By William Walton, published in 1899
Saint-Lazare, on the Faubourg Saint-Denis, is at once a hospital, a police station, and a prison for women, and its methods and regulation have long been the object of earnest denunciation. As a prison for women, it is divided into two sections, for those accused, and for those condemned to less than two months’ imprisonment; among the latter are women of the town, who have a special hospital. The only condamnées who remain for any length of time within these walls are the sick, nursing women having a child less than four years of age, and those enceinte. There is a special crèche for the newly-born babies,—for there are no less than fifty or sixty births annually. The nursing mothers, whether convicted or only accused, have special dormitories, and there is a shady garden for the wet-nurses. The prostitutes are provided with a special section. These unfortunates have not passed before any court; they have been condemned without appeal by a Chef de Bureau of the Préfecture de Police to an imprisonment of from three days to two months. During the day, the inmates are assembled in a workroom under the surveillance of one of the Sisters of the Order of Marie-Joseph, to whom is confided a general oversight of the workrooms and the dormitories. These prisoners take their meals in common, take their exercise walking in a long file, and at night sleep in a great chilly and crowded dormitory. Those who have merited it by their conduct are given one of the cells of the ménagerie, a double story of grated cells, furnished each with a bed, a stool, a shelf, and an earthenware vessel. The menagerie was formerly devoted to the service of the correction maternelle.
In the great dormitories, there may be witnessed each morning such a scene as that reproduced in the illustration, the prayer addressed to the image of the Virgin on the wall, decked out with faded artificial flowers and with tapers in front of her; following the example of the Sister, all stoop with more or less reverence before this symbol and utter with more or less sincerity from impure lips the prayer for a pure heart. This grand dormitory is a great hall containing more than eighty beds arranged in four rows. The red tile floor is of irreproachable cleanliness, the eighty beds, with their gray blankets and white bolsters, are arranged with military symmetry. But this cleanliness and this good order, it is claimed, count but for little in the amelioration of these unfortunates, gathering contamination from each other in this indiscriminate herding together.
According to the law, those merely accused, the prévenues, and those actually convicted, are kept apart from each other, but in each of these two classes no distinctions are made—the homeless unfortunate, arrested for délit de vagabondage, is associated with the criminal guilty of infanticide or assassination. Even the little girls of ten and twelve years are kept together in the same promiscuousness, those already hardened in criminal ways corrupting the more innocent.
The prévenues enjoy certain privileges; they are not obliged to work, though it is but seldom that they refuse to take up some of the light sewing which occupies their leisure and brings them in small sums of money; they are not obliged, when they take their exercise, to walk round and round in a circle in the préau, forming in line only at the entrance and the exit. The formalities of search and interrogation, upon entering the prison, are the same for all, as are the general regulations and the discipline. All rise at five o’clock in summer, and at six or half-past six the rest of the year, and all go to bed at eight; all receive meat with their bouillon only on Sundays. The children are more favored in this respect, being furnished with eggs, roast meat, etc.
Everywhere are seen in these gloomy and unwholesome halls and corridors “the austere and consoling figures” of the Sisters of Marie-Joseph. They wear a dark robe, sometimes with a white apron, a white cornette under a black veil which has a blue lining, and they supervise all the details of the monotonous life of the prison. Rising in the dawn, a half-hour before any of the prisoners, they perform their devotions, and one of them rings the bell which summons all to leave their beds; they direct the workrooms in which the prisoners sew, a Sister sitting upright in a high chair, like a teacher presiding over her class, and they keep a watchful eye during the night on all the sleepers, in all the dormitories, great and little. Their hours of service as guards are from five or six o’clock in the morning to ten o’clock in the evening. After this hour, until the morning again, two Sisters remain on watch in the first section of the prison and one in the second. Their sole comfort and recompense is found in prayer and meditation in the mortuary chamber of Saint Vincent de Paul, now transformed into an oratory for their use. There is also a chapel for the use of the inmates, as well as a Protestant oratory and a synagogue.
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