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Covid-19: prisons in fear of becoming clusters

Covid-19: prisons in fear of becoming clusters

As the virus continues to circulate, several detention centers have seen Covid-19 break through walls. Members of the prison community are warning of the risk of a "hecatomb", aggravated by the return of prison overcrowding.

Fresnes, Nanterre, Réau… in Île-de-France, as throughout the territory, clusters are multiplying in prison centres. "I don't know if it's a miracle, but all the tests have been coming back to us negative for four weeks while the establishments around us are all experiencing epidemic peaks", notes Bruno Clément-Petremann, director of the Health Prison located in the 14th arrondissement of the capital. To the point that he wonders “how long this will last. »

Life has been slowing down in this establishment since the appearance of Covid-19. Bruno Clément-Petremann says he is “lucky” for the moment. In the corridors of his remand center, a few rare prisoners circulate from one point to another, mask on the face and hydro-alcoholic gel available. The followers of the mask under the nose wipe a benevolent reminder from the director. “Here, we encourage a lot of dialogue,” he says with a smile. But when he returns to the walls of his office, the manager reveals his concern. Because the balance is fragile. In this establishment, which was completely renovated in 2019, the library and the gymnasium closed their doors a few months after their inauguration, to limit the spread of the virus. Collective activities have also ended, with the exception of walks and family visits. “Everything is suspended”, regrets the director. "I don't know how much longer we'll last. Depriving detainees of activities for too long is complicated,” he sighs.

Especially since Bruno Clément-Petremann has to face a new problem: the return of prison overcrowding. In March 2020, the orders of the Keeper of the Seals at the time, Nicole Belloubet, allowed the early release of more than 12 detainees in three months, in order to limit the risk of contamination. At Health, this measure made it possible to go from 000 detainees on the first day of confinement, to 852 on May 603, with a capacity of 11 places. "We were able to offer individual cells", welcomes the director.

"I don't know how long it will last in these conditions"

However, it took little time for the judicial machine to regain the upper hand. “In just eight months, we have already gone up to 866 occupants. We are overcrowded again, even if it remains under control compared to what we can experience in other establishments, ”explains the manager.

The finding is the same nationally. While the number of detainees remains lower on average than before the crisis, it is constantly increasing. “As soon as the courts were deconfinement and reopened, everything that had been accumulated during these months of shutdown started up again. We are in the process of taking it back at high speed, ”explains Wilfried Fonck, national secretary of the UFAP-UNSa union, the first union of the Ministry of Justice. “It adds tension to an already difficult situation The prison environment has a very unstable functioning. As soon as there is a small grain of sand in the cogs, things can degenerate. »

It is in this context that the Comptroller General of Places of Deprivation of Liberty, Dominique Simonnot, decided on January 25 to write a letter to the Ministers of Health, Olivier Véran, and Justice, Éric Dupont-Moretti. She relates the situations observed in the field by her teams. Situations where barrier gestures are jeopardized by the return of overpopulation. “We are at 1000 new detainees per month. How do we isolate them when there are not enough cells to accommodate them? she wonders. “It makes me tremble, and the prison directors tremble too. It would be unbearable to have a Covid carnage in prison, ”comments the Comptroller General. Dominique Simonnot denounces a situation "more serious than last spring" with, on January 21, 134 detainees positive for Covid-19, against 25 at the beginning of the month. "A maddening figure", combined with the arrival of variants, makes him fear a wave of contamination.

To regulate the situation, Dominique Simonnot calls for the return of the device put in place by Nicole Belloubet. And the former journalist asks for a “specific vaccination strategy” which would allow all prisoners and prison staff to be vaccinated. “The entry vector for the virus is the supervisor. Knowing this, imagine the tensions it can create in prisons…”, she justifies.

But the hypothesis was quickly swept away by the Keeper of the Seals. In a response letter dated February 1, which we were able to consult, Éric Dupont-Moretti mentions a "strategy regularly adapted to the evolution of the epidemic". It excludes any specific strategy. “A national doctrine for people in detention is in preparation (…). It is a question of specifying the logistical stakes ”, can we read in this letter.

Unions advocate a more “pragmatic” approach

“There is no surprise, reacts Wilfried Fonck. The controller is in place, but her request is more demagogic than realistic. For the trade unionist, who claims a “pragmatic” approach to the situation, it is more a question of strengthening what already exists. “There are much more practical things to do. The problem is contact with the outside, and the measures that are put in place today are not satisfactory, ”he explains. Before continuing: “I am thinking, for example, of the visiting room. We end up with DIY plexiglass assemblies when we need real equipment. Prison staff are asked to ensure that barrier gestures are respected and to end the visiting room if this is not respected. You have to think about the tension that this can cause. »

But for the director of the Prison de la Santé, we must go further. If prison overcrowding increases the risks linked to Covid, it is also a “chronic” problem which must be remedied beyond the epidemic. “Overcrowding is catastrophic detention conditions and an increase in violence,” insists the official. For the time being, he is calling for “the capacity of prison establishments to be taken into account in determining criminal policy”. “It is not enough today,” he regrets.

And Bruno Clément Petremann says he is pessimistic about the future. “Paradoxically, I think we were too good at managing the Covid in prison, which does not necessarily encourage us to change habits. But it is out of the question that we return to the situation prior to the health crisis, ”he said. Before noting, a little disillusioned: “Unfortunately, the pre-election period in which we are entering is not conducive to taking real measures to empty the prisons. »

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