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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Délabrée, dégradante et insalubre

by Anne Roy

French Prisons Are "Dilapidated, degrading and unfit for habitation"

Translated Thursday 17 June 2010, by Isabelle Métral

An interim judgment by a French administrative court has required the French State to pay compensation to 38 inmates of the Rouen prison for unhealthy accommodations.

In the three male-adult sections of Rouen’s prison, two or even three prisoners share 10 to 13-square-meter cells where only a low wall divides the unventilated toilet. Judging these conditions to be degrading, unhealthy and dilapidated, the local administrative court issued a summary ruling that requires the State to pay compensation to 38 prisoners or ex-prisoners, from 350 to as much as 17,500 euro.

Counsel Étienne Noël, who lodged the complaint, is overjoyed at this outcome, which is the reward of a five-year endeavour. At the origin of it all was an assessment that he commissioned in 2005 following the complaint lodged by one of his clients who was detained at Rouen. The client won his suit in 2008, three more won theirs on the same grounds a year later. Twenty-five prisoners, then another twenty, will soon submit their cases to the same court. All in all, the lawyer counsels nearly eighty prisoners of the Rouen prison.

This prison “is not the worst”.

“The court has ignored the improvements that have been made”, Michèle Alliot-Marie, minister of justice, declared yesterday, when her spokesman objected to the judgment being founded on an assessment made five years ago. The ministry’s arguments are that “important changes” have since been made in the kitchens and minors’ section.. “That is beside the point,” Étienne Noël observes. He says he is “confident” about the outcome of the appeal lodged by the State to the Douai court. The minister of justice also pleaded that her services are confronted with a critical situation in Rouen where “overcrowded prisons” are nevertheless obliged to accommodate “all the detained defendants and convicts that are sent there.” According to the unions, the prison can accommodate 650 prisoners, but it commonly takes between 700 and 850 inmates.

The prison which, ironically enough, goes by the name of “Bonne Nouvelle” (good news), was built in 1864 and should close down in the near future. “We do not necessarily ask for old prisons to be closed, for sometimes they are judged to be better than the new prisons that can take as many as 700 or 800 prisoners; these new prisons are less costly, they are under-staffed, and full of cameras,” explains Céline Verzeletti, the CGT prison union’s general secretary. She thinks the Rouen prison is “far from being the worst”.

Other suits might follow everywhere in France in view of the dilapidation of many prisons, which overcrowding makes even worse. For lack of funds, the penal services tend to “wait until a wall crumbles, as happened at the Santé prison in Paris, to start renovation work.”

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