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At the end of last January, an illegal strike by French prison guards was a reason for French media to discuss the situation in French prisons. The strike, called because of the unsafe situation in French prisons, mainly caused by ‘radical Muslims’ threatening and attacking guards and fellow prisoners, was broken off after slightly more than two weeks. The French government strong-armed the largest union into accepting its offer to improve labour conditions.

The direct motivation for the strike was an assault on prison guards.

The man responsible for this assault is Christian Ganczarski, a German national of Polish descent, is thought to be connected to Al Qaida. He was convicted for his part in the attack on a synagoge in Tunisia, in which German and French tourists lost their lives. On 11 January, Ganczarski attacked three guards with a knife and a pair of scissors in the heavily guarded prison of Vendin-le-Vieil. One of 4.000 attacks on guards nation-wide in the past year alone, it was the stroke that broke the camel’s back. In the prison of Moulins Yzeure guards had to be liberated by the police’s Mobile Unit, while in Fresnes police and military personnel had to employ tear-gas to drive prisoners back into their cells and prevent a prison mutiny.

In an interview with Paris Match, featured in an article with the headline “French prisons under Islamist control“, guard ‘Bernard’ says, in response to the Ganczarski attack:

We have been preparing for the worst for years. We know that there will be a guard killed. It nearly happened two years ago at Osny where an assassination attempt failed. Why are we still waiting with our response?

There is grave doubt whether the changes promised by Minister of Justice Belloubet are enough to solve the problems in French prisons. For years, there has been a shortage of at least 40.000 cells, with 100 cells housing 118 prisoners on average. Human Right organisations and the Council of Europe have been admonishing France for years, criticising the bad equipment and precarious hygiene in its prisons. François Bes, coordinator of the investigation unit of OIP section France, says that prisoners are locked in overcrowded, ageing buildings, no longer suitable and becoming dangerous for all those who stay or work there. Most date back to before the 1950’s and consequently, he observes,

the material conditions are from another age.

Since 2003 a Central Bureau of Penitentiary Intelligence operates in the detention centres. However, as a high functionary admits: “we have let ourselves be outflanked.” French police is coping with identical problems, as equipment, offices and patrol cars sometimes appear to be a third-world state.

Another aberration: while 50 to 70% of prisoners are Muslim, prisons only employ 193 imams, to 760 Catholic, 377 Protestant, 111 Jehovah Witness and 75 Jewish ‘clergy’-members. An intelligence officer says:

It’s difficult to recruit professional personnel one can trust. They lecture alone in the rooms, without surveillance. In [the prison of] l’Oise, for six months, a group of four radicalised prisoners had taken the place of the official imam, who allowed it, as he was afraid of reprisals.

Out of the almost 70.000 prisoners in 186 French prisons, almost 1400 are perceived as “radicals”, among them many men who attempted to travel to Syria or Iraq to join the jihad. Almost 15% of the inmates have radicalised in prison:

“(…) Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, the number of radicals has only increased. In 2015 there were 700. In 2016 the number was 1336. Late 2014, there were 90 people convicted for terrorist offenses, now it’s 349.”

But the abysmal state of the French prison system all of this can’t all be blamed on French negligence, though. A former Jihadist, returned to France after eight years in Moroccan prisons six years ago, now serving his time in the prison of Moulins-Yzeure, defends the French state. According to French media, prisoner ‘Richard’ said that:

It’s the prisoners that destroy everything. For example, a new soft-drink machine has barely been installed, or they kick it and break it, after which they turn around and complain about the tough conditions they’re subjected to. It’s the same story with the showers. With everything. They break everything.

The ubiquitous violence is the biggest problem faced by prisons, and it is amplified by the radical-islamic background of a substantial part of the prison population. ‘Richard’ almost exclusively leaves his cell early in the morning, when the other prisoners are still asleep. An apostate from Islam and convert to Christianity, he is threatened by the Muslims in prison. Often to such a degree, that he requests to be isolated.

When I returned to France, I had hoped to be liberated from the pressure exerted by the Islamists. But the situation in French prison is hardly any different from that in Morocco.

Commenting on the violence in French prisons, guard ‘Bernard’ remarks on the changing times:

It used to be, that I was afraid every morning of finding a prisoner who had hanged himself in his cell. Nowadays, I’m afraid that someone cuts my throat, decapitates me, sticks a knife in my back – in the name of Islamic State. That’s a fear I carry with me every working day.