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A Side-by-Side Look at Prison Life in France and Madagascar

capture d'écran d'un reportage vidéo sur les prisons à Madagascar

‘Madagascar: A Call for Plague-Free Prisons’ – Screenshot of a video report on Madagascan prisons and the threat of disease

Conditions in prisons across the world vary widely. By focusing on two countries, a comparison emerges of daily life in France and Madagascar's penal institutions. Many blogs and social media platforms provide information on prison life, decoding the politics of incarceration and revealing the realities on the ground. These sites also give a voice to those who witness daily life in prisons: the detained and their loved ones, professionals, and activists.

Clearly, conditions for the incarcerated in the two nations differ significantly, but some common themes emerge. In Madagascar, several sites shed light on prison life. Virginie de Galzain is an independent photojournalist who had the chance to visit several Madagascan prisons in 2012 as part of a Doctors Without Borders mission. She writes of her experience:

Des espaces surpeuplés datant le plus souvent de la colonisation, des odeurs d’urine qui vous prennent à la gorge et vous imprègnent à peine la porte des “dortoirs” franchie, la menace récurrente de la peste en raison d’une forte présence de rats(voir vidéo ci-dessous) et de puces, un nombre important de décès faute d’alimentation suffisante et de soins, des droits humains non respectés… Telle est la situation insupportable des prisons de Madagascar

Overpopulated buildings that usually date back to colonial times; the smell of urine filling visitors’ lungs and permeating the air all the way to the broken-down doors of the ‘dormitory'; a recurring threat of disease due to infestations of rats (see the video below) and fleas; a significant number of deaths due to malnutrition and lack of healthcare; human rights going unrespected… Such is the unacceptable situation in Madagascar's prisons.

De Galzain adds:

Les prisons sont surpeuplées. Les détenus dorment à même des sortes de longues banquettes superposées et composées de planches en bois plus ou moins disjointes dont la longueur, bien inférieure à celle d’un homme, ne permet pas de s’allonger. C’est en plus souvent là qu’ils mettent leurs rares effets personnels. Entassés les uns contre les autres, ils doivent parfois faire des tours de sommeil faute de place pour tous. Une des “chambres” de cette prison fait 35 mètres de long et quelques mètres de large. 229 détenus y sont enfermés de 5 heures du soir à 6/7 heures du matin.

The prisons are overpopulated. The detained sleep on long benches made of disjointed bits of wood, stacked one on top of the other, and so much shorter than a man's height that it's impossible to stretch out. These benches are, moreover, where they keep their few personal effects. Crammed against each other, they must sometimes take shifts sleeping due to the lack of space. One of these prison “dorms” measures 35 meters long by a few meters wide and houses 229 prisoners from 5 p.m. to 6 or 7 a.m.

Capture d'écran de la vidéo de Médecins du Monde sur les prisons à Madagascar via Youtube

Screenshot of the photo reporting on prisons in Madagascar via Youtube

Neglected prisons and an inconsistent judicial system are nothing new in Madagascar. One of the most infamous penal colonies on the island can be found in Nosy Lava. This prison camp was created for political prisoners and repeat offenders. With successive regime changes and lapses on the part of the administration, many prisoners get lost in the shuffle and live without knowing if there will ever be an end to their sentences. Here, their stories are presented in a video report by Régus Michel:

Though their situation isn't as desperate, many questions persist for prisoners in France regarding the deterioration of their living conditions. In 2012, France had 67,373 prisoners in detention and space for only 57,408.

The project Prison Insider wants to put measures in place to observe prison conditions in France and around the world. On its crowdfunding page, the project's creators explain their idea and the reason for their mission:

Le projet est de centraliser toute l’info sur les prisons du monde et la rendre accessible au plus grand nombre. L’information existe mais est disséminée dans de multiples sites sur les prisons. Il reste très difficile d’accéder à une information vulgarisée et dans sa langue. Il y a trois types de besoins auxquels Prison Insider veut répondre :

-Un besoin d’informations-service. Pour savoir, par exemple, comment rendre visite à un détenu ? comment lui faire parvenir de l’argent ?…
-Un besoin d’informations documentaires. Dans le but de connaître les conditions de détention : combien de détenus par cellule ? sont-ils correctement nourris ?…
-Un besoin d’un espace pour agir. Pour alerter ou témoigner sur ce que les proches vivent.

