SARAN, France — On a recent afternoon near Orléans, in the Loire Valley, members of the jury of France’s newest literary prize trickled out of their prison cells.
They walked past tall white fencing topped with barbed wire, past metal detectors, security cameras and heavy doors that clanged shut, and into a small, brightly-lit classroom with barred windows.
The inmates, over a dozen men and women held at the Orléans-Saran Penitentiary Center, had gathered to discuss novels published in France this year and pick the one they thought was the best. One suggested “Le Mage du Kremlin,” or “The Wizard of the Kremlin,” a fictionalized look at the Russian president’s inner circle. Another rooted for “La Petite Menteuse,” or “The Little Liar,” a novel that explores the post-#MeToo era. Debates were spirited, reviews were blunt — one inmate called a book “exceptionally boring.”
Women participating in the Goncourt jury. “You aren’t judging what they did,” said a bookstore owner. “You are judging literature.”Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times
The inmates were part of the very first edition of a new, government-sponsored literary prize bestowed by prisoners. The award, called the Goncourt des détenus, or inmates’ Goncourt, is the most recent of several offshoots of France’s most prestigious literary award. Inmates met over three months in the fall to discuss books on the Goncourt’s long list of 15 finalists, and to chose a winner. The prize will be awarded on Thursday in Paris.
Some prisons have organized their own literary prizes, but the inmates’ Goncourt is unprecedented in size and reach, with about 500 people detained in 31 prisons taking part. It is also prominently backed and promoted by the French government, which is often under fire from the right for being too lenient with convicts and from the left for incarcerating too many people in run-down facilities. The Goncourt project, however, has faced little criticism — a sign of literature’s sacred place in French culture and of the belief in its life-changing virtues.
“Wherever culture, language, and words advance, violence recedes,” said Éric Dupond-Moretti, France’s justice minister, in an interview about the new prize. “Time in prison has to be a time of punishment, but also of transformation.”
Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times
For many inmates, the prize was a chance to connect with others, to escape detention’s dreariness, and to brush off the stigma of prison.
“Just because we are inmates,” said Mathilde, “it doesn’t mean that we aren’t worth anything.”
One inmate said it was a book — Boris Vian’s “Froth on the Daydream” — that first showed him the power of words.
“The goal was to get people to read.”
For the inmates near Orléans, the process of reading and debating mattered as much as, if not more, than participating in the selection of the winner. Many welcomed an opportunity to connect with other inmates, to escape detention’s dreariness and to brush off the stigma of prison, as public opinion and politicians in France take an increasingly hard line on incarceration. One poll from 2018 found that 50 percent of French people believed detainees were “treated too well,” up from 18 percent in 2000.
“Just because we are inmates it doesn’t mean that we aren’t worth anything or that our opinions aren’t worth hearing,” said Mathilde, 32, a woman with an easy smile who later joked that she had enjoyed the Goncourt workshop, but not enough to do it again — she is scheduled for potential release in January.
Under French law and penitentiary administration regulations, the prisoners’ identities and the reasons for their incarceration could not be made public, in part to protect their safety. They are being identified instead by first name, or not named, in cases of inmates with identifiable first names.
Impetus for an inmates’ Goncourt came from the National Book Center, an official institution that supports France’s book industry, after President Emmanuel Macron declared reading one of his presidency’s “great causes.”
Régine Hatchondo, the center’s president, said the goals were to make culture more accessible and to foster critical thinking. “It’s also a civic issue,” she said. “The inmates have to debate each other, and obviously they don’t always agree.”
The Goncourt Academy, whose jury of established writers awards the main Goncourt prize, gladly joined the project.
“I’ve always argued in favor of making prison as open as possible, so to speak, to really make it an integral part of our society, not a closed off and unknown environment that becomes an object of fear or ignorance,” said Philippe Claudel, a writer who is the academy’s secretary general and who taught French to inmates for over a decade in the 1980s and 1990s.
Of the approximately 850 inmates detained at Orléans-Saran, 18 took part in the Goncourt workshop, among them volunteers and participants who were encouraged by the prison administration. Some were in pretrial detention awaiting judgment. Others had been convicted, with sentences ranging from less than a year to over ten. Not all of them were literature buffs.
“The idea wasn’t to only keep people who were going to read all 15 books,” said Pascal Rémond, who has overseen teaching and education programs at the prison for the past 40 years. “The goal was to get people to read.”
