Global Policy Forum

Women within Walls


By Marina da Silva*

Le Monde diplomatique
October 2003

French prisons have not been so full since 1944. More arrests and longer sentences have swollen the numbers of inmates - and women from poor backgrounds, especially those jailed after drug busts at airports, are now being crowded in.

"When a woman arrives in prison: a) They put her in a bath, spray her with disinfectant, let her soak for 15 minutes, and rinse her; b) They take her to the doctor and vaccinate her against rabies, cholera, and malaria; c) They lock her up in a cell with her kit and make her wait.
Why is pepper forbidden in prison? a) Because it's an aphrodisiac; b) To prevent prisoners from throwing it into guards' eyes; c) To stop them turning into dragons if they swallow it.
How much does a woman earn in prison? a) Two euros an hour; b) Three; c) Eleven."

Actress Fanny Ardant is answering the questions. The team from Radio-Meuf (Chick Radio) is under her spell, and so are 50 women in the audience for a programme recorded weekly by inmates at Fleury-Mérogis prison. The unique broadcasts have been on the air for 16 years, led by professionals trained in diction and writing, thanks to the Association de recherche d'animations culturelles (cultural activity research association), which fights for prisoner rehabilitation (1).

Ardant is welcomed by fans shouting "you're gorgeous" but that doesn't save her from awkward questions like "What do you think of the war against Iraq?" Then tension eases and the mood lightens. It is easy to forget where you are. Once the recording is over, though, reality returns. "I pack pearls all day," says Laura, 20 (2). "After 1,000 tubes, I've barely made 10 euros." Elodie, a little older, has decided not to work for those rates. She is lucky to be able to study instead.

Fleury-Mérogis is almost an upmarket prison. There are many activities, courses, and training facilities, and the teaching help for women inmates seems to indicate a real drive towards rehabilitation. But these cannot hide the brutality of prison, which provokes regular suicides: according to a prisoner, Carole, there have been many suicides within a short time. The length of sentences matters as well as prison conditions. "Since Nicolas Sarkozy became interior minister, women have had their sentences doubled or tripled for minor offences," says Carole. "This is the terrible price we pay for his security campaign." In July 2003 French prisons broke the record for overpopulation (3). A draft bill under Justice Minister Dominique Perben's name, already denounced by the magistrates' union, will result in heavy crackdowns on underprivileged populations. In Fleury-Mérogis, that is already happening.

Mayra, 23, is Guatemalan; her three-month-old daughter was born in prison. Mayra was a few weeks pregnant when "the sky fell in". She was smuggling half a kilo of cocaine; her husband had swallowed twice that amount sealed in capsules. "One of the capsules burst and he died instantly. I didn't even know that could happen." All she saw of France was Charles de Gaulle airport and Fleury-Mérogis. "In Guatemala, the economic situation is awful. I had a secretary's diploma, but no work; neither did my husband. We were living with my parents, with our little boy, who's now six. We decided to make or break."

Liliane lived in French Guyana for 15 years, after fleeing Surinam. She was arrested there and transferred to prison in France. "I lost everything in 1987," she says. "My whole family was killed except my mother (she had an amputation), and my sister, who fled to Holland. I spent three years in a refugee camp in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni." At 35, she is the mother of two girls, aged 14 and 15. She entrusted one to a friend; the other stayed with her father and she has had no news of her. Liliane was sentenced to four years for drug trafficking. She was bewildered. "I couldn't speak French. In Guyana, everyone understands our language, Taki-Taki. No one does here. The loneliness is too much. I'm ill all the time, it's stressful."

Maria is 20, a mixed-race American, born in the Bronx and brought up by her single mother, who developed serious health problems. Maria, who had her own child, had to work in bars to meet all their needs. She says: "After 9/11 it was a lot harder to get by." On a flight from Frankfurt to New York via Paris, she was picked up with 6kg of ecstasy in her luggage. "I think what they paid me would've been enough to live on for six months at most," she says, "but I didn't realise it then."

Other women are Algerian, Polish, Angolan, Nigerian, South African, Bolivian, Brazilian, Filipino: 68% of the inmates of Fleury-Mérogis are foreign - it's an annexe of the third world, a peculiarity in the correctional system. "All women arrested at Roissy (Charles de Gaulle) airport end up in Fleury," says its director. The many ethnic backgrounds cause problems over communication, cultural differences and eating habits. Drug trafficking, pimping and immigration illegalities are the most common offences. Drug traffickers are often fined heavily by customs and when they cannot pay, they can be shut away for extra time at the end of their sentences.

