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article imageFrench prisons on knife-edge as strikes, pickets drag on

By Marie DHUMIERES, Romain FONSEGRIVES, Clare BYRNE (AFP)     Jan 23, 2018 in World

French prisons guards are debating whether to ratchet up a week-old campaign of pickets and protests that have caused havoc at jails around the country, causing tensions with inmates.

At Fresnes prison near Paris, one of the country's biggest, unions at a staff meeting Monday pushed for an all-out strike in protest over a wave of attacks on guards by violent convicts.

But the guards are divided on the wisdom of escalating tensions at the dangerously overcrowded facility with 2,800 inmates crammed into cells designed to hold 1,400. Under French law, prison officers are banned from striking.

- Minimum wage -

"To be clear, they will suspend you and threaten to fire you," Frederic Godet, the local representative of the Ufap-Unsa union, told the meeting.

Conditions in French prisons have long been a source of anger among prisoners and guards and an embarrassment for the state, with President Emmanuel Macron describing them as "disgraceful".

An official report on conditions in Fresnes in 2016 found it to be infested with rats, with prisoners sleeping three to a 10-square-metre (100-square-foot) cell, and said surveillance was "illusory".

Adding to the guards' grievances is the radicalisation of inmates who come under the sway of jailed Islamist radicals and jihadists.

French prisons have developed a reputation for being hotbeds of radical Islam that have turned out some of the jihadists behind a series of bloody attacks in recent years.

The worst dispute in the penitentiary service in 25 years began after a convicted Al-Qaeda extremist attacked guards in a high-security facility in the north of the country on January 11 with a razor blade and scissors, injuring three of them.

Guards complain that the conditions in which violent and radicalised inmates are held are too lenient.

Last week, three inmates at a prison on the southern island of Corsica, one of whom is under surveillance for Islamic radicalisation, attacked two guards with a knife, wounding one of them seriously.

At the other end of the country, in the northern Calais region, a male and a female guard were treated in hospital for injuries after being attacked by a prisoner with an iron table leg.

On Monday unions in Fresnes -- one of 50 prisons nationwide where staff are refusing to work or have been shut out by picketers -- to keep blocking the prison gates.

"The minimum wage to risk your life? It's not enough, especially with the new threats posed by radicalised inmates," one guard with eight years of service argued.

- Prisoners made 'hostages' -

Nine days of protests, affecting more than 100 out of France's 188 prisons to varying degrees, have taken a toll on prisoners' morale, sharpening tensions between them and their jailors.

"We're being held hostage," one frustrated convict told AFP by telephone from Fleury-Merogis prison, France's largest, where police used tear gas and baton charges to disperse picketers last week.

"If this goes on, things are going to get out of hand," said the man, who did not wish to be identified, complaining that family visits were delayed, sports and other activities cut back and that his bin was "starting to smell" as rubbish piled up.

On Tuesday, the government attempted to defuse the tensions by saying it was ready to consider pay increases for the first time since the standoff began.

It has also offered to create 1,100 guard jobs over four years and step up security around the most dangerous inmates.

But within an hour of the announcement, talks between unions and Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet had broken down.

Jean-Francois Forget, leader of the Ufap-Unsa union, the biggest among prison guards, said she had not agreed to "one-tenth" of their demands.

The guards are demanding a 20 percent increase to their starting monthly salary of around 1,500 euros ($1,830) before tax as well as the creation of 1,500-3,600 new guard positions and tighter surveillance of violent criminals.

To press their demands they have brandished the threat of "laying down the keys", or all-out strikes that would see prisoners confined to their cells.

At jails in Lille in the north, Metz in the east and the southwestern city of Bayonne, police have already had to step in to feed prisoners in the guards' absence.

But many guards are divided on the merits of all-out confrontation, fearing the wrath of the state if they flout the strike ban.

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