French prison residents and law enforcement agents have been exposed to COVID-19 from the outset of the pandemic due to irresponsible actions of the French authorities, argue trade unionists Samuel Gauthier and Noam Anouar.
On 9 June 2020, Chief Prosecutor of Paris Remy Heitz launched an investigation into the French state’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, considering possible charges including involuntary homicide, endangering life and failure to assist those in danger which based on roughly 80 complaints filed against the government since March.
To date, France accounts for over 194,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 29,550 deaths. For comparison’s sake France’s immediate neighbour, the UK, has so far registered 299,600 cases with fatalities amounting to 42,054.
Measures to Protect Prisons From COVID: ‘Too Little Too Late’
The Prisons Union (CGT Pénitentiaire) and the Vigi-Police Union are two French organisations whose complaints will also be examined by the chief prosecutor. They have raised the alarm over serious flaws in handling the pandemic by the French authorities and accused the government of “endangering the lives of others”.
“The government and our minister have not taken all measures to protect us”, Samuel Gauthier, assistant secretary general of the Prisons Union. “Since the first meetings with the leadership, on March 6, we have asked that all the protective measures be implemented to protect agents and prison residents: masks, hydroalcoholic gel, soap, hand towels for single use, etc”.
According to Gauthier, these measures were regarded as especially important because “family visits to prisoners were still allowed, and [the union] knew very well how the virus is transmitted in the absence of protective equipment”. In addition, prison officers and security guards faced with a shortage of masks, he points out.
“Our lawsuit has changed the situation”, he continues. “On March 30, the Minister of Justice ordered that all employees [of the penitentiary institutions] were provided with masks while performing their duties”.
Nevertheless, time was lost and the order came too late, Gauthier opines, stressing that employees and prisoners could by that time become asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers. Even with the ban on visits and access of visitors, the virus could have already penetrated the facilities.
In addition, the face mask regime imposed on 30 March was not introduced for all employees while it was especially necessary to secure the families of the guards.
“At the moment, we have four dead with confirmed COVID-19 coronavirus, including one prisoner”, the secretary general of the union says. “This may seem insignificant, but I believe that these figures are not true. The minister of justice tried to clarify the situation, but we doubt the reliability of the statistics. There was not enough clarity regarding the number of people infected among the guards and prisoners”.
In order to improve the control of prisoners, improve our working conditions and facilitate self-isolation during the crisis caused by the pandemic of the Covid-19 coronavirus, the prison union demanded that those incarcerated whose prison terms drawing to a close are released or their punishment is mitigated. The unionists were heard: 15,000 prisoners out of 72,000 detainees in France were released from prisons. While for some of detainees preventive measures were reviewed the others were released on bail.
“This is a significant achievement, a more flexible approach to prisoners”, Gauthier remarks, expressing fears that when all quarantine measures are lifted across the country, everything will be back to square one.
‘We Just Asked Permission to Wear Face Masks’
Noam Anouar, a police officer and member of the Vigi-Police Union, elaborates that the union has made two attempts to file a suit against the government. The first one was kicked off when the police was forbidden from wearing masks under the threat of administrative measures.
“We tried to fast track a lawsuit and demanded that urgent measures are taken on the basis of scientific evidence – reviews and documentation – to interrogate State Council on the legality of the ban”, he recollects.
After the French media reported about the internal police decree banning face masks and official documents were released including the order by the leadership of the Administrative Retention Center N3 at Mesnil Amelot which prohibited wearing masks, the Vigi-Police Union filed a suit for the second time, citing “endangering life” charges.
“The complaint has not yet been considered, but the problem is that the [parliamentary] majority passed a law which exempts from criminal liability all those who caused harm unwittingly since 12 March. We expect that the administration to relieve itself of responsibility, citing the lack of a scientifically proven ‘necessity’ of wearing a face mask”, the union member presumes.
Anouar bemoans the fact that a number of policemen were infected with COVID and that some of them died from the virus, while the French authorities neglected to the potential threat. However, he believes that there is little if any chance that the union will win in the court.
“All in all, we have less than a dozen [deaths], but it’s still too much”, Anouar highlights. “We weren’t asking for the masks, we were just asking for permission to wear them”.