French prison guards protest violent working conditions
PARIS (AP) — French prison guards protested outside scores of jails across the country Tuesday for the second day in a row, demanding more security, more staff and safer handling of violent inmates.
Protesters bellowing the national anthem shouted down Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet as she visited a prison in Vendin-le-Vieil in northern France to try to calm tensions.
The national protest movement was launched by the country’s main prison staff unions after a radicalized inmate attacked three guards with a knife at this high-security prison last week.
Authorities say the Vendin-le-Vieil attack was carried out by inmate Christian Ganczarski, a German national who converted to Islam and was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his involvement in a 2002 attack on a synagogue in Tunisia that left 21 people dead.
Ganczarski was given new preliminary charges of attempted murder following Thursday’s knife attack. He was also transferred to another prison in northern France, according to Guillaume Pottier, a prison union leader.
“We are not trained in handling radicalized inmates, so colleagues are very angry,” Pottier was quoted as saying in Le Monde newspaper.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday ordered an overhaul of the country’s overcrowded penitentiary system and suggested a “massive” shift to alternative punishment such as obligatory public service or electronic bracelets.
The government is expected to come up with a “global penitentiary plan” by the end of February that would modernize old facilities and plan on building new ones. The report would also deal with staff issues and aim to improve prison intelligence-gathering.
But the announcement failed to soothe guards’ anger, as nearly half of the country’s prisons were still affected by protests Tuesday, the French prison authority said.
Disruptions included large protests with fires set in front of entrances and riot police deployed, but also barricades and small picket lines that delayed staff from entering prison buildings. Dozens of union activists lit a fire and were surrounded by riot police Tuesday at the notoriously violent Fresnes prison southeast of Paris.
Feeding guards’ discontent, two more assaults by prisoners on a watch list for radicalization have been reported at jails in southwest and southeast France. Seven guards were injured at Mont-de-Marsan prison on Monday, the French prison authority said. Another one was reportedly injured at Tarascon prison on Tuesday.
During her visit to the Vendin-le-Vieil prison, Belloubet, the justice minister, pledged to take measures to “improve the security conditions” in French prisons and to “move toward an increase in the workforce management staff.”
The French government must also curb prison overpopulation. As a presidential candidate, Macron had promised to build 15,000 new prison places over five years. But in November the justice ministry said it would take ten years to complete such an ambitious construction program.
Late last year, French prisons held nearly 70,000 inmates, a number that has been steadily rising for years, according to the French prison authority. One in three inmates is detained pending trial.
The average occupancy rate in French prisons is 118 percent but the southeastern Nimes jail has seen it climb to 220 percent, the prison authority said.
Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to the report