A goldfish was being looked after by the warders when I visited the prison at Osny, just outside Paris, last month. It swam around a small bowl in the administrative office. “It was confiscated from one of the cells,” said the warder, glancing up from her desk. “A lot of things get into prison that shouldn’t.”
“No pets allowed at Osny, then?”
She smiled. “Only rats.”
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A guard let us through the barred gate outside the office, into the high-security section of the jail. Down the narrow, low-ceilinged corridor we filed – a handful of French journalists and I, accompanied by several grave, soberly-dressed, officials. We passed a small window, which looked out onto a wall surmounted by concertina wire.
Over the past few weeks, the prison at Osny has become a testing ground for France’s most controversial new plan to combat Islamic radicalisation. In February a “dedicated unit” opened within its walls, expected to receive 20 violent or potentially violent extremists. A similar unit has also come into operation at Lille, in northern France, and one at Fresnes, just south of Paris. Two more have opened at Fleury-Mérogis – Europe’s biggest prison, also in the Paris region.
The prisoners in these new anti-radicalisation units will enjoy resources that put the rest of the penal system to shame. They will be supervised by a larger-than-usual complement of warders, trained in the rudiments of Salafism, and they will receive visits by sociologists, psychologists and historians (to argue against their rose-tinted ideas about medieval caliphates). The routine for these men will include theatre workshops, political discussions and lessons in the prison school – reading and writing for the barely literate, Japanese for the intellectually advanced. (Those who refuse to get into the spirit will be expelled back to the less salubrious environs of the prison system proper.)
These inmates are not the most dangerous: those whose jihadi certainties are so ingrained that the system regards them as beyond hope. The detainees who will enter these units are considered dangerous but salvageable, but no one knows for sure if this is the case – just as no one knows if the new units are the solution to the problem. There is even disagreement over what the problem is.