Philippe Muller, the public prosecutor in the northern town of Dunkirk, told AFP he would not follow through on his threat “on the orders of my superiors.”
Ufap, a prison officers’ union, said there were 157 inmates for 95 places in the Dunkirk jail. A lawyer in the town, Pierre Mougel, told newspaper Libération that one of his clients found himself with eight other inmates “in a 12 square metre cell. A ninth person then arrived who had to sleep on the floor on a mattress.”
France’s prisons have reached crisis point, with a record 64,726 prisoners currently held in prisons designed to hold 56,081 inmates.
The prosecutor’s action prompted Paris-based prison watchdog, the Observatoire international des prisons (OIP), to release a statement on Friday saying “all public prosecutors should follow the example of Dunkirk.”
“Overcrowding has been an issue for years. This initiative should force us to ask ourselves about the relevance of our penal policy,” said the statement.
At the start of July, the level of overcrowding in France’s prisons reached 115 percent, up 14 percent on the same time last year. OIP said 80 percent of jails are overcrowded.
The sudden spike in prison overcrowding is blamed on moves taken after it was discovered that a man accused of the murder of an 18-year old woman in January had been on probation at the time of the attack.
The Laëtitia affair, as it is known in France, prompted the justice minister, Michel Mercier, to instruct judges to enforce sentences more strictly.
According to magazine Nouvel Observateur, the prison population increased by 10 percent in the first three months of 2011 compared to a year earlier.
The Dunkirk prison experienced a similar effect. “From February, we saw the number of arrivals double in Dunkirk,” Annabelle Bouchet, a representative of prison workers’ union Snepap-FSU, told Libération.
The government announced plans in May to build 25 new prisons, taking the available capacity to 70,000 by 2018.