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June 4, 2014
June 4, 2014

France: For the abolition of every prison and the logic of incarceration

Author: * Translator: Lena Theodoropoulou
Source: Mediapart  Category: Letters from home
This article is also available in: elfr
France: For the abolition of every prison and the logic of incarceration

The philosophers Michel Onfray and Tony Ferri, the MP Noël Mamère, the ex-president of the International Prison Observatory Gabriel Mouesca, the lawyers Lucie Davy and Yannis Lantheaume and the ex-prisoner Philippe El Shennawy sign this manifesto and demand this archaic system that allows “the imprisonment of human by human to be thrown in the deepest dungeons of history”.

“Prison was built on the principles of philanthropy: during the time of their incarceration, the offenders would reflect, would improve, would be reborn. History defeated this sad nonsense. A prison can only be constructed on the foundations of absolute spiritual cruelty; otherwise imprisonment is just based on the hope that everything will go well after it ends, hence on something completely inconceivable”. When Catherine Baker (journalist of the libertarian movement, author and supporter of the abolition of prisons) was writing these words in March of 1984, in France there were 38,600 persons held in prisons. Thirty years later this number has increased to 69,000 and the average time of incarceration is more than double (from 5.5 to more than 12 months).

Unable to reassure a public opinion that keeps asking for more and more security, the politics that have been implemented for half a century now, lead to the incarceration of an increasing number of people, gradually transforming the welfare State to a punishing State. The construction plans for new prisons succeed one another with a frantic speed, while their instigators keep guaranteeing the end of the chronic problem of the overcrowding of prisons and the ‘humanisation’ of the conditions of detention. In reality though, as the number of cells increases, the number of the prisoners increases accordingly. Humanisation translates into a cold, sterilised environment, intense colours and electronic surveillance systems, in replacement of the old filthiness and the unhealthy dormitories. Yet, a ‘golden’ cage is still a cage; and the prisoner –or, as they are called nowadays ‘the user of public penitentiary services– remains a hamster in a cage. There is nothing, or almost nothing that the prisoner can do for the time to pass. They are occasionally offered a repetitive and underpaid job. Their correspondence? All but confidential. Their visits? Restricted, controlled and surveyed. In case of inappropriate behaviour they will be placed in the disciplinary area, a proper dungeon where the prisoner is lowered to the level of an animal. For the most indisciplined or those strictly surveyed? There is isolation, the white cell that destroys you slowly and painfully.

The list is infinite. “There is no need to repeat the obvious: incarceration makes you insane, ill, harsh and greedy”, Catherine Baker used to write many years ago. It is something exceptionally paradoxical as “no one desires to live in a world where some people take the risk to imprison some others, constituting them even more threatening than what they actually are”.

The basic punishment of the prisoner is the dead time that passes relentlessly. It is the sense of the loss of time that nibbles the body and the spirit. All the rest –the repletion of the cells, the isolation and the discipline– are nothing but different aspects of the issues that have as a result the slow death of those that society has rejected. The prisoners kill their time but it is actually the time that kills them. They grow old without having really lived and when they exit the prison we tend to say that they served their time. But time has corroded them; has shattered them. More than any other person, the prisoner is the carcass of time.

When the time of their release comes, they need to learn again how to live: to regain their autonomy while for months or years they were in a state of absolute dependence, even for the most simple of movement, having lost any kind of free will and effect of their everyday lives. They have to learn again the ‘outside’ manners, while they have spent so much time in the state of the special laws of the prison system. They have to learn again how to love and touch, while for years they were deprived of any physical contact. They have to learn again how to open doors, as for years they would only see them shutting in front of them. Finally, they have to learn again how to be complete as persons, while this could be something that they never learned in the first place.

From the international fora for human rights till the organisations dealing with prisons, through the International Prison Observatory, the General Auditor of the spaces depriving freedom or the few MPs that exercise their right to visit the prisons, the voices that denounce the conditions in French prisons increase. Nicolas Sarkozy considered them ‘a shame for Democracy’. Christine Taubira describes them as ‘numerous but empty of meaning’. And yet after all these statements we get to hear that they have to be reformed, that it is necessary and urgent to re-examine prisons, their role and target in the penal system, or event to reorganise them. “Literally speaking, reform is not unthinkable, but impossible” claims Catherine Baker: “The less the prison punishes, the less it meets its mission. Blaming the prisons for excessive punishment is like blaming a hospital for excessive curing”.

