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One of the first reforms instituted by the sisters was to divide the prison into two sections. The first section (section judicaire) was the prison d’arrêt et de correction. This was reserved for prisoners awaiting trial (les prévenues), and for convicts whose sentences were for less than a year (les jugées). Some longer-term convicts with special skills also served their sentences residing in this section while staffing the central bakery, laundry, and magasin général located at the prison that served all the prisons of the Department of the Seine.
The first section also had three large cells (#12, #13, #14) reserved “de la pistole.” These were available to be rented at a high price (7.5 F per month, paid in advance). This section was reserved for elite prisoners who were awaiting trial for a first offense that was not a morals charge, and who had been pre-approved by a judge and the prison director to enjoy this privilege. These prisoners, who typically lived two or three to a large cell, were largely exempt from following the regular prison routine; were attended to by a staff of four maids; and could arrange for their meals to be catered.
There was also a quarter called “la Maternité” for prisoners and convicts who were pregnant, or who had children under three years of age. Another dedicated quarter (un maison d’éducation correctionnelle) was called “la Ménagerie.”It housed minor girls who had been convicted of crimes, been committed by their families for delinquency under the terms of the French penal code, or been arrested for prostitution. The girls attended classes, were taught catechism, and given vocational training while they were being held.
The second section (le section administrative) of the prison housed prostitutes (les femmes de mauvaise vie détenues administrativement, maladies ou bien portantes, soumises ou insoumises). Numbers of these women were arrested nightly for prostitution clandestine by the vice squad (police des moeurs) in sweeps through their well-known neighborhoods and haunts. The women (les mutines, les jeunes) were then held by administrative fiat for anywhere from three days to two months at Saint-Lazare. The section also acted as a hospice, and received elderly former prostitutes (les vieilles) who had nowhere else to live out their final days.
In 1835, there was a special infirmary wing (blanchisserie) added to this section that was designed to receive up to 360 femmes en traitement for syphilis. Upon arrest, unregistered prostitutes were tested for venereal diseases. Registered prostitutes from all over the city were required to come to the infirmary for regular check-ups. If any were found to be infected they were immediately hospitalized and treated. They could not be released until they were disease free.
The infirmary saw and treated thousands of patients a year. At times the facility seems to have been over-crowded and grossly under-staffed by second-rate doctors whose gynecological examination practices were alleged to be unsanitary and dangerous. However, after reforms instituted in 1888 the infirmary became an internationally respected research and treatment center for venereal diseases.
The complex also had a number of solitary confinement cells reserved to punish the most troublesome prisoners. All infractions of the rules were reported by the sœur surveillantes to their mother superior, who in turn reported them to the prison director, who then meted out the appropriate punishment. There were four levels of punishments prescribed for serious violations of prison rules: “le séquestre, la cellule, le pain sec, le cachot,” The solitary confinement cells (les cachots) were tiny, poorly lit, vermin infested, with only a naked plank for a bed. They were stifling in summer and freezing in winter. The prisoners were sometimes so frightened of this punishment that they refused to go to le cachot voluntarily and had to be forcibly placed there by the handful of male guardians who were reserved for this work. These guards were also available to quell the fights or other disturbances that arose frequently enough within the prison.
The prisoners from the various sections and quarters of the prison shared the use of the seven workrooms, chapel and refectory. The separation of the groups of prisoners was kept as strictly as possible. Moreover, there was also a strong sense of antagonism between the two main types of prisoners. One commentator noted:
The debauched women (the prostitutes) have a certain pretention to probity. They rarely refer to their own sad condition, but they are quick to speak with scorn about the women who have been arrested for criminal offenses. These other women, (who nine times out of ten are thieves and perpetrators of other vicious crimes) love to put on a virtuous air as they speak of the other prisoners (the prostitutes) with scorn.
The complete separation of the various classes of prisoners was always difficult if not impossible to enforce in practice, and caused problems in maintaining prison discipline and effective rehabilitation efforts. As one commentator noted: “malgre toutes les divisions et subdivisions, la plus grande promiscuité règne à Saint-Lazare.”
Prison reformers believed that contacts with hardened convicts and prostitutes had a harmful effect on younger prisoners who still had the potential of being rehabilitated. As another commentator noted:
Despite precautions, dangerous conversations between prisoners are inevitable, particularly in the work rooms. The prisoner sitting next to you is likely be someone who has been arrested numerous times. Such a prisoner plays the role of devil’s advocate giving bad example to the other prisoners by her words and actions. These prisoners are then put ‘en garde,’ and become possessed by a spirit of revolt and disobedience. This influence destroys any positive effects of exhortations to reform.
These activists also felt that having the prisoners sleep together in large dormitories instead of individual cells “presented dangers that were easy enough to understand…In these places perverted morals were everywhere to be seen; giving examples and lessons of immorality.”
According to the doctrinaires the core problem at Saint-Lazare was the mélange singulier of hardened convicts, minors, first-time offenders, prisoners awaiting trial, and prostitutes. Contemporary opinion in the science pénitentiaire focused attention on the danger de agglomeration of up to 1,500 such women at Saint-Lazare. The solution of reformers was clear they advocated the separation of the various types of Saint-Lazare’s prisoners into new specialized prisons.
The influence of these opinions led in June 1875 to the passage of a law whose provisions now required that prisoners would be housed in individual cells, kept separate from each other day and night, with all communication between prisoners forbidden (the régime cellulaire). As required by the new law a detailed plan to apply the provisions of the new law to the entire French penal system were drawn up in the so-called programme de 1877. As always, however, legislating reforms was one thing; implementing them was quite another.
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