Coronavirus in France: Locked Down in Prisons
The lockdown period might have been lived by some as 'prison' but, according to sociologist Jean Viard, in France it went better than elsewhere. And in real prisons for some inmates it meant freedom, while others had to suffer a double confinement.

Text, photos and video: Selene Verri

Shops closed, no theatres, no parties, no holidays, no possibility to see your loved ones even if they were dying, a certificate to sign if you wished to go out, for no longer than an hour and not further away from home than one kilometre, except for compelling reasons. And, out of the windows, the bluest sky ever and just a few people walking like ghosts in a post-apocalyptically quiet city. For almost two months, from March 17 to May 11, France, like many other European countries, turned into a giant prison for everyone. For the French people, a people proud of its democratic tradition, it was a special kind of shock, as explains sociologist Jean Viard in his book “La page blanche” (The White Page): “A few months before the great planetary confinement, while observing the situation in China, no one seriously thought about its transposition here. It was OK for a dictatorship! But not for us,” he says. “Then we jumped into the pandemic with both feet. And without hesitation, without a real debate, the whole of France was thrown into a relaxed copy of the Chinese totalitarian model (…). The President took his risks, and the people followed with incredible submission. Health rather than freedom! Where had the restless Gauls gone? Did we choose wisely? We will never know the answer, of course; but when we see what psychological and economic damage it has caused, in particular to the poorest and most vulnerable, the question is fraught with meaning.”

What damage? According to charities, the health crisis has pushed one million French people into poverty, in addition to the 9.3 million people already living below the monetary poverty line – 1,063 euros a month. A poll published on October 9 confirms that the pandemic has exacerbated social inequalities.

The moment it got really weird

"In Gones we trust" is a pun, because "Gone" in the Lyonnaise dialect means "child", but also "child of Lyon", so it is how the Lyonnaises call themselves.
Colette Vlérick is a novelist and a translator. Originally from Paris, she has lived in the Brittany region for 25 years. “At the beginning of the lockdown – she tells us -, I didn’t experience anything special: the weather was fine, I had already moved in a few days earlier at a friend’s house with a very large garden. We had provisions, so I had no reason to go out. I would do some gardening and I would work on my laptop. But! Suddenly there was this thing about permits to go out. What was that? It was impossible to go and get bread without printing a piece of paper where I myself certified that I had the right to get out of the place where I lived to get bread?” But the moment it really got weird, she goes on, is when she heard about the gendarmes coming from other regions. “They would issue tickets to people who did not understand what was happening to them. There were surveillance drones, police state style. And some people would report others for not respecting the law…”
The former mayor of Lyon is interviewed by local media, it was right before the second round of the local elections, which had to be rescheduled because of COVID.

The former mayor of Lyon is interviewed by local media, before the second round of the local elections, which had to be rescheduled because of Covid.

This kind of experience is exactly what prompted the French to doubt the competence of their leaders. After reading his book, we reached Mr. Viard to ask him about the consequences of the health crisis and the lockdown in France. And his first answer concerns this aspect indeed: “There was already a lack of confidence in the State before, which was very strong, but I think it increased. In a way, this experience brought to light how heavy and quite ineffective the State was, and I think this is very French.”

According to him, “The confinement period was hard especially for those couples who did not get along.” He has a point. Camille Vilain, who lives in Lyon where she works for a university on international projects, describes her life during that period with some fondness:

“At first I would see the outside world mostly through a window. I didn’t really have the time and I was not really in the mood to go out. I delegated the shopping and meals to my darling. He is an apprentice cook, and rather sociable. From one day to the next, everything stopped for him: his restaurant internship, his meetings with friends in his favorite bars. He did not know if his training would be validated and if he would be able to work in this sector, which had been hit hard. And yet he took things with philosophy and optimism. He made a point of finding the best products in the neighborhood to practice new recipes. When it became clearer that the bike could be used beyond the kilometre or the hour, he went looking for vegetables from a producer in the agglomeration who used to supply his restaurant. He would pull me off my screens, make me laugh, put my moments of gravity in perspective, push me to go outside. As it happened to many others, we had the occasional fight, but it was quite rare, especially considering our impatient characters.”

