Guyanese-born Christiane Taubira is now one of the most powerful women in France. She was appointed Justice Minister this week. The Justice Ministry oversees the running of the courts, public prosecutions, presidential pardons and prisons.
Taubira has been a regional councillor for the French overseas territory of Guyana since 2010 and a member of the French National Assembly since 1993. She also ran as a candidate for the Left Radical Party in the 2007 presidential elections in which she won 2.32 per cent of the vote in the first round. She campaigned under the slogan, Equal opportunities.
France’s prison population hit a record 66,445 on 1 March but there are only 57,213 places.
It hit 50,000 in 2001 and has risen ever since, boosted by government decisions to crack down on crime.
France has the highest suicide rate in Europe, at about 100 per year, according to independent observers.
The French section of the International Prison Observatory counted seven suicides in French jails between January and November 2011.
On Friday for her first public engagement Taubira attended the national prisons basketball championships in Paris, where she stressed the importance of rehabilitation.
“It's an encounter that shows trust and respect between prisoners and personnel. The prisoner remains a human being, a citizen. He has needs and we have to work more on training and reinsertion,” Taubira told RFI.
Tensions between prisoners and staff often result in violence. A phenomenon that has been blamed on overcrowding. The prison population in France is at a record high of 67,161 inmates, according to figures released by the prison authority, L’administration pénitentaire last month. The prisoner capacity of France is 57,170.
Prison governors and unions representing prison staff have welcomed Taubira’s appointment. She is credited with backing improved conditions for Guyana’s largest prison, Rémire-Montjoly. The reforms helped curb violence in the prison and the spread of HIV.
In February a law was passed in France to build an additional 24,000 prison places by 2017, at a cost of 3 billion Euros. Taubira cautioned that her ministry would need to review the budget for prison reforms.
“We'll have a quick look at proposed prison construction projects and then reorient budgets,” she said.
Traditionally the Socialist Party has favoured alternatives to imprisonment such as electronic tagging and community service, particularly for young offenders. So the reorientation of the prison budget by Taubira may put less emphasis on punishment and more on rehabilitation.