‘We risk our lives for €1.5k a month’: French prisons on edge over radicalised inmates

Assaults by inmates linked to Islamic extremism prompted a second day of strikes by prison guards across France on Tuesday, casting a spotlight on the challenges of handling radicalised prisoners.

'We risk our lives for €1.5k a month': French prisons on edge over radicalised inmates

The attacks come as French officials test a range of preventive measures after a string of jihadist attacks over the past two years that have left more than 240 people dead.

Some of those responsible were involved in Islamist networks in jail. They include Cherif Kouachi, one of the gunmen who attacked satirical magazine
Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, and his friend Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four at a Jewish supermarket two days later.

Dealing with radicalised prisoners and stopping them from converting fellow inmates has been a priority, but the results so far have been mixed.

“De-radicalisation efforts were set up very quickly, and there are lots of gaps,” said Esther Benbassa, a senator who recently led a commission on the issue.

In the latest prison attacks, a convict at the Mont-de-Marsan prison in southwest France attacked guards on Monday as he resisted a search when his
gym bag set off a metal detector.

Seven guards were hurt, including a woman with a fractured sternum and a man with a broken nose, Ludovic Motheron, a CGT union official at the prison, told AFP.

The justice ministry said the inmate had not been jailed on terror charges but had nonetheless been under surveillance for “radicalisation,” though a source close to the inquiry later said this was largely due to his history of violence.

Another inmate at a jail in Tarascon, the south of France, who was described as radicalised left another  prison guard in hospital on Tuesday after punching them several times.

These attacks came four days after a German convict linked to Al-Qaeda, Christian Ganczarski, injured three guards at a prison in northern France with
scissors and a razor blade.

Tensions had already been running high after two inmates at the Fresnes prison near Paris were caught discussing a planned attack just days before
they were due to be released.

“We don't have the resources in terms of people or equipment to handle this. We don't have the training to handle radicalised detainees,” said Guillaume Pottier of the UFAP-UNSA union.

“The thing that keeps coming up is, 'We're putting our lives on the line for 1,500 euros a month',” said Martial Delabroye, a Force Ouvriere union official at the Reau prison near Paris.

New approach to prison radicals

France's prisons house about 500 people charged with terrorism activities, and about 1,200 inmates are identified as having extremist views.

The government, whose policy has long been to regroup inmates linked to jihadist activities, revealed in November that it had been experimenting with a “de-radicalisation” programme for a handful of prisoners.

For the past year 14 inmates — eight men and six women — have been in open custody overseen by a team of educators, psychologists and religious

The RIVE programme's goal is to “disassociate them from extremist violence,” said its director, Samantha Enderlin.

But for Benbassa, who met the inmates in December, “these aren't the type of people who attack prison guards”.

“English classes, yoga, geopolitical studies, interviews — all that is very nice, but the results aren't extraordinary,” she said.

“The programme isn't for all cases,” she told AFP. “We have to start with trying to isolate radicalised inmates, try to find programmes that are viable,
recruit people capable of ensuring real change.”

Many French prisons are seriously overcrowded, and the government's other de-radicalisation efforts have not always been successful.

A programme at the Osny prison near Paris had to be shut down recently, Benbassa said, after an inmate attacked a guard using a makeshift blade.

President Emmanuel Macron has promised to present an overhaul of French prisons by the end of February, following years of warnings by guards that their security is at risk.


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.