Written by Sam Clarke

It was a very early start, the morning after England was defeated by Croatia in the World Cup semi-finals, thus confirming our exit from the tournament.  We would not play France in the final.  Football was not coming home; but three of us from Prisoners Abroad were making our way to northern France, to Longuenesse prison where 19 British prisoners were detained at the time of the visit. Emma and Eppie in the Casework team – both French bi-lingual - are in almost daily contact with the team of social workers at the prison and administrators who distribute funds from family and Prisoners Abroad to detainees.  Through this, they have built excellent telephone and email relationships with the prison staff.  We felt this could be further enhanced by meeting face to face and visiting the prison; so that we can work better to support British prisoners detained there and their families in the UK.  Specifically, Emma and Eppie wanted to get a better understanding of the prison conditions, access to healthcare and the processes around early release.

I also speak French, had not yet visited an overseas prison and there was room in the car – so I joined the day trip.

A 45 minute drive south east from Calais, Longuenesse prison is a low-rise, brown oblong on the horizon close to Saint Omer.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but as we pull into the car park it strikes me as a very quiet place, surrounded by fields.

Access through security was straightforward – we had sent over copies of our passports in advance – and we went straight up to the Director’s office to meet with him, his deputy and our main contact in the social work team.  They talked us through provisions for all prisoners:

  • On arrival, prisoners should be given bedding, basic toiletries and can ask for clothing if they have none.
  • All new arrivals are also seen by a doctor and have an assessment with one of the social work team. Psychiatric care is also available if the prisoner has mental health problems.  No prisoner has to pay for medical care.
  • If prisoners have no source of income (through prison jobs or family cash transfers), the prison can provide €20 a month to buy additional food, toiletries, telephone cards or cigarettes from the prison shop.
  • Prisoners can apply for work; for example in the shop, cantine or laundry.
  • Prisoners can also apply for ‘school’. All foreign prisoners are automatically offered a school place to learn French; which helps them into work in the prison which in turn helps them improve their French.
  • All prisoners wear their own clothing, although nothing navy blue (guards’ uniforms are navy blue) and no hoodies.

This was such a helpful introduction.  We learnt a lot about the immediate experience of prisoners arriving at Longuenesse and can reassure family members that their loved ones should be fed properly, have clean drinking water, and that should medical care be required, it  will be provided.  Unfortunately, at Prisoners Abroad we know that this is not the case in many other prisons around the world.

We were then taken on a tour of the prison.

It is split in two long two-storey wings: one for people on remand and the other for those who have been sentenced.  Between the two lie the laundry, medical centre, education centre, recreation yards and rooms for official visits from legal professionals.  The administration offices (and those of the social work team) are in a separate building.

It is a modern-ish building.  Not at all like the imposing Victorian prisons in the UK.  It was built to accommodate 598 inmates, but today there are about 750 prisoners.  Of these nearly one in five is a foreign national, and 19 were British at the time of our visit..  Most of the other foreign nationals are from Romania and Poland, and many also from Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and Eritrea.  Many do not speak French, or English.

Each wing is divided into four sections, A B C & D; two on the ground floor and two on the first floor.  These sections have a central circular atrium; housing a glass looking ‘kiosk’ where two guards are present.  Off this atrium and behind security gates are four corridors of 24 cells each, usually housing two prisoners. 

There is a careful security access system between wings, levels and sections.  As we moved around, our guide would buzz at a gate which a guard would buzz open; but only if the gate at the other end of the corridor was closed.  Cells are open and prisoners are able to move between areas in their section by banging the doors and adhering to this security system.

Walking through the prison, it strikes me that the vast majority of prisoners we see are relatively young, mid-thirties or younger.  Only a few look over 50.

We spend some time in the Medical Centre.  We were told there is one doctor, seven  nurses and three visiting psychiatrists.  All requests to visit the medical service should be honoured promptly – the aim being that people are seen within 24-48 hours, or on the same day if the medical need is urgent.  This was good to hear (not least because there is usually a 2 week minimum wait at my London GP practice!).  The wellbeing of prisoners’ physical and mental health is important here and the medical team liaise with the social work team, especially regarding mental health concerns.  Priority prisoners, such as those on hunger strike are seen daily by the medical team.

The majority of the British prisoners we spoke to (eight in total) were relatively positive and two were due to be released within a month.  Each of them said that they were well looked after and that if you toe the line, keep your head down and treat other prisoners and prison staff with respect, then you are generally treated respectfully back.  Perhaps this is why it felt quite orderly, much less chaotic and noisy than I had expected.

The overriding sentiment - expressed by the majority of the British prisoners we spoke to - was of thanks for the help we have been able to offer them and their families.  They were all hugely appreciative of the reading material we send them and for translating and explaining to their families the complicated process of the French system for possible early release.  Many of them mentioned their caseworker by name, which demonstrated the dedicated commitment of each member of the team in ensuring that every prisoner and their families receive as much practical and emotional support as is possible within their power.