Words and books. What you need to know about our prisons

Words and books. What you need to know about our prisons
Words and books. What you need to know about our prisons

Prison, cure for all our ills. No other solution can be found against the followers of this violence fueling the insecurity which is plaguing our society. It is increasingly difficult to escape this obviously reductive discourse. A speech which finds a complacent media echo and which we therefore cannot be surprised to find accepted as a primary truth by those who are thus fed with it. And what does it matter if most of these prison enthusiasts have never set foot in a prison and are even unaware, or at least do not want to know, what is happening there!

Among the most overcrowded prisons in Europe

In such a context, the work of Sylvain Lhuissier, which offers a completely different point of view, is all the more meritorious as he judges on evidence. Even if it is feared that it is not promised great success. Its title itself, “Decarcerate” announces the author’s intention. He seeks, in fact, to demonstrate to us, even if it means going against the received ideas of the moment, that not only are judges not lax, but above all that our prisons, as they are organized, cannot be considered as the miracle formula for punishing and rehabilitating, which should nevertheless be the case.

Thus, we must already measure the overload of the cells. It is an abstraction only for those who do not have to endure it. With an “average occupancy rate of 125% (75,677 people detained for 61,359 places)”, indicates Sylvain Lhuissier, “France occupies third place in the inglorious list of the most overcrowded prisons in Europe”. Suffice it to say that this promiscuity leads to very different individuals living together. And we know who influences who. In addition, “as of December 1, 2023, among the 51,500 people detained in remand centers, 39% are in pre-trial detention, that is to say incarcerated while awaiting their judgment.” And few people find the opportunity to work there (for remuneration of around 20% of the minimum wage) or to train. “Among the agents of the Ministry of Justice,” notes the author, “there are 30,000 officials responsible for monitoring prisons and 5,000 responsible for the integration of convicted persons. It should also be remembered that “more than 35% of people detained suffer from mental disorders, eight times more than those on the outside”. No wonder “seven times more people commit suicide in prison than outside”. On the other hand, relatively few people escape from our prisons. Around twenty escapes per year, which are certainly closely followed by the media, which are less attentive to the 59% of prisoners sentenced again after being released, as an eloquent demonstration of a system which produces effects opposite to those expected.

A cost of €100 per prisoner, per day

Is the construction of new prisons the right solution? In fact, experience teaches above all that the number of places mechanically increases the number of incarcerations, since it avoids the search for alternative solutions. Alternative solutions which have nevertheless proven their worth, more particularly with those who have not yet become high-level delinquents and proven criminals. However, when the level of incarceration reaches a record rate, as is the case in the United States, it above all reveals the divisions within society, in this case at the expense of the African-American community, without really reduce crime.

In fact, notes the author, “we do not find, on French soil, two identical prisons and we are far from a “public detention service” which would guarantee homogeneous incarceration methods across the territory”. What the supporters of all prisons also pretend to ignore is that imprisonment has a cost. “One day of detention,” notes Sylvain Lhuissier, “is on average €100. Closing a citizen costs the community more than 30,000 euros per year. Four times more expensive than a student’s education for a year.

A necessary debate

Sylvain Lhuissier’s essay, let us point out, does not err on the side of naivety. He does not deny the necessity of imprisonment for certain criminals. Knowing that these proven criminals “represent only 1.5% of people sentenced to a prison sentence”. It simply questions a system which rubs shoulders, in such deplorable conditions, with these individuals who are known to be dangerous, with those who have committed outrages or acts of rebellion, or with those who are guilty of traffic offences. What the author tells us, supported by factual data, is that an adult society cannot sustainably avoid rational reflection on the merits and effectiveness of its repressive system. Which makes his book a useful contribution to a necessary debate.



An essay by Sylvain Lhuissier. Rue de l’Échiquier publisher. €12.



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