French convicts are getting a rare taste of freedom, thanks to the Tour de France -- or rather a prison version of it with no breakaways allowed.
About 200 inmates were temporarily released to take part in the “Penal Tour de France” that started yesterday and will last two weeks, taking them across the country much like the famous bicycle race, the most punishing of professional sports. Flanked by an equal number of prison guards, they will cycle through 10 regions including the island of Corsica.
The experiment, in a country struggling with overcrowded jails and what a United Nations Human Rights Committee last year said were appalling prison conditions, is aimed at helping the inmates regain self-esteem, encourage confidence in others and prepare them for an eventual return to ordinary life, according to the event’s organizers. The 2,300-kilometer (1,437 miles) journey will be made in a group, with inmates eating in restaurants and sleeping in hotels for a taste of normal life.
“This is not a race,” said Prison Authority spokeswoman Magalie Quet. “We obviously won’t allow any breakaways. If somebody gets tired and needs to slow down the whole group slows down.”
The tour, which took off from the northern French city of Lille, has prisoners aged from 17 to 62. A core group of six inmates and 12 guards will cover the entire distance, joined each day by a different group from prisons across the country.
The participants have been in training since January, says Jean-Paul Chapu, the former director of the Valenciennes prison, who came up with the idea. They also took courses in first aid, mechanics and math to prepare for the race.
“When these people finish they will feel completely different about themselves,” Chapu said. “They have accomplished something, and it gives them confidence in themselves as well as in others.”
The prisoners were selected according to their physical condition as well as the type of crime they committed, Chapu said. Only relatively light offenders were eligible for temporary releases that were granted by a judge.
The race is being sponsored by groups including Francaise des Jeux, the country’s state-owned lottery company, which also backs the Tour de France.
The event gives the prisoners relief from conditions that have contributed to rising inmate suicides and violence.
France’s prisons were criticized by both the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights. French Justice Ministry statistics for April show 113 of the 194 total facilities are crowded at over 120 percent of capacity, 15 of those at over 200 percent.
“The fact that we’re able to do it is like a dream come true for me,” Chapu said. “It can change these people. Even their families begin to look at them differently.”