Thu, Aug 20, 2009 - Page 6 News List

France moves to curb ‘shaming’ string of jail suicides

THE GUARDIAN , PARIS

The French government on Tuesday announced measures to tackle the shocking rate of suicides in prisons, including giving vulnerable prisoners tearable bedding and single-use paper pajamas to stop them hanging themselves in their cells.

France’s overcrowded and often fetid jails have been damned by campaign groups. French President Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledged this year that prisons were the nation’s “shame.”

Reports by the UN Human Rights Committee and the Council of Europe have accused French jails of being dirty, degrading and inhumane. Overcrowding is rife and there are more than 62,000 inmates crammed into a prison system designed to house 51,000. The government yesterday said 81 prisoners had killed themselves in jail this year. But non-government organizations say the figure is higher. Suicides in prison have largely been men, with around one in five aged under 25, but also including teenagers. More than half are on remand, often it is their first time in prison.

Suicide rates in French prisons far exceed figures in countries such as Germany and the UK and figures for this year could be the worst in a decade. Prison wardens have staged protests over prison conditions and the suicide problem, with wardens’ unions warning the prison environment is so bad that there have also been suicides among prison officers.

French Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie announced on Tuesday special “protection kits” for vulnerable inmates, including tearable sheets and blankets as well as flame-proof mattresses. Touring a prison in Orleans to launch the measures, she said there would also be more training and better prisoner support. She also said the government would be more “transparent” about the scale of the problem. It has previously been accused of sweeping it under the carpet.

The night before Alliot-Marie’s announcement, a 37-year-old inmate in Marseille who had been under observation over family problems was found hanged in his cell.

The justice minister’s new suicide prevention measures take into account a series of recommendations by the psychiatrist Louis Albrand earlier this year. Albrand had boycotted the handing over of his report, accusing the government of failing to take the issue seriously and burying the problem. On Tuesday he called for “a real revolution in French prisons,” saying the institutions must be “humanized.”

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