By Damon Mitchell • 27 April 2020 • 19:13
AS France’s Covid-19 lockdown began, the country had more than 72,000 people behind bars for a prison capacity of around 61,000, which was an all-time occupancy record.
A month later, emergency measures designed to contain the spread of the virus have reduced the prison population by around 10,000, bringing the occupancy rate close to the perfect threshold of 100 per cent.
However, experts have questioned why it took an unprecedented health emergency to make the government take action.
In facilitating the release of some detainees, the government “was motivated first and foremost by the health crisis, not by substantive considerations,” says François Bès of the International Prison Observatory (OIP). “They were effectively compelled by the epidemic,” he adds. “Hence our concern that we’ll soon plunge back into the catastrophic situation we had before.”
With their combination of cramped cells, poor sanitation and desperate overcrowding, prisons in France and elsewhere have been described as an ideal breeding ground for the Coronavirus.
“Inmates have been crammed together in designated areas, in order to free up space for suspected Covid-19 cases that need to be isolated,” says Bès, whose organisation has collected numerous witness accounts of inmates holed up three per cell in just nine square metres.
In the absence of proper testing for the virus, Covid-19 cases are being lumped together in quarantined areas with people suffering from ordinary ailments, thereby putting lives at risk, says Bès.
In France the state was reprimanded this year by the European Court of Human Rights for failing to tackle prison overcrowding, officials were moved to defer short prison sentences for non-dangerous offenders and facilitate early release for detainees who only had two months left to serve. The new measures, combined with a sudden decrease in the number of new sentences , account for the sharp drop in the overall prison population witnessed over the past month.
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