France’s justice ministry is under pressure to explain why it approved reality TV-inspired games in the country’s second-largest prison.
The political row erupted after a 25-minute video of prisoners at Fresnes prison taking part in go-karting and other challenges in the prison yard surfaced on YouTube. The prison games were called Kohlantes – a play on Les aventuriers de Koh-Lanta, a French reality TV show based on the Survivor format.
Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti called the film “shocking” and ordered an internal investigation even though his ministry’s communications department would have approved the project and screened the film before it aired to ensure that there were no security issues.
“The fight against recidivism goes through the rehabilitation [prisoners] but certainly does not involve karting”, Dupond-Moretti tweeted.
Le Figaro reported that the approval of the event and the release of the film had been made at the “highest level” of the ministry, but officials told the newspaper: “What we were presented with did not mention karting. ; he was talking about athletic challenges, jump ropes,” an unnamed staffer told the newspaper.
The event was also reportedly approved by the French prison authority.
Jimmy Delliste, warden of Fresnes prison, south of Paris, defended the event, saying it was a “fraternal occasion” and thanked the organisers. The games raised €1,700 for charity, he said.
Eric Ciotti, of the center-right opposition party Les Républicains, was among the most vocal in his outrage. “Our prisons are not holiday camps where prisoners and guards make friends,” he said.
“There is a form of hypocrisy on the part of the Minister…either he has been informed or he has not been. He cannot demand an investigation if his office has been informed. The Minister must explain. These images shocked many French people and many victims,” Ciotti told BFMTV. “Behind every prisoner, there is a victim and it is these victims that I am thinking of.”
Fresnes was built at the end of the 19th century for around 1,700 prisoners. It is now believed to be detaining more than 2,000 men and 100 women.
During the occupation of France by Germany in World War II, the men’s wing was taken over by the Nazis who tortured and executed members of the French resistance and British intelligence agents. American writer James Baldwin was detained in Fresnes after being wrongfully arrested for theft in 1949.
A French prisons official said none of the participants in the games had been convicted of murder or rape and the event had not cost taxpayers “a penny”.
Enzo Angelo Santo, an independent producer who worked on the video, told BFMTV: “Obviously, as far as we are concerned, everything was approved. We would never have been against [the] Ministry of Justice.”
The event was organized by a local resident, Djibril Dramé, who is said to have organized several similar games in Fresnes for several years and set up a sports competition between police and young people in June. French media reported that he was sponsored by a halal fast food chain, Big M, and an online sports app, Omada.