Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Paris — France will build thousands of jail cells and use electronic tagging more widely under President Emmanuel Macron’s reforms to remedy some of Europe’s worst prison overcrowding and protests by wardens over violence.

France’s prison population of 69,000 is the fifth-largest in Europe, after Russia, Turkey, Poland and Britain, World Prison Brief data compiled by a London university shows. But French jails are more overcrowded than those in Britain, with an average 115 inmates per 100 places. In some Paris jails, inmates are reportedly sleeping on floors with three or more prisoners squeezed into a cell.

The changes, which were scheduled 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 €30m 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 to 15,000 new cells and to enforce sentences more strictly, the president 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 was 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 go to prison, a custom Macron says he will end.

Britain and the US 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 costs and quality of management and it is unclear whether Macron would consider taking similar steps in France.