The treatment of detainees can be an contentious topic in France. Last summer, videos filmed at a prison near Paris that showed inmates and wardens competing in activities like go-kart races for a charity event caused an uproar and fueled accusations that the Macron administration was too lax.
The inmates’ Goncourt has not raised such opposition; reading undoubtedly ranks higher than go-kart racing on France’s list of worthy cultural pursuits. In Orléans, booksellers and shoppers had only vaguely heard of the program, but they supported the idea.
“Bringing literature to people, not cutting them off from it, that’s really great,” said Marlène Brocail, who manages Chantelivre, a bookstore in town. Hundreds of books receive awards in France every year; top winners are fitted with red wraparound slips and prominently displayed in bookstores. Awards are a sales boon, and Brocail said she didn’t see why readers would treat one given by inmates any differently.
“You aren’t judging what they did,” she said. “You are judging literature.”
Laurent Ridel, the head of France’s prison administration, said that prison activities and high-profile projects like an inmate rap album, or a prison restaurant, were often misunderstood or misrepresented as wasteful giveaways, rather than useful tools.
“It’s win-win,” he said — a way to respect inmates’ right to cultural activities, but also to improve staff working conditions by smoothing over tensions. “You can’t build anything on humiliation or frustration.”
The National Book Center provided the books and organized prison visits for authors whose novels were in the running. The inmates near Orléans met Makenzy Orcel, the Haitian author of “Une Somme Humaine,” or “A Human Burden.” Eddy, 22, one of the youngest inmates in the group, asked for advice for aspiring writers. Orcel’s answer: Read a lot.
“I’m fed up with being here,” Eddy, who is studying to get a law degree, said after the chat, which ended over coffee, juice and pastries. “But this felt good.”
A 45-year-old inmate with hollow cheeks and intricately tattooed forearms who was part of the Goncourt jury said cultural activities help inmates piece together a shattered life.
“The hardest thing, when you arrive in prison, is that everything is obliterated,” he said. A familiar network of family, friends and colleagues falls apart, he said; he once considered suicide. After three and a half years as a prison librarian, he now is taking long-distance university classes and dreams of becoming a writer.
“These workshops are fundamental,” he said. “It changes everything.”
Another inmate, a tall, quick-witted 27-year-old man who bantered with wardens and fellow inmates alike, said it was a book — Boris Vian’s “Froth on the Daydream” — that first showed him the power of words.
“I’ve always been passionate about literature,” he said in his cell, where a desktop fan converted into an egg beater — he had taken up prison-style baking — sat not far from books by Guillaume Apollinaire and Marguerite Duras.
But watchdog organizations say teaching and cultural activities often fall by the wayside as prison staffing and infrastructure are strained by the rising number of inmates. There are currently over 72,000 detainees in the country — a record, and far more than the maximum capacity of about 60,700. Official statistics show that nearly 10 percent of detainees are illiterate.
After the inmates near Orléans picked their favorite books, four of them debated over video conference with prisoners in Saint-Maur, a town in the same area, to settle on a regional shortlist. The inmates seldom mentioned their sentences or their life in prison during the workshop, but sometimes they brought their experiences to bear on the discussion.
Debating a book called “Sa Préférée,” or “His Favorite,” about a woman struggling to cope with the legacy of her father’s physical abuse, the 27-year-old said it showed the importance of “confronting the demons from your past.”
“When I was young, I repeated a lot of the violence that I suffered as a child,” he said.
Not all inmates were comfortable with the idea of engaging in literary analysis in public. Rémond, the teaching supervisor, said one inmate participated on the condition that he wouldn’t have to talk.
But during one session, that same inmate spoke at length about several books, including “Une heure de ferveur,” or “An Hour of Fervor,” which he found beautifully written but too hard to finish. The plot, about a Japanese father separated from his daughter in France, was a painful reminder of the separation from his own child, he said.
Rémond said “the inmates were invested and enthusiastic in ways that you rarely see,” and wanted to continue meeting as a book club even after the Goncourt project had ended.
Many hope that the new prize will shift public perceptions.
“It can change the optics,” said Odile Macchi, the head of the investigation division of the International Observatory of Prisons in France. “To realize that, yes, these are actually people who have something to say about literature.”