The jails in Guadeloupe are run by the French government, so the prisons here follow French rules and regulations. Somehow, I believed that French jails and U.S. jails would be quite similar if not almost exactly the same (minus the whole speaking French part). However, I have come to find that I was wrong. There are a few pretty noticeable differences between what I’ve observed and experienced through the U.S. prison system and the French prison system.
The first thing that was most noticeable to me was that the prisoners are wearing street clothes instead of prison uniforms. These clothes are provided by family and friends of the prisoner. If the prisoner does not have family or friends who are available or able to help them, then the prisons seek help from outside organizations. (Like Men a Lespwa, for example.) Some folks in the prison only have one top and one bottom, and sometimes those pieces are too small/big or have stains, holes, etc. There is certainly a need for donated clothes in the prisons.
The second thing I noticed was that guards are not omni-present. Now, don’t get me wrong – this does not mean that it’s not well guarded or that I felt unsafe. No. It just means that the prisoners have a few opportunities to be a bit more independent. For example, when chaplains come to meet with people, we meet with people in a larger meeting/gathering space and the guard does not come inside with us. If there is a problem, a guard is readily available, but the prisoners do have that opportunity to speak openly with a chaplain. Also, as we walk around, we are not escorted by a guard. I am not certain if all of this is common practice in the U.S. or not, though, as when I’ve been in a U.S. jail, I was with a group of students and we were escorted the entire time. Maybe others can enlighten me?
Another thing is that there aren’t dress codes for visitors and there are very few restrictions on things that you can bring into the jail, in comparison to the United States. I remember that when I visited one jail in the U.S., women were told that we had to wear short sleeve or longer shirts with a crew neck (absolutely no cleavage showing), pants or a long skirt, and no jewelry. Furthermore, we were not allowed to bring our purses into the jail, although we could take paper and a writing utensil inside if we wanted to take notes. That is not the case here. You can wear whatever you want (although I still dress pretty modestly) and you can take in bags and purses (although you can’t take in any weapons (duh), cell phones/electronics, and illegal substances).
It’s certainly interesting and I’m sure I’ll learn and notice more things along the way. We are also hoping that I might soon be able to get French residency here and, once that happens, file to be an “official chaplain of France.” Cool things!