Aline Désesquelles, Roméo Fontaine, Thomas Huet, Laurent Toulemon, and Mathieu Trachman

tell us about INED studies of the prison inmate population in France.

(Interview conducted in March 2021)

Several years ago INED conducted a number of studies on the inmate population. What did those studies investigate?

In fact, several generations of INED researchers have been attentive to the inmate population. Jean-Claude Chesnais, followed by Géraldine Duthé, did studies of suicide in prison that have become the reference on that question. INED researcher France Meslé and Annie Kensey of the Ministry of Justice looked at all causes of death among incarcerated persons. As in the earlier suicide studies, the point was to compare mortality in prison with mortality in the general population and identify the factors associated with higher risk of death. 

In partnership with INSEE, INED has been a pioneer in statistical studies using a representative sample of France’s inmate population. Following a survey on inmates’ family situations, INED coordinated another survey on disability and incapacity in prison (HID-Prisons survey, 2001). 

A survey of inmates convicted of conjugal violence was done recently. Can you tell us about the content of those interviews and the findings they led to?

It is important to note that that survey was not focused initially on the inmate population but on gender-related violence. While several studies of gender violence victims have been done, including INED’s VIRAGE survey (Violence and gender relations), we have few surveys of men who perpetrate gender violence. We know that few incidents of domestic violence go to court, so this study focused on men who had actually been been convicted for that offense. Domestic violence committed by men who go to prison for it is usually serious; these are cases of murder or marital/partner rape. One major finding is how difficult it is for these men to acknowledge the offenses they are in prison for and therefore to make sense of their sentences. In a context of widespread debate on criminalizing gender violence, this finding raises questions about what answers a society can offer, how to punish this kind of violence, and the limitations of imprisonment. 

There have already been some INED studies of repeat offenders. Are inmates who are granted favorably modified sentences less likely to repeat their offense?

Yes, that was the finding of a 2002 study by Annie Kensey and Abdelmalik Benaouda on a cohort of 8,419 persons released from prison between June and December of that year. While the overall average for repeat offending in the five years following release was 46%, it was much higher among people who had served their full prison term (56%) than those who had been released on parole (30%) or granted an otherwise modified sentence (47%). But that finding does not prove that sentence modifications in and of themselves have a beneficial effect on the risk of recidivism. Modified sentences tends to be granted to inmates with relatively good chances of socio-occupational reintegration and therefore, presumably, less likely to be repeat offenders (this is a selection effect). 

In France these decisions are made by juges d’applications des peines, a category of judge specifically responsible for determining how sentences will be applied. They have access to inmate information that goes beyond the characteristics usually taken into account in research studies, particularly information on inmate’s behavior in prison and reintegration aptitude. Furthermore, they know about the environment the person will encounter on their release—how favorable it is for socio-occupational reintegration. The originality of our study is to have taken into account cases that come before the Tribunal de Grande Instance or TGI [France’s high court]. Our findings confirm the beneficial effect of sentence reductions on repeat offense risk. It is important to point out, however, that from one high court to another, sentence reductions or other modifications are positively correlated with repeat offense risk: the fewer a given court grants, the more likely it is that inmates who do receive one have been selected from a group deemed unlikely to repeat the offense. 

INED is planning a survey of inmates in the days before they leave prison. What is it going to cover and what’s the methodology?

We’re planning a quantitative multi-themed survey of inmates who have only a few days left in prison. It will focus first on inmates leaving detention centers, but it could also work as an experiment for a nationwide survey. We know less about inmates on the eave of release than inmates locked up at any given time. Unfortunately, some leavers will return. So any study seeking to assess former inmates’ capacities for reintegration needs to target this population. More broadly, surveying this set of inmates is a means to study the effects of varying lengths of incarceration on inmates’ life trajectories and to collect their experience of living conditions in detention.