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Confinement and Containment: Jails in France Under Covid-19

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By Camarade

At a time when many States have opted for the “containment” to restrain the Covid-19 pandemic and when billions of people in the world are thus under lockdown, as always it is the proletariat that is impacted the most. Of course, there are those who have no choice but to keep working at the risk of their lives or health, but there are also those who were already locked up by the State, whether in the prisons, detention centres, closed educational centres or even in psychiatric hospitals… Confinement measures are fraught with consequences and have already provoked numerous collective movements within these facilities around the world.
In France, within a few weeks, acts of revolt, of a greater or lesser degree, broke out in more than 40 institutions. Tension is rising.
As a reminder, the first official measures were announced on Thursday 12th of March and were announcing the closure of schools and universities. On Saturday 14th, the government decided to close non-essential public places and finally on Tuesday 17th the containment started.

Long before the announcement of the so-called sanitary measures, many prison heads had already taken internal measures which obviously turned out to be coercive measures. For example, since Friday 15th of March the family visits were closed in several prisons. Elsewhere, visitors were selected and access to the prison was prohibited for the elderly, pregnant women and children.
Since March 17th, visits are completely suspended, movements inside the prison are limited, and in most prisons, activities and work are postponed since many outside staff can no longer access the facilities to supervise them. In the oldest prisons where showers are still collective (usually the frequency is around 3 showers per week), the access has been minimized due to the inmates’ restriction of movement. Finally, the only “activity” still in place is the walk in the prison yard.
They claim all these measures are to prevent the spread of the virus indoors. It is clear that they also aim at anticipating a massive absence of prison guards (due to sick leave or use of their right of withdrawal), so that they maintain order even with reduced workforce.

The confinement of the population also leads to a hassle in terms of supplying stocks for the canteens; many products are no longer accessible. There too the shelves are empty! The account department, which has long been delegated to private services, is also affected by the lack of staff and it inevitably leads to difficulties in receiving transfers and being able to buy things.
Healthcare, already shitty in the jail, is obviously worsened by the epidemic. As the virus appeared on the territory, the State opted for a strategy of maintaining order and the continuity of the economy rather than preventing its spread. It is even more obvious inside jails (no tests on inmates or guards, nor any other preventive measure). When the State announced widespread containment, it is clear that the virus was already circulating in jails. In fact, several inmates have already died from covid-19. As outside, the number of cases of infected persons is multiplying, and obviously the necessary tests and care are only given to extremely serious cases. It is then impossible to know the real impact of the pandemic indoors. The news coming out report that some prisons have set up quarantine wings to isolate inmates with symptoms. The rest of the care, general medicine, dentist, gynecology, etc. is on stand-by. You have to be in a life-threatening emergency to see a doctor.
To make up for the cancellation of visits, and with a touch of sarcasm that the ruling class has the secret for, the Minister of Justice have announced that she would offer to each detainee €40 per month for phone calls (equivalent to 11 hours of calls on a landline and 5 hours on a mobile phone) and increased the money of indigent (those who do not receive any money from outside) by €20 – bringing it to €40 per month. In the end, even these “generous gifts” were only given to the detainees who did not receive any money transfer in March.

A memorandum of March 26th (detailing the law on the state of health emergency) gives instructions to the courts to avoid extractions : it is now preferable to use videoconference for hearings, the time limits for hearings are extended by two months due to exceptional circumstances (so people who could potentially be freed, will do a few more months). The priority to maintain order is also very obvious with the administration transferring detainees for disciplinary purposes, particularly in order to punish the various mutinies.
A few days later and after a big movement inside the jails, the government announced the release of 5,000 prisoners whose remaining sentence would not exceed two months, and those who had served two thirds of their sentence. The electronic tagging is though no longer proposed because the installation of the bracelets supposes that a probation officer goes to the inmate’s home to set up a box. In order to limit the spread the virus, the government has opted for parole. It’s cheaper too. Since this announcement of early release, we can already see that a selection is being made among the people who could benefit from this measure. It seems that those who have a few months left to go but have no registered address remain incarcerated, and of course the mutineers who participated in the acts of revolt will not be offered early release.

The Ministry of Justice also requests the public prosecutors’ offices not to enforce short sentences.
Of course this is only a postponement until the end of the health crisis. The sentences will be carried out afterwards. Besides that, detention warrants continue to be delivered by courts, especially for people who supposedly haven’t respected the confinement.
In concrete terms, even if it is possible to note a postponement of incarceration for short sentences and a reduction of “ordinary law” 1 investigations, for the time being, the authorities continue to lock up and punish very heavily those who violate health measures. The circular of the Ministry of Justice directly asks the prosecutors to focus on obvious offenses and to put aside for the moment longer investigations. Several people have already been sentenced to 4 months up to 1 year time for not complying with confinement. Others for theft of protective masks have also been sentenced up to 8 months with a detention order.
Let us not delude ourselves with the tricks of the power; the idea is a tighter management of the jails, more security and preventing any overflow in order to keep control or at least to give this impression. It is the State policy facing the pandemic even at the expense of the fight against the spread.

The occupancy rate of prisons is appalling in France. Prisoners are often forced to squeeze into cells with three or more inmates. Yet the police-justice machine keeps on locking up more and more people, to break any desire to fight against the capitalist economy and to fill its prisons with galleys, which are so profitable for the state.
It has also been announced that persons sentenced to jail time terms not fulfilled in March could have their sentences converted into community service (the “participation in community service at the request of the administrative authority” is one of the exceptions added to the new derogatory moving certificate introduced by the French State since the beginning of confinement along with “judicial or administrative summons”). It is clear that we are in danger of seeing an extension of forced labor, to make up for the lack of voluntary work. In that sense, the workshops of some of the jails have already changed their production to make masks for the public officials of the Ministry of the Interior (lol!).

