Posted by Jay Livingston
The Bastille was a prison, and I assume that like most European prisons of the time, it was a miserable place. De Tocqueville’s ostensible purpose in visiting America a generation or so after the fall of the Bastille was to study our progressive prison system.
Some things change, some stay the same. The Bastille was torn down during the Revolution. Now the only prison still standing within the official Paris boundaries is the Prison de la Santé, built in 1867, and it was not much of an improvement.
On Bastille Day in 1944 an inmate uprising was brutally suppressed by the Vichy regime. Recently, a blogger at Invisible Paris, Adam, referred to its squalor as “Zola-esque” (that’s French for Dickensian). He saw it only from the outside, but an American reader who had visited her brother* there then wrote to Adam providing more detail.
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.That was in 1994. A few years later, Dr. Vasseur published an exposé of conditions in the prison. According to the story in the Times,
Skin diseases were rampant because showers were only available twice a week, though temperatures sometimes soared to more than 100 degrees in cramped cells holding four prisoners each.
Inmates stuffed their clothes in the cracks in their cells to keep the rats out, and most of the mattresses were full of lice and other insects. Some of the weaker prisoners, Dr. Vasseur came to understand, had been turned into slaves by their cellmates.
But what caught Adam’s attention in the letter from the woman who had visited the prison was this paragraph:
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.Some things stay the same – French prisons perhaps. Some things change – in 1830, America was the country whose prison system a young idealistic Frenchman might hope to learn from. Today, our prisons have such a bad reputation that even prisoners in a disease-ridden, rat-infested French prison want to avoid extradition here.
No 21st-century de Tocqueville will be coming to the US to pick up pointers about prison reform.
* According to the Website supporting him, the brother, John Knock, was caught in a marijuana sting. He was extradited to the US. He pled not guilty. He was convicted, and sentenced to “2 life terms for conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana, and 20 years for conspiracy to money launder.” He was a first-time offender.