A ‘constant wrench’: Looking into parenthood from behind bars in France

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 boxy, tiny room.

As he approaches, she stands, reaching to touch the window separating father and daughter. Automatically, his fingertips do the same.

Forty-five minutes later, a warden rings the bell—visiting time is over.

Kamel, 40, blows kisses to the little girl and two of his sons but heading back up the stairs to his cell at Baumettes prison in the southern French port city, his face darkens.

“It’s too short, I don’t have time to make the most of them, to give each of them some time,” says Kamel, who is two years into an eight-year jail sentence for fraud.

On the other side, Shadene is fighting back the tears.

“I’m happy to see him but I couldn’t tell him about my school trip,” she says.

“I can see he’s tired, he’s not doing well…,” she adds.

Both their first names — like all the prisoners and children quoted in this story — have been changed to protect their identity.

The visit on a Saturday in February is nothing out of the ordinary.

AFP was able to witness it after gaining rare authorisation to attend prison visiting, as part of a more than 12-month investigation into parenthood from behind bars. 

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees a child’s right “to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis”.

It also stipulates that states parties to the convention “render appropriate assistance to parents… in the performance of their child-rearing responsibilities”.

Some 600,000 children have a parent in prison on any given day in the European Union, according to estimates by the Children of Prisoners Europe network.

In France, the number is more than 95,000.

In the vast majority of French cases, children see their parents in the prison visiting room, which at some sites is large with no privacy and, at times, a guard present.

For France’s independent body, the Defender of Rights, the best interests of the child are still not sufficiently taken into account in the country’s prisons.

Her hair tied back in a ponytail and wearing a pale pink tracksuit, Shadene arrived an hour early in order to be sure of seeing her dad.

“Being a minute late is enough to get the whole thing cancelled”, says her grandmother, who has brought her to the prison.

She then faces a wait in two secure rooms packed with other visitors and is anxious because the last time her hair slide set off the security metal detectors.

For children, visitation creates feelings of “insecurity”, lawyer Marie Douris, who has studied parenthood in prison, said.

“The adults talk about business, concerns at home, it leaves very little time for the child,” she added.

Such obstacles lead to “a relationship which wanes, becomes emptier over time, each behind an invisible wall”.

The “wall”, she said, only becomes bigger when detainees and their children constantly try to “protect the other” by concealing things like depression, problems at school, a fight with another inmate — or even the imprisonment itself.

For nearly two years, 36-year-old Magali hid the truth from her young daughter, Emma, fearing the effect it would have on her of hearing that her mum was locked up for four years.

“I used to let her think I was in hospital,” says the woman, with a serene, oval-shaped face who herself grew up with a father habitually in and out of prison.

At the age of seven, “when she knew how to decipher (the word) ‘prison’ on the front of the building, I talked to her,” Magali said.

Having encountered the prison bars on a weekly basis though, the little girl had already figured it out.

Family is key in helping a prisoner to think ahead to the future, Baumettes prison director Yves Feuillerat told AFP.

Kamel, for instance, has learned to read while in prison so he can write letters home to his children, but also “so they’re proud”.

In Britain, where there are more children with a prisoner in the family than with divorced parents, authorities have taken this on board.

Under the Invisible Walls programme, prisoners get dedicated time with their children to do simple things like helping them with homework or giving them a bath.

Introduced first in south Wales, the scheme has widened out to other regions and reoffending rates have halved, a British justice ministry study has shown.

In Italy, according to a UN report, mothers are permitted to “serve part of their sentence at home, provided they have children under 10 years old”.

But France has been criticised for hampering visiting rights and has been condemned several times by the European Court of Human Rights over prison conditions.

The sound of keys turning

Once a year, Baumettes inmates get together with their children in the prison’s large gymnasium for a day of fun, organised by support groups.

The last time was in March last year, just before France first went into lockdown.

The parents baked cakes, hung balloons, and could enjoy watching their children run, play and laugh, in scenes that are a far cry from normal prison visiting.

Despite his eight children buzzing around him and an atmosphere of high excitement, Kamel is sat down, gently stroking Shadene’s hair as she snuggles up close.

“I want to take advantage of every second. Moments like this when you feel almost like you’re in the real world are rare,” he says, quietly, as if trying not to break the spell.

Her cheeks bright red from playing football, Magali’s daughter Emma admits she is curious to see prison “from the inside”.

The 10-year-old knows about prison brawls from the internet and finds it hard to think that “mum lives here”.

When it’s time to go, the children are reluctant.

In groups, surrounded by navy blue uniformed prison guards, they experience for a few minutes their parents’ daily norms — the sound of keys in locks, heavy metal doors that you can never open yourself, and the maze of barred corridors.

Parents try not to break down in tears.

A blond teenager sums it up: “It was the best day in such a long time and yet, I feel like crying.”

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