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Porous Prisons

The Worldfront

By Jonathan P. Abel

Put aside the freedom fries. Forget about cheese-eating, surrender-monkey epithets. Even take your attention away from the war for a moment. France has a problem that doesn’t have anything to do with Iraq, but it’s time that someone mentions it. The French justice system is inept when it comes to enforcing the rule of law—even and especially in its own prisons.

Once upon a time, in the days of kings and serfs, when justice was swift and arbitrary, the French prison system was the pride and fear of the world. But things have changed dramatically since the heyday of the Bastille. No longer can you find French prisoners stuffed away into dungeons in the bowels of weighty edifices. Even the French penal colonies of last century have withered away to nothing. The French prison has been in decay for years, and despite the embarrassment of recent days, there is no reason to think that French prisons will improve.

Surprising as it may be, Saddam Hussein is not the only person to take advantage of French leniency; it doesn’t take a genius to figure out ways to abuse the French conception of justice. So at around 4:30 a.m., two Wednesday mornings ago, half a dozen criminals attacked the Fresnes prison just outside of Paris. Commando-style, they used machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers to spring Italian gangster Antonio Ferrara from prison.

Pictures show the prison turrets scarred by machine-gun rounds and grenade impacts. A bank robber, suspected murderer and bad guy in general, Ferrara had already escaped once from prison in 1998 only to be recaptured again this summer. But despite his obvious flight risk, the French prison authorities had not managed to search his cell very carefully—at least not until after the escape. When they finally got around to poking through his possessions, they uncovered a cellular phone and a detonator, both of which he used to facilitate his early parole.

But maybe this is just a single lapse. After all, even mighty Leavenworth prison once had 17 inmates escaped (way back in 1898). Those prisoners, however, were all soon recaptured, and Leavenworth greatly increased its security measures. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case in France, where lax prison security has revealed itself over and over again.

Just days before Ferrara’s escape, another suspected murderer, Joseph Menconni, broke out of prison in Borgo, Corsica. His accomplices forced their way into the prison with a fake bazooka that scared the guards. Like Ferrara, this was also Menconni’s second time breaking out of prison, which, combined with the fact that the fake-bazooka tactic is so reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, makes it understandable that the French government is embarrassed. It’s hard for a country to project an image as an enforcer of the law, both domestically and internationally, when it cannot even keep people inside its own prisons.

On the heels of the last week’s second escape, French Justice Minister Dominique de Perben promised to reform the prisons. Perben will now require more exacting searches along with more frequent shuffling around of dangerous prisons among the many French jails. He even promised to fire any prison director who can’t step up the security in his jail. But while these reforms may address some of the small points of the French prison system, they do not change the overarching clemency that seems to pervade French justice. There is no fear of retribution for jail- breakers. If they get caught, they can just try again.

In August, Ismael Berasategui, a Basque terrorist wanted in connection with five car bombings and a political assassination, simply walked out of La Sante prison. His brother had visited him in prison; the two changed clothes and then rubbed hands together to transfer the ink that identifies visitors from one brother’s hand to the other. The terrorist brother then casually walked out of the prison, while the conspiring brother waited for a week before notifying the guards of his false incarceration. This was the fourth time in as many years that French prisoners have escaped by trading clothes with visitors. However, even more amazingly, this escape will not be held against Berasategui if he is ever recaptured because authorities do not consider it a jailbreak unless bribes or violence are involved.

It is this kind of forgiveness and leniency that only serves to encourage French prisoners to fly the coop, like the three who escaped from Draguignan prison when a friend landed a helicopter in the middle of the courtyard and flew them out. While many French prisons install nets to prevent just such an escape, the lack of standardized, rigorous security measures meant that this prison was not required to have such a net. These structural faults are just symptomatic of the poor planning, weak discipline and general apathy that pervades the French correctional system.

All these escapes may not seem so important, since they only add up to about two dozen per year, but the numbers are less important than the ethos. It’s hard not to see the metonymy in the laxity of the French approach to its own prison security. A country that lacks the ability—or the motivation—to control rogues within its own prisons can hardly be counted on to deal with much more dangerous rogues outside of its own borders. This isn’t to say that the French need to adopt Taliban-style punishment, but they need to figure out some way to police their jails before criminals, inside and outside of France, begin to respect the French rule of law.

Jonathan P. Abel '05 is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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