France: A letter from isolation, that escaped from inside a prison

On 8th December 2020, several searches took place all over France, leading to the arrest of nine people. After 96 hours in custody at DGSI (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure) [General Direction of Internal Security], seven of them were charged with “criminal association of a terrorist nature”. Five of these people were subsequently imprisoned, all as “prisoners submitted to special surveillance” (DPS). At the end of April 2021, after five months of freedom deprivation, two of them were released. More recently, in mid-October 2021, another comrade was released on bail conditions in spite of the prosecutors’ appeal. These arrests took place in a context of the growing criminalization of social movements. Recourse to the charge of criminal association is being increasingly made to break up militant collectives and to crush the struggle. We have been seeing an excess of legislation for several years: a law on global security, a law on separatism, the Darmanin decrees, the SILT law, etc.… the administrative authority is gaining the upper hand on judicial power. With the enforcement of a form of predictive justice, everyone is allegedly guilty and people are judged on the basis of a presumption of their intentions. The letter that follows, as well as the poem and the drawing are from the comrades still imprisoned.

A letter from isolation – Bois d’Arcy – Summer 2021

For more than a month and a half I’ve wanted to write about isolation again but I can’t begin, I can’t concentrate enough. Either my mind evaporates into nothing like a little cloud or it condenses in a sort of molasses so dense that it blocks everything in my brain and gives me a headache. Even if the former might appear lighter (it is like being drugged and in a state of confusion), both situations give me a painful sensation. In fact, witnessing the loss of one’s intellectual abilities and one’s decadence is a particularly violent sensation. It is in this mental condition that I am working on this text.

The desire to give updates on my condition comes from the sudden awareness that I’m getting worse. New symptoms are appearing while the old ones are worsening more and more, without any attention being paid to them. To realize that you have completely forgotten that two of your friends (on trial with you) were released (on bail conditions), the only good piece of news since I was locked up, is a real shock. The brain decisively starts to go astray. Problems of concentration, difficulty in building up one’s thoughts, headaches, confusion, loss of temporal points of reference, dizziness, all the symptoms I mentioned before, far from disappearing in time, have become more widespread, have become common or normal. But others must be added. Before I mention them, we need to understand something: every time a new symptom, a new pain appears, we say to ourselves that it is temporary, we wait for it to pass. But no! Each new discomfort that appears is only a taste of what is going to establish itself in the long run and become more and more present. So these new “companions” are:

Loss of memory, lack of points of reference, no exchange with people, no stimulus, things are no longer registered. Information received during phone calls, visits, reading etc. go in and out without leaving any trace or only as a vague sensation of something impalpable. If I don’t write down my plans for sports activities or the things to be done during the day immediately, I completely forget them a minute later…

Sight problems add to this: it is now impossible to see a straight and level floor. Floors lean over in all directions at the same time and never at the same time. One could have fun trying to guess where a ball would go if it were tossed on to the floor. Anyway it would be forbidden to do so…

Another very worrying symptom is strong pressure on the chest accompanied by pain in the heart, like a pang. The impression is that the heart is beating faster, stronger, as if it wanted to get out of the chest and a sensation of fever, even during moments of relaxation such as tai-chi and meditation sessions. This pain lasted a whole month, incessantly, before it went away only to come back and visit me unexpectedly from time to time.

There is also the problem of loss of access to one’s brain. It has now become normal, as someone brings out an argument, to know that I know about it but have no access to it, the connection for getting there is interrupted, it doesn’t connect. And fear insinuates itself, and what if it was not the road you cannot find, but your knowledge that is wearing out bit by bit until it disappears?

Besides all this, as already said, there is also the fact that this brings about a lot of psychological suffering.

So what does one do in this case? One worries, asks to see a doctor? Yes, but it is very complicated to access the medical area in isolation. We can say that a doctor pays a visit to the C4 area (the isolation area in the prison of Bois d’Arcy) twice a week, but at super speed, in the corridor with the guards, without any chance of guaranteeing even a semblance of medical confidentiality and with just the time to take a few notes and prescribe pain killers, saying that here (in isolation) having a headache is normal. To be granted an appointment is not always easy and once you are granted it, it is even more difficult to attend.

In order for someone to leave C4, the whole of the detention area has to be blocked, which prevents the prison from functioning. As one moves about, everything needs to be closed and inaccessible, even visibly, so as to make sure that no other prisoner can see or be seen. The fact that one must be accompanied by an officer and a guard along the trajectory, and the time of the appointment, makes the logistics in the prison more complicated, requiring more staff. Therefore it is easier to leave the prisoner at the mercy of their hopes, which exhaust in the space of a few minutes until they realize that they won’t be going to the appointment they were waiting for.

