Nine-year-old Shadene’s face lights up; her father, who is in a Marseille prison, has just appeared through a door on the other side of the small square room. As he approaches, she gets up and touches the window between the father and the daughter. Automatically, his fingers do the same. Forty-five minutes later, a guard rings the bell – visitation time is over. Kamel, 40, sends kisses to the little girl and two of her sons, but as she walks up the stairs to her cell at Baumettes prison in the port town in southern France, her face darkens. “It’s too short, I don’t have time to make the most of it, to give time to each of them,” said Kamel, sentenced to two years in prison for fraud. On the other side, Shadene pushes back tears. “I’m glad to see him but I couldn’t tell him about my school trip,” she said. “I can see he’s tired, he’s not doing well…” she adds. Both of their first names – like all of the prisoners and children in this story – have been changed to protect their identities. There is nothing extraordinary about a visit on a Saturday in February. AFP was able to witness this after obtaining a rare authorization to go to prison, as part of a more than 12-month investigation into parenthood behind bars. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees the right of the child “to maintain regular personal relations and direct contact with both parents”. It also stipulates that States parties to the convention “shall provide appropriate assistance to parents … in the exercise of their responsibilities in the education of children”. Some 600,000 children have a parent in prison every day in the European Union, according to estimates by the Children of Prisoners Europe network. In France, the number is over 95,000. In the vast majority of French cases, children see their parents in the prison visitation room, which on some sites is large without privacy and, sometimes, with a guard present. For the independent French body, the Defender of Rights, the best interests of the child are still not sufficiently taken into account in the country’s prisons. Hair tied in a ponytail and wearing a pale pink tracksuit, Shadene arrived an hour early to make sure she saw her father. “Being a minute late is enough for everything to be canceled,” says her grandmother, who brought her to prison. She then faces a wait in two secure rooms filled with other visitors and is anxious because the last time her hair clip triggered the security metal detectors. For children, the visits create a feeling of “insecurity,” said lawyer Marie Douris, who has studied parenting in prison. “Adults talk about business, concerns at home, that leaves very little time for the child,” she added. Such obstacles lead to “a relationship that dies out, empties over time, each behind an invisible wall”. The “wall”, she said, only gets bigger when inmates and their children constantly try to “protect each other” by covering up things like depression, problems at school, a fight with another inmate – or even the imprisonment itself.
For almost two years, Magali, 36, kept the truth from her young daughter, Emma, fearing the effect it would have on her to hear that her mother was locked up for four years. “I used to make him believe I was in the hospital,” says the serene, oval-faced woman who grew up herself with a father usually inside and out. from prison. When she was seven, “when she figured out (the word) ‘prison’ on the front of the building, I spoke to her,” Magali said. Having met the bars of the prison once a week, the little girl had already understood this. The family is essential to help a detainee think about the future, the director of Baumettes prison, Yves Feuillerat, told AFP. Kamel, for example, learned to read in prison so that he could write letters to his children, but also “so that they could be proud”. In Britain, where there are more children with a prisoner in the family than with divorced parents, the authorities have taken this into account. In the Invisible Walls program, inmates have time with their children to do simple things like helping them with homework or giving them a bath. First launched in South Wales, the program has spread to other areas and recidivism rates have halved, according to a UK Department of Justice study. In Italy, according to a UN report, mothers are allowed to “serve part of their sentence at home, provided they have children under the age of 10”. But France has been criticized for obstructing visitation rights and has been condemned on several occasions by the European Court of Human Rights for its conditions of detention.
The sound of the keys turning
Once a year, the Baumettes prisoners meet with their children in the large gymnasium of the prison for a day of fun, organized by support groups. The last time was in March of last year, just before France first went into lockdown. Parents baked cakes, hung balloons, and watched their children run, play and laugh, in scenes that are far from normal prison visits. Despite his eight children buzzing around him and an atmosphere of great excitement, Kamel sits, gently stroking Shadene’s hair as she snuggles up to him. “I want to enjoy every second. Times like this where you almost feel like you’re in the real world are rare, ”he said calmly, as if trying not to break the spell. Her cheeks bright red after playing soccer, Magali’s daughter Emma admits that she is curious to see the prison “from the inside”. The 10-year-old girl knows about prison brawls on the internet and finds it hard to believe that “mom lives here”. When leaving, the children hesitate. In groups, surrounded by prison guards in navy blue uniforms, they feel for a few minutes the daily norms of their parents – the sound of keys in the locks, the heavy metal doors that you can never open yourself, and the labyrinth of barred corridors. Parents try not to burst into tears. A blonde teenager sums it up: “It was the best day for so long and yet I want to cry.”