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The Mazas Cell House, a prison model, has been around for centuries



One of the galleries of the Mazas Prison. – Hippolyte-Auguste collar

  • 20 minutes, in partnership with Retronews, the French National Library's press site, revived the missing prisons, from the Bastille to the Cayenne prison.
  • Built in 1850, the Massage Prison, located near the Gare de Lyon in Paris, is one of the first to create a cellular system in France.
  • Inspired by the American model and designed to isolate detainees from one another, Mazas was destroyed forty-eight years later.

Nothing remains of the imposing stone porch of the Mazas Prison. On 25-23 Boulevard Diderot, in the entrance square, residents of the Gare de Lyon in Paris can now enjoy coffee on the bistro terrace. For forty-eight years, however, a page has been written here about the history of prisons in France.

Opened in 1850, the Masaz Prison held hundreds of thousands of prisoners, known and unknown, in those walls until it was demolished in 1898. The first prison to be based solely on prison in a cell, this prison has long been erected as a "model" "Of the genre. Designed to isolate detainees as much as possible, Masas left traces in him
criminal policy since then.

The largest prison of that time

To find out what Masaz Prison looks like, a journalist from Small Republic dares in 1898 this bucolic comparison: “Take a daisy […]The yellow heart where bees feed is the center of the building. This is where the guardians look, this is also the place where the priest serves. White petals are long corridors containing cells isolated from one another and closed by solid doors. It is impossible to get out or to enter without going through the others, that is, without being seen by the guards watching day and night. "

Plan for a panoramic jail of Mazas.
Plan for a panoramic jail of Mazas. – Louis Figuerer

Imagined by architect Emil Gilbert, Massas has been described in the press as an "ideal prison" or "standard prison". At the time, the journalists praised the genius of their creator, who was inspired by the American model, observed by Deputy and Magistrate Alexis de Tocqueville, while traveling across the Atlantic. Nicknamed the "1200-seat hotel," the prison can accommodate 1,200 inmates spread over three floors at the time of its opening. "Of all the prisons in Paris, Mazas was the largest," he says Petis Parisien in its edition of May 25, 1898. The largest and the first, p
its juvenile equivalent, "la Petite Roquette," to create a cellular diet.

Many advantages

"Under the old regime, the cell was almost an aristocratic privilege. When we closed the nobles in the Bastille, we planned a cell, it was a way to distinguish them, "recalls Michel Perrot, a historian specializing in the French prison system. With Mazas, France summarizes the cell and does everything to isolate the prisoners.

In 1850 on the occasion of the entry into the prison of St. The constitutional describes: "There is a large courtyard between each building, divided into twenty alleys, in which twenty prisoners will come to take in the air at once without seeing each other. […] The cell lounges are arranged so that each prisoner can see only his visitor, and each visitor can see only his visitor. "

Engraving at the Mazas Prison in Paris in 1861.
Engraving of Mazas Prison in Paris in 1861 – MARY EVANS / SIPA

The exchange is limited to a maximum and prisoners wear a mask, the release reveals Universal Monitor: 'No iron, like that of the famous Bastille prisoner, but of woven cotton. […] This measure was taken not to allow detainees in the same prison to be recognized when they leave. "" The idea of ​​public authorities at that time was also to avoid contagion between prisoners. The cell was synonymous with return on itself, a product of introspection "If we can regenerate the prisoners, it will be loneliness, authorities say," notes historian Michel Perrot.

The echo of the past

An idea that still finds some echoes to this day. By 2016, after the terrorist attacks that hit Paris, Saint Denis or Nice, the so-called "radicalized" detainees were regrouped in
units to prevent radicalization. It resembles a prison strategy born in Mazas: "If isolation is already thought of as punishment, it is also seen as a way to avoid this known contagion. Islamist radicalism has revived this old idea because radicalism is thought to spread from one person to another, through preaching, through speech. By isolating these people from other prisoners, infection is avoided. "

At the time of Mazas, MPs openly praised this cellular regime: "All prisoners questioned, among those who had never lived in prisons, declared that they preferred to be subjected to cellular mode rather than confused with other prisoners. The reason for this preference is the same for everyone. The cell regime prevents them from contacting men who can later exploit the memory of the common captive; it allows them, in the case of an acquittal, to be left to neglect their imprisonment, "the select committee wrote in the committee report on the establishment.

Today, if a separate cell is still attractive to detainees, the reasons have evolved, says Michel Perot: “The cell may also be a desire for inmates sentenced to long sentences who suffer indiscriminateness and prison overcrowding. "

Model challenged

After forty-eight years, Mazas was finally destroyed a few years before the Paris World's Fair. The record of the newspapers at that time was tough. On the occasion of a final visit to the corridors, the journalist The Little Republic He insults the prisoners' living conditions: "Right and left, small and dark cells, with narrow windows, barely noticeable from the wall in front. The walls are black and sad […]There is a damp cold that grabs ice. The impression that one feels once entered the cell is atrocious. Much more terrifying than one must experience when the heavy door closes with a piercing creak. We are really fenced. Then, the numerous suicide attempts that Mazas was the theater can be explained.

Total isolation was also called into question Petis Parisien of May 25, 1898: "Some criminologists believe that one cannot sustain an absolute regime of solitude for more than six years." Other voices also rise to
the risks of recidivism carried by this prison model. This is the case with the magistrate of the time, cited in the same article: "A detainee in the cell will certainly become good or rebel, but in any case lazy, unable to do anything but relapse after his release. "


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