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From 1794 to 1838 the guards at Saint-Lazare were all men, which led of course to many problems and abuses within the prison. Following this, lay women were hired to serve assurveillantes. This arrangement also proved problematic. The prison became well-known “for its state of disorder and incessant scandals.” This included an incident that occurred when one of the guards “par un excès de philanthropie” helped an inmate to escape.
In 1849, the Parisian prefect of police, François Carlier, confided responsibility for the internal management of the prison to the Sœurs de Marie-Joseph. Thirty-six sisters arrived on the evening of December 31, 1849. They found Saint-Lazare in a state of chaos. The previous guards had simply locked all of the prisoners in their dormitories, and then abandoned the buildings.
In a relatively short amount of time, the sisters established a sense of discipline and order within the prison. The religious atmosphere of the institution was palpable as the nuns decorated the complex with crucifixes and statues of the Blessed Virgin, Saint Joseph, and the saints. The prisoners’ days began and ended with the call by the sisters of “Vive Jesus!” followed by communal prayers. A large Roman Catholic chapel stood at the heart of the complex and was served by a full-time chaplain. The sisters lived with great simplicity among the inmates, treating them firmly but always with dignity and respect. For example, the nuns never referred to the prisoners as “les filles” but always as “notre filles.”
Dr. Léon Bizard, who had spent years working as a doctor at Saint-Lazare’s infirmary, described the difficulties faced by the sisters in their prison ministry: “as one can imagine their work is particularly difficult because they must earn the respect of women who, for the most part, totally lack any aptitude for obedience.” Their success could be attributed to “the considerable moral influence” that the sisters came to exercise with the prisoners. Bizard noted for example, that one could see a young sister sitting by herself and supervising more than a hundred prisoners in a workshop in an atmosphere of “parfait obeisance.” He was also impressed by the sisters’ self-possession with respect to the foul language typically used by the prisoners. The nuns always responded to such language in a matter-of-fact tone of voice that conveyed that they were not easily embarrassed or intimidated. Finally, Bizard noted that “it was rare for the sisters to be obliged to call upon the prison authorities to deal with insolent clients.”
Founded in 1841 at Dorat (Haute-Vienne) by Mère Saint-Augustin Quinon (Anne-Marie), as an off-shoot of the Sœurs de Saint Joseph de Lyon, the Sœurs de Marie-Joseph had prison work and the rehabilitation of women prisoners as their apostolates. At the government’s request, in less than 20 years, the sisters were serving in thirty-five penal institutions throughout France.
In a parliamentary debate on prison reform in 1838, Adolphe Thiers had declared: “Give me five hundred sisters: and I will re-establish order in the prisons of the Kingdom! With their rosaries at their sides, they will have more influence than guards armed with swords.” A contemporary commentary on the penal code would also note:
Disciplinary authority (within the prison) is entirely the responsibility of the director…In institutions for women, the surveillance of prisoners is confided to the religious belonging to the order of Marie-Joseph… These religious maintain an admirable atmosphere of propriety in these prisons, and they exercise a salutary moral authority over their prisoners. Also, recidivism is much less frequent among women than among men after their departure from prison.
The presence and role of the sisters thus reflected the contemporary religious and social views that prisons existed as much for the moral rehabilitation, as for the punishment of inmates.
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