My appointment with a dentist was put off twice because I was not accompanied in time, while both I and the dentist had been waiting! At the beginning of February I asked to be seen by a psychologist, but we are at the end of June (1) and there is still no light on the horizon. My medical visit took place after a month of continuous requests, but above all thanks to my lawyers’ intervention.

The doctor told me by word of mouth that what I was complaining about was caused by the condition of isolation, that it was normal in this situation and that it would go away as soon as I got out, without giving me any certificate stating such (2). It is as if they didn’t want to consider my serious physical and mental damage, as if they were saying: “you are suffering, we are not interested, it is not serious”. Well, even if it wasn’t serious, if it went away after my release, it is not normal for me to suffer this way. The fact of not giving a medical certificate means to contribute to the existence of these facts, to become accomplices of the torture being inflicted. It is interesting to see how being in isolation creates psychological and physical illness which cannot be checked adequately because one is in isolation. It is a snake biting its tail, an infernal spiral. It is such an absurdity that it is difficult to believe it is true.

Now they put in place a “system” which should guarantee that I can access my appointments; it remains to be seen how it is going to function, given that the chance to realize it hasn’t arrived yet.

I gained this “luxury” thanks to the fact that I am very insistent about my rights, or as the direction put it: “demanding about detention conditions”. But respect for prisoners’ rights has to be forced tooth and nail here, it isn’t applied automatically and appealing to common sense politely to get it applied is totally useless. I gained a more or less pleasant vegetarian diet only after I cited the law and threatened to call my lawyers. I also solved the problems of the CD player and medical appointments the same way: “Lawyer!” Even if it is not surprising, it is distressing to note how the prison administration (AP) imposes a relation of an antagonist nature with prisoners, everything has to be run as if it were a power struggle.

I know I am privileged in this sense, I have two lawyers who are determined about having my rights respected. A huge luxury which few here, I suppose, can boast. I also have the privilege to be quite fluent in French, both reading and writing, so I can clearly express my statements and justify their legitimacy. Because even if you can submit claims about certain things to the supervisors, the official protocol, and the only one which is recognized, is the written word. I can’t imagine the ordeal of those who don’t speak the language or have trouble with writing it and obviously can’t ask another prisoner for help, being in isolation. As the AP is, as its name implies, an administration and all that is involved, patience gained through time is the most important quality as well as the ability to adapt to the protocol. I wonder how someone who is not supported by any lawyer, who is not very fluent with the language, can claim their rights and not lose their patience. And if you lose your patience, what can you do if your rights are violated? What will the outcomes and consequences be? Don’t we know already?

My morale fluctuates between moments of almost euphoria (which is not necessarily reassuring) and total demoralization and demotivation, and this without anything happening or justifying these mood swings. My psychological situation is unstable, I rejoice when everything is “all right”, while I fear the moment when I inexorably hit rock bottom. Besides my family who make an effort to visit me once a week, my best support is the sun (even if it is starting to transform the prison into a furnace). I am very impressed by how the weather influences my mental state.

In order to resist I never look towards the future, I don’t imagine anything positive for fear of being disappointed and having an emotional breakdown. No hope, no disappointment. So I live day by day, tirelessly repeating my routine. A rigorous routine between physical preservation, intellectual development and psychological satisfaction that comes from looking at a ray of sunshine and carrying out a good tai-chi session. Self-discipline is the only thing left to me, when nothing else remains. Another expedient to continue to smile is that of lying shamelessly about my situation. A small difference in my cell? Wow! Fantastic! Processed food? Awesome! If I added turmeric, sault, raz-el-hanout, curry, Provencal herbs, cumin and harissa, it would become my favourite dish! The water in the shower is hot? That’s relaxing! Is it cold! That’s reinvigorating! See the glass not half empty but two-thirds full…

When you change cell, you realize how much you have to learn again to recognize sounds. Unconsciously you integrate all the sounds from the corridor. The resounding of steps, the echo of voices, the wheeling of trolleys, the sliding of spyholes, the clinking of keys, the beep of the security gate, the opening and closing of doors, you guess what is going on. So it is possible to anticipate the moment when the guards are coming to the door. This might not seem a big problem but in my opinion not to be taken by surprise is very important. Not to be taken by surprise means to anticipate the strong and brutal sound of latches and locks. To be taken by surprise by these sounds makes you jump, gives you a shock to the heart, a sudden rise of stress, without any reason, it is biological, natural I’d say. I can picture in my mind a doe or a gazelle on the alert, listening carefully so as not to fall victim of a predator. Even if consciously nothing justifies this feeling, and personally I have no aggressive behaviour or abuse from the supervisors to blame. I can’t help, as a vital duty, an instinct of survival, of always being ready, always on the alert. As a way of taking possession of one’s territory, controlling one’s space! Certainly this is due to the fact that even if our relations are polite, they will never be amicable and the guards will always only be links in the chain of my oppression.

