July 31, 2004

The Gaul Of Some People

Two Frenchman who were picked up in Afghanistan and have spent the last two years detained in Guantanamo left for France on Friday. Their lawyer had this to say:
"Each of (the two men) used the same expression, 'We have emerged from hell'."


"Hello? Kettle? Zis is zee crepe pan. You are black."

While I'm sure that during their time in Guantanamo they faced harsher treatment than too-cold brie, I'm equally sure that the French ought not to be shooting their mouths off about prison conditions. If you want to talk about hell, maybe we could mention Devil's Island (anybody read Papillon?), a French prison so cheery that some prisoners chose to swim a river teeming with piranha rather than stay any longer. One camp in the complex, Kourou, saw 4,000 convicts die in three years. But Devil's Island shut down in 1946. Surely things got better than that.

Maybe we should talk about Perpignan prison. (Anybody see Catch Me If You Can?) This place was so amiable that the six months Frank Abagnale spent there nearly killed him.
Abagnale was thrown, naked, into a cell in which he could not lie down or stand up and kept in total darkness. He was not let out of that cell until he was released. He had no means of grooming or cleaning himself, and was not even given a plate on which to eat the small amounts of food dumped just inside his door at irregular intervals. The sole amenity was a bucket which was not emptied very often.
Still, that was in the late 1960s, nearly 40 years ago. It's not like that today, right? C'mon...if that were the case, I wouldn't have wasted your time with this.

The recent publication of a French prison's doctor's diary found some interesting statistics. Among them:
She found the cells filthy and infested with rats and mice and the mattresses so teeming with lice and other insects that inmates collected them in jars to protest. Drug dealing was rampant, with some guards also being involved. Rape was frequent, as were self mutilations, suicides, and attempted suicides.

From the same link, some stats from an investigation done by the French newspaper Le Monde:

A high proportion of prisoners in French jails are remand prisoners, who are awaiting trial but have not been convicted of any offence, some of whom are later found not guilty. In July last year, 57 844 people were in jail in France, of whom 20143 were on remand. Prisoners awaiting trials and those condemned to less than one year's imprisonment are kept in prisons called "maison d'arrĂȘt," which are the most overcrowded - on average 20% above capacity.

Last year 118 prisoners committed suicide, more than 1000 attempted it, and there were 1362 self mutilations, including swallowing metallic objects - knives, forks, and even razor blades (usually taped or wrapped in cloth).

There were 953 hunger strikes lasting at least seven days and 278 attacks by inmates on guards; mistreatment and beating of prisoners by guards also took place.

And just for good measure, go here for an excerpt from a European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Punishment or Treatment report on some French prisons, or check out the International Observatory of Prisons' report, which calls the prisons "the dungeons of French democracy," and compares a visit to a French prison to "a descent into hell."

But don't just take my word for it. Take it from English trucker Paul Weston, whose letter from the French prison in which he was detained was published in the January 2, 2004 issue of the Yorkshire Evening Post.

I am now detained, as an innocent man, by the French authorities....I have been here three months in what I can only describe as inhumane conditions. I have been locked away in a cell which is 15ft long and 8ft wide. There are three of us in here, all English. There is myself, Dave - a 22-stone man from Fleetwood who is very ill and should not be here - and a third man who is a self-confessed drug trafficker. Paul says the three Englishmen leave their cells only for three
showers a week. The reason for this is that this prison is full of drug-crazed criminals and you are at risk, he writes. We are the only English here and we have been subjected to physical, racist, fascist abuse and both Dave and myself have been told that if we don't accept their drugs we are going to have our throats cut. The food here is terrible and I am losing weight. The French guards and senior management do not seem to care at all about our welfare or condition and still to this day are prepared to let us rot here in this cell 24 hours a day. I hope that all the people who read my letter will understand and absorb what kind of treatment goes on in countries supposed to be 'modern'.

The headline? "Life is hell in my French prison cell says trucker"


  1. Two things...

    First, if all the prisoners come together and threaten to start a riot, they can get out easily because the French guards will just surrender and let them go (actually one unarmed guy acting alone can probably pull this one off).

    Second, they let the prisoners take three showers a week? That's odd since the average Froggy showers about once every three years.

  2. Anonymous2:19 AM

    Funny, any time I hear the French complain about Guantanamo all I seem to think of is their treatment of Algerian nationals in the 1950's and 1960's.