January 26, 2018 / 12:33 PM / a year ago

French prisons on 'brink of blowout', strike must end - ombudsman

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s prisons ombdusman said on Friday that inmates in overcrowded jails were on the verge of mutinying as two weeks of work stoppages by wardens over pay and other complaints had made conditions intolerable.

Prison wardens face off with French gendarmes as they block the Maubeuge jail during a nationwide protest, France, January 24, 2018. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

The warning from independent ombudsman Adeline Hazan followed a second fruitless attempt by President Emmanuel Macron’s justice minister to buy peace with the wardens.

“If this crisis is not brought to an immediate end, there’s no telling what will happen,” Hazan said. “The situation is extremely tense...we’re on the brink of a blowout.”

France’s 188 prisons house about 70,000 convicts, one of the largest such populations in Europe.

The threat of an extended disruption is weighing on the government, which has had a relatively smooth start since it took power following Macron’s election last May.

The wardens want higher starting salaries and great safety measures after a spate of attacks on them by inmates.

Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, accused of reacting too slowly to frustration among wardens, defended what she called a “significant” offer of bonuses and improved security.

The proposal, which also includes plans to isolate many Islamist militants and other religiously radicalised inmates from the rest of the prison population, was rejected by two of three labour unions on Thursday.

The largest union broke ranks, however, saying it would sign up to the proposal, raising the prospect that its members would pull out of pickets that have helped to keep staffing of prisons below normal.

The leader of the Force Ouvriere union, which has taken the hardest line, said there would be no let-up in the protests even if wardens were punished and their pay was docked for flouting a ban on strikes in the prison service.

The wardens demand for higher starting salaries would cost France about 80 million euros a year, the FO’s Emmanuel Baudin said. “That’s nothing,” he said in an interview on CNews TV.

That compares to a government offer worth 30 million euros from Belloubet, whose hands look tied by Macron’s promise to keep a lid on public expenditure.

Ombudsman Hazan warned that paralysis could lead to an uprising in prisons, where three and sometimes four inmates share small cells.

The police, who have been sent in to replace wardens in some sites, were there to maintain security not tend to prisoners’ everyday needs she said.

“You can’t leave inmates without the means to keep clean, take showers, eat and see their families,” she said.

Many prisoners were simply confined to their cells and unable to get out for a prison-yard walk, she said.

Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Simon Carraud, Editing by John Irish and Angus MacSwan

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