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The Interview
Sister Anne Lecu, doctor in europe's largest prison, recounts

Children at a distance is the real punishment

 I figli lontani la vera pena  DCM-005
06 May 2023

A Dominican religious and author of numerous books, Anne Lécu works as a doctor in Europe's largest prison, Fleury-Mérogis, located south of Paris. Here she tells us about her experience with women who are often wounded by life.

What is the greatest source of suffering for women in prison?

For women in general, and foreigners in particular, the greatest difficulty is the separation from their children. In the Île de France detention centers, there is a large percentage of foreign women, from Brazil, Venezuela, Guyana and other West and Central African countries, who have been arrested at Paris airports. In the Fleury-Mérogis prison there are female detainees from forty nationalities. These women are called ‘mules’ because they have usually been convicted of drug trafficking, by helping to smuggle drugs from one country to another. They often leave their children with neighbors for a week; and then they find themselves detained for a year. These are complicated situations because they know that their neighbour is also poor and so they rightly worry about their children.

What can they do?

Sometimes they try to work in prison. They can thus earn between one hundred and one hundred and fifty euros a month. However, they need part of that sum to live in prison, buy toilet paper, toothpaste, and pay for the telephone calls and the customs fine, because otherwise they cannot benefit from parole. If they manage to put aside 50 euros a month to send to their children, that is already a lot. It may not sound like much in Europe, but in some really poor countries, 50 euros allows them to support their maternal grandparents, a sister with a dependent child, with their daily life. When they manage to call, get news and maybe send financial help, they feel a little reassured.  Sometimes they get away with saying that they have found a job in France, only to tell the truth or not do so at all once they return to their own country. Finally, there are dramatic situations where they do not even know where their children are.

There are also women returnees from war zones...

Indeed, their number has increased since 2016.  The judiciary has become aware that these women, who left voluntarily in most cases, can be dangerous, because they are not always victims of terrorist propaganda, sometimes they are also perpetrators. When they return from those areas, they are detained as long as necessary to allow the intelligence services, police and magistrates to investigate their situation. These women are also separated from their children overnight, after living in the camps with them.  The children are placed in foster care and can only see their mother again after a lengthy investigation. Later, when the conditions are right, reunification takes place in video and audio supervised visiting rooms.

What is the situation like for pregnant women?

There is a nursery area with eleven places for mothers-to-be from the sixth month of pregnancy. They can remain in the nursery area until their child is 18 months old, which, with the reductions in sentences, makes it extremely rare for the child to leave before the mother to return to her family or to be placed with a foster family. This happens, however, in terrorism cases where sentences are long. On the one hand, it is undesirable for children to remain in prison with their mother, but on the other hand it is undoubtedly better for them to remain with their mother in the first months of life. What is the right solution? I cannot say. In any case, it has a huge bearing on the women prisoners’ psychological wellbeing.

What other sufferings are the inmates talking about?

A large number of reasons for consultation are skin problems, dryness, itching, acne or menstrual cycle complications. Many women also gain weight. They are so distressed that they munch in front of the TV with the feeling that they are not eating anything. Sometimes I wonder if this is related to the fact that many have been turned into human containers to transport the drugs. Then there is the problem of guilt. Some women who have killed their abusive husbands are all the more guilt-ridden as they get better, they apply make up again. If their life improves in prison, it shows how disastrous their existence outside actually was.

Is any personal physical space trampled on in prison?

Female prisoners have to undress to be searched before leaving the prison to go to the judge, to the hospital, to the men's sector to have an X-ray. It is an act of extreme violence for women who have already been victims of sexual violence. When you take the medical history of female prisoners, we instantly come across stories of violence. A large proportion have suffered sexual violence during childhood and adolescence. This is unquantified for now but recurrent. These women have experienced break-ups that they sometimes talk about without being asked. I never ask questions beyond my area of expertise so as not to abuse my power as a doctor. I am not a psychologist, nor a chaplain and, in a closed universe like prison, it is important that everyone stay in their own place to respect people's freedom. I do not even examine them on the first day of consultation so as to respect their intimacy.

A Journalist for “La vie” in Rome