France will build thousands of new jail cells and use electronic tagging more widely under reforms being pursued by President Emmanuel Macron to remedy some of the worst prison overcrowding in Europe and protests by wardens over violence.
But French jails are more overcrowded than those in Britain, with an average 115 inmates per 100 places. In some Paris area jails there are reports of inmates sleeping on floors with three or more prisoners squeezed into a cell.
The changes, to be formally presented by Macron during a visit to southeast France on Tuesday, follow a rash of attacks by inmates that triggered protests by guards, who said violence was spinning out of control.
The protests calmed when the government offered 30 million euros for better training and pay, as well as moves to isolate Islamist militants from other prisoners. With his latest announcement, Macron is promising to go further.
As well as promising to build 10,000-15,000 new cells to tackle overcrowding and to enforce sentences more strictly, the 40-year-old president, elected nine months ago, will pledge to find outside-of-prison alternatives for lesser offenders.
Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said this could mean less serious offenders remain outside prison on community service, or have their freedom of movement curbed and controlled by electronic tagging, thus shrinking jail capacity needs.
Griveaux said about one in three prisoners are behind bars for less than a year some of whom could benefit from alternatives to incarceration.
“For many of these people, going to prison is the best way to ensure they become repeat offenders,” he told RMC radio.
Griveaux described the current system as incomprehensible, not least because first-time offenders who receive sentences of less than two years very rarely actually go to prison a custom Macron says he will end.
“Nobody understands how things work anymore,” Griveaux said.
Britain and the United States, the country with the world’s largest prisoner population, have increasingly resorted to the privatisation of prisons and correctional facilities to lower costs and improve efficiency.
But there have been mixed results in terms of both costs and quality of management and it is unclear whether Macron would consider taking any similar steps in France.