As soon as the first measures were introduced for the entire population, the jails were directly impacted and the response inside was quick. The following Sunday, nearly a hundred inmates refused to return to their cells after a walk in Metz Penitentiary Centre.
On the first day of confinement, the yard was disrupted with blockade and refusal to reintegrate for several hours at La Santé (a jail in Paris), Angers, Le Mans, Montauban, Carcassonne, and Toulon… (See mutinies’ map) 2. In Argenton, detainees also blocked the courtyard and managed to access the roof. At the prison of Grasse, it is once again the courtyard that is blocked for several hours. The fifty or so detainees attacked the installations until the intervention of the ERIS (french security forces for prisons), who will fire live bullets.

Since the first week of containment, many calls to organize collectively have flourished on social networks, calling to block the prison walks simultaneously. The weekend did give the prison guards a cold sweat as there were fine acts of revolt in more than thirty prisons, ranging from refusal to reintegrate to the destruction of the prison.
At Béziers penitentiary centre, at the end of the walk, the inmates refused to reintegrate and attacked the installations, managed to break down doors and gates and even reached the last gate of the yard, the escape was not far off (too bad!) ; until the intervention of the ERIS during which the prison guards also fired live bullets. Five people have been sentenced in fast trial, one to twelve months of jail time for allegedly damaging a gate, Four other sentences of six months have been pronounced for damaging the wires of a telephone booth, participating in damaging a gate and for spitting on an ERIS guy.

The next day, the clutter was in the Uzerche detention centre, several fires started on two buildings; the detainees also attacked the gates, broke down the doors, took the wings, and climbed on the roof. The prison guards panicked and ran, facing the anger of those they crush daily. Eventually, the ERIS and the cops intervened and fired live bullets and rubber bullets.
The Prison Service reported 250 unusable cells. As a result of the mutiny, 330 inmates have been transferred across the country, and the Prison Service announced legal proceedings for those they identify as leaders.
Several texts came out, the demands seem to be more or less identical: screening for each prisoner and each warden, wearing of masks, provision of masks and hydro-alcoholic gel, and information on the situation of visits, canteens, medical care, and laundry bags… even the release of prisoners.

Concerning the Administrative Detention Centres (CRA), prisons for foreigners, the communication of the authorities has been much more discreet, but it appears that judges and prefectures trended to release detainees. Some centres have even been emptied, obviously not closed though. Should there be a change of directives, they will soon be refilled. In the CRA that remain open, it is of course a nightmare. There again the visits have been abolished and collective activities have been cancelled. There are no more outside workers and it’s a mess with the canteens. The cleaning is no longer done and the food is sometimes the same since the beginning of the confinement. However, the State continues to lock in undocumented prisoners who have been released (they go from jail to the CRA). Cops on duty go crazy and do not hesitate to sanction prisoners who would speak up. However, collective movements continue to come to light. For instance, the prisoners of Vincennes’ CRA have started a hunger strike to demand their release.

In the political sphere, the issue of detention is addressed by the right wing, the cops and hacks union, outraged at the potential release of prisoners, taking up the discourse of the far right in its classic role of guardian of capitalism using the security propaganda.
As far as the left is concerned, it is either silent or committed to demanding better prison conditions. Some associations for the defense of prisoners’ rights have even welcomed the suspension of prisoner’s rights to curb the pandemic. In the end, from democrats to fascists, everyone is coming together under the general call for a common effort and national solidarity!
In conclusion, calling for good care management in prison is an illusion. It lacks everything (mask, gloves, respiratory assistance, etc.) and the answers provided by the state are highly fanciful. The only supposedly lenient measure announced is the early release of 5,000 prisoners (out of about 75,000), a measure from which many prisoners, especially those with more problems or who took part in revolt movements against the “sanitary” precautions, are excluded. Courts keep locking up plenty of those who have allegedly failed to respect the confinement, who have “stolen” some vehicles to sleep in, who have invited themselves into empty properties to be confined there.

The State has obviously made choices concerning some groups to be cared for or even saved, and others to leave by the wayside; there is no doubt as to the category in which the State classifies prisoners.
In such a tense global context, mutinies have been the logical consequence to the French government’s response. These acts of revolt have created a joyful mess which, for the time being, the authorities have managed to contain not without difficulty. We would like to think that if coordinated revolts were to become widespread in the majority of prisons, many of them would be reduced to nothing, to scram would be trendy.

In this capitalist world, to think that the situation of detention centres can be managed with humanism and dignity is an illusion. They are full of proletariat and it will be so for as long as capitalism lasts.
During a pandemic, under a left-wing government, in so-called “normal” times, it’s always the same if prisons exist it’s to protect the State, the bourgeois classes and private property. To destroy prisons, we have to destroy all three, Meanwhile “Long live scram. Burn the clinks”.

Notes

1 The new dispositions announce that there will no longer be a statute of limitations for offenses and penalties from March 12th, which will allow cops to quietly resume their investigations where they were before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic
2 Muntinies’ map http://umap.openstreetmap.fr/fr/map/prison-cra-covid-19_433971#6/51.000/2.000

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