Harder times in Paris

In Paris, where the pandemic arrived first, things might have been harder, especially if you were an expat like Chiara Giangrande, an Italian working in the biomedical field, married and mother of a baby who, when the lockdown started, was less than 18 months old. As a scientist, what she understood right away was that, “Despite the efforts of the scientific community to explain concepts such as asymptomaticity, contagiousness, protective measures, any statement could be proven wrong overnight.” That’s how she became obsessed with finding out all she could about COVID-19. But, she admits, “In general, the French media were certainly more reassuring than the Italian media, with less fake news from a scientific point of view. The management of COVID cases was also less phobic, with general practitioners ensuring the treatment of the less severe cases”. She also concedes that “The Parisian lockdown was quite soft. I was never arrested during or after the lockdown. I think it was more humane than what many of my acquaintances experienced in Italy, and the sick and the people who were tested positive were not too stigmatized. It was an opportunity to reflect on smart working, electric bicycles and everyone’s right to health.”
Mr. Viard agrees: he reminds us that 60-70 per cent of the French people have a garden, and for those who don’t, a quarter of them left for the countryside. “That’s why we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on trauma”, says the research director at CNRS: the French lifestyle, according to him, “protected” the French, somehow. Of course there is trauma, especially for the most vulnerable amongst them: “We’re going to have a generation of children who are totally traumatized by death, and we are going to pay for this for decades. But it’s not very French, it’s a global problem. That’s why I would say that thanks to the quality of life in France, the quality of housing etc., this is not the country where confinement has been the most difficult, in terms of daily life.”
But there are people for whom deprivation of liberty is part of everyday life in a much heavier way than it was for the common citizen in the lockdown period. These people are prison inmates.
Prisons are places which are particularly conducive to the spread of an epidemic: they are overcrowded places and sanitary conditions are often degraded, while agents come in and out all the time, at the risk of coming into contact with the virus. For this reason, penitentiaries throughout Europe reacted quickly to the emergency.

A miracle result

“My partner has been incarcerated for more than five months. For a variety of reasons, he has still been unable to see his lawyer. His morale is low, especially because of this. The cancellation of visiting hours doesn’t help. There are incidents there, I hear it when he calls me. He’s a very introverted person and I am very worried.” This is the testimony of the companion of a prisoner in the Toulouse prison, collected by the French section of the International Prison Observatory
In France, the first measure taken by the prison administration, on March 18, was to reduce external contacts to a minimum, suspending talks with family members, but also training, recreational activities and transfers. However, inmates complained they were not given all the information they needed. This resulted in protests in several prisons, which luckily didn’t last long and ended without serious damage or casualties.
The second measure, strongly demanded by organisations and professionals, was to reduce the prison population as much as possible: inmates with a residual sentence of two months or less were released or transferred to house arrest, and in a circular, the courts were asked to postpone the execution of prison sentences.

This led to a historical result: for the first time in decades, French prisons were not overcrowded. Thanks to these measures, more than 13,500 people out of a total of 72,000 left their cells in two months.

But these figures don’t tell the whole story, explains François Bès of the International Prison Observatory: “On the national statistics we have come to have roughly the same number of prisoners as the number of places in prison. But the reality is quite different since there are establishments that were already less overcrowded and others that have remained overcrowded. So, in reality, you still have establishments that are at 140 per cent or more of their capacity and others that are at 80 per cent”.

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Organisations and professionals in the sector, however, believe that this is an important first step, and on June 3 they addressed to the President of the Republic an open letter, signed by almost a thousand people, in which they asked “For emergency management to be followed by a real policy of prison deflation, capable of assuring individual confinement and dignified conditions of detention and of promoting the release of those who can or must be freed.”

Double confinement

For those in prison, the confinement was double, as was the pain: no activity and no contact with outsiders, including their loved ones. All that was left were yard time, in some cases of shorter duration and in small groups, and access to the phone. Some measures have been taken to try to alleviate the situation: inmates have been given a telephone credit of 40 euros and free access to television – which in normal times must be rented. Not enough, however, for Bès, who thinks it would have been possible to take further steps inspired by other European countries, such as the access to smartphones granted to prisoners in Italy and Spain, or the possibility, granted in Belgium, to contact dear ones through video conferences: “The prison administration in France told us that they were not technically able to do it or offer it. As for the issue of mobile phones, in France it is still a taboo, even if we know in some prisons the guards were instructed not to punish the prisoners who used a mobile phone.”

A catastrophe averted

One thing is certain: all these measures have succeeded in keeping the pandemic in prisons under control. On June 3, according to prison figures, there were still 66 officers and 186 detainees confirmed positive to COVID-19. Not much is known, however, explains François Bès: “The figures reported by the prison administration are quite fluctuating, because screening has not been implemented systematically. At one point, the administration identified around 100 detainees who were confirmed as having the virus. There were also staff, guards, infected with the virus, and also a lot of health personnel. But we don’t have extremely precise and reliable statistics.”

The return to normal

On May 11, talks with family members resumed, with very strict measures: Plexiglass separators, masks … Many complain of an excess of rigidity, like the girlfriend of an inmate at Èpinal prison: “I visited my partner for the first time yesterday. He has been in prison since December. It was a horrible feeling, for both of us. We had to wear masks – which is normal, I fully understand the safety measures for his health. But frankly, what I don’t understand is how useful a mask can be when we are already separated by a Plexiglas panel plus a wooden panel that goes all the way to the ground! I had trouble understanding him, we had to speak loudly to hear each other, we had to repeat things, it was really unpleasant. It was very noisy.”
Unbearable for some, who have decided to continue to speak to their loved ones over the phone rather than see each other in such conditions. In the meantime, they wait for a real return to normal.