French Prisons Are Becoming An Embarrassment

It's an especially hot summer in French jails. In July, the number of detainees hit 64,250 people—the highest number since World War II, when jails were crowded with accused Nazi collaborators. Worse: the prisons are operating at 126 percent of capacity—far higher than the European average—with some French jails housing twice as many inmates as there is room for. Seven in 10 prisoners are living in overcrowded conditions, according to France's International Prisons Observatory (OIP), with much of the overcrowding concentrated in maisons d'arrêt—jails that house both the accused awaiting trial as well as convicts serving relatively short terms. "Not a day goes by without one or more facilities calling to let us know about an attack," says Claude Tournel, assistant secretary-general of the UFAP, a prison personnel union.

Prisons have long been an embarrassment for France, the self-proclaimed "homeland of human rights." Since 1992 the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly rapped Paris for "inhumane and degrading" treatment of prisoners. In 2005, during a 16-day visit to France, then Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Alvaro Gil-Robles said of a section of Paris's La Santé prison, "In my whole life, apart from perhaps Moldova, I have never seen a center worse than that one." But the overcrowding has worsened since former Interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy ascended to the president's office in May 2007, and brought his tough, law-and-order approach with him.

Forgiveness is not his style. Until last summer, Bastille Day (which commemorates the July 14, 1789 prison raid) featured the bizarre 19th-century ritual of collective presidential pardons, in which thousands of prisoners would see their sentences shortened by fiat every year. Over time, the prison system became dependent on these pardons to thin out populations during the summer, when heat can aggravate tensions. Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, scaled back the practice by eliminating the prospect of sentence reductions for a number of crimes, including drunken driving and spousal abuse. Then Sarkozy stopped it cold, declaring the practice "quasi-monarchical."

More controversially, Sarkozy got tough on repeat offenders, championing a new law that allows judges to lock up the most dangerous criminals for life even after their regular prison sentences have ended. He also imposed minimum prison sentences last August where judges previously had more discretion. The move was something of a carryover from his days as Interior minister, when he maintained a rocky relationship with the country's magistrates, showily and repeatedly questioning their judgment when a convict on conditional release re-offended. Judges have complained of such "penal populism." "He made his whole career as Interior minister on that," says Martine Herzog-Evans, a penal law specialist in Reims.

One potential problem with Sarkozy's approach, say criminal-law experts, is that sending people to jail for even a short time adds to overcrowding, which can increase recidivism. "Everything that promotes rehabilitation is weighed down by overpopulation," says Patrick Marest of the OIP. But reform is on the way. Last week, Justice Minister Rachida Dati presented a bill to cabinet that would eliminate overcrowding by broadening the use of electronic tracer bracelets and making probation available to more convicts. But magistrate and prison personnel unions and penal-law experts say the bill doesn't go nearly far enough. They say the 13,200 new prison spots that Dati has promised to supply by 2012 wouldn't even cover the current deficit, and they are skeptical the new bill's measures will be adequately financed. Hundreds of new personnel would be needed to properly support and monitor convicts serving their sentences outside prison walls. "The measures regarding detention pending trial and probation go in the right direction," says Marest, "but in an extremely timid and insufficient way."

Sarkozy's hard line means he will need to put more effort into burnishing France's human-rights reputation. In March, a French court awarded €€3,000 to a convicted sex offender who complained that he was imprisoned for five years with two other men in a cell made for one person, with open, unventilated toilets. This was the first time a French court had ever sided with a prisoner against prison authorities, and the news traveled far. At a recent press conference in Paris, Vladimir Putin responded to a query about Russia's poor human-rights record with a sharp question of his own: "What is the situation in French prisons?" Touché.