Prisons: why the government cannot create more places

Ihe France is unable to curb its prison overcrowding. According to figures from the Ministry of Justice, the number of detainees has just reached a new all-time high in the 1er May, with 73,162 people incarcerated in French prisons. With 60,867 operational places in prison establishments, the overall prison density now stands at 120.2%. To fight against this endemic disease, the government wants to build 15,000 new prison places by 2027.

But, according to a parliamentary report dated May 25, written by the deputy of the Republicans (LR) Patrick Hetzel, special rapporteur for the credits of the Justice mission of the National Assembly, the government’s plan to achieve this objective “appears right now and already undersized. The MP for Bas-Rhin points to “the inability of the Ministry of Justice to reduce prison overcrowding and to guarantee decent conditions of detention to people placed under the justice system”.

Announced in 2018, the “15,000” program aimed to create 7,000 net places in 2022, to which were to be added 8,000 net places in 2027. However, underlines the report, “as of December 31, 2022, only 2,441 new places had actually been commissioned”. “This new failure can be explained both by structural factors, common to all prison building programs, and by weaknesses specific to this new program”, explains Patrick Hetzel.

Steering problem

“The Ministry of Justice has a problem steering this issue”, details the Point MP LR. According to the parliamentarian, the problem is not new. Patrick Hetzel notes that “since the end of the 1980s, successive real estate programs have been planned to create new places of detention” and that “each time, there are delays”.

READ ALSOStaff, harassment… Why the prison administration is doing so badlyIn the viewfinder of the deputy: the APIJ, the Public Agency for the real estate of justice, a public establishment responsible, among other things, for the construction of prisons, which “is not really piloted by the ministry”. “The prison administration has not set specific targets and never evaluates the performance of the ministry’s real estate programs,” laments Patrick Hetzel.

Contacted by Point, the Ministry of Justice denies any “governance problem”. The chancellery explains the “delays” on the first phase of construction of places for 2022 by the difficulty in “finding the land” and “convincing elected officials”. The ministry then underlines “some environmental constraints to be taken into account”. Other difficulties put forward at Place Vendôme: the health crisis, “which has put a lot of things on hold”, and the war in Ukraine, “with the shortage of certain materials”.

Funding difficulties

If Patrick Hetzel recognizes delays linked to Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, “that does not explain everything”. “The problem is deeper and it is more structural than cyclical”, insists the deputy LR. Asked about the responsibility of the current government, Patrick Hetzel replied that prison overcrowding is not “exclusively attributable to it”. However, the special rapporteur for the credits of the Justice mission of the National Assembly regrets that “the Ministry of Justice still does not draw the consequences of past errors”.READ ALSO “The appalling situation in prisons affects all of society” The chosen one says he has “the impression of preaching in the desert”. “It’s quite worrying because we alert and nothing happens”, launches the deputy, who pleads for “extremely tight management consisting in setting precise objectives with progress reports, calendar monitoring and exchanges between the management of the prison administration and the APIJ, at least every month”. On May 11, the Comptroller General of Prisons, Dominique Simonnot, denounced in her annual report “the culpable inertia” of the State in the face of prison overcrowding.

Anaïs Henneguelle, lecturer in economics and specialist in the prison world, also explains the government’s delays in the construction of new prison places by the problem of financing. “Prison is extremely expensive. To be able to finance the news, today we always go to delegated management. You have to be able to successfully raise private funding and there are difficulties in finding potential funders,” she explains.

An untenable goal

The teacher-researcher also mentions the difficulty for the government to “find places that are voluntary”. “One of the big jobs of the Ministry of Justice is to try to canvass to find volunteers, while few municipalities want a prison on their territory,” she says. Finally, Anaïs Henneguelle believes that the construction of new prison places is not necessarily the government’s priority. “Perhaps the Ministry of Justice has left this file aside,” she raises.

READ ALSOWhen restorative justice allows victims and offenders to dialogueFor its part, the ministry ensures that the objective of 15,000 additional prison places will be met in 2027. “There are some difficulties. However, we are still in the transition times, ”we defend ourselves at Place Vendôme. “This year, 11 establishments will be inaugurated. Of the fifty penitentiary establishments provided for in the “15,000” plan, half will be inaugurated and brought into service next year. The rest, i.e. the largest constructions, will be staggered by 2027, ”explains the chancellery.

However, these objectives are not achievable, according to the parliamentary report. “Of the 13,415 places remaining to be opened, the majority (7,360) are expected for 2027. Everything therefore suggests that this deadline will not be met and that a significant remainder of places will be delivered by 2029 or 2030” , says the report. “Right now, I can say that the ministry will not succeed,” says Patrick Hetzel. “When I look at the progress of the various programs, there are projects for which the permits have not been filed. However, we know that between the time a permit is filed and the time when the establishment will open, there is a minimum of three years, ”assures the deputy.

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