ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: http://www.humanite.fr/2009-01-15_S...
by Sébastien Homer
Translated Thursday 5 March 2009, by
"For prison guards, better 10 suicides than one escape."
Prison. Patrick Marest, general delegate to the International Observatory of Prisons (OIP), sounds the alarm after the eleventh prisoner suicide in 2009.
After the death by hanging of a detainee at the Douai (North) house of detention and another at Écrouves (Meurthe-et-Moselle), we are going to pass, by the middle of January, the symbolic line of ten suicides in prison during 2009. Patrick Marest, general delegate to the OIP, is concerned by this situation.
Eleven suicides in less then two weeks, have you ever seen anything like it?
Patrick Marest. It’s an exceptional case, especially since there are times when there are more suicides than others, but the beginning of the year isn’t one of them. After the 115 suicides in 2008, it doesn’t bode well for 2009. This doesn’t include deaths not caused by suicide, about which we have no statistics for 2008. A silence which also doesn’t bode well: 103 mortalities were recorded in 2007; in the first three months of 2008, we already had 56. I’m very concerned that 2009 will be a catastrophic year. I think it boils down to France again becoming the final lap for prison suicides in Europe. Certainly, the comptroller general of prisons, Jean-Marie Delarue, made the problem clear - and that’s good! His first recommendations concern the prison complex and the conditions of life behind bars, since that’s the principle cause of suicides. But I’m worried that neither the policies put in place by the prison administration to prevent suicides nor the coming prison reforms will reverse this catastrophic tendency : in 2008, the prison population has increased by 8 %, and the number of suicides ballooned to 20 %.
How do you interpret the attitude of the prison administration?
Patrick Marest. It has already refused to communicate about the prison suicides on the pretext that it will encourage an epidemic of suicide— a transparent dodge. But what’s more disturbing is that while the comptroller general of prisons says we must focus on living conditions, the AP is attempting to prevent any action on this point. In short, when one finds a potential suicide, they confiscate anything with which he could hang himself, they give him a cell-mate and increase surveillance. Even the guards doubt the efficacy of increasing the rounds that also cause disruptions at all hours, even at night, to make sure they’re still alive. In effect, we’re far from the proclamations of 1998 that stipulated that to prevent suicide we need to restore to the detainee control over his own life. The philosophy has been summed up by the guard who said, to the stupefaction of elected officials who heard him: "Better ten suicides than one escape." After having declared in 2003 that we must reduce suicides by 20% in five years, it seems that since 2006, the AP has let go of its efforts after getting the "right" numbers.
How about the coming prison reforms?
Patrick Marest. It is not good to offer empty alternatives and then to say they aren’t very effective. I fear the worst with regards to the change in philosophy which this law entails. It’s no longer about working towards the reintegration of prisoners but about preventing recidivism. Above all, make them understand that what they did isn’t good. One imagines what could be the effects of such savage therapies. The greatest concern is for the prisoners who died this year: so what we think, on that point, is that in order to prevent suicide, we need to focus our attention on the majority of the condemned, with oversight by those who are in the field of ethical concerns.
Interview by Sébastien Homer