Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Inside the Prison de la Sante - an eyewitness account

Last December I wrote about the Prison de la Sante, imagining myself in the place of a visitor to the last remaining prison in Paris. Last week, Beth Curtis, a reader of this blog, sent me her memories of visits to the jail to see her brother. I found her account to be so touching and brave that I have decided to publish it in full here.

I came across the photo on your blog of an empty packet of cigarettes left on a gray splintered bench outside the Prison de La Sante, and immediately wanted to write to you about the many memories I have of the place. My first memory is of the bench itself, bolted to the curved metal support structure, with the ancient stone wall of the prison as a backrest and not a hint of greenery in sight. This is the bench that I sat on many times when awaiting entrance to the prison to visit my brother.

John, my brother, had disappeared in 1994. Shortly afterwards an indictment, for conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana and to money-launder, was issued from a Court in Florida for him and his co-defendant, Claude Duboc, who was picked up in Hong Kong within a matter of weeks. I did not know where John was, and in my heart of hearts I hoped that I would never see him again so that he would be able to live his life in freedom.

John was later arrested though at a phone booth on the Champs Elysees in Paris when he was answering a call from someone who had been working for Claude Duboc. The arrest was arranged by the US Justice Department who requested that Interpol pick him up and hold him in France until he could be extradited to the US.

John’s first letter after his arrest was almost euphoric. He was ready to fight what were described as exaggerated charges. He had never been arrested before and felt that anything would be better than not being able see his family again or communicate with them. He would fight the extradition for the next three years while housed in La Sante.

I visited the prison many times in those three years. Sometimes I was alone, sometimes with my brother’s child, my sister and my brother’s wife, and during my last visit there, with my own adult son. He sat and chatted with me until the window in the wall opened and I could begin negotiating my entrance into the imposing prison that has been called a hell hole. My son could not enter, but he kept me company on the walk to the prison and on the bench.

Veronique Vasseur, the prison physician, told me that the cells were full of rats and lice. Suicide is rampant, and depression lurks in every crowded cell. It has been said that prisoners with no other means had swallowed drain cleaner as a way to relieve the pain of life. With these thoughts in mind, the prisoners families and friends, who had often traveled to this place from many places around the world, met on the bench where we talked about families and loved ones and gave each other support.

Towards the end of my visits to La Sante, I found a very pleasant route from my lodgings on the Left Bank to the prison which made visits a little easier. It was a beautiful and textured atmosphere that I could sense on my way to sit on this bench. I made sure each time that this walk included a passage through Luxemburg Gardens.

Each time I walked to the prison, memories flooded into my mind of my brother, a small wiry boy, always in motion with a shock of unruly blond hair blowing in the wind. I can see his irrepressible smile and the vision is one of pure joy and freedom.

I realise that most people have not had the opportunity to go inside La Sante. What is the process? What degradation awaits? How does it smell, feel and look? During the War it housed those who had opposed the German occupation as well as violent criminals, and when France was liberated there was a bloody riot and many were killed. It had a bad reputation but what was it really like?

My first visit was in 1996 when John was 49. This visit was with his wife and 5 year old son. Gaining access to La Sante was always a daunting task. We had made visits to the Ministry of Justice, presented countless documents, and identification, engaged advocates to oil the process. Three times we had everything in place and presented ourselves at the small window in the wall. Our advocate spoke earnestly with the grim face at the door. The language was incomprehensible and our advocate seemed to be a clueless Inspector Cousteau. No, not today - “What must we do?” A shrug of the shoulders, he doesn’t seem to know. We needed a new approach. Finally John’s attorney in Belgium was able to unlock the mystery and the code was broken. We would have a full 45 minutes on a designated day. The anticipation of that first visit was almost unbearable.

We stood at the window and presented our documents. After some scrutiny we were admitted through the small door. Inside was a conveyer belt where we were to place all our belongings and shoes. The inside was dark, in gray concrete with drab chipped industrial paint on metal surfaces. After entering each section of the maze, iron doors are locked behind you. We were destined to communicate with sign language made up of gestures and expressions. We are lead to a counter by a guard with keys and authority. Another door is closed and locked. At the counter, we can leave anything that we have brought for John - books clothes and papers. We stand rigid while we watch these few possessions be examined. They are accepted and we are lead into another concrete room lined with metal lockers that remind me of school lockers in the 1940s and 50s. There we divest ourselves of all possessions. We must not retain even so much as a single scrap of paper.

We are now lead into a large dark room with concrete floors and walls. It is furnished with benches much like the one against the stone wall outside. The wait begins again on these bare wooden benches, and with a five year old child it is very difficult. Time stands still until we are finally called to proceed to the next level.

We follow the guard up a set of stairs and are greeted by a long hallway lined on the left with doors every five feet or so. Another door is unlocked then locked again behind us and we find ourselves in a five by five room with a locked door on the opposing wall. There is a small wooden table and three small plank bottom chairs. I experience fear and joy beyond belief. Now we must wait. We hear a guards gait and ring of his keys, and now he is at the door. There is a small window and through it John’s face appears. There is a smile from ear to ear and bittersweet tears. We have made it.

Beth's conclusion in her mail was a surprising one. "There were many international prisoners there awaiting extradition to their countries. Remarkably they all felt that extradition to the US would be the least desirable outcome, and they were correct. La Sante is unsanitary, and frightful looking - terribly crowded and unhealthy, but somehow civil".

Her brother, John Knock, is today being held in a jail in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. If you wish to find out more about his predicament, see the support website that Beth runs: http://www.johnknock.com/

12 comments:

Tim said...

Both fascinating and very moving. Thanks also for the link to the support website, it really makes you think.

Peter said...

Prisons in general are definitely to be avoided, perhaps more particularly this one! (There seems however to be some nicer quarters for some finanical, political crimes and some personalities. Previleges again!)

Thérèse said...

Poignant!

Karin (an alien parisienne) said...

What a powerful story and a moving look at the inside of a prison. I'm with Tim -- thanks for the link to John Knock's site.

Beaudan said...

I am living in Paris... its really great out here... Prison is Noo no Not now... LIVING IN PARIS

Christine H. said...

Fascinating. I will take a look at the link too.

Owen said...

Grim story... best to stay clear of taking risks that could result in criminal proceedings I guess... though it would be interesting to see the inside of La Santé as a reporter... maybe a jailbreak could be organized, to break into prison for a visit...

binary bible said...

Really moving story, thanks for sharing.

ann p. said...

Your blog is one of my favorite "travel" blogs. I use that term loosely because Invisible Paris is so much more. Thank you for this moving story and history behind the prison. I appreciate your guts in delving into subjects that are unpleasant but true.

I also appreciated the link for John Knock's story. While reading it, I found it difficult to not become infuriated, yet again, at the puritanical nature of the U.S. Sorry if I'm being a bit negative here, but oftentimes I wish my country would just grow up.

sağlık said...

Très bon site. Je vous remercie du travail en Juillet.

dana said...

this makes me sooo sad. good luck John. hope

Anonymous said...

I apologise for sounding harsh and as poignent as you brother's fate is, had he not committed the crime you would not have had to suffer such pain.

But

If you commit a crime then you have to face the reality that you must be punished. Yes I appreciate that it was not murder or anything so heineous. It was still a crime - and whilst I empathise at your situation I do not see any regret from your borther at the situation he is in.

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