After more than two centuries of history, Melun’s central house is expected to close in 2027

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Located at 10 quai de la Courtille, the central house of Melun was one of the first in France. It underwent five construction campaigns between 1812 and 1884. With the capacity to accommodate 308 prisoners, it is one of the most famous Léon Rodriguez, of the Bonnot gang. Today, the question of its displacement, and the evolution of the buildings that compose it, arises..

The creation of central houses in France was provided for by an imperial decree of June 16, 1808, implementing the penalty of deprivation of liberty developed by the Penal Code of 1791. The central houses then depended on the central administration of the Ministry of the Interior and are financed by the State. . Placed in the center of a constituency, they aim to cover the entire national territory.

From the Hôtel-Dieu to the central house

The one in Melun is housed in the former Hôtel-Dieu Saint-Nicolas, a hospital built on the 11thand century and enlarged in the 17th centuryand century under the management of the Annonciades sisters. ” 1er thermidor of the year Xl, that is, on July 20, 1803, the Hôtel-Dieu Saint-Nicolas was transformed into a house of repression for women sentenced to prison, writes prison chaplain Raymond-Noël Brehamet in his book entitled: The central house of Melun. By decree of August 21, 1811, Emperor Napoleon 1er made it a central detention center for men, to be used by detainees from the departments of Seine-et-Marne, Seine-et-Oise, Aisne, Oise and Loiret”. He further specifies: “It was to receive 500 inmates of both sexes. It should therefore be expanded and plans provided for workshops for different types of work, according to age and sex, and separate and separate facilities for habitual criminals, vagrants, unconfessed persons and criminals”…

The buildings that occupied the southeastern part of the island of Saint-Etienne were destroyed during the construction of the prison. From 1812 to 1832, three new buildings housed the dormitories to the south, the workshops to the north, the chapel and the refectory to the east. At the tip of the island are the infirmary and pharmacy.

Several architects are directing the work: Guy de Gisors, replaced by Ponts-et-Chaussées engineer Dherbelot, then Nicolas Nicaise Solente and Basile Frédéric Dupont. “The central house would be one of the most important and best equipped in France,” wrote Chaplain Brehamet.

Other developments followed, such as the installation of a punishment barracks in 1834, with the adoption of a cell division, and the modification of the refectory in 1842 with the creation of a laundry. Between 1858 and 1867, the prison area was doubled under the direction of Ernest Mangeon. The workshops where the prisoners worked were then concentrated to the east of the establishment and a new gate was opened on the Quai de la Courtille to the north.

A chapel was later built (1866-1868), then an isolation wing (1864-1867). From 1884 to 1887, the old dormitories were replaced by the large T-shaped building, still in use today, which combines a panoptic floor plan and cellular organization, under the direction of the architects Prosper Bulot. Raymond-Noël Brehamet notes, however: “We must believe that not everything has had to be done well since a director wrote in his annual report to the ministry in 1885: “If, from the beginning, the plans had been well designed, we would have to have built something better, it would have been necessary to have solid foundations as we were building on an island, and we realized this when the cell block was built in 1865 (the current observation center). In fact, when the Seine rises, it penetrates the cellars”!

During the XXand century, some old buildings such as the infirmary and the chapel were destroyed but the prison plans were not further modified.

“From semi-private prison to truly public prison”

Until 1895, the general contractor system was established in the central houses, including Melun: the contractor who won the public contract had to provide work to all able-bodied prisoners, on pain of paying them unemployment benefit.

In the article “ The Decline of the Poissy Power Plant General Contractor (1870-1914) “, historian Claire Depambour recalls the missions of the general company: “To keep prisoners and offer each convict a regular job, so that he can find, during the time of his imprisonment, habits of temperance, a pledge of his reintegration into the society of the free men.” But, he analyzes, if “the intention was praiseworthy”, its implementation was “problematic”: “Hungry, poorly paid, prisoners were the first victims of this system that enshrined the omnipotence of a single man, free to oppose at will to the action of the penitentiary administration. Also free to sacrifice the fine ideas of penal prison parents for the sole purpose of making an immediate profit. The mistake was to believe that the central houses could be transformed into factories and imposed a way of management copied from free industry”.

Work was, in fact, perceived as the means of allowing the guilty to regain his place in society. But, specifies the historian, “the pursuit of profit was going to replace the work of moralization dreamed of by the priests of the penal prison”.

