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Record number of suicides in largest prison

rfi English, Aug 9

There have been 11 suicides in the past eight months at France’s Fleury-Mérogis prison, according to authorities, a record for the largest prison in Europe.

The most recent suicide occurred on Tuesday morning when a 48-year-old inmate committed suicide in his cell, according to the local prosecutor’s office in Evry, in Paris’s southern suburbs.

The male inmate had been “seen alive just 45 minutes earlier when guards were making their rounds”, the Evry prosecutor’s office added.

Just this year, ten men and one woman have committed suicide in the French prison, more than in 2017 and 2016 combined. Fleury-Mérogis is the largest prison in all of Europe with more than 4,000 inmates.

Local officials said Wednesday that beginning in September, “the prison’s administration and health services, along with the public prosecutor’s office, will work together to find ways to solve this problem”.

One programme in particular that will be put in place in Fleury-Mérogis in the coming months. The “inmate support” programme allows prisoners to receive mental health and therapy training from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The idea is that trained inmates can then support fellow inmates who are struggling with depression and may need someone to talk to.

The suicide prevention programme has already been deployed in seven other French prisons, according to the Red Cross.

Prison investigators say they have so far been unable to identify “troubling elements or explanations for this series of suicides at Fleury-Mérogis”.

However, independent prison observers cite violence, poor living conditions, overcrowding and harsh sentencing as potential reasons that could either exacerbate prior mental health conditions, or lead inmates to take their own lives.

Of the 11 inmates who committed suicide at Fleury-Mérogis this year, one was just 25 years old. He hanged himself in March after being sentenced to three months in prison for "habitually travelling without a ticket on public transportation", according to media reports, which added that another inmate killed himself in April after being convicted of "driving without insurance". Media reports say some judges justify harsh sentencing, even if it seems disproportionate to the crime, when handed down to repeat offenders.

The suicides may also be troubling investigators given that, on paper, Fleury-Mérogis is one of the least overcrowded of France’s biggest prisons. While overcrowding is still an issue there – the prison operates at 143 percent of its capacity rate – it is relatively better off in this domain than Fresnes and Villepinte, which are currently around 190 percent and 180 percent overcapacity, respectively.

In comparison, Fresnes has reported two suicides this year, while Villepinte has reported none.

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