.
In a report in March covering visits in 2003, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), reiterated its disagreement with official refusal to grant access to a lawyer in some cases for the first 36 hours in police custody. The CPT stressed that all detainees should have access to a lawyer from the outset of custody, and also during police questioning – which is not currently permitted. According to figures published in May by the police and prison oversight body, the National Commission of Deontology and Security (CNDS), complaints of police abuse or violence almost doubled in the previous year.
[However,] officers continued to enjoy effective impunity: frequently, no action was taken against officers following complaints, or cases were slow to come to court. By contrast, police prosecutions of people charged with insulting state agents or resisting arrest usually came before the courts promptly.
The CPT report in March expressed concern at the “recent and alarming” rise in the prison population, which had resulted in serious overcrowding, an inhuman and degrading environment, and a high rate of suicides. […] It detailed unhealthy and unsafe conditions, the lack of activities for a large number of prisoners, a sense of exhaustion and frustration among prison officers, and the absence of an effective policy to prevent suicides. These problems were not only, or even mainly, caused by lack of infrastructure, the report found, but originated in a more repressive penal policy that would not be addressed by simply building new prisons. The CPT’s recommendations stressed the need for prompt and radical action to cut overcrowding and obtain humane conditions.
Can we get away with blaming only the United States for the terrible treatment of detainees? Yes, the Bush administration is responsible for the abuses committed against the Guantanamo prisoners but apparently this is not a separate case. The yard of Europe is not much cleaner that the American one.
Unfortunately, the policy of a number of “developed” countries on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean implies that the prison population is a degenerate excrescence requiring quick removal. In those cases, the imprisonment sentence is all about punishment while the rehabilitation part is kept somewhere in the bottom, if not removed at all.
Disturbingly, the prisons in some post-industrial countries are turning into commercial institutions adopting money-generating schemes. About a third of the income of the inmates is subject to training schemes organized by the ministry of education although the rehabilitation policy in the penitentiaries is hitting an all-time low. Furthermore, the prisoners can buy lighter sentences and better conditions by contributing to “criminal injuries compensation schemes.” Fifteen Euros means a day less in prison, while 30 Euros each month takes one month off the sentence. This measures certainly benefit the wealthier part of the prison population, which despite the severity of its crimes is able to receive shorter sentences with better living conditions. On the other hand, unemployed, and alienated from a society indifferent to their needs, poor citizens become involved in the drug economy or some other outlawed means of survival. They are arrested, imprisoned, and made to work.
For private business, prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation to pay. No language problem, as in a foreign country. New leviathan prisons are being built with thousands of eerie acres of factories inside the walls. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for TWA, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret. All at a fraction of the cost of “free labor.”
To close the economic circle, the inmates are required to pay for their everyday needs (including food, prescription drugs and items for personal hygiene). The prices are between 30 and 50 percent higher than those in the regular shops outside. At the same time, the standard of life in prisons is constantly deteriorating. Thus, it is interesting to know what amount of funds are generated by the penitentiaries due to the commercial activities done on their premises and what part vanishes into the pockets of officials and big businesses.
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.
The policy towards the prison population in some post-industrialized countries like France is causing, intentionally or not, the humiliation of human beings. Although humiliation by itself might be seen as a punishment for the crimes committed, this will not make the inmates better persons when they are finally released. In fact, when they finish serving their sentences those victims of both physical and mental abuse will be full of hatred towards the system and society. “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind,” said Gandhi once. Society is not correcting the prisoners. Society is simply taking revenge. So, why should we also become criminals and commit the same crimes we want to see punished? What is the point of such a policy?