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As Europe's Prisons Fill Up, France Tries a Different Method

As Europe’s Prisons Fill Up, France Takes a Different Approach
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Lisa Bryant recently visited the Eysses prison, in southwestern France, and has this report for VOA.

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A cook named William is working on making a sweet treat. Another is busily preparing paella, made of seafood and rice. They and other cooks are moving around a big kitchen in a hurry.

They are not getting ready to serve guests at a restaurant, however. They are prisoners working in a French jail.

The Eysses detention center is in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, a town in southwestern France. Eysses prisoners like 32-year-old William are part of the French government’s efforts to reduce the number of repeat criminals. Officials hope this would ease the country’s problem with overcrowding in prisons.

The number of inmates in France has risen from 48,000 in 2001 to almost 70,000 today.

Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron released measures meant to fight the country’s prison problems. The plan included reconsidering short-term prison sentences in favor of home detention. He also proposed building 7,000 new cells over the next four years to ease overcrowding. Other ideas included creating jobs for people recently released from prison as well as assistance programs for France’s growing prison population.

Some say Macron’s crime plan does not do enough, especially when it comes to fighting radicalism, which is spreading in French prisons.

But his plan has drawn support for pushing for experimental prison programs, such as the one at Eysses. The program is called Respect. It is based on a Spanish method that calls for rewarding prisoners with more freedom in exchange for good behavior.

Eighteen prisons have used the Respect program since 2015. Another 20 are expected to start using the program over the next two years.

The Respect program operates in only one part of Eysses. Becoming a part of the program is not easy. And prisoners who are accepted must sign a contract that lists several rules. Breaking those rules means risking expulsion from the program.

The program’s rules include spending 25 hours every week either working or attending educational or health-related activities. The inmates must also clean common spaces. If they follow the rules, they are rewarded with keys to their own cells and a feelings of freedom.

Philippe Sperandio is head of the Eysses detention center. He said it is still too early to know whether the program is helping to reduce the number of people who return to prison after being released. But he has seen a decrease in violence among inmates.

Sperandio said one prisoner that was about to be released told him that he had never experienced anything like Respect before.

“Will that help ensure that he won’t come back? I don’t know.” Sperandio said. “But he sees things differently. He knows what he’s lost.”

For William, the Respect program is very different from anything he has experienced during his 10 years in prison. He said he has a sense of “liberty within the walls.”

The program has helped create a stronger connection between Eysses guards and prisoners, as well. In the prison’s small garden, guard Carol Cerjak helps prisoners pull out the last of the winter vegetables.

Cerjak says she rarely sees violence when she is working at Eysses. “You see a prisoner coming here, and a week later, they’re completely different.”

This is sharply different from some other French prisons. Attacks carried out by radicalized prisoners led to a nationwide guard strike in January over prison conditions.

A recent report by the human rights group Council of Europe listed French prisons as among the most overcrowded in Western Europe. It also found France is one of only a few countries where prison populations are rising.

While Danish and Dutch prisons average one prisoner per jail cell, France averages 117 inmates per 100 cells. Overcrowding is especially severe in areas like Paris.

The Respect program is not the main answer for France’s problem with radicalism in its prisons. The country counts 1,600 radicalized prisoners. For them, French officials plan to build more cells and isolated areas to help stop the spread of radical Islam.

French Justice Ministry representative Youssef Badr said the smaller cells and one-on-one attention for radicalized prisoners are part of an effort to rehabilitate them.

Experts point to Denmark as an example of an open system that could also help fight radicalism. Danish inmates wear their own clothes, take part in sports and cook their own food to prepare for life outside.

At Eysses, inmate Jean-Luc is preparing the prison garden for spring planting. After 29 years behind bars, he is a believer of Respect’s ideas.

“I’ve been in some where even a dog wouldn’t enter,” he says. “Here, Respect gives us back our dignity.”

I’m Susan Shand. And I'm Bryan Lynn.

Lisa Bryant reported this story for VOA News. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

restaurant - n. place where you can buy and eat prepared food.

detention - n. the act of keeping someone in a prison

inmate - n. a person who is kept in a prison or mental hospital​

liberty - n. freedom

radicalism - n. the opinions and behavior of people who favor extreme changes especially in government

reward - v. to give something to someone for something good that has been done

garden - n. an area of ground where plants (such as flowers or vegetables) are grown

dignity - n. the quality of being worthy of honor or respect

isolate - v. to keep separate

rehabilitate - v. to bring someone back to normal