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The Sages shut their eyes to the proletarianisation of detainees

Translated Wednesday 7 October 2015, by Adrian Jordan

There is no humiliating work, except in prison. Genepi, an association that lobbies for the opening up of penal institutions through knowledge, could be nothing but disappointed by the decision returned by the Constitutional Council on 25 September 2015, regarding the legal framework of employment contracts in prison.

In effect, the Sages of the council, through convoluted logic, stated that for the prison governor to set employment conditions for detainees is not contrary to the Constitution.

A population which is underemployed, underpaid, without health and safety protection or job security, without the right to strike nor to form unions, this is what the Constitutional Council said yes to. It is well below French working standards.

These working conditions stand even though European Prison Rules (EPR) demand that “Prisoners employed by private companies are required to receive a full normal salary and ideally, all inmates should receive remuneration consistent with wages paid throughout society.” [1] They stand even though French penal law of 24 November 2009, established employment rules creating a fixed hourly rate, which is not always adhered to today. They ultimately stand even though piecework has been abolished by French legislation. One can do nothing other than to reiterate the questions raised by Jean-Marie Delarue, the former head of the prison service, in 2013: “In accordance with which principles of administering punishment should we maintain a scheme which appears to belong more to conditions in the first industrial age than to those of France today?”

It must be said that work during detention, in its current form, is necessary for the prison administration, which could not operate its establishments without this proletarianised and subjugated labour. One cannot remain fooled when this same administration states that the absence of employment law in detention has the sole objective of maintaining these jobs by rendering them attractive to private investors. The flexibility of work in prison does not seem to seduce French industrialists who are reluctant to entrust socially devalued workers with tasks which are increasingly being automated.

Thus, the decision of the Constitutional Council reminds us that prison work is further enshrined in tripartite nonsense. Nonsense, firstly, because employment, which should be the path to autonomy and dignity, becomes the carrot and stick in the hands of the prison administration. Nonsense, next, because reinsertion means giving “each member of society the capacity to decide for themselves the direction in which to take their lives and the means to achieve such”, as affirmed by Genepi in 2011, whilst prison labour remains counterproductive. Nonsense, finally, because it is by resisting revaluation of prison work, for pseudo-economic reasons, that the prison administration discourages prison work.

For the second time, the Constitutional Council remained deaf to the demands of dignified employment in prison, legitimising the existence of a category of workers without rights. Are they Sages only in name?

[1This is taken from the Commentary to the EPR, French version, which differs in format to the English version.

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