Feb 12th 2018 by SupLockedUp • 12 Questions • 2272 Points
OK GUYS, MY HOUR IS UP. THANKS SO MUCH FOR PARTICIPATING AND FOR YOU INTEREST IN THIS TOPIC--HOPE IT DIDN'T FREAK YOU OUT TOO MUCH. (THOUGH I DO WANT IT TO FREAK YOU OUT A LITTLE.) My name is Robert Draper and I’m a journalist and author. My most recent piece for National Geographic is called “They Are Watching You—and Everything Else on the Planet”. It's about how the demand for security is increasing, monitoring technology is proliferating, and as a result, we’re all under surveillance. While that part definitely sounds alarming, I also explore the ways surveillance is helping. Spacecraft technicians are better able to calculate the Earth’s landmass, we can monitor hurricanes, and rangers can better protect wildlife from poachers.
Read the story here and AMA: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/02/surveillance-watching-you/
Although you can not say any specifics, are you in jail for a comparably equal crime in the UK? Like if you did the same thing back home, would you be in a similar situation? Or would you have been tried and given probation or something else you think?
Do you already know what questions we are going to ask?
I'd be bailed in the U.K. If I was a French national I'd have been bailed here too.
Nope, only as they come up!
Who is more guilty of surveillance, the public or private sector?
Smartphones are common although illegal. Estimates I've seen on the news say for 69k prisoners there are 33k phones in the prison system.
My French has improved steadily. I'm able to communicate freely in French now. It took about 8 weeks before I could hold a basic conversation with a total non-English speaker and about 4 months before I was happy I could delve into more complex conversations.
"Guilty" being a loaded term, it's evident that private-use surveillance (ranging from CCTV's to drones to satellites) has now far out-stripped public sector usage. And therein lies the danger, since it's hard to know what company at any given time is monitoring to you, and to what extent, and why, and where (and for how long) the data is going. At least there are FOIA means by which to determine government surveillance.
This is awesome! When I was locked up in the US I wanted to learn Spanish from some of the girls who spoke it. Sadly none of them had any desire at all to teach me. Are they helping you learn to write also?
I know a lot of people who write this issue off saying "I don't have anything to hide" - what is your response to that reaction?
Writing isn't such an issue, it's more pronounciation really.
I attend weekly French lessons where I practice writing too. But you take away from those what you put in. Some people learn nothing at the French lessons and just attend for the attendance mark to show the judge when it comes to remission.
I get that privacy sometimes seems like a triviality--or even a preoccupation of the affluent--in the greater interest of information-sharing. But at a certain point, we all need alone time, of our choosing. And the psycho-social implications of what happens to a community when it operates under the assumption that it's always being watched, for reasons not readily identifiable...well, it's chilling, right?
A couple of days ago I saw something on French television where they talked about smartphones in the prison system and how some were sent through drones and others were smuggled in inside food cans and others were even passed by bribing the guards.
Is it just just the important people? Or is it normal everyday people too?
Missiles are common. In fact a load of phones were allegedly thrown over the walls last night on a the other side of my building.
Depends on how you define "important," right? I was in a CCTV control center in the London borough of Islington and the monitors there were watching 2 guys on motorcycles who were "important" only b/c they were deemed suspicious, though throughout our surveillance of them they were only guilty of popping wheelies.
That's insane. I can't imagine how intensely you learn the language. I've been to France and lived in a French-speaking region for a bit. You don't learn anywhere near that quickly.
What do you think the next surveillance frontier is, both in the USA and outside of it? Is the US going to go the CCTV route like the UK? DNA collection on birth? Iris scanning for credit card transactions?
Imagine your cellmate is a crazy Algerian guy who threatens to stab you with a fork because he can't find his pen and thinks you've stolen it... and you can get a transfer to another cell if you ask... but you don't know the words to ask! You learn quick! It's pretty miserable without French here imo
Well, in many ways CCTV's are the most antiquated manifestation of Big Brother...EXCEPT when the images are stored &/or linked with facial recognition technology that is then linked to our social media accounts and thereby used for marketing (or other) purposes. That's what smart cameras represent now: not just a single static image, but the ability to develop a dynamic, penetrating profile of the person being watched.
What are your plans when you get out?
I remember hearing (perhaps years ago) that French prisons were particularly bad in condition compared to other 1st world countries. Do you feel you are treated humanely?
