Ahead of Olympics, a packed Paris prison braces for crowds of inmates

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(Reuters) – A police crackdown that aims to clear a poor suburb of petty crime and street vendors before the Paris 2024 Olympics is putting pressure on an overcrowded prison operating at almost double its capacity.
Villepinte is a grey, concrete detention centre in the suburb of Seine-Saint Denis. It lies 2.5 km from the Paris Arena Nord, set to host boxing and fencing competitions during the Games beginning on July 26.
It is among the most crowded prisons in France. Opened in 1991, Villepinte takes prisoners from the busy Bobigny courthouse nearby for pre-trial detention and short sentences.
“The penitentiary authority needs to prepare for the worst,” Eric Mathais, chief prosecutor at Bobigny, said in an interview.
Reducing inmate numbers ahead of the Olympics is unrealistic, Mathais said.
“We need to limit the number of people being imprisoned, but this is easier said than done as I am under extreme pressure from everyone to be clearly more repressive.”
Reuters interviewed thirteen prosecutors, judges, lawyers and clerks working in Bobigny court, who said that the Seine-Saint-Denis justice system was operating at the limits of its capacity and prosecuting increasingly minor infractions in preparation for the Games.
As of April 8, when Reuters visited Villepinte with local senator Corinne Narassiguin, there were 1,048 inmates for 582 places at the prison, according to director Pascal Spenle. The penitentiary cannot technically handle many more, Spenle said.
Reuters spoke to four inmates who described spending most of their days inside their cells, with up to three prisoners in cells designed for one, sharing a toilet and showering every other day. At least 17 prisoners were sleeping on mattresses on the floor, prison authorities said.
Yanis, a 20-year-old inmate, said he’d been on a waiting list for months for a prison work programme. One of his two cellmates, Adil, 25, said he had not met a reintegration councillor during seven months inside.
Prison doctor Ludovic Levasseur said he’d seen demand for mental health care rise in recent years while overcrowding meant long waiting lists for psychologists handling up to 60 patients each.
To avoid reaching breaking point, judges at Bobigny courthouse almost doubled the number of early releases from Villepinte and another prison last year, to nearly 500.
Still, Villepinte was operating at 180% of capacity in early April, from 177% in April last year and 168% the year before, data from the prison and Ministry of Justice shows.
Ahead of an expected surge in the Olympics build up, Spenle said, Villepinte plans to transfer inmates to other prisons, freeing up 220 places. In the longer term the prison will get a new wing, he said.
In a letter to French prosecutors dated 15 January, Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti called for “fast, strong and systematic responses” to infractions that may disrupt the Games.
Spokesperson Cedric Logelin said the ministry was taking measures to reduce overcrowding and prevent crime during the Games. He said court decisions were independent.


Many of the Olympic events are being held in Seine-Saint-Denis. The region has the highest ratio of immigrants among France’s departments and is also the poorest.
Teachers have been on strike since February, saying schools in the area are under-resourced. Homeless and traveller populations have set up camps and squats in the department.
In some neighbourhoods, informal sellers line the streets.
Mohamed Gnabaly, mayor of Ile Saint Denis, a town in the area, said the Olympics had helped infrastructure and housing development delayed for years due to lack of investment.
However, Olivier Cahn, a sociologist at CESDIP, a French centre for research on law and prisons, said a reliance on policing and tough sentencing was disproportionately affecting the poor, migrant and homeless populations.
“All we have are short-term solutions,” said Cahn.
A zero-tolerance policing initiative launched last year that targets street crimes such as drug dealing and unlicensed selling in the area was adding to the prison population, prosecutor Mathais said.
Police deployed 4,000 extra officers in March and April, Seine-Saint-Denis police director of local security Michel Lavaud told reporters last week, calling it a clean up and saying the operation provided safety for locals and “tourists, audiences, the families of the athletes.”
“It is just the beginning, we are going to increase the intensity” ahead of the Games, Lavaud said.
The crackdown drew criticism from seven legal professionals Reuters spoke to.
Fouad Qnia, a defence lawyer at Bobigny, said heavy penalties for infractions such as unlicensed street selling were disproportionate and could further marginalise people in already vulnerable situations.


The recent policing operation targeted street vendors, police chief Lavaud said, including nearly 200 illegal cigarette sellers, some of whom were imprisoned and more than half of whom were handed deportation orders.
In one case, on April 3, a Bobigny judge ordered an Algerian man who moved to France two years ago to refrain from entering Seine-Saint-Denis for six months, including for the duration of the Games, after he was convicted of selling eight packets of cigarettes on the street.
He had previously been handed a suspended prison sentence and will face two months in jail, likely in Villepinte, if he is caught again in Seine-Saint-Denis or selling tobacco, assigned defence lawyer Jade Paya said, declining to name the man.
“They are in need. They don’t sell cigarettes because they like doing it,” she said.
Villepinte houses more than thirty nationalities, deputy director David Langelois said. He said the number of foreign inmates was high due to detentions at the nearby Charles de Gaulle airport and the demographic makeup of Seine-Saint-Denis.
Foreigners were 21% of France’s prison population in 2020, whereas they were just 10% of the general population, according to national statistics. France does not keep ethnic statistics, but some sociological studies attest to an over-representation of Black and Arab men in prisons.
Senator Narassiguin said people of colour faced heavier policing and harsh penalties for petty street crime. Ministry of Justice spokesperson Logelin said court sentences were based on individual cases. He declined to comment on the ratio of foreign prisoners.


France has the most overcrowded prisons in Europe after Romania and Cyprus, with its prison population growing faster in 2022 than anywhere in the bloc other than Slovenia, data from the Council of Europe shows.
Nationally, French prisons have never been fuller, Ministry of Justice data shows.
The Council of Europe expressed “deep concern” last month at the worsening overcrowding.
To deal with the caseload it expects during the games, the Bobigny court is preparing to pile on fast-track trials, which the International Prison Observatory (OIP) says are eight times more likely to end in a prison sentence than standard trials.
The use of fast-track procedures has gradually risen in recent years, justice ministry data shows, and has helped drive France’s prison overcrowding, said OIP researcher Johann Bihr.
The limited access to activities and support inside prisons because of overcrowding complicates reintegration into society, said charity Emergence 93, which works with former detainees.
Adding to the strain, during the Olympics, two car washes run by Emergence 93 that employ former prisoners in Seine-Saint-Denis will be forced to close. One car wash is in a shopping mall car park closed during the Games, the other on a site rented to the Japanese delegation.
Emergence 93 social worker Manuel Chajmowiez said the charity had asked Games organizers to allow ex-prisoners to clean some of a fleet of 500 cars provided for athletes and officials, but had not heard back.
“For now we have no work to offer,” Chajmowiez said.
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