Last time (3) I didn’t mention the spyholes that allow the guards to watch the prisoners through the door. In the meantime they added grates even here… As if there wasn’t enough of that already… This prevents us from knowing whether we are being watched or not, and it only serves to isolate a human being even more. Where there was once an “eye” (quite a disquieting image, even cosmic, in this sense), now there is nothing. There is no longer a visual link between oneself and the “eye”, only the sound (soon nothing), another small step towards the dehumanization of the prison environment. These controls are carried out about every two hours, day and night. In the day, it is necessary to give a sign of life otherwise they knock on the door, so they wake you up if you are resting. In the night the control inevitably goes with the lights being turned on (for a length of time according to who is doing it…). In the nights that I manage to sleep well I wake up only once, otherwise…

The most damaging thing of isolation is that it makes the unreal the real. As you are permanently alone with yourself, with your thoughts as the only interaction, the real world doesn’t materialize, my family visiting me tell me of a world (the outside one) which seems imaginary, and after they go I have the impression I only had a dream. The only (pathetic) reality is this cell, these books, this shower, this individual “pseudo walk”. Even the other prisoners who can be seen in (real) walks through the grates of the cage seem to be in another universe. We see what happens outside our cells, we know about what concerns ourselves but we don’t really experience it, we don’t really feel it.

To learn about the death of a friend strikes me in such a confused way that it is impossible to define it clearly. So many feelings arise all at once, the normal ones, deep sadness, shock, confusion, all mixed with a sense of unreality. Even if we know the cruel truth of the terrible loss, it only seems to be a distant nightmare. As we don’t attend the funeral, there is no sharing the moment with other people who loved him, not even the possibility to open up with another prisoner. Besides, there is the need to resist. A constant struggle not to sink in, which doesn’t leave us any “spare time” to abandon ourselves completely to our pain, our agony. As visits are the only very short breaths of fresh air, they rather focus on what brings joy and painful subjects are deliberately limited or omitted. Once again, following a sort of mechanism of survival, feelings and emotions are blocked, postponed to afterwards, to getting out… How many of these events have accumulated since the beginning of isolation? What sort of emotional baggage will we still carry with us? How will we face all this after we get out? What will happen if this “baggage” cracks? Oops… questions which are not to be thought.

This reality is limited to such a small space that it becomes egocentric.

Going back to my situation and my isolation, it is “amusing” to note the non-respect of laws by the AP. A memo dated 14th April 2011 establishes, in short, that one cannot be put in isolation for the offences one is accused of (or was charged with). The reason [for isolation] has to be so-called “inappropriate” or “dangerous” behaviour. In spite of this, the prison direction imposed six months’ isolation on me and obtained its extension, saying very clearly that it was based only on actions that had been carried out, and they acknowledged that my behaviour hadn’t caused any problem. Therefore, shamelessly, they trample on a person’s rights and apply so called “white torture”… Stay calm!

To resist because there is no choice, to resist for your own respect and that of your family, to resist thanks to the support of those near you: families, friends, comrades. Thanks to them for this ever-present support. Thanks also to those I don’t know and who have honoured me with theirs.


This text doesn’t have the aim of explaining how prisons function nor does it claim to be representative of what life in isolation is like. It doesn’t claim to terrorize official and non-official mechanisms, the repressive “instruments” used to break or reduce the prisoners’ determination, which some have already done very well. This text is only worth what it is: the testimony of one particular person, in one particular moment, nothing more and nothing less.

I hope the part on being fluent with the French language, its writing and reading, won’t sound pretentious, “how well I speak French!”, this is not the point. The point is that if you don’t speak French or have problems in reading and writing it, then you are in trouble if you want to claim your rights! Is that clear or am I wrong? Shall I repeat it again?

Yesterday my mother was refused to be able to deliver books and CDs, probably because she didn’t have an authorization. A mistake by a new employee? Indirect punishment? It is also true that there were many problems with parcels in the summer, which I hope will be sorted out soon. (4)

Today, 6th September and after several requests, a medical certificate was issued, which only mentioned loss of memory and pain in the chest and still no appointment with a psychologist.

Free flow


These notes were added by the support committee:

1) The situation is still the same in the month of October 2021.

2) During the hearing for the renewal of the isolation to be extended to another 6 months, a doctor was asked to give his medical opinion and SPIP [Prison Integration and Probation Service] to give an opinion on our comrade’s behaviour.

3) See the letter of 2021 published in l’envolée issue 53 and on the blog

4) From now on, following changes in the functioning of the prison, our comrade has to ask authorization for any book and CD he gets delivered, and the parcel has to be searched by the chief of the detention centre.


[Translated by Act for freedom now!]

[en français][in italiano]

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