What’s the scandal?
‘Kohlantess’ was an event that took place in July at Fresnes prison, in the greater Paris area.
It involved prisoners taking part in a variety of challenges, including go-karting, and raised money for local children’s and young people’s organisations beyond the walls – including one that helps keep children in touch with incarcerated parents.
The event was, at the time, praised by the prison governor, who described it on Twitter as a “moment of fraternal commitment”.
Moment d'engagement fraternel au bénéfice de 3 associations respectivement représentées par une sélection de personnes détenues, de membres du personnel et de jeunes Fresnois. Merci aux organisateurs et à Djibril DRAME. pic.twitter.com/C9r9gogEMJ
— Jimmy DELLISTE (@DellisteJ) July 27, 2022
Most of the prisoners taking part are serving short sentences, but two are in jail for more serious offences.
One was identified as a convicted rapist serving a 10-year sentence, who has tried to escape in the past, but also has enrolled at school and university during his incarceration. A second, serving a sentence for murder, is now in training to be hair stylist. Both were considered, because of their activities, suitable to take part in the event.
But for a professionally produced 25-minute video, the event would have gone unnoticed beyond the high walls of the prison and among the associations that received money as a result of the prisoners’ efforts.
The video has since been removed from YouTube, but not before it provoked an immediate backlash, notably from the hard-right of the political spectrum about ‘soft’ conditions in prison.
France’s justice minister Eric Dupond-Moretti has now ordered an investigation.
Après les images choquantes de la prison de Fresnes, j’ai immédiatement ordonné une enquête pour que toute la lumière soit faite. La lutte contre la récidive passe par la réinsertion mais certainement pas par le karting !
— Eric Dupond-Moretti (@E_DupondM) August 20, 2022
Dupond-Moretti described the images as “shocking”.
He said felt that “the fight against recidivism” did “not go through karting”, and insisted he had no knowledge of the event. “If I had known, it would not have happened,” he said on Tuesday during a trip to Fleury-Mérogis, Essonne.
After the video was released, Damien Rieu, former parliamentary assistant for Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party and an failed election candidate for Eric Zemmour’s extreme right Reconquête party, claimed the event was organised “with your taxes”.
Ils violent vos filles, cambriolent vos maisons, agressent vos mamies, volent vos voitures, mais font du karting sur le dos de leurs victimes et avec vos impôts grâce au directeur @DellisteJ et à @E_DupondM. pic.twitter.com/LVxDerSMDs
— Damien Rieu (@DamienRieu) August 20, 2022
RN deputy Hélène Laporte threw her Twitter oar in, too. “At Fresnes prison, summer activities are organised for prisoners: karting, swimming pool etc. […] Taxpayers will be happy to see where their money goes!”
🚨 À la Prison de #Fresnes, des activités estivales sont organisées pour les détenus : karting, piscine etc. Pendant ce temps là, 1 enfant sur 3 ne part pas en vacances par manque de moyens financiers. Les contribuables seront heureux de voir où part leur argent 🤢! #Kohlantess pic.twitter.com/yNaPAVLVWV
— Hélène Laporte (@HeleneLaporteRN) August 20, 2022
The centre-right Les Républicains party also got involved, tweeting an apparently specially-created graphic saying La prison est une sanction, non une récréation (prison is a punishment, not a recreation).
But the Ministry of Justice told Franceinfo: “The event was fully funded by the producers and organisers, there was no funding for the activities from the prison”.
However, it admitted the karting event, which has drawn the bulk of the controversy, looked bad. “They could have had a singing competition, no one would have said anything. It’s the karting that shocks. The objective of the investigation is to understand where there was a malfunction.”
The event organisers added, “not a euro was given by the prison for the activities … Everything used during the event, from the water bottles to the karting, was funded by the Kohlantess teams.”
One prison officially claimed, however, that some staff working at the time of the event were paid overtime.
What is Koh Lanta?
If you’re not a fan of French reality TV this references might have passed you by, but Kohlantess was based on the French adaptation of the Survivor reality show, named after the Thai island where its first season was set back in 2001.
It has become hugely popular since it first aired – some 6.93 million people watched the 2020 finale – though that might have had something to do with the fact that France was in its first Covid-19 lockdown at the time.
Since then, the format has largely stayed the same. It’s sort of a modern-day reality-version of Lord of the Flies – every woman and man must fight for their own survival (ie not get voted home by their teammates) in a zero-sum game where only one person wins the big prize.
They also have to go through a series of physical and mental challenges, all the while knowing their grandmother might tune in later.
And are French prisons really ‘soft’?
Not really. Although go-karting is not an everyday event, under French law, every inmate is required to participate in an activity at the penitentiary establishment.
According to the Code de la procédure pénale, offered activities include “education, training, work, socio-cultural and sport”. According to the International Observatory of Prisons, sport is the most popular activity offered.
However these lofty aims are often halted by severe overcrowding.
There are currently 72,067 inmates in France’s 178 chronically overcrowded prisons, compared to 67,971, a year ago. Nearly half of the country’s prisons had occupancy rates of 150 percent in 2020, and today nearly 2,000 prisoners sleep on a mattress on the floor, according to Ministry of Justice figures.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has in the past drawn attention to the issue of overcrowding in French jails, stating that, “occupancy rates … reveal the existence of a structural problem.”
It also condemned living conditions in six centres, describing the treatment of inmates as “cruel and degrading”.