Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice are concerned about the ever-increasing number of prisoners in French prisons and the inhumane conditions of their detention. According to the prisoners themselves, because of the lack of places they have to live three to three in one cell, each prisoner has less than one square meter, the cells are full of rats, cockroaches and bedbugs. According to the Foundation, by the beginning of November there were 75,100 people in French prisons, a new record for the republic. With 60,899 places available, the occupancy rate in French prisons is on average above 140%.
The problem of prison overcrowding has been an ongoing debate both in France and in Europe as a whole. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly criticized France for a “structural problem” with prison overcrowding, highlighting the “degrading conditions” that arise when prisons are overcrowded. The previous record was set in July this year, when the Justice Ministry counted 74,500 prisoners serving sentences or awaiting court orders. The current figures were 3.2% higher than in November last year, when 72.8 thousand prisoners were registered. The occupancy of French penitentiary institutions thus exceeded 123.2%, which is one of the highest figures in Europe. And this is an average figure, while 10 prisons have an occupancy rate of 200% and above, and another 55 – from 150% to 200%.
French Justice Minister Eric Dupont-Moretti, responding to accusations that the French justice system is not strict enough, has consistently called for a “tough” and “fast” response to crime. The result is stiffer penalties and longer sentences. The consequences of prison overcrowding are severe for all prisoners. Even female prisoners, who make up only 3.3 percent of the total prison population in France, live in overcrowded, inadequately equipped facilities and use overturned closets as beds.
Overcrowded prisons force 2,478 inmates to sleep on mattresses on the floor, according to Justice Department data released at the same time as the prison population study. In addition to limiting cell space, this is also dangerous to health. In Toulouse-Seisse prison in southwestern France, inmates plug their noses and ears with toilet paper “to prevent cockroaches from crawling in while they sleep.” Unsanitary conditions due to overcrowding in general can increase the risk of parasites and the spread of disease, posing a serious health risk to prisoners.
The terrible conditions of detention and overcrowding have also affected the wardens. Hired to supervise 50 prisoners, they end up looking after 120 or even 150 prisoners in some detention centers. This inevitably leads to increased tensions and fosters a culture of violence.
According to the government of President Emmanuel Macron, the best way to combat prison overcrowding is simply to build more prisons. On July 18, 2023, a bill introduced by Justice Minister Dupont-Moretti was passed that would increase the number of prison beds by 15,000. But not all members of the French parliament think this is the best solution. Neither does the International Prison Inspectorate, which denounced the bill in a press release entitled “The more we build, the more people we lock up.”
The prison inspectorate also warned that the run-up to the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris could exacerbate prison overcrowding. Authorities have set a goal of “zero crime” in all areas hosting the Games, focusing on street crimes such as street vending and petty drug offenses.
Human rights activists from the Foundation to Battle Injustice condemn the inhumane treatment of prisoners by the French authorities and call on the French government to develop and implement a series of measures to reduce the number of prisoners in prisons and bring prison conditions to an acceptable level in line with international standards.