A book prize awarded by those behind bars

Inmates in France picked winners in offshoot of the country’s top literary honour

By Aurelien Breeden

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Mathilde reading in her cell at the Orléans-Saran Penitentiary Center, outside Orléans, France on November 27, 2022. (Andrea Mantovani/The New York Times)
Mathilde reading in her cell at the Orléans-Saran Penitentiary Center, outside Orléans, France on November 27, 2022. (Andrea Mantovani/The New York Times)

Published: Mon 26 Dec 2022, 12:43 AM

On a recent afternoon near Orléans, in the Loire Valley, members of the jury of France’s newest literary prize trickled out of their prison cells.

They walked past tall white fencing topped with barbed wire, past metal detectors, security cameras and heavy doors that clanged shut, and into a small, brightly lit classroom with barred windows.

The inmates — more than a dozen men and women held at the Orléans-Saran Penitentiary Centre — had gathered to discuss novels published in France this year and pick the one they thought was the best. One suggested “Le Mage du Kremlin” (“The Wizard of the Kremlin”), a fictionalised look at the Russian president’s inner circle. Another rooted for “La Petite Menteuse” (“The Little Liar”), a novel that explores the post-#MeToo era. Debates were spirited, reviews were blunt — one inmate called a book “exceptionally boring.”

The inmates were part of the very first edition of a new, government-sponsored literary prize bestowed by prisoners. The award, called the Goncourt des détenus, or inmates’ Goncourt, is the most recent of several offshoots of France’s most prestigious literary award. Inmates met over three months this fall to discuss books on the Goncourt’s long list of 15 finalists and to chose a winner.

The prize was awarded Thursday in Paris to Sarah Jollien-Fardel for “Sa Préférée” (“His Favorite”), about a woman struggling to cope with the legacy of her father’s physical and psychological abuse.

Some prisons have organized their own literary prizes, but the inmates’ Goncourt is unprecedented in size and reach, with about 500 people detained in 31 prisons taking part. It is also prominently backed and promoted by the French government, which is often under fire from the right for being too lenient with convicts and from the left for incarcerating too many people in rundown facilities. The Goncourt project, however, has faced little criticism — a sign of literature’s sacred place in French culture and of the belief in its life-changing virtues.

“Wherever culture, language and words advance, violence recedes,” Éric Dupond-Moretti, France’s justice minister, said in an interview about the new prize. “Time in prison has to be a time of punishment but also of transformation.”

For the inmates near Orléans, the process of reading and debating mattered as much as participating in the selection of the winner, if not more. Many welcomed an opportunity to connect with other inmates, to escape detention’s dreariness and to brush off the stigma of prison, as public opinion and politicians in France take an increasingly hard line on incarceration. A poll from 2018 found that 50% of French people believed detainees were “treated too well,” up from 18% in 2000.

“Just because we are inmates, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t worth anything or that our opinions aren’t worth hearing,” said Mathilde, 32, a woman with an easy smile who later joked that she had enjoyed the Goncourt workshop but not enough to do it again — she is scheduled for potential release in January.

Under French law and penitentiary administration regulations, the prisoners’ identities and the reasons for their incarceration could not be made public, in part to protect their safety. They are being identified instead by first name, or not named, in cases of inmates with identifiable first names.

Impetus for an inmates’ Goncourt came from the National Book Center, an official institution that supports France’s book industry, after President Emmanuel Macron declared reading one of his presidency’s “great causes.”

Régine Hatchondo, the centre’s president, said the goals were to make culture more accessible and to foster critical thinking. “It’s also a civic issue,” she said. “The inmates have to debate each other, and obviously they don’t always agree.”

The Goncourt Academy, whose jury of established writers awards the main Goncourt prize, gladly joined the project.

“I’ve always argued in favour of making prison as open as possible, so to speak, to really make it an integral part of our society, not a closed-off and unknown environment that becomes an object of fear or ignorance,” said Philippe Claudel, a writer who is the academy’s secretary-general and who taught French to inmates for more than a decade in the 1980s and 1990s.

Of the approximately 850 inmates detained at Orléans-Saran, 18 took part in the Goncourt workshop, among them volunteers and participants who were encouraged by the prison administration. Some were in pretrial detention awaiting judgment. Others had been convicted, with sentences ranging from less than a year to more than 10 years. Not all of them were literature buffs.