The prison is the prime condition that we should not attempt to reform, but only to abolish. Firstly, because the penitentiary institution is such, that any progress comes with the price of the equivalent regression. Thus, the institutionalisation of ‘special conditions’ of detention would allow some prisoners, but not all of them, to detour the disciplinary process. The abolition of the prison is a choice because the prison bears in it the relentless logic of exclusion, resulting in the marginalisation and impoverishment of those who were incarcerated due to their precarious place in society or their family environment. The reform of the prison is impossible, as its inherent violence causes to those that experience it hatred and hostility towards anyone else and towards the whole of society; feelings that any social body should avoid to reproduce. Its abolition is imperative because, according to all the studies, the prison has completely failed to prevent relapse and thus causes more harm than good to society.
But it should also be abolished because it constitutes a symbol. As a parasitic outgrowth of our societies, it seems to be the concentrated form of all evil. Isolation, solitude and separation are forced there at their maximum. Out there, the public space, urbanisation, architecture and transportation acquire more and more penitential features. Even in the outside world, work and the commercialised social relations reproduce incarceration, neurosis and desperation.

France was the first European country to abolish torture, besides the prudent voices of the time, supporting that without it French justice would be disarmed and the good prisoners would be left in the hands of criminals. Additionally, France was one of the first countries in the world to abolish slavery, this crime against humanity that has been committed for the past 200 years. In 1981, the abolition of the death penalty (in France) reflected a social need. Even though France was one of the first Western European countries to outlaw this absolute negation of the value of human life, the result of this action was paradoxical. Without managing to solve any ethical and political problem arising in the context of human rights, the abolition of the death penalty did not end the logic of extermination that still exists in our country. Those that we nowadays call ‘convicts serving long sentences’ are nothing less than condemned to a slow death; a social death. Having been adopted in order to respond to a strong social movement where sentimentalism was fighting with hypocrisy, the abolition of the capital punishment did not mark that much the symbolic rise of the Left (with the rise of Francois Mitterrand at the presidency of the country) but the confirmation of the limits in its thinking. In any case, the end of the death penalty ended neither death (since after the last execution of a prisoner in 1977 more than 3,000 convicts have committed suicide) nor the punishments in the prisons .

We argue that nowadays, holding a person incarcerated does not mean that you punish them: it means that you permit the perpetuation of an archaic system that is now obsolete and incompatible with postmodern societies. We demand this abhorrent practice that allows the isolation and confinement of human by human, to be thrown in the deepest dungeons of history. It is our belief that it will not be long before imprisonment is considered by humans as the most irrefutable evidence of the brutality, the moral and emotional decline that characterised humanity till the beginning of the 21st century. We deny that Justice has the right, in the name of the law, to condemn people in imprisonment.

Alain Cangina, president of the association Renaître (it is consisted of ex-prisoners; it intervenes and highlights cases of mistreatment in prisons)

Audrey Chenu, ex-prisoner, teacher and author of the autobiographic book Girlfight,

Lucie Davy, lawyer

Philippe El Shennawy, ex-prisoner,

Tony Ferri, philosopher

Samuel Gautier, cinematographer

Yannis Lantheaume, lawyer

Jacques Lesage de La Haye, writer and psychologist

The unknown inmate, prisoner in a French prison and blogger under the same name

Philippe Bouvet, professor of history/geography and father of a detained person.

Thierry Lodé, biologist

Noël Mamère, independent MP of the party Europe, Ecology and Green (European Green Party??)

Gabriel Mouesca, historic member of the Basque separatist group Iparretarrak and ex-president of the International Prison Observatory (OIP)

Yann Moulier-Boutang, economist and essay writer

Michel Onfray, philosopher

Antoine Pâris, journalist

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