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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Quatre mois dans la geôle des fous

by Interview by Sophie Bouniot

Four Months in Prison for the Insane

Translated Monday 16 October 2006, by B. G.

Prison – A rare observation of psychiatry in detention, Catherine Herszberg’s book comes out today.
Fresnes, Histoires de fous, by Catherine Herszberg, Le Seuil, 2006 , price 16 Euros.

Interview by Sophie Bouniot

HUMA: What is the aim of your book, which throws a raw and rare light upon the reality of our prisons-turned-asylums?

CATHERINE HERZBERG: Before visiting the Fresnes prison, I knew it would be very hard, but reality exceeded anything I could imagine. I was guided by the desire to bear witness to these pockets of inhumanity which exist within our society. I hope this book will confront people with the conditions reserved for society’s “hopeless cases”: the poorest, the ugliest, the criminals, the “voiceless”, the insane … it’s about a collective decision and political choices which shed light on the state of our society. Under the Vichy Régime, they were left to starve to death. In Nazi Germany they were gassed. At the end of the war, psychiatrists invented this new sector, marked by the experiences of the camps, and under the influence of communist ideas. They opened up the asylums and re-integrated so-called "sick people" into the real world. Today, we have taken a giant leap backwards two hundred years, and society should be aware of that. My book is designed to provoke political and moral indignation from the average citizen.

HUMA: Your book is steeped in the paradox which exists between the notion of "providing care" and punishing.

CATHERINE HERZBERG: That’s the paradox that governs at the very core of Psychiatry. At the time of the French Revolution, when Pinel, Esquirol and all those doctors visited the Kremlin-Bicêtre, the place was still seen as the general hospital of Louis XIV. People were sent there by sealed letter. In these institutions, they mixed together opponents, vagabonds, beggars, the insane, poor people, criminals … amongst the repressed, Pinel found there were some who were really unwell.

Psychiatry was born from these mentally ill people leaving the Kremlin-Bicêtre. Driven by revolutionary ideals, Pinel considered them as “sick people who deserve the attention due to all suffering humanity.” Since that era, the place of care had been separated from the place of punishment. You cannot heal and punish people in the same place as that doesn’t work, that’s the main observation of this book. Either you consider people to be sick and therefore not responsible for their crimes and misdemeanours; or you consider that every individual, rational or not, must pay his or her dues to society. That was the dominant philosophy more than two centuries ago - and it is prevailing still today.

HUMA: What is the state of mind of those who work in the detention system, both medical and security personnel, in this world where the extraordinary becomes the norm?

CATHERINE HERZBERG:These people, warders or nurses, accept that they are looking after the most destitute, the “rejects of a sick society that no longer wants them”. We mustn’t forget that. I have met people who, in some cases, were deeply indignant. You have to imagine what the Fresnes prison is like, a huge area which amplifies everything: noise, poverty, smell, promiscuity. It is a universe where everything is exaggerated. There is not that opening to the outside world which can temper violence. It is a place outside normality where everything is very normalised, where there is a rule for everything. If you don’t integrate you get sent into solitary, etc. The nurses arrive with a therapeutic riot shield, the wardens have one made of rules. All these people have a function which protects them, they are forced to put protective barriers in place, and in a perverse but necessary way they have to get used to disgraceful situations in order to continue to work in that place.

HUMA: “If 21% of prisoners are psychotics, doesn’t that show there must be the political will to put them there?” is one of the questions a member of the prison administration asks. What is your feeling after spending four months at Fresnes Prison?

CATHERINE HERZBERG: It’s not simply a question of political will. This result is a combination of several factors: disengagement from health, the evolution of psychiatry and the loss of its theoretical power; unbridled capitalism, and the emergence of poor classes who nobody knows what to do with any longer. We are in fact talking about the response of a society whose social cement is based on fear.

HUMA: You also broach the subject of the future establishment of UHSAs (Specially Managed Hospital Units), which may or may not be prisons created within hospitals.

CATHERINE HERZBERG:You can’t introduce a security structure into a nursing hospital with impunity. The 700 beds planned for the UHSAs will never be enough to absorb the number of mentally ill people in prison. What’s more, with prison numbers increasing and the impoverishment of psychiatric hospitals, this figure will balloon. Beyond this accounting based consideration, the creation of UHSAs breaks a fundamental principle of humanity: By saying that the mad are punishable, you deny their insanity. That is an almost barbaric step backwards: for a civilisation to consider that a mentally ill person must take account for their actions.

1) Fresnes, Histoires de fous , by Catherine Herszberg, Le Seuil, 2006, price 16 Euros.

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