Surprise visit to Villeneuve prison: "the prisons became the asylums of the 19th century"

The current presidents of the Hérault Bar Association, Maxime Rosier and Iris Christol, offered a surprise visit, this Wednesday, March 15, to the Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone prison center. Feedback…

In what context did you carry out this action at Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone prison?

The “trust in the judicial institution” law of 22 December 2021 (in its article 18) aligned the power of monitoring and visiting places of deprivation of liberty of the Presidents of the Bar with that of parliamentarians. This year, we have therefore decided to carry out a joint national operation, on March 15, so that all the Presidents of the Bar of France organize surprise visits. It is important that the Presidents of the Bar ensure that in these places of deprivation of liberty, the detainees are not, moreover, deprived of their dignity.

From the feedback that I have on the national level, there was no major obstacle, except that opposed by the Chancellery which manages the prisons and which, curiously, did not give his agreement only for a “visitor”, the President of the Bar or a delegate, no more. Which is absolutely contrary to the spirit of the text. The Chancellery has thus proved that it is much more narrow-minded than the Ministry of the Interior, which manages the police stations, the gendarmeries and the administrative detention centers for which there was no opposition.

And in Montpellier, how did it go?

Alright. We spent three hours there, from 9 a.m. to noon. We introduced ourselves unexpectedly and we were very cordially welcomed by Franca Annani, who has been the director of the penitentiary center since 2019. We notably discussed figures which sum up prison issues well and which obviously revolve around the quality of welcome, overcrowding…

An example ?

You are aware that France was condemned in January 2020 by the European Court of Human Rights for inhuman and degrading conditions of detention. In cells of 9 m2, the detainees find themselves in groups of three, including one on a mattress on the floor. In Villeneuve, there is a capacity of 635 detainees and, at the moment, there are 848 (353 people in pre-trial detention and 495 convicts) with zero mattresses on the ground. To make a comparison, in Nîmes, we reach thresholds of more than 200%! Concerning access to work, health care and school, here too the shoe pinches.

Indeed, to obtain reductions in sentence, it is necessary to be able to justify an investment. The problem is that for an average of 850 detainees, there are only… 40 places in the workshop and 150 auxiliary posts (cleaning of common areas, meal service, distribution of books…). It is far too little. It’s a fool’s market. The justice system asks prisoners to fulfill objectives that it does not allow them to achieve.

Iris Christol and Maxime Rosier.

In terms of access to care, it’s the same. There is an extremely dynamic team but due to prison overcrowding the number of appointments is necessarily spaced out. So you can’t justify really sustained care. Finally, the number of guards does not increase according to the surplus of prisoners, so this leads to tensions and significant management difficulties.

Have you been able to visit the establishment?

Yes, we saw the school facilities. We spoke with the person who takes care of the Hector newspaper, written by prisoners. We were also able to meet prisoners. In the isolation ward, they are alone in the cell. These are places of deprivation of liberty that are pushed to their climax. We are going to the borders of solitude with very significant risks of psychological degradation. Ditto for the disciplinary district.

We even visited a CProU cell (emergency protection cell) dedicated to people at risk of suicide. It’s very impressive because there are no corners, no corners, a fireproof mattress and paper pajamas to avoid hanging yourself with them.

What impressed you the most during this visit?

It’s because there is an overrepresentation of people who have a mental illness in detention. This poses very big problems because, today, the prisons have become a bit like the asylums of the 19th century. It places people who have bizarre behaviors with passages to the act that are transgressive. Instead of fixing the cause, we only treat the symptom. That is to say, they are locked up in prison.

Have you planned any other visits?

Yes, we want to set up thematic visits. Including a day on the course of care and see the health unit.

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