The EU’s Commissioner for Human Rights has recently issued a strong criticism of conditions in French prisons. So what’s it like to spend time in our local jails? Patrick Middleton talked to two Brits, a man and a woman, with recent first hand experience
Vic, in his fifties, came here some years ago from London’s East End. His troubles started when he was found to have a false passport. Then he was linked in – wrongly (and that’s been accepted) – with laundering drugs money.
“It’s pretty clear that even if you can come up with the bail money - and I could - if you’re a foreigner you’re likely to be remanded in custody. The case against me was very weak but the judge sent me off to prison in Draguignan. Years ago I’d done a spell in the nick back in England so I had something to compare it with and it wasn’t such a shock as it might have been to a first timer. When I arrived I went through the usual check-in routine - body search, mug shot and so on - and I was put in a cell with four Arabs. Anyway, I’d kept my watch - that’s allowed - but they’d warned me during Reception that I might not keep it for long. I just shrugged. I’d been brought up in a tough area of London and I’d done quite a bit of door work at clubs. Well, one of these guys in the cell thought he’d like my watch. I had to show him that was bad thinking. I did and the word quickly got round.”
“The worst thing ... boredom”
“They soon moved me to another cell, this time with a Corsican guy who’d just got a long sentence and was awaiting transfer to another prison. He spoke English and we got on well. Like me, he could handle himself and had no trouble. Anyone who’s weak and is obviously an easy target can have a bad time. Paedophiles get roughed up a lot and they sometimes try to pay another prisoner to protect them. One made me an offer. No way! I reckon about sixty per cent of the guys in Draguignan were Arabs. There didn’t seem to be much racist aggro but there was quite a lot of fighting among the Arabs themselves.
“The worst thing was the boredom. We were banged up for 22 hours a day and you get very little time outside your cell to mix with other prisoners. It’s in that cell you eat, drink, shit, sleep and just get through your time. You get used to it but it’s not really nice to eat all your meals next to a bog. The food’s pretty bad but you’re allowed to buy extras - if you’ve got the money - in what they call “the canteen”, that’s a sort of general store. You pass the time talking, smoking, watching telly and reading - if you can get anything in English. You get to walk around the yard for an hour a day and the rest of the time, if there’s nothing else to do, you doze or look at the ceiling.
“There’s not much chance of contact with the outside world. For the first month of the six I was in Draguignan, I had practically none at all. After that you’re allowed visits and your lawyer can make telephone calls on your behalf. You get visited by a social worker who can also make calls for you - mine was very helpful. I also got a visit from a guy from the British consulate in Marseille. Bloody useless! He told me his main job was looking after lost property and he could do nothing for me. As to the guards, I’d say that most of them were decent guys who just did their job and didn’t give you trouble if you followed the rules more or less. They didn’t seem to notice, for example, when pot was being smoked, despite the smell. I’d say to anyone going into prison here you need to look after yourself and keep your head together.”
Betty, a 57 year old grandmother from Dagenham, who has also lived here for several years, was suspected of money laundering after a bank employee noticed that she and her husband were regularly receiving quite large sums of money from the UK, actually to be used to buy a house on someone else’s behalf.
“It started like a nightmare and went on that way. One day about twenty policemen - all dressed in black and with guns - arrived at our house just outside Antibes. My husband and my father-in-law were handcuffed - all this in front of my 6-year old granddaughter - and we were all taken off to the main police station in Nice. I was pushed into a holding cell where there were several other women. Prostitutes, it turned out. It was filthy and stank of urine. I learned later it was hosed down every morning but this was the late afternoon. Frankly, I was scared stiff. For the three days I was there I couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep. The police questioned me then I was taken to the court house in Nice to face a judge. He just didn’t believe that I didn’t know what it was all about and I’m sure nor did Ted, my husband. He had me transferred to the women’s wing in the Nice prison.”
“I’ve never forgotten the sound”
“I was scared stiff all over again. The thing I noticed was how crowded it seemed. I was put through Reception, strip-searched and photographed, and then put in a cell with four other women - a Bulgarian, a Hungarian, a Malaysian and an older French lady who was mixed up with some business about fake passports. The others were prostitutes. I soon realised I’d been lucky. There were a lot of Arab girls there who had noisy cat fights and some of the Russians were terrible bullies. I got on well with my cellmates, especially the Malaysian girl who was only twenty but was a very strong personality and gave me a lot of support.
“It was summer and very hot. Imagine five women shut up for 22 hours a day in a cell meant probably for two. You have to use the toilet in front of the others and that’s hard to get used to. My worst memory is of the Hungarian girl having a miscarriage in the middle of the night. I’ll never forget the sound of the foetus dropping into the toilet bowl. There was blood everywhere. We banged on the door to get the guard on duty to come. She sent for a doctor from outside and seemed really concerned - more than that doctor, I’d say. I’ve got nothing really against the guards. Some of them even gave me a smile now and then. I certainly saw no deliberate ill-treatment.
“Time drags inside, I tell you. You can’t even look forward to meals - the food’s awful, even with the odd snack you buy - and there’s nothing to do shut up all day like that. The worst moment for me was when I heard the clink-clunk of the door being locked at seven o’clock in the evening and I knew it wouldn’t open again for twelve hours. It’s hard to occupy your mind. During my four months I got hold of a couple of English books. One was Spike Milligan’s autobiography - I read it three times - and the other a life of Mary, Queen of Scots. When I look back I just don’t know how got through it. And remember - I was innocent.”
Vic and Betty (not their real names) are now free once again and living locally. At the time of writing there are just over 58,000 inmates in French jails, of whom one-third are on remand and so, like Vic and Betty, presumed innocent. Last year 122 prisoners committed suicide.
From Reporter 115 - June/July 2006