Why do simple everyday sights sometimes produce feelings of crushing melancholy? Walking past the visitor's entrance to the Prison de la Santé on a cold, silent Sunday afternoon, my guts are sent churning by an empty packet of cigarettes abandoned on a stark bench outside.
It’s easy to imagine the last cigarette of the packet being smoked here, the final spark of warmth and comfort before the pain to come. This is a harsh environment that would feel cold even in the heat of summer, but on this winter day I can imagine the hand holding the cigarette shaking, the visitor not sure if it's because of the chill in the air or because of their shredded nerves. Why are they here? A sense of obligation to a wayward family member who now only provokes dread, or to grasp short minutes with a desperately missed loved one? Either way, the reunion and subsequent separation will add one more scar to the heart.
The visitors see what is behind these high, thick walls and know what happens on the other side of the locked doors beyond. I can only imagine. These are walls that were built in 1867, and now represent the last remaining prison within the boundaries of the city of Paris. Originally designed as a model penitentiary, a cleaner, healthier, more humane way to treat prisoners, it has become one of the final traces of Zola-esque squalor in the city. From the outside we see only the dullest stone and tiny barred windows, but it is easy to believe the tales of four-to-a-cell and skin diseases that have not been seen elsewhere in the city for sixty years.
Even on a sunny day, the whole area here seems to sit under a cloud of darkness. The sun sets early, hidden behind the high walls, but even at midday little light penetrates inside the buildings. Once this prison was isolated from the rest of the city and surrounded by fields. Now apartment blocks stand defiantly outside, and prisoners can hear the freedom hum of car engines all day long. In their forced cellblock inertia and immobility, is it comforting for them to see these movements of everyday life, or are these signs of liberty, and the prying, judging eyes around them daily hammer blows to the soul?
On the Boulevard Arago, alongside the north wall, the last remaining prison shelters the last remaining vespasienne. Even the public toilets here come from another age. Once there were 478 of these on the city streets, now they are apparently considered acceptable only for prison visitors. Perhaps it has been left here to draw attention away from a spot 50 metres further on, the position on the corner of the Boulevard and the Rue de la Santé where the guillotine stood until 1940. Around 40 prisoners were executed here in the street, but the killing carried on afterwards behind the walls and away from the eyes of the public. The guillotine was used here for the last time in 1972.
Around the corner on the Rue de la Santé, there is another entrance to the prison. This time it is a little more decorative, a little more welcoming. This is the staff entrance and the entrance of visitors to prisoners in the VIP wing. Rogue politicians and other public faces who took wrong turns are housed here, away from the laws and hierarchies of the ordinary prisoner, protected and probably paying in some way for their privileges.
Walking along the Rue Jean Dolent to the south, I’m reminded that city prisons were always designed to be harsh reminders to the person in the street of the fate that awaits law breakers. Such public exhibitions of vengeance are rare today, but this one is still very effective. These are not high, menacing towers, belittling the individual, but instead walls of oppressive claustrophobia in the heart of a city where freedom is taken for granted. Coming back full circle to the packet of cigarettes, the walk has not been a long one. There is still nobody waiting on the benches, nobody here at all in fact. Looking again at the empty packet I can suddenly see why this banality touched me in such a way. We are all a simple slip, an electrical short circuit in the brain, a lightning strike, a dice throw, a bad choice, a moment of inattention away from this spot on the bench. Or worse still, between four narrow walls inside.