Prisons Without Bars

A wave of suicides in French penitentiaries brought the Justice Minister to Austria in search of a model that works

France has the highest prison suicide rate in Europe, according to the World Health Organization, a staggering statistic that has shaken Jean Marie Bockel who took over as French Commissioner of Justice in June, 2009.

Overburdened and sagging under its own weight, Bockel wants to reform the system and arrived in Vienna Jan. 12 to visit two of Austria’s respected prisons “without bars.” A similar system, Bockel hopes could alleviate the pressures on the French system and perhaps someday abolish the use of high-level restraints in some facilities altogether.

The two sites chosen for the visit were Simmering and Münchendorf, considered Austria’s ‘luxury’ prisons. These facilities are aimed at increased liberty and personal development of the inmates – special programs in which the inmates can fulfill their duties as convicts, and at the same time follow something close to a “normal life.”

The introduction of this system in France follows the addition to the existing experimental Casabianda no-bars facility in the French “region” of Corsica. Casabianda functions in ways similar to Simmering and Münchendorf.

The Simmering prison, located in Vienna’s 11th District, is a traditional facility with a modernized interactive program for its inmates. The daily schedule gives prisoners the opportunity to work with trained teachers and earn diplomas in painting, masonry, metal work, plumbing, carpentry, and cooking, thus improving their post-detention job perspectives. Family members can visit, which also helps prepare the prisoners for integration into life outside upon release.

Muenchendorf is based on a more liberal concept. With a capacity for only 48 people, inmates must be non-violent offenders with two years or fewer of detention remaining. Cells have been modernized and made into decorated, single rooms. Inmates can work or study (15 days per month) outside of the prison without being accompanied by security, on the condition that they return to their rooms in the evening.

Both Simmering and Muenchendorf seem to be serving aged French Camembert to prisoners who might only deserve cheap supermarket cheddar. A homeless person who cannot even afford cheap cheddar must inevitably ask: Are the prisoners enjoying these “luxuries” in Austrian prisons paying the true compensation for their crimes?

Can a prison become too comfortable?

“Punishment does not mean suffering,” Bockel said. “The challenge of an open prison is precisely to prove that the penalty can be associated with a place where actions and behavior in society are learned, where rules and work schedules are respected, and personal projects developed.” It’s about winning back self-respect as citizens, about participation and accountability within a community.

“Every detainee is destined to leave prison one day and the aim is to prepare him for that moment, for reducing recidivism risks.”

Just compensation or not, France needs all the help it can get as it battles a formidable suicide rate in its prisons. One of Austria’s most important contributions to the prison “without bars” system is that it encourages prisoners to develop new skills, to study or receive professional training while inside.

“I am convinced that the detention period must not be considered as time of inaction and exclusion for the imprisoned person,” Bockel asserted, an approach that underpins most international and European contexts. He recognizes that “an inmate prepared by learning a profession, or by acquiring fundamental knowledge of reading and writing, will be fitter to return to the community.”

Whether France will actually incorporate such prisons in their systems remains to be seen.

“This will certainly take several years to bring about,” Bockel explained. “Suicide is a complex issue, and imprisonment is not the only factor…but experience has shown that open prisons have a lower suicide rate than average, and sometimes even none at all.”

The prison system in France is taking a near-radical turn toward a more liberal approach, offering the inmates an opportunity for a new life after the end of their detention, giving a chance to advance professionally while remaining in touch with the outside world.

But is this utilitarian prison system justified for those who have committed serious crimes? Austria’s answer has been a practical one: What kind of world do we want to live in on their re-entry?

Released prisoners thrown back into the fast-moving world who are better equipped to succeed will be less inclined to return to their criminal ways. In Austria, in spite of the rising crime rates, the prison population has been steadily falling. The ability of France to mirror these results could be an important test of this system’s success.

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