This project aims to collect information on prisons all over the world and make it available to as many people as possible. Information on prisons exists, but it is often scattered between multiple sites. For many, it remains very difficult to access information in lay terms in their language. Prison Insider aims to address three types of needs:

-The need for information services. Information pages and forums can help people figure out, for example, how to visit a prisoner, how to send them money, etc.
-The need for background information that can illustrate conditions for the detained. How many prisoners are kept in each cell? Are they fed properly?
-The need for a platform to act. People need to be able to report on or talk about their loved ones’ situations.

One poorly understood difficulty of prison life is described in detail by the Observatoire International des Prisons, an activist group that fights for the rights of the incarcerated:

Il n'existe en prison qu'un seul lieu, non surveillé, où sont autorisées les relations sexuelles : les unités de vie familiales (UVF). Avoir accès à ces unités est un droit, pour tout détenu. Pourtant, seulement 36 établissements pénitentiaires sur 188 en sont équipés. Les pratiques des personnels pénitentiaires sont toutefois très variables. Une ancienne surveillante raconte que les agents en poste au parloir doivent « le vouloir pour vraiment voir.” [..] il y a des surveillants plus compréhensifs, ils ne font pas de ronde pendant les parloirs ». Certains choisissent de ne rien dire : « Une fois, un surveillant nous a surpris. Mais de la façon dont j’étais habillée, il n’a rien pu voir. Il a juste compris. Il est ensuite parti, rien de plus. Certains surveillants ferment les yeux à partir du moment où c’est discret ». Réussir à voler quelques moments d’intimité dépend ainsi du bon vouloir de chaque surveillant

In prison there is only one unmonitored place where sexual relations are permitted: family life units. Access to these units is a right for all prisoners. However, only 36 prisons out of 188 are properly equipped, and prison staff take widely varying approaches. A former warden says of guards stationed in the visiting room that ‘if they see anything, it's because they want to.’ Some guards who are more sympathetic don't make rounds during visiting hours. Some choose to say nothing: ‘Once, a guard walked in on us. The way I was dressed, he couldn't have seen anything, but he knew what was going on. He left, and that was the end of it. Some guards close their eyes once things get intimate.’ Thus, stealing a few private moments depends on the goodwill of each guard.

In daily life, prisoners find ways to take care of their sexual needs despite sharing a cell. As one prisoner explains:

À une époque, j’étais dans une cellule de cinq personnes, on était entassé. Les codétenus avaient mis en place une organisation spéciale. Chacun pouvait avoir la cellule pour lui tout seul pendant quelques heures. Ils m’ont dit : “ Tu ne fais pas n’importe quoi en cellule, interdit d’avoir des pulsions la nuit, etc. En revanche, une fois dans la semaine, on te laisse tout seul et tu fais ce que tu veux

At one time, I was crammed into a cell with four others. My fellow inmates had put a special system in place. Everyone could have the cell to himself for a few hours. They told me, “You can't just do whatever in the cell, no self-love at night, etc. In exchange, once a week, we leave you alone and you can do what you want, we don't want to know.”

Several associations help improve daily life for the detained and ease their return to life outside. France's national federation for social reinsertion (FNARS) explains the actions they take to promote reinsertion into society and prevent recidivism:

La peine judiciaire s’accompagne trop souvent d’une peine sociale ; elle ne doit pas être un moyen de régulation sociale, par le biais de la mise à l’écart des personnes condamnées. Les coûts individuels et sociaux de l’incarcération dus aux ruptures qu’elle provoque (perte de travail, ruptures familiales, perte de logement, désinsertion sociale) par rapport aux effets escomptés, passent malheureusement au second plan et demanderaient à être mieux évalués.

The courts’ punishment is too often accompanied by a social punishment; the judicial system should not be used as a means of stratifying society by holding former inmates at a distance. The individual and social costs of incarceration, including loss of work, broken families, loss of housing, and social exclusion, sadly exceed even the formal punishment, and call for closer evaluation.

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