French Prisons Threaten European Human Rights: Commissioner | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 20.11.2008
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French Prisons Threaten European Human Rights: Commissioner

France's detention policies risk undermining Europe's standing on human rights, a European human rights commission report said Thursday.

Prison cell block

France has an abnormally high inmate suicide rate

Convicts serving time inside French prisons had to deal with overcrowding, a lack of privacy, dilapidated facilities and substandard hygiene, the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg said in the report, which followed an inspection of the French detention system in May.

He said the fundamental rights of prisoners had to be respected and that France needed to come up with more effective solutions to these problems and, importantly, more funding, especially for inmates with mental disorders.

“Dangerousness, on the basis of which preventive detention is ordered, is not a clear legal or scientific concept,” he said. “Harsh measures have to be applied in some circumstances in order to protect society, but their use should not become routine.

"They must remain the last resort and other recidivism prevention measures should be applied in the first instance.”

Youth crime

In his report, the commissioner sought to bring attention to the Sarkozy government's approach to solving crime committed by youths. Some 3,000 minors are imprisoned each year in France.

Attacking the policy of imposing harsher penalties on youth as a way of combating crime, he instead emphasized prevention, rehabilitation and social integration.

A minimum security room for delinquent youths

France's approach to delinquent youths is misguided, Hammarberg said

"In all cases, the emphasis should be on education rather than punishment," he said.

High suicide rate

Last month four inmates committed suicide while serving time in French prisons, among them were two 16-year-old boys who hung themselves in their cells.

The deaths brought the number of suicides in French jails this year to 90. Last year, 96 inmates killed themselves, while in 2005, that number stood at 122.

The recent deaths pushed prison guards into taking the unexpected step of calling a strike over conditions in their workplaces.

"The penitentiaries are in agony and the minister doesn't see this," said Christophe Marques, a prison guard union official, referring to Justice Minister Rachida Dati. "If this continues, there will be big trouble."

The International Observatory of Prisons (OIP), a human rights watchdog, said the suicide rate in French jails was seven times higher than in the outside world.

Immigrant detention

Hundreds of illegal immigrants show banners for a global regulation for immigration as they demonstrate in the streets of Paris

France was urged to extend more rights to irregular immigrants

Hammarberg also harshly criticized the setting of deportation quotas for irregular immigrants, a practice he said amounted to the dehumanization of migrants.

"Migrants are not numbers and even those without permit have human rights. Many of them have contributed to the development of the country and they deserve humane treatment," he said.

The commissioner also addressed France's Roma population, which he said deserved better access to health care, education and employment.

The OIP echoed Hammarberg's findings, and also insisted that French prison authorities needed to reduce the use of isolation cells to punish prisoners.

"This institution treats inmates like numbers," said OIP spokesman Patrick Marest.

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