Winner of the 2019 Pierre & Alexandra Boulat Award
After being in prison, women find themselves living on the fringe of mainstream society. According to official figures for France, in October 2019, the country had 2,485 female detainees, 3.5% of all prisoners. They may be a small proportion, but that does not mean their prison conditions are better than for men. They invariably end up being isolated, far from family, friends and their own social networks.
In October 2017, I spent two weeks at the women’s wing of the jail in Joux-la-Ville where I was doing a photo coverage of the shooting of a film which had eleven of the inmates acting in it. Gradually we developed a bond, and the women opened up to me. There was Magalie, Adeline, Rahmouna, Laura and others; they were all coming to the end of their sentences, and were all on edge. For years they had had no contact with their families, and while they were obviously looking forward to getting out, they were also very scared. We agreed to meet up again on the outside. It was difficult to stay in touch, but we sent letters and text messages. Some of them called me when they got out; others called months later. Four of them agreed to let me go around with them in their daily routine. We met up, often spending a lot of time together. Magalie, Adeline, Rahmouna, and Laura are women whose lives have been shattered, destroyed, first by violence, and then by a prison system totally unsuited to them.
France has only five prisons with female inmates, and four of them are in the north of the country, often hundreds of kilometers from their homes. The women have very few visitors, and are ostracized and stigmatized both on the inside and the outside. Almost all female prisoners in France have been victims of violence (ref: ENVEFF study, 2003), and 13% of them are illiterate. In prison, they are numbed, dulled by excessive use of medication, often as substitution therapy. By the time they leave, many are addicted to substitute drugs or tranquillizers. With little or no support after they are released, 65% of the women end up back in prison within five years.
These are women with no self-confidence, who have been made even more vulnerable through the experience of prison. The challenge of rehabilitation and returning to mainstream society is an apparently endless series of ordeals as they battle with bureaucratic procedures, and face stigma and loneliness.
Axelle de Russé
Special thanks to Marina de Russé, Elsa Fayner and Fabienne Périneau, and to Arnaud Selignac who directed the film “Femmes en peines,” and introduced me to the women.
Adeline Adeline (36) was behind bars from 2013 to 2017. She has three children. The eldest, Enzo, who is now 18, spent his childhood in children’s homes and in foster care, and has just moved in with his mother. Louisa, the second child, was born in prison and was placed in care. The third, Charlie, was born on July 7, 2018, just over six months after Adeline was released. The experience of almost losing the extremely preterm baby was a shock and a turning point for the mother; the baby became her reason for living. Adeline was transformed and determined to lead a normal life, to succeed where she had failed with the first two children. She found a home for single mothers, and decided to settle down. She is now living with two of her children and her new partner, and has found a job as a seasonal worker in the vineyards.
Magalie On October 11, 2018, after serving four years, Magalie was released on probation, and was monitored with support from the prison rehabilitation and probation service. For a few months, she tried to work her way back into society, and to avoid returning to her old ways, she settled in the city of Troyes, far from her home in Verdun. She found an apartment, wrote up her CV, and even worked for a few weeks in a vineyard. But then she fell in with the wrong people, fell prey to old demons, and went under, and her two children witnessed her decline. She ended up in the street, squatting in houses, and then, in January 2020, she moved into a shelter for homeless people.
Laura After eighteen months in prison, on April 13, 2018, Laura was released, but without any support or monitoring, even though she was addicted to substitute drugs. She met a man and moved in with him, living just outside Lyon. On May 12, 2019, she was found battered and beaten so severely that she was unrecognizable. She died in hospital a few hours later. In jail at Joux-la-Ville, she was only twenty, the youngest inmate. The other women never called her by her name; she was “the little one.”
Rahmouna Rahmouna (56) was sentenced to twenty years and served fifteen. She was granted an early release for good behavior, and on January 12, 2019 she left jail. She has two children, and is a grandmother, but as Joux-la-Ville was more than 800 kilometers from her home, she had not had a single visit in the last ten years there. Like many female prisoners, her family relationships had broken down. In the course of the fifteen years, she had been granted special leave five times, each for three days for family reunions so as to maintain contact, and to find a job, but it was difficult with half a day spent in the train traveling each way. Rahmouna is Algerian, and when she was arrested had a ten-year residence permit, but it expired while she was in custody and has not been renewed. Now that she is on the outside, she has become an illegal resident, undocumented, with no bank account, and had just 700 euros when she was released.