Within the prison administration, the obvious link between poverty and petty crime is acknowledged. "Most women work and send money to their families," says a female warden, who has worked in male prisons. "They're not helped, and on top of that they're supporting people on the outside." She says the common characteristic of the women is their vulnerability. "Few women resort to violence, but many have been victims of it."

France has 2,275 women prisoners (3.7%) against 60,000 men. The figure is stable and in line with the global average. Spain and Portugal are the European countries with the highest rate of women prisoners, at 9% and 10% respectively, well above average. But the figures do not generate much curiosity and the amount of research is minimal.

Barrister Benoí®t Dietsch says women are more law-abiding than men, and less penalised, an anachronism in an age of gender equality. He says: "The prison population as a whole is characterised by poverty, precariousness and exclusion, but this is especially so for women, whose distress is always more obvious." This social and psychological fragility seems to be taken into consideration. Women are usually considered as accomplices, drawn in by men against their will. This legal approach is also tied to maternity, which persuades judges to clemency.

But another lawyer, Jean-Louis Chalanset, points out: "Whenever they are held as directly responsible for drug trafficking, aggravated procuring, or political or terrorist crimes, they receive heavier sentences and are treated more harshly." In Fleury, "political prisoners are always stigmatised with red labels," says Fabienne Maestracci (4), who was imprisoned for 13 months in connection with the investigation into the assassination of the Corsican prefect, Claude Erignac. "Their movements are planned so as to eliminate any possibility of contact between them." Joí«lle Aubron and Nathalie Ménigon, two Action directe prisoners classified as "requiring special surveillance", were kept in strict isolation from February 1987 to October 1999, even though their sentences should have allowed them to be moved and to benefit from improved detention conditions.

Of 196 prisons, 63 can take women. The criteria are sometimes vague, as the maisons d'arríªt (5) often house convicted women, although they are intended for those accused and awaiting trial. The dispersal of prisons throughout France makes it hard to keep in touch with family and friends. "The costs of trains, taxis, and hotels are prohibitive for families wanting to visit and the women feel abandoned," says Genevií¨ve, a volunteer visitor.

Other establishments are annexes built on to male prisons. Because of the few women inmates, there is no training, services or activities. There are no segregated wings for minors, and only 25 establishments are equipped to receive mothers with babies, which they are allowed to keep until the age of 18 months. Around 50 women inmates give birth each year.

Hilaria is a smiling one-year-old with bright eyes, the product of a moment of stolen intimacy between her parents, both prisoners. "She arrived like a bombshell for the prison," says her mother. "I was immediately transferred from Marseille to Joux-la-Ville, near Dijon, then to Fleury-Mérogis, and I'm waiting for parole that isn't coming." Sentenced 10 years ago to 18 years for homicide, she has the feeling that "each additional year in jail builds up her hatred".

The nursery seems a haven. Cells are more spacious and better adapted, and they stay open all day. Mothers and children can come and go and share common areas. There are playgrounds and a garden. "Children are free here," says a warden. "It's really the mother who benefits from the available treatment. Children can consult a medical team (psychologist, paediatrician, midwife) every fortnight, and we are kept up to date by regular meetings. Our role is to keep watch. There are cases of mistreated children, but they are the exception. Surprisingly, these children are quite alert. Probably because they have vital, uninterrupted contact with their mothers for the first 18 months."

But how does a child cope with the absence of any horizon, or noises and rhythms of the city or country? What will be the result of this exclusive relationship with the mother, and of the lack of wider family contact, especially with the father or other male presence? What of the abrupt rupture after 18 months with a mother still serving time? Some children may get out almost daily to their families, foster homes or day nurseries, but that is not the case for everyone.

The mother of baby Pamela says: "There are nine children and only two places in the nursery. French women have priority. I can neither work nor get away to take any courses. I'm a foreigner and get no assistance or allowance. In prison, money is a problem. Everything comes down to that. I'd like to rent a television for my daughter but at 9 euro a week, I can't afford it." Pamela and her mother are waiting to go back to Colombia. They could have been freed two months ago, but the expulsion procedure has dragged on. Without family, friends or support, they were told by an overworked teacher they should write to the prefecture (departmental authorities). This approach doesn't attack poverty. It takes it out on the poor.

Marta says: "The average cell size is 100 square feet. But it's never your own space. You must remain visible day and night. You feel harassed even in your sleep. The cells are searched regularly and at random, anytime the administration feels like it. We are stripped of any sense of intimacy. I've seen women crying out of sheer powerlessness." When she arrived, Marta had the feeling that "being in prison was like death".

The right to unimpeded correspondence has been recognised since 1983, for those convicted and those awaiting trial. Since 1987 work has not been compulsory, but is the only option for those without other means of support. Cooking, cleaning, supplies, sewing, and packaging jobs are paid extremely variable salaries - $112-$900 a month - depending on the jobs and locations. Before January 2003 the prison used to deduct board from that. Labour laws do not apply to prisoners, and they have no social security or recourse to action if they lose their jobs.