Read any good books while you're in there (assuming they have a prison library you have access to)?
Obviously removing your online profile helps discourage data collection, but what about in every day life? Is there anyway to thwart the surveillance infrastructure, or are effective methods for us to fight back?
You're right the French prison system is notoriously inadequate.
The police are awful. The first 4 days in police custody was hell.
The prison guards/system are generally ok but just extremely overcrowded. Now I speak French I do feel humanely treated. Maybe 2-3% of prisoners here are sleeping on a mattress on the floor at the moment though.
I don't read fiction so sadly the library is useless for me. The English section is full of soppy romance novels! I last read Sapiens by Harari which was enlightening and a charity sent me "serial killer investigations" (kinda bad choice to send to a prisoner no?!) which I'm struggling through at the moment.
It's an exhausting cat & mouse game in which the surveiller is inevitably one step ahead of the surveilled. Yes, you can guard your privacy by avoiding the internet, avoiding public spaces, avoiding anyone with a smartphone. It's tough, in other words.
Sad to see you not getting good reading material, that helps pass time. But you are lucky you are not in an American Prison, Brothers were and it is pretty bad here. Is there much violence and gang activity?
What inspired you to research and explore surveillance specifically?
Generally no gang activity.
Fights just break out over phones, drugs and cigarettes. If you stay away from selling those things or getting into debt you won't have anything but to worry about.
Guilt, to be honest--by which I mean, guilt that I now live in a house with CCTV's posted all around it, and readily give up personal info to online companies like Uber, and offer up personal details on social media accounts, without asking myself how steep & slippery the civil liberties slope is that I've slid down. Other than during the Edward Snowden revelations, we've been remarkably supine when it comes to asking ourselves what has become of our zone of privacy. This story was my attempt to restart the dialogue.
Is there compensation for the questionably clandestine efforts to pilfer our private details?
I am allowed to use the prison phone which is recorded. It took 4 months before they gave me permission for that, so as you can imagine I bought an illegal iPhone when I heard they were available.
You can survive on it but you will not enjoy it! Tonight was cheese pancakes (sounds better than they taste) with salty boiled carrots.
If you have money you can "cantine" food (equivalent to canteen or commissary elsewhere) and cook for yourself on a very low powered hotplate you can buy. It takes around 2 hours to cook a good meal but luckily we're not short of time here ;)
Yes, in theory you can sue a private or public interest for invading your privacy, if you can demonstrate both a reckless or malicious intent and actual damage. That's a very high bar, however.
Is the library selection good for English speakers there? Have you found yourself in a different generation of readers since the library might be limited?
What's your roll call number? Can you tell your number in English when they ask? Have you found any dates or secret messages from previous cell mates, if so what are they?
Have you been in solitary yet? Is it stuffy or well ventilated?
Finally. How many different jails and holding cells have you been in and what are they like?
Are we being monitored through the front cameras of our handhelds? And is there any channel through which the surveillance data has reached the dark web (and is for sale)?
There are maybe 60 English books but they're all romance novels and I don't read fiction. Your family can send you books or even get Amazon to deliver directly.
You get an ID card with your name, number and picture on it. If you can't speak French the guards will ask for your card. Most can't speak adequate English to understand your prisoner number.
I haven't looked for messages... maybe there's a cock picture hidden somewhere haha?!
Not been to solitary but the whole place is well ventilated. You can open windows and the doors are ill fitting.
I've been in 2 cells while in police custody, they were basically hell. Concrete bench, filthy, faeces and blood on the walls, stank of urine. I've been in 3 cells in this prison and they were all basically the same, you can make them as good or as bad as you want really.
As of yet, no: no one is looking at you through the front camera of your handhelds. Not even law enforcement or the NSA has that kind of capability. But it's a possibility about which to be vigilant. And no, bulk data isn't for sale through a particular channel--though some data as compiled by any number of retention groups is sold for commercial purposes.
Do you have any choice in what food you eat? Can you ask for larger portions?
Does covering your camera really protect your privacy from the FBI? Can't they still get tons of meta data from your companies like Verizon or Facebook?
No choice. Take it or leave it.
The food is dished out by other prisoners. If you're cool they'll give you more when asked. If they hate you they'll just tell you to jog on.
