L’Œuvre des Libérées de Saint-Lazare
About This Chapter
In his 1845 novel, The Mysteries of Paris, Eugène Sue begins a chapter dedicated to Saint-Lazare by noting:
The prison of Saint-Lazare, especially devoted to female thieves and prostitutes, is daily visited by many ladies, whose charity, whose names, and whose social position, command universal respect. These ladies educated in the midst of the splendors of fortune-these ladies, properly belonging to the best society-come every week to pass long hours with the miserable prisoners of Saint-Lazare watching in these degraded souls for the least indication of an aspiration towards good, the least regret for a past criminal life, and encouraging the good tendencies, urging repentance, and, by the potent magic of the words, Duty, Honor, Virtue, withdrawing from time to time one of these abandoned, fallen, degraded, despised creatures, from the depths of utter pollution.
Eventually, the visits and efforts of these individual women would be organized into a lasting and effective charitable organization. In 1865, Pauline Michel de Grandpré came to Saint-Lazare for the first time to visit her uncle who had just taken up his position as the prison chaplain. She was deeply affected by what she saw there, and she was particularly struck by what she learned about the fate of most prisoners upon their release:
Once prisoners depart Saint-Lazare they find themselves alone on the streets of Paris. Sometimes these poor women leave only with the clothes on their backs, and almost always they leave without any money. Under these circumstances, even if they sincerely wish to rehabilitate themselves, because of their appearance they are not easily hired. They find nothing but scorn and rejection awaiting them, and most fall prey to recidivism and return to Saint-Lazare! Those that retain a germ of honesty have been known to throw themselves into the Seine.
Founded in 1870, the Œuvre des Libérées de Saint-Lazare took on the mission of “preserving women, regardless of their religion or nationality, who are in danger of being lost, and furnishing to those released from prison the means for their rehabilitation.” Even though early in its history there were some religious overtones from Catholicism the Œuvre developed into a secular philanthropy.
The women of the Œuvre established a shop where freed prisoners could obtain needed clothing. Next, they located an office near the prison where the libérées received counseling and assistance with finding housing and work. This was followed by the establishment at Billancourt of an asylum and clinic to temporarily care for the young children of prisoners and ex-prisoners. All of these services were given to clients free of charge.
The success of these activities attracted the favorable attention of the government which in 1885 recognized the association as being d’utilité publique. Public funds were now available to support the work. The members of the association also received the special permission necessary to access Saint-Lazare itself to visit and prepare women before their release. Later, as various types of prisoners were funneled from Saint-Lazare to new prison locations, the activist women of theŒuvre extended their outreach to these places as well.
The Œuvre prided itself on its professionalism, and its creative responses to the changing needs of its client base. Careful records were kept to illustrate stewardship of resources, assistance trends, as well as the ability to keep track of individual clients and their needs. Assessment of all the work’s efforts was ongoing and sophisticated. The organization developed effective governance, recruitment, fund-raising, and public relations structures. It also developed a variety of partnerships (solidarité des œuvres de patronage) with other French charitable organizations to encourage cradle-to-grave care for women in danger. Representatives also participated in international conferences held in Rome, Washington, D.C., and St. Petersburg on prisons, prison rehabilitation, and a variety of contemporary social issues facing women.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close Saint-Lazare was always the object of a considerable amount of publicity and morbid curiosity on the part of the press and public in Paris. This was particularly true as newspapers, tabloids, magazines, and even lurid romance novels became widely-available, affordable, and popular. Some of this attention was due to a succession of sensational scandals that resulted in incarcerations at Saint-Lazare and which were reported in great detail. There was also an abiding fascination on the part of the public with the shadowy and titillating world of pimps, johns, prostitutes and prostitution in the City of Lights. Prison reformers were not above manipulating this attention to build a case for the closure of Saint-Lazare.