COMMENT. Prisons: avoid the return of prison overcrowding with deconfinement

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A situation unprecedented. The early release of 5,300 prisoners at the end of their sentence to avoid a health crisis in penitentiary centers and the reduction in criminal action linked to the reduction in delinquency in full confinement have already led to a significant drop in the number of detainees: there were 61,100 on April 23, 11,500 fewer than in mid-March.

The average occupancy rate is now less than 100% of capacity (61,109 places), noted in an interview with Le Monde on Wednesday, the Keeper of the Seals, Nicole Belloubet. And the decline continues. An unprecedented and unforeseen opportunity, which the State should take advantage of to put an end once again to the conditions unworthy of detention: detainees sometimes crowded in groups of three or four in 10 m cells2, mattresses placed on the floor, lack of activities, etc. A scandal often denounced, never resolved.

Prison overcrowding has recently earned France a condemnation from European justice. It had been seized by around 30 detainees who, among other things, pointed to a personal space less than 3 m2, a lack of privacy, the dilapidation of the premises infested with bedbugs and cockroaches… In its judgment on January 30, the Court of Human Rights recommended to the State consider the adoption of general measures to eliminate overcrowding endemic.

“Prison should be the last resort”

These measures cannot be reduced to the mere promises of new prison places. 15,000 announced over the Macron quinquennium. Target revised to 7,000 by 2022. Deadline that will not even be met … Anyway, a mistake for many, including Adeline Hazan, the general controller of places of deprivation of liberty. She often repeats that 30,000 additional places have been created over the past 25 years, but there have never been so many people imprisoned.

The overcrowding is mainly due to the security turn taken by criminal policy over the same period. Even more since the attacks in 2015. With in particular an increase in the number of people locked up awaiting trial: around 21,000 at the start of 2020, or around 30% of detainees … While prison should be the last resort, Adeline Hazan regularly notes. Alternative sentences to prison have also been weak. This is why overcrowding is concentrated in remand prisons, which accommodate pre-trial detention and short sentences.

Individual embellishment: “an achievable goal”

The decisions taken by the government with the health crisis allow today to tend towards the objective of individual encellulation, imposed by law since 1875 but conscientiously flouted by centuries of habit and resignation, notes in a recent open letter to Emmanuel Macron the national union of prison directors (SNDP-CFDT). Stressing that it will not be never again possible to claim that it constitutes an unattainable objective, that the numerus clausus is a chimera.

A mechanism for preventing prison overcrowding, of which Dominique Raimbourg, a former socialist deputy, recalled the principle in Ouest-France in early April: It is not a question of curbing the entry of convicts into prison, but of speeding up the exit of those who are near the end of their sentence in the event of the entry of a new detainee in excess.

“Relaunching judicial activity on a healthy basis”

The National Association of Sentencing Judges also calls for a political momentum for a lasting prison regulation solution, in a letter of April 29 to the Minister of Justice. The Anjap even requests that an amnesty law be passed, notably concerning short sentences pronounced but not yet executed. That to revive judicial activity on a healthy basis. The after May 11 suggests a mechanical increase in incarceration when the courts resume work, while the risk of spread of the virus will still be present.

Nicole Belloubet said in the interview with World that she was not favorable to an amnesty law. And specifies, concerning the individual embellishment, that this goal should be tempered. To prevent overcrowding from starting to rise again, the minister is counting on the new sentencing policy, resulting from the justice reform law which entered into force on March 24: it provides for alternatives to incarceration in principle (electronic surveillance, community service, etc.) for sentences less than or equal to six months, when possible.

A choice whose effects will be scrutinized in the coming months. It is to be hoped that they will be positive, because the different penal policies which have succeeded one another have never revolutionized practices. Nor did it stop the progression of prison overcrowding. However, the latter leads to tension and violence in prisons between prisoners and with the guards. Also limits access to activities and work. Also in care, with long waiting times, and further reduces the number of visiting rooms yet necessary for maintaining family ties … Preparation for discharge and the objective of reintegration affirmed by law “, often reminded by the controller of places of deprivation of liberty, can not be held. Returning to a very tense situation in prisons would not be acceptable.

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