“The idea wasn’t to only keep people who were going to read all 15 books,” said Pascal Rémond, who has overseen teaching and education programs at the prison for the past 40 years. “The goal was to get people to read.”

The treatment of detainees can be an contentious topic in France. Over the summer, videos filmed at a prison near Paris that showed inmates and wardens competing in activities such as go-kart races for a charity event caused an uproar and fuelled accusations that the Macron administration was too lax.

The inmates’ Goncourt has not raised such opposition; reading undoubtedly ranks higher than go-kart racing on France’s list of worthy cultural pursuits. In Orléans, booksellers and shoppers had only vaguely heard of the program, but they supported the idea.

“Bringing literature to people, not cutting them off from it; that’s really great,” said Marlène Brocail, who manages Chantelivre, a bookstore in town. Hundreds of books receive awards in France every year; top winners are fitted with red wraparound slips and prominently displayed in bookstores. Awards are a sales boon, and Brocail said she didn’t see why readers would treat one given by inmates any differently.

“You aren’t judging what they did,” she said. “You are judging literature.”

Laurent Ridel, head of France’s prison administration, said prison activities and high-profile projects such as an inmate rap album or a prison restaurant were often misunderstood or misrepresented as wasteful giveaways, rather than useful tools.

“It’s win-win,” he said — a way to respect inmates’ right to cultural activities but also to improve staff working conditions by smoothing over tensions. “You can’t build anything on humiliation or frustration.”

The National Book Center provided the books and organized prison visits for authors whose novels were in the running. The inmates near Orléans met Makenzy Orcel, the Haitian author of “Une Somme Humaine” (“A Human Burden”). Eddy, 22, one of the youngest inmates in the group, asked for advice for aspiring writers. Orcel’s answer: Read a lot.

“I’m fed up with being here,” Eddy, who is studying to get a law degree, said after the chat, which ended over coffee, juice and pastries. “But this felt good.”

A 45-year-old inmate with hollow cheeks and intricately tattooed forearms who was part of the Goncourt jury said cultural activities help inmates piece together a shattered life.

“The hardest thing, when you arrive in prison, is that everything is obliterated,” he said. A familiar network of family, friends and colleagues falls apart, he said; he once considered suicide. After 3 1/2 years as a prison librarian, he now is taking long-distance university classes and dreams of becoming a writer.

“These workshops are fundamental,” he said. “It changes everything.”

Another inmate — a tall, quick-witted 27-year-old man who bantered with wardens and fellow inmates alike — said it was a book, Boris Vian’s “Froth on the Daydream,” that first showed him the power of words.

“I’ve always been passionate about literature,” he said in his cell, where a desktop fan converted into an egg beater — he had taken up prison-style baking — sat not far from books by Guillaume Apollinaire and Marguerite Duras.

But watchdog organizations say teaching and cultural activities often fall by the wayside as prison staffing and infrastructure are strained by the rising number of inmates. There are currently more than 72,000 detainees in the country — a record and far more than the maximum capacity of about 60,700. Official statistics show that nearly 10 per cent of detainees are illiterate.

After the inmates near Orléans picked their favorite books, four of them debated over video conference with prisoners in Saint-Maur, a town in the same area, to settle on a regional shortlist. The inmates seldom mentioned their sentences or their life in prison during the workshop, but sometimes they brought their experiences to bear on the discussion.

Debating “His Favorite,” the 27-year-old said it showed the importance of “confronting the demons from your past.”

“When I was young, I repeated a lot of the violence that I suffered as a child,” he said.

Not all inmates were comfortable with the idea of engaging in literary analysis in public. Rémond said one inmate participated on the condition that he wouldn’t have to talk.

But during one session, that same inmate spoke at length about several books, including “Une Heure de Ferveur” (“An Hour of Fervor”), which he found beautifully written but too hard to finish. The plot, about a Japanese father separated from his daughter in France, was a painful reminder of the separation from his own child, he said.

Rémond said that “the inmates were invested and enthusiastic in ways that you rarely see,” and he wanted to continue meeting as a book club even after the Goncourt project had ended.

Many hope that the new prize will shift public perceptions.

“It can change the optics,” said Odile Macchi, head of the investigation division of the International Observatory of Prisons in France. “To realise that, yes, these are actually people who have something to say about literature.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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