Typically I only take about 40% of the prison meals now so when I ask for more of something they oblige.
Yes, they can! But it requires a warrant. And no, covering your camera does nothing but make you look paranoid.
Bonjour, I am not French prison guard doing illegal phone search. What cell are you in? Can you give me a tour of the prison and your exact position?
Should we be anxious? This stuff scares the shit of me. It’s one thing being controlled by our government but watched? Nope.
You've already searched my cell recently chef. You missed 2 iPhones and 3 chargers :)
In all seriousness the guards are more easy going on some guys than others. If you're a pain in the ass to them they'll return the favor and rip your cell apart weekly. If you're mellow and hang around with other mellow guys they'll search you once a year (if that).
Yes you should be anxious! More on this soon.
Where are there outlets for you to charge your iPhone? I assume it’s like that one kid in school who has a charger and every other dude in class wants to use the charger
I have a wall plug. I actually bought the iPhone for 300 euros and then the wall plug for another 50 later.
The TVs have USB sockets which can be used to charge phones. As do DVD players we can buy. They're painfully slow (500mA) for a smartphone but people can still manage with them.
How is sanitation and overall hygiene over there? Judging by the picture it looks pretty dirty, so I'm assuming it's pretty bad?
Cells are a bare concrete box. You can make them as clean or dirty as you like. We have a "bathroom" cubicle in the cell with a toilet, sink and shower. Normal guys shower daily and send their clothes to laundry weekly. We're provided with bleach and washing up liquid/sponges/creme cleaner so there's no excuse to be dirty.
If you smell you will be kicked out of the cell by your cellmate and end up with some other stinky dude... that is NOT ideal.
If you're clean you will be placed with another clean dude and your life will be much easier.
That picture was taken about 2 weeks ago (was planning to do an AMA but always been busy or too lazy) when we'd just had 2 weeks of prison guard strikes. Rubbish wasnt being collected so people had to toss all their crap outta the windows or have rubbish festering in their cells. Consequently the promenade became even more filthy than usual. It's usually dirty outside but not quite that bad.
Everything I know about French prisons is from "The Count of Monte Cristo", so I'm just going to assume that you are in exactly the same situation. Have you heard any rumors of a mad priest in solitary confinement? Have you tried digging through the walls? Are dead prisoners dropped into the sea with a cannonball tied to their feet? Are you a good swimmer?
An old cellmate had a USB full of movies which worked on his DVD player and I watched shawshank with him. Their walls were made of crappy crumbly concrete.
No way to dig outta this place (have investigated in the first few weeks) hah
- Do you have a kind of selfmade liquor you drink? If so, how is it made
- How much was your iphone in there?
- What else can you buy from those "phone-dealers"?
- I know one guy who makes liquor from fruit. I've never tried it myself.
- Smartphones are 300-500 euros and dumb phones are 70-100 euros generally. Mine was 350.
- You can buy anything if you have the money. The local lads will pay someone (often an old prisoner) to throw missiles over the wall which are retrieved inside. If you want something you can request it and it'll arrive in 2-3 weeks. The price will often be inflated by 4-5x. The most audacious I've heard of within time I've been here were a laptop and an iPad which both got found by guards. I've seen an old cellmate buy cocaine and hashish is insanely common.
If you are sentenced what's the remission like? Any visits? Is the kitchen the best place to work? If your a foreigner can you get to a open/low security prison? I was locked up in Ireland, so interesting to compare the french system.
Edit: Thought of some others, is it all two man cells?Any singles? Can you buy playstations and the like? In Irish prison you get 15 quid a week and a extra 3:50 for working, what's it like in France?
After about 3-4 months family visits are typically approved.
Remission typically just under 50% off. 25% for good behavior and 25% for efforts to improve yourself and integrate with society (like working and learning French). Then bureaucracy adds a bit of time so it's typically a bit less than that.
Kitchen is probably the most consistent and well paid place to work.
No chance of getting open/low security! Here the doors are kept locked and unless you're scheduled to go out for a specific reason you just get 2x 1 hour periods in the exercise yard daily. I'm the summer most people go out as much as possible but in the winter most people stay in and the promenade is pretty empty.
2 men per cell. If you're unlucky it can be 3 to a cell with 1 unlucky bigger on the floor.