Monique Seyler, sociologist and prison expert, published an article in 1989 titled: “ From semi-private prison to truly public prison: the end of the general contractor regime in the IIIand Republic “. She points to the idea that this system was born from the “administrative inability to manage the new prison materially created by the Constituent Assembly in 1791. Without experience, without financial and personnel resources, the State goes to the simplest and fastest: it has people deprived of the care of keeping their prisons alive. In fact, it extends a practice already in force in the precincts of the old regime. Thus, in exchange for a daily rate financed by the State, the businessman was in charge of prison daily life: “Food, sleeping, changing rooms, laundry for prisoners; prison heating and lighting; workshop equipment; maintenance of movable objects, such as the furniture of the administration offices, the objects of worship, the weapons of the guards. He paid for the medicine of the sick and even the burial of the prisoners who died during their sentence.”

In Melun, more technical activities are favored. There is an autograph workshop, a stamping workshop (manufacture of umbrellas, walking sticks and pipes), a hardware workshop, a brush workshop, a carpentry shop and a tailoring and shoemaking workshop. “A true complete factory”, observes Raymond-Noël Bréhamet.

Sociologist Monique Seyler concludes in her article: “General contractors, who had compensated for weakness and administrative impotence for more than a century, were doomed to disappear once management had the necessary strength to manage itself. the prison.” The administration of the prison was later placed under the authority of the Keeper of the Seals, starting in 1911.

A future move, really?

Two centuries after its “inauguration”, the central house of Melun is expected to close its doors in 2027. The announcement was made by the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, in April 2021. The prison must move, but where? For more than ten years the question remained unanswered. In 2010, the Keeper of the Seals, Michèle Alliot-Marie (UMP), decided to destroy it and rebuild it in other parts of the agglomeration. While in 2011, her successor Michel Mercier confirmed this project, Christiane Taubira canceled the process in 2013.

The change is finally put back on the agenda without being able to convince the inhabitants of the department. As for Melun-Rubelles, Vaux-le-Péniel and the community of the Melun Val-de-Seine agglomeration, the last municipality chosen, Crisenoy, resists the installation of a new prison center on its territory. This new prison is part of the national program to create 15,000 places over 10 years and foresees the creation of 1,000 places in the village of Les Bordes, located next to the A5 motorway.

A first demonstration took place on March 13, 2021 at the village school and was followed by a demonstration in front of the Seine-et-Marne town hall in Melun on May 29, 2021. On February 3, 2022, a public meeting organized in the framework of prior consultation gathered a number of opponents.

“It was Morgane, a resident of Crisenoy, who opened the hostilities, reports the editorial team of the website Actu.fr. A member of the local association for the preservation of agricultural land, the environment and the environment, she communicated to the Public Agency for Real Estate Justice (Apij) her “misunderstanding” about “the choice of Crisenoy after studies carried out in the five potential sites identified ”, including Rubelles and Vaux-le-Pénil. A question to which Apij has committed to provide answers in a summary file that will be released later “…

The environmental issue occupies part of the concerns. The association Renard is concerned, for example, with “non-compliance with the basic measures of the Environmental Code”, while others fear noise pollution linked to planned road development near the village. On March 27, 2022, the Association for the preservation of agricultural land, the environment and the living environment (APTAECV) organized its open house to raise awareness among the inhabitants of the territory. “Our approach is based on consultation and communication of evidence to provide the maximum amount of information to citizens”, explains Manuel Sirera, president of the association to Actu.fr. We want to mobilize the inhabitants of the territory, but also the elected and discuss with the Apij. We must bring back the collective and solidarity to fight this project that is not viable for our territory”.

On the side of the unions, their position has not changed since 2017. “All the guards are against the closing of the detention center, indicates one of the representatives. We want to maintain our working conditions, which are very good. In case of departure, we would lose our specialty, as there would necessarily be a detention center and a preventive detention center (for defendants awaiting trial, or short sentences, Ed)”.

In Melun, 80% of prisoners are perpetrators of sexual crimes (AICS). “We have know-how in terms of monitoring”, explains a supervisor. Given the number of employees, we can establish long-term work to prepare for reintegration.” Other arguments presented: the proximity to transport and the ease of access for detainees on leave and their families, in addition to the fact of “bringing life to local businesses”.

The prison administration assures that a closure would not be correlated with the opening of Crisenoy prison. Alternatively, the guards suggest creating a “release preparation chamber establishment”: “With facilities in the city centre, it perfectly matches the criteria of the prison administration…”

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