How can France solve the problem of its bursting jails?

France’s Prime Minister has vowed to solve the problem of the country’s record-breaking number of prisoners, but some say more jails are not the answer.

How can France solve the problem of its bursting jails?
Prison guards clash with police as they protest against the working conditions.

France’s prisons system is in crisis, mainly due to the fact that it has more inmates in its jails than ever before.

In July authorities counted 69,375 prisoners compared to 58,311 official places available in the country’s 188 prisons.

One of the prisons, Fleury-Mérogis to the south of Paris, is the biggest in Europe. It was built to house 2,857 prisoners, but now has 4,539 under its roof.

Some prisons like Nimes in the south are 207 percent over capacity, with inmates sleeping on mattresses on the floors of cells.

The French Prime Minister Manuel Valls along with his Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas visited Nimes on Monday to witness the scale of the problem.

The Prime Minister vowed that a plan to deal with the record number of inmates will be announced in the autumn. He immediately launched a study on how the bulging prison in Nimes could be extended to cater for more prisoners.

As well as renovating prisons and creating new cells Valls said the government had to reflect on “how to deal with the overpopulation of prisons in the short term.”

Those on the right in France are demanding an extra 20,000 places be created in new prisons to cater for the record number of inmates, which shows no sign of decreasing.

However not all are in favour.

Adeline Hazan France’s prisons chief warned that extra places in prisons does not mean a solution to the longstanding issue.

“History has shown us that the more we build places in prisons, the more they will be filled,” she said adding that she was not in favour of the rights call to build new prisons or extend existing ones.

She did however add that an extra 6,000 places would ease the crisis.

Hazan said it would be preferable if France could decide on alternatives to sentencing people to prison, which should be used “as a last resort, just as the law states”.

The prisons chief spoke of more conditional suspended sentences, controlled probation and allowing prisoners out of jail under strict checks.

The justice minister is also believed to favour creating kind of half-way prisons where inmates must spend the night but are allowed out at day.

She put the overpopulation of prisons down to repeated violence between inmates and between prisoners and wardens.

Trouble has often flared between inmates and wardens, who have been forced to protest at various times in recent years over their working conditions.

François Bes from the International Prison Observatory (OIP) is also against just building new prisons as a solution for having too many prisoners.

He believes young offenders should be sentenced to work or training to help get them back on the right path and punishments that benefit the public could be handed out to those who damage property.

He points out that it costs France €100 a day per prisoner to lock them up, but for those who serve sentences without going to prison it's €40.

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Prisons blocked across France after guards attacked by ‘radicalised’ inmate

Protesting prison guards blocked jails across France on Wednesday morning after two officers were left seriously wounded in an attack by a "radicalised" inmate. It's not the first time staff have been targeted by jihadist inmates.

Prisons blocked across France after guards attacked by 'radicalised' inmate
French prison guards protest after a previous attack by a radicalised inmate. Photo: AFP

Around 20 prisons were blocked across the country on Wednesday morning after unions representing guards called for action.

Protesting prison guards set fire to tyres and built barricades in front of the entrances to the establishments.

They vowed the no staff or visitors would gain access to the prisons as they protested to raise the alarm at the dangers they face on daily basis due to the number of radicalised prisoners.

“Colleagues want to go to work but we do not abandon them, we do not send them to die,” a local union leader at the Fleury-Merogis prison outside Paris, Thibault Capelle, told AFP.


The action follows Tuesday's incident when a “radicalised” inmate at a prison in northwest France seriously wounded two guards in a knife attack. 

He was later shot and injured in a police raid that also left his visiting partner fatally wounded.

Prisoner Michael Chiolo and his female partner had been holed up in the family-visiting area of the modern, high-security prison at Conde-sur-Sarthe 
in Normandy when police moved in and detained them, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said on Twitter.

Both were shot and wounded in the operation and “the woman died” of her injuries, a source close to the case said, adding that Chiolo was less seriously wounded in the cheek.

Elite police units moved in some 10 hours after 27-year-old Chiolo wounded the prison guards with a knife which Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet suggested might have been smuggled into the prison by his partner.

“There is no doubt as to the terrorist nature of this attack,” Belloubet told reporters earlier.

Chiolo, who was serving a 30-year sentence, is thought to have become a “radicalised” Islamist while in prison.

He shouted “Allahu Akhbar” (God is Greatest) during his rampage in the family-visiting area, prison staff representative Alassanne Sall told AFP.

The latest violence comes as prison staff nationwide, who have been demanding better working conditions, have repeatedly staged protests on Tuesdays.


In January 2018, prison staff held three weeks of protests after a guard was attacked by a jihadist inmate at a high-security jail in northern France.

Experts and trade unions have consistently raised the alarm about the spread of extremism in French prisons, leading the government to build special facilities to house dangerous individuals who are sometimes held in solitary confinement.

The Conde-sur-Sarthe prison is one of France's most secure jails and does not suffer from overcrowding, unlike other facilities, according to Belloubet.

But despite having been identified as an extremist, Chiolo was not housed in a secure wing for radicalised inmates which was opened in September, she added.

The first “jihadist attack” launched from within a prison in France took place in September 2016, according to prison authorities.

A Moroccan, jailed for attempting to travel to Syria to join jihadists, attacked two guards with a knife at a prison in Osny, northwest of Paris, saying he was acting on behalf of the Islamic State.

Then in January 2018, a German Islamist extremist, Christian Ganczarski, jailed for helping organise an attack against a synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, wounded three prison guards in a knife attack at Vendin-le-Vieil, northern France, prompting staff to demand better safety and working conditions.