Women in prison feel they are losing their identity as well as their liberty. Betty said: "I heard my name called as though it were someone else's. Maybe it was because they did not use my first name. More than being locked up, more than losing your way of life, there is constant dealing with the guards, running up against them. A guard has a hundred faces and comes back like a hundred nightmares to break up a day." These nightmares destroyed Betty's peace of mind.

Evelyne could not stand being alone and used to eat in front of the mirror, "just to see someone, so as to feel less lonely" before realising that "there was suddenly no one to look at, and no one looking at you". Annie discovered that "anyone can land in jail, but underprivileged people most of all, as though the parts had already been cast". For her, the crimes of women reflect "a terrifying fragility and sense of danger". Although "prison can represent a kind of asylum for some women. That gives you an idea of where they were before."

Marie-Paule runs a plastic arts workshop in Fleury-Mérogis and meets 60 inmates a year - the elite, with their social skills intact. She is struck by social, emotional, and mental despair in a wide range of women. "During difficult moments in life, anyone can find themselves in prison. But ignorance and prejudice remain high. Prison gets rid of problems on the outside. Its role is to protect society. No one wants to know what goes on inside."

The offences women are convicted for are revealing: they are frequently crimes involving money or domestic disputes, seldom violent crime. Photographer Jane Evelyn Atwood, who has worked with women in prison in Europe, Russia, and the United States since 1989, says that there are more women in prison today because drugs legislation and penal policy have changed. In the US, 89% of women who are jailed have committed non-violent crimes: bounced cheques, stolen chequebooks, false credit cards, drug use or dealing. First offences are almost always related to drug use, and increasing numbers of women are arrested and convicted for these reasons (6).

Women in prison are young. One in four is under 25 and one in two under 30. They have been traumatised by death, separation, divorce, foster homes, or situations of violence or alcoholism. Around 20% are illiterate and 50% have only primary education, according to the International Prison Observatory. Many have suffered psychiatric troubles before prison. They are much more prone than men - 45% against 18% - to take and be offered anti-depressants and tranquilisers.

The sense of shame and guilt linked to detention is stronger for women, and their grief shows in their bodies, as they develop psychosomatic ailments, fall ill, have eating and digestive disorders. They stop menstruating, sometimes for the length of their sentence. They commit violence against themselves - deep depression, suicide, or self-mutilation are all at very high rates. Around 100 suicides a year are recorded by the prison administration, a figure constantly rising and twice what it was 15 years ago (7). In some prisons, suicide attempts are punished with solitary confinement, causing more despair and more attempts, and amplifying the mental torture.

Trying to put faces and stories to statistics makes you aware there are now more women in prison than ever. The average sentence has increased by 50% over 15 years, and the rate of repeat offences, around 70%, is at a record level. Prison works as a simple inequality management tool and leads to ever greater rifts in society. It is "denial of freedom, but also of humanity," as the French Senate and National Assembly report of 2000 indicated, alarmed at the "high number of people not belonging in prison: drug addicts, psychiatric patients, illegal aliens, the very old or terminally ill, youths of legal age, and accused awaiting trial".

Women resort to crime to escape difficulties in surviving, emotional hardship and lack of social prospects. Outside the prisons, consumer goods are ever more ostentatiously displayed and yet remain inaccessible.

So when the prisoners are returned to society, after being locked away for months or years in a state of permanent submission, what are their real chances of making a fresh start?

* About the Author: Marina da Silva is a journalist


(1) The programme is broadcast internally: the first prison television broadcast was on 20 June 2003.
(2) Séverine Vatant, "Droit du travail au rabais pour les détenus", Manií¨re de voir, n° 71, October-November 2003.
(3) 60,963 detainees. Occupation rates of cells can reach as much as 200%.
(4) Fabienne Maestracci, Les Murs de vos prisons, Albiana publishers, Ajaccio, 2002.
(5) There are maisons centrals for long-term prisoners and multiple offenders; maisons d'arríªt for accused awaiting trial and prisoners with sentences of under a year; centres de detention for terms less than three years; and centres penitentiaries, which include wings for categories of detention.
(6) Jane Evelyn Atwood, Too Much Time: Women in Prison, Phaidon Press Inc, London, 2000.
(7) There were 120 suicides in 2002, a rate seven times higher than the outside world.
(8) Franí§ois Hulot, secretary of the CGT-Pénitentiaire union, in "Compte rendu des travaux de la commission justice du Parti communiste franí§ais," Paris, February 2001.

Translated by Jeremiah Cullinane

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.