12:15, January 02 51 0 theguardian.com

2018-01-02 12:15:05
French prisons to have landline phones installed in cells

France plans to install landline phones in prison cells in an ambitious attempt to improve rehabilitation rates and reduce rampant mobile phone trafficking behind bars.

The justice ministry said on Tuesday it had called for bids to operate the service after successful tests at one prison since 2016.

But inmates’ new freedom to call up to four pre-approved numbers at any time of the day will not come cheap, with one prisoner advocacy group warning that calls could cost up to 80 cents ($0.97) a minute.

Like other countries, France has struggled against the smuggling of mobile phones into prisons. More than 19,000 handsets and accessories were seized in the first half of 2017, for an overall prisoner population of about 70,000.

“There have always been call boxes in prisons, but the inmates need to be accompanied by personnel, which requires time and availability. It gets complicated,” the justice ministry said.

“Sometimes, an inmate will have four people in line in front of him for the phone in the hall. But when it’s his turn, it’s time to be back in the cell. Things get tense,” said Christopher Dorangeville, the head of the CGT Penitentiaries union.

In July 2016, a prison in Montmédy, north-eastern France, installed phones in every cell, which led to a 31% drop in the number of illicit mobile phone seizures in the first half of last year compared with a year earlier.

“The phones have eased tensions inside the prison,” the ministry said. “It helps with civil reintegration by maintaining family ties,” it added, saying the goal was to “cut cellphone trafficking”.

Le Monde newspaper reported that telecom operators would place bids in the coming days to install the phones in 50,000 cells at 178 prisons across France, starting at the end of the year. The operator must finance the installation costs, and would make its money by charging prisoners for calls.

The International Prison Observatory, a French advocacy group, welcomed the move. “A phone in each cell allows a degree of intimacy when speaking with family members,” said the NGO’s François Bes. “More importantly, the fact that you can call when you want can let them speak with children after school.”

“The problem is the high cost of talking. Currently a call costs about 80 cents a minute,” Bes said. Even after the cost was renegotiated at Montmédy, down to about 65 cents, “that’s still way too expensive for most inmates,” he added.

A prisoner at Réau, south-east of Paris, calculated that calling his family for a few minutes each day would cost about €150 (£133) a month, a sum he would never have even if he qualified for some of the jobs available to inmates.

The system has also raised concerns among guards, who warn that the number of prisoners authorised to call would need to be vetted and calls monitored. They said in cells holding more than one prisoner there might also be a risk of fighting over phone time.

“With several people in a cell, how are we going to manage any conflicts over access?” asked Jean-François Forget of the Ufap-Unsa Justice union, the largest among prison guards.