French prison blockades spread as minister meets union leaders

Written by on January 22, 2018

French prison officers have blockaded dozens of jails after renewed attacks by inmates increased fears for wardens’ safety.

The justice minister, Nicole Belloubet, was holding a crisis meeting with union leaders on Monday afternoon as industrial action by increasingly angry prison staff entered a second week.

Strikers had called for a “total blockade” of the country’s 188 prisons from 6am on Monday until the government met their demands for increased safety and higher wages. two-thirds of French jails were said to have been affected by protests, with 35 of them reportedly blockaded.

At the high-security Fleury-Mérogis prison outside Paris – Europe’s biggest jail, with 4,300 inmates – about 150 wardens blocked the entrance with barricades of tyres and wooden palettes.

Last week, protesting wardens at Fleury-Mérogis clashed with riot police who fired teargas at the picket lines to force their way through.

At other prisons, guards refused to work on Monday. Officials said police and gendarmes had been sent in to ensure prison security. Riot police were sent to certain prisons to break the blockade and disperse protesters.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has promised to unveil a “global prison reform” by the end of next month, but official pledges have failed to reassure prison staff.

At the weekend, an inmate at a jail in northern France attacked two guards with a metal table leg in the latest in a series of assaults against prison staff.

Yannick Lefebvre, a spokesman for the Ufap-Unsa union, which represents the majority of prison staff, said violence against warders was a “daily thing”. “This is once again an attack on the staff we cannot stand it any more,” he said.

On Friday in Corsica, three prisoners, including one under surveillance for suspected Islamic radicalisation, attacked two guards with a knife, injuring one seriously.

The prison protests were sparked after a German convict and former al-Qaida militant attacked three officers with scissors and a razor blade at a high-security prison in northern France.

On Sunday, also in northern France, dozens of inmates at two prisons refused to return to their cells after their afternoon exercise.

France’s prison service employs about 28,000 guards in 188 jails holding about 7,000 prisoners. Many prisons are severely overcrowded.

On Saturday, union officials rejected an offer to reinforce prison security with 1,100 new jobs, the setting up of special detention units for violent prisoners over the next four years and the reinforcing of prison security teams.

Belloubet called for “everyone to behave responsibly to ensure the security and operation of penitentiary establishments”. She expressed her “support and solidarity for the guards who were victims of serious and unacceptable attacks” and said she had seen for herself the “difficulties and risks they confront”.

Last week, Alexandre Caby, a deputy secretary of Ufap-Unsa, said prison guards were working in “appalling conditions”.

“We no longer have the means to work safely, whether it be human means or equipment,” he said. Caby called for profiling of prisoners to ensure they were placed in suitable establishments to lessen the threat to wardens.

Before meeting the prison officers’ unions on Monday, the justice ministry published figures showing the number of inmates across the country, which revealed the level of overcrowding in jails. On January 1st, there were 68,974 prisoners in detention in French penitentiary establishments, well exceeding the 59,765 places.

France has one of the highest rates of prison overpopulation in Europe, according to the World Prison Brief, coming fourth behind Macedonia, Hungary and Romania.

The overcrowding problem is worse in prisons where those being held awaiting trial or serving short sentences are held. Three French prisons, in Nîmes in southern France, La Roche-sur-Yon, in west central France and Meaux Chauconcin, north east of Paris have twice as many prisoners as official places.

Caby told BFM TV: “We asking the minister to hear and stops the damage, because the message she is sending to our personnel is that of a government that doesn’t respect us and that isn’t concerned about us.”


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