Women Prisoners, Prison Reforms, and the closure of Saint-Lazare prison
About This Chapter
As early as 1811 there had been talk of tearing down the old prison. Time and time again over the course of the next century such proposals would come and go. The institution would appear to be doomed, and then nothing would happen. In 1875, the Conseil Générale de la Seineresolved to demolish the prison, and did so again in 1884. Yet, still more decades passed. In 1897 the minor girls were moved from Saint-Lazare to Nanterre. In 1898 a large new prison was built at Fresnes, but Saint-Lazare continued to operate. In 1902, the Conseil Générale voted to devote five million francs to the prison’s demolition. Still more decades passed. Saint-Lazare was not without its defenders among the last of the philanthropes, who hoped to save women and minors from being submitted to the “folie cellulaire.” These defenders resolutely denied the public charges made against the prison. One commentator noted:
When one views this prison from the outside with its somber entrance way and its dark walls seemingly stained by the leprosy of vice, one is disposed to believe that there is surely no exaggeration in the horrible stories published about this place. Under these circumstances anyone would be surprised to find within these walls large walkways which rival tranquil country roads; and behind its high walls a tranquil and calm garden filled with beautiful trees. This prison, which is assumed by so many to be so defective is infinitely more happy, more healthy, and above all more charitable than all the others.
The remaining philanthropes were not the only critics of the reforms demanded by the doctrinaires. Critics looked at the new prisons that had been built “with their large cells, their comfortable beds, their libraries, and magnificent courtyards as well as heating systems, running water and baths” and thought they resembled “the comfortable homes of bourgeoisies.” These critics accused the reformers of being naïve do-gooders who glamorized the prisoners, and down-played the gravity of their offenses against society.
One critic even went so far as to claim that the new prisons were now so comfortable that they encouraged the poor to become criminals and thus escape a winter of hunger and cold.” The cost of the prison system also came under severe criticism, it was noted in 1898 that the average cost-per-day to the state of supporting a prisoner was 1 fr. 30, while the cost of a soldier was only .90.
Generations of activists continued to press home their demands for prison reforms joined with strident criticisms of the deteriorating physical and humanitarian conditions at Saint-Lazare. These criticisms extended to the quality and quantity of the food and the quality of medical care in the infirmary. In the end, these sometimes sensationalized arguments convinced both political authorities and public opinion which then finally overcame budgetary, political, and planning restraints.
At its meeting of December 21, 1927 the members of the Conseil Municipale de Paris debated the fate of Saint-Lazare. They noted with evident frustration that “over the last twenty-five years there has not been one session of this body which has not considered this question.” The majority of members now favored a “definitive solution.” At the conclusion of the debate they approved the closure of Saint-Lazare. However, the resolution also noted that the implementation of the decision depended on the success of a number of separate funding decisions. Although it would take five years for all of the pieces to fall into place, the fate of old Saint-Lazare was finally sealed.
This decision, however, did not apply to the section administrative and its infirmary. This part of the prison and its mission to supervise and treat prostitutes would remain intact in situ, and be renamed as the hôpital Saint-Lazare.
In February 1931, frustrated by the delays in implementing the 1927 decision, the French pacifist, anarchist, and feminist, Jeanne Humbert published one last passionate manifesto demanding that Saint-Lazare be torn down, as the symbolic beginning of an entire reform of the French penal system. Victor Margueritte wrote in the preface to this work:
It is impossible for one to write too violently against Saint-Lazare prison. One cannot speak out enough against the survival of this leprosy in the heart of Paris. One cannot protest enough against the ignoble tactics that are employed by the jailers, nor against their crying injustices, nor against the scandalous abuses, nor against the revolting exploitation of the detainees. One cannot say enough about the insolence and brutality of the guards. One cannot say enough against the promiscuity and the vermin that infest the dormitories; let alone the repulsive filth of the hallways and cells. One cannot cry out loudly enough against this house of detention which is not only the foyer of all vices, but also that of tuberculosis.
In her socialist critique Humbert not only attacked the prison but also the entire penal system, and the society which produced it:
I speak in order to seek a more just humanity, to demand an equal sharing…that will establish the equilibrium necessary to maintain social order, that will facilitate fraternal understanding and solidarity, and diminish considerable the number of evildoers…Abolish poverty and you will abolish the prisons.
By February of 1932, the relocations of the prisoners and the other functions of the prison were finally completed and the section judicaire stood hauntingly empty.