You can't buy PlayStations. You can just buy a radio and a DVD player... but DVD are banned in the post so if you're a foreigner there's no way to get movies.
In France you get 0 automatically and maybe 5-10 euros per day for working. Maybe more if you get promoted.
Have you ever been in British prison? If so is it better or worse than French prison?
Nope so I'd just be guessing.
If I had a chance to go home and finish my time I'd probably stay here though. The first couple of months are always going to be the hardest and now I can speak French reasonably well it's not so bad. If I had to go back to the U.K. I'd be starting from scratch again.
Probably home in 2 years total. Not a violent or sex crime if that's what you're wondering.
British consulate said repatriation is unlikely unless I had over 3 years outstanding by the time I'm sentenced. I'd rather finish the sentence in France at this stage anyway.
Probably PSG haha
Which clubs do you support in the UK? Do you support any French clubs? Do you think a Ligue 1 side will ever win the UCL again? Thanks for doing this mate, this is a super fucking interesting AMA.
Arsenal fan for around 25 years.
Amazing how many Gunners there are here! Massive French support perhaps unsurprisingly?
PSG has an outside chance but I don't think their league provides the depth of quality required to push them to become CL winners.
I don't support any French team.
Not officially... but yeah, phones are known to be commonplace. I saw an estimate on the news suggesting 33k phones for 69k prisoners in the French prison system.
They can be easily bought from the locals.
Do you think you will use your French when you get out (career wise)? What are your plans for when you’re free again?
Unlikely I'll use the French if I'm honest. I can already speak 3 languages fluently which is probably why I picked up French relatively quickly. Ive never used them for work. Never say never though.
I haven't thought much beyond getting home.
What sort of jobs and duties are given to prisoners? Do people get to do any sort of work for pay?
Main work is in the kitchen or doing factory type work.
Pay is around 5-10 euros a day typically. If you stay in the kitchen for a long time you can be promoted to higher grades where max pay is around 1000 euros a month. Not many people make it to those grades but it is possible.
Factory workers do stuff like putting perfume into boxes or stuffing envelopes. The more they do, the better their pay. If they don't work hard enough the guards stop calling them to give new guys a chance.
Obvious mistake for the U.K. as a whole but we're stuck with it now.
Will be interesting to see how it all plays out over the next 4-5 years.
On a personal level the exact terms'll make very little difference as I doubt I'd be traveling to France again anytime soon haha
I know being locked up sucks but good on you for using it to learn French. I think the other English speakers are making things unnecessarily difficult on themselves by not learning it. Also, you said salty carrots with your dinner? Damn, we didn't get salt on anything from the kitchen (US) & even though we had a huge canteen selection, they didn't sell it. When people would get their teeth pulled, they'd get salt packets and then trade with people for them.
I read that hash is everywhere I there, do you smoke it? In my state, Suboxone was the big thing in lock up. People would just stick the strip (cut into halves or quarters) where you seal the envelope & it was surprisingly easy to get away with. They have prisoner possessing contraband charges here but usually they just give you an in house charge & you do like a 30 day lock down so most people felt like the punishment was worth the risk.
Anyways, I hope your time goes by. PM me if you ever want, I've been in your situation & know the feeling all too well.
Edit - a word
Thanks for the post :) appreciated!
Most food is not salted and no fats/oils are used in cooking. Even chips (fries to you) are bloody steamed! But occasionally the kitchen staff dump a ton of salt in a dish to the extent its unpalatable! Tonight's salty carrots were not good!
What is a huge discomfort/problem that none of us thinks of when thinking about prison that you found out the hard way (besides the obvious no freedom, shitty food etc)? Is there something that actually had a positive impact on you so far?
In the first few weeks... fingernails! Sharing clippers is a risk for Hep C so not a good idea in prison. It was about 4 weeks before I figured out how to buy nail clippers lol
Probably the only positives are learning French and weight training.
What are race relations like inside French prisons? How do they differ from those in France otherwise?
TBH the French system is pretty racist with around 80% of the prisoners being Muslim. So there aren't massive competing groups in prison here, it's basically all muslims and then a few black guys and a few foreigners like me. The small minority groups aren't big enough to cause racial tensions.
