Operated by the Ministry of Justice, La Sante is situated in the Montpamasse district of the 14th Arrondissement in Paris, France. It was designed by the architect Joseph Auguste Emile Vaudremer, and officially opened in August 1867 as a replacement for the Madelonnettes Convent in the 3rd Arrondissement.
The prison was initially built with 500 cells, each at 4 metres long, 2.5 metres wide and 3 metres high. A further 500 cells were added in 1899 when the Grande Roquette prison was closed, creating a prisoner capacity of 2,000 prisoners. The closure of the Grande Roquette meant that La Sante was responsible for holding additional inmates and performing executions. The La Sante prison guillotine was placed at the corner of the Rue de la Sante and the Boulevard Arago, and Georges Duchemin was the first man to be executed in 1909. It was the first execution in Paris for a decade.
During the occupation of France during the Second World War, a wider range of criminals were executed within the walls of La Sante Prison. In addition to the executions of common law criminals, resistance fighters and communists were also applicable, and were either guillotined or shot.
La Sante prison was designed around the hub-and-spoke design plan, similar to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, USA. Until 2000, inmates were categorised into groups according to their race and geographic location and were housed into one of four blocks:
- A Block – Western Europe
- B Block – Black Africa
- C Block – North Africa
- D Block – Rest of the World
As this form of classification is no longer in use at La Sante, the blocks are currently being refurbished and are closed until 2019. The parole section of the prison remains open during this time.
In 2000, Dr Véronique Vasseur, the chief medical officer at La Sante, published a book titled Médecin-chef à la Prison de la Santé, which described the cruelty, neglect and disease which occurred daily inside the prison. It caused a public outcry, and forced the government to change their laws in regards to the rights of convicts.
In the book, Dr Vasseur states that up to four prisoners are kept in small cell for the vast majority of the day. The doors are made from solid metal, which means that the guards can only see what is going on inside the cells if they step up to the door and look through a small peep hole. Many inmates have jobs within the prison, but the vast majority of them are forced to work within their cells.
Should the prisoners need any kind of assistance, they activate a light which is located outside of the cell. However, the Chief Medical Officer recalls that many lights are switched on by the prisoners, but are simply ignored by the guards, who were often too busy dealing with other matters.
Throughout her book, Dr Vasseur describes tales of cruelty, neglect and violence. She describes her discovery of a skin condition on dozens of inmates which is associated with eating rotten food and was not seen in France since World War II. Patients with lung diseases were placed in cells next to the laundry room to aggravate their condition, and others had their water supply cut off from their cells for weeks at a time. She described one young prisoner who was placed in a cell with two dangerous criminals, who raped him on his first night. One of the prisoners was known by the prison guards to have AIDS. Among other acts of cruelty, the doctor recalls self-mutilations, attempted suicide, suicide, and extortion, which the inmates of La Santa Prison verify.
In retaliation to the accusations made by Dr Vasseur, prison officials claim that her book fails to take into account the many changes which have taken place throughout years, such as redecorating and an increase in educational activities. Alain Jego, the warden at La Sante claimed: ”There is an element of generalization that gives a very wrong impression. I’d be an idiot if I said there was no violence, no rape. But the book gives the impression it’s 10 a day and that is not so.”
Due to pressure mounting from a range of inquiries, the French officials offered journalists an opportunity to visit the prison and see the conditions for themselves. Whilst inside, the journalists discovered that very little had changed from when Dr Vasseur had published her book. There were three to four prisoners in each cell, many of which were infested with rats and lice. When speaking with the inmates, the journalists learned that they were all ordered to clean up the building and hide as much decay and mess as possible. Prisoners have covered their flaking walls with posters and pieces of paper, but easily confessed to their dire living conditions.