Macron unveils French justice revamp to find alternatives to jail

French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled Tuesday a series of overhauls to the justice system aimed at finding alternatives to jail, a bid to tackle chronic overcrowding at the country's prisons.

Macron unveils French justice revamp to find alternatives to jail
Guards protest at French prisons earlier this year. Photo: AFP

His proposals came on the heels of nearly two weeks of protests in January by prison guards angry over security risks and poor pay, the first major industrial dispute he faced since his election last year.

Conditions in French prisons have long been an embarrassment for the state, with Macron himself once describing them as “disgraceful”.

“Incarceration keeps going up because at the basic level, it's a symbolic solution that most people want to see,” Macron said in an address at a penitentiary training centre in Agen, southwest France.

He said France now had nearly 70,000 inmates, the equivalent of 100 prisoners for every 100,000 inhabitants, up from just 48,000 as recently as 2001.

To ease the overcrowding, Macron called for an end to any prison term of less than one month, and said those shorter than a year would no longer be applied “automatically”.

“Prison sentences less than or equal to month will be ended because they don't serve any purpose. They don't allow for any checks or follow ups. We want an effective justice system,” said Macron.

“Sentences of 1 to 6 months may be applied (outside prison) using electronic tags. All will be accompanied by socio-educational follow-ups,” said Macron.

Judges will also be asked to apply more alternatives such as electronic bracelets, on-the-spot fines and community service for minor offences, such as
driving infractions or drug use.

And some 1,500 jobs will be created to reinforce probation and re-insertion programmes.

“This is anything but laxism,” he said.

“I believe few of the people given terms of less than six months are truly dangerous for society.”

But for longer sentences, Macron wants to end any shortening of the time that must be served: “A punishment has to be credible and understood,” he said.

The 188 prisons across France currently have an average capacity rate of 120 percent, with some in the Paris region reaching as high as 200 percent.

An official report on conditions at the Fresnes prison near Paris, one of the country's largest, in 2016 found it to be infested with rats, with prisoners sleeping three to a 10-square-metre (100-square-foot) cell, and said surveillance was “illusory”.

The January protests by guards erupted after a convicted Al-Qaeda extremist attacked guards in a high-security facility in the north of the country with a razor blade and scissors, injuring three of them.

The protests ended after the government announced a package worth 30 million euros ($37 million) in extra pay for guards as well as the creation of 1,100 new prison jobs.

Macron also said he wanted to improve conditions of prisoners in jails.

“We are sentenced to prison but not to lose all our rights.We are condemned to imprisonment but not to promiscuity, rats and bedbugs”, he said adding that he wanted prisoners in France not to have their right to vote stripped when they are incarcerated.

“They have tried to explain to me why prisoners did not have the right to vote, but I still don't understand,” Macron said.




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.