Dear Members of the Committee Against Torture,
We write in advance of the Committee against Torture’s April 2016 review of France to highlight some concerns regarding France’s compliance with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (hereafter “the Convention”), based on recent research conducted by Human Rights Watch.
Detention conditions for prisoners with psychosocial disabilities in disciplinary quarters
In our April 2016 report Double Punishment – Inadequate Conditions for Prisoners with Psychosocial Disabilities in France, we documented the inadequate detention conditions and insufficient access to mental healthcare that result in undue suffering for prisoners with psychosocial disabilities. One issue of particular concern is that people with psychosocial disabilities can be held in disciplinary quarters where their mental health can deteriorate and they can self-harm. No medical professional is involved in the prisons’ disciplinary commissions which determine if a person will be disciplined and how.
In the prisons visited by Human Rights Watch, responses by prison staff and medical professionals to disciplinary offences committed by inmates with psychosocial disabilities varied on a case by case basis. Human Rights Watch found that there were tensions between enforcing prison rules and ensuring the appropriate response (including access to mental health care) to prisoners with psychosocial disabilities, some of whom may commit disciplinary infractions as a direct result of their condition. The tension is particularly apparent when the offense is a physical attack of a prison guard.
A prisoner punished by detention in a disciplinary cell is held there alone, banned from participating in activities and from working. They have the right to go outside for an hour per day for exercise in a special courtyard, where they are alone with a guard. In such circumstances, prisoners with psychosocial disabilities may experience the punishment as disproportionately harsh compared to prisoners without such disabilities.
- We urge the Committee to call on the French government to give prisoners the possibility to have a mental or medical health professional give evidence during the disciplinary commission, and provide expert opinion on the impact of the conditions of a disciplinary cell on the prisoner, particularly in light of any mental health issues or psychosocial disability.
- We urge the Committee to call on the French government to commission an independent study of the mental health of prisoners as a first step towards addressing the inadequate detention conditions and gaps in provision of mental healthcare, which place prisoners at risk of prohibited ill-treatment.
Abusive practices in psychiatric hospitals
In the report Double Punishment, Human Rights Watch also found that prisoners considered to be in need of intensive psychiatric care in a psychiatric hospitals are treated in a way that can constitute inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment, in breach of Article 16 of the convention.
Prisoners who had been admitted to psychiatric hospitals without their consent as well as medical staff and the former inspector of prisons described to Human Rights Watch harsh conditions for prisoners in psychiatric hospitals. As a matter of policy, they are placed in isolation because of their status as prisoners, not because their mental health condition justifies it.
The UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment has found that prolonged isolation, including as a way to “manage” prisoners considered to be in need of psychiatric care, can be a form of inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment. He stated that isolation “should be kept to a minimum, used in very exceptional cases, for as short a time as possible, and only as a last resort.”
“Sarah,” a female prisoner, told Human Rights Watch what she remembered about being held in two psychiatric hospitals in the past: “In both there was a lot of ill-treatment,” she said. “Sometimes […] nurses dragged me by my feet to an isolation room, they attached me to the bed, even though I hadn’t done anything wrong. I prefer a thousand times to be in a cell than in an isolation room in hospital, my arms and feet tied down as if I were an animal, an injection in my buttocks,” she said.
We urge the Committee to recommend that France takes measures to ensure that when prisoners are admitted into psychiatric hospitals, they are not isolated or contained when it is not therapeutically required. Hospitals should respect patients’ right to treatment based on free and informed consent and treat them in a non-discriminatory manner, regardless of their criminal record.
For more information, please see our April 2016 report Double Punishment – Inadequate Conditions for Prisoners with Psychosocial Disabilities in France https://www.hrw.org/node/288012/#5259ae
Police abuses against asylum seekers and migrants in Calais
In November and December 2014, Human Rights Watch documented abuses by French police against migrants and asylum-seekers in the port city of Calais, in breach of the prohibition of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under the Convention. The abuses described to Human Rights Watch included beatings and attacks with pepper spray as migrants and asylum seekers walked in the streets or hid in trucks in the hope of traveling to the United Kingdom.
Human Rights Watch is aware of the French government’s statement in its reply to the Committee’s list of issues that eight investigations into complaints of violence by police officers against migrants and asylum seekers in Calais have been opened, and that in one of those cases a police officer received a suspended sentence of three months’ imprisonment and a 1,000 Euro fine for aggravated violence. We believe an independent investigation is urgently needed to ensure accountability for abuses that have taken place, in line with Article 12 of the Convention.
- We urge the Committee to call on France to launch an independent investigation into allegations of such abuses in Calais. The French government should also issue clear instructions to law enforcement officials working in Calais that they should only use force, including pepper spray, as a last resort, and only when strictly necessary and proportionate to achieving a legitimate aim, such as protecting their safety or the safety of others.
For more information, please see our January 2015 report France: Migrants, Asylum Seekers Destitute – Investigate Reports of Police Abuse in Calais, Provide Shelter, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/01/20/france-migrants-asylum-seekers-abused-and-destitute
 Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, July 2008, A/63/175, paragraphs 77, 79 and 83, http://www.refworld.org/docid/48db99e82.html
 Reply by the French government to the Committee’s list of issues, paragraph 135, February 2016.