The local lads group themselves by their hometown more than their ethnic origin. So when fights break out (usually due to drugs, cigarettes or phones) it's often a mixed ethnic bunch from city1 against a mixed bunch from city2. Over the winter fights aren't that common, maybe 1 per week on the exercise yard. Over the summer it's more like 1 per day.
How do you perceive time while in prison compared to being free? Does a day feel longer or shorter?
It's all a haze.
I wake up at midday for lunch.
Then have 5-6 hours to kill before we're locked in for the night. Once doors are locked after dinner at 6pm the guards will not open them again until the next morning.
So 7pm until 2am I can use my phone and listen to music or watch Netflix and browse the net.
Rinse and repeat.
It goes relatively quickly but it's not enjoyable. Outside I'd be working or seeing friends/family all the time. Here I just try to get each day to disappear into the abyss. Sure I go to the gym, read and learn French etc but it feels like a waste of life really.
So how do you keep the cell phone bill paid? Family on the outside or is this included with the cost of the phone?
You can get the locals to buy top ups. Typically they'll ask for a 2x mark up (10 euros of credit will cost 20 euros).
I get someone I know outside to buy top ups in cash and send me the code in an encrypted message.
What do you think about the French justice system's presumption of guilt?
I saw on the news during the recent guard strikes that 26% of prisoners in the system are being held pending investigation. That's pretty shitty really.
I know many people who say they are being held on flimsy evidence. Obviously I don't know the facts so of their cases though.
What thing about prison surprised you most as opposed to pop culture interpretations?
People are kind generally.
I didn't allow anyone to give me anything (even a sucking mint) for about 2 months because I had the idea that everyone would be trying to turn me into a sex slave.
Slowly I came to realise most people are cool as long as you're cool with them. If you generally keep to yourself and everyone sees you hanging with good guys, trouble won't come looking for you.
- What do you miss the most of the outside world ?
- What is the first thing you will do when you’re free?
- Whatever they accused you of, did you do it ?
I hope you get out asap, and wish you the best of luck!
- Family. No doubt about it.
- Can't say in this AMA
Many thanks :)
Do you feel that you had issues befriending other inmates? Or did it come easily?
Yeah I thought everyone was trying to make me a sexy slave haha. I wouldn't accept even a sucking sweet from my good friends for a long while.
Now I understand the dynamics much better and I haven't had any issues myself. The biggest issue is language of course, but who you hang out with counts for a lot here. When people see I'm friends with some good guys they're more likely to be cool too.
Are prisons racially divided there like in the US?
What do you do for fun?
Prisons aren't racially divided like in the US because 80% are Muslim in France! The other groups wouldn't stand a chance trying to fight against a massive majority so everyone just gets along race wise.
I read books, do sudoku, crosswords, play chess, go gym and take French lessons. I try to leave the cell to walk in the exercise yard at least once a day where I can talk to my friends. Once I get my phone out in the evenings I'll video call my family and then browse memes off the front page ;)
Interesting, thanks for the answer! I'm glad you have a phone to keep busy. It seems like that would make all the difference.
How much did it cost?
350 euros for my iPhone 5c.
Typical smartphone prices are 3-500 euros depending on the model and how well you know the seller.
Now pain perdu!
We can buy a 250w hotplate which basically can't brown crepes. So pancakes are white and floppy. Meanwhile French toast comes out awesome.
One of my old cellmate a showed me a good recipe so now I have French toast maybe twice a week :)
If you were to be released tommorow what's the first thing you'd do?
Burger + chips
I know of 1 and maybe 3 non-native Russian speakers.
Is there porn contraband? Are there people who male prison tattoos? what are the normal “hustles” (besides phone dealer) that prisoners can have?
Phones are common so I've never seen paper porn.
Canal+Frisson is a tv channel we have access to which shows porn after around 1am several times a week too. I know some people watch that. Personally I couldn't watch porn freely with another dude in the room so I always turn it over if I see it come on. I only access porn (via my phone) when my cellmate is out for whatever reason during the day and I'm pretty sure the guards won't check on me for at least an hour.
You can get a prison job and earn 5-10 euros a day without much fuss so there's no need to hustle.
If you're gonna do "business" you need to be prepared to fight when thins don't go your way so it's pretty dangerous. Most common business hustles are lending cigarettes for interest, selling phones and drugs. There's a smallish group who has that all locked down between themselves so you'd have to be brave to dip your toe in tbh.