Why books could help empty France’s prisons

Deep in the vast La Sante prison in Paris, law student Morgane is discussing the classic novel "The Outsider" by Albert Camus with one of the prisoners.

Why books could help empty France's prisons
A selections of books from the French literature award "prix Goncourt" (Photo by Christophe SIMON / AFP)

Adama finds some of the language tricky, but said reading is a “lifeboat”.

“It allows me to escape, to think of something else. I imagine the scenes in my head. It’s as if I was directing a TV show,” he told AFP.

Morgane is a volunteer with the charity “Lire Pour Sortir” (roughly: “Read to Get Out”), which sees reading as more than a metaphorical form of escape.

It is championing reading as a way to tackle France’s overflowing prisons, currently 20 percent over capacity.

Lack of vocabulary is “the number one determining factor in social inequality,” said lawyer Alexandre Duval-Stalla, who set up the  charity in 2015.

“The more words you have, the better chance of a job, of inserting yourself into life,” he told AFP.

A good vocabulary not only helps when speaking to judges, but can also prevent crimes in the first place, he said.

“All this aggression and impulsiveness we find with criminals comes from being unable to express themselves.”


Adama’s choice of Camus is apt. The Franco-Algerian writer’s own mother was illiterate, with a vocabulary of only around 400 words. It was a barrier between them, despite his lifelong devotion.

“The Outsider” also tells the story of a young man who ends up in prison facing the death sentence.

Almost a quarter of France’s 72,173 prisoners are illiterate, according to government figures.

French prisons are required to have libraries, but not librarians — who encourage reading, help detainees and organise cultural programmes.

Pressure is mounting. A new law, in force since January, scrapped automatic sentence reductions for good behaviour — detainees must now show they have engaged with a cultural or work programme.

But lack of resources means many are unable to access the necessary programmes.

Lire Pour Sortir wants to help fill the gap and will double its volunteer network to 500 by 2024. But even then, it will still be in only 50 of France’s 187 prisons.


Books help perform the work that would ideally be done by psychologists if the resources existed, said Duval-Stalla.

“Criminals rarely put themselves in another person’s shoes. Books allow them to live the stories of other people, and that’s very important. Words give you perspective and the tools for reflection,” he said.

La Sante, which was recently renovated, could provide an example.

Lire Pour Sortir runs its library and hired a professional librarian. Neat and tidy, with posters on the wall and an atmosphere of calm — it could be the library of a small village, if not for the bars on the windows and guards at the door.

But with only 20 inmates permitted at a time, the waiting list is long. “We are victims of our own success,” said its librarian Jean Baptiste Devouassoux.

“We know what keeps people out of prison — a job, housing, a family,” said Duval-Stalla. “But also the capacity to express and understand yourself — and that requires words.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


How to avoid being the victim of tax scams in France this Autumn

French tax authorities have issued a warning to the public to be aware of scams, especially in the autumn when tax rebates are due. Here is how to know whether a message is fraudulent.

How to avoid being the victim of tax scams in France this Autumn

Fake emails informing you of a refund

Some scam emails can appear to be very professional. They might even include the letterhead for French tax authorities or a link to the website.

Often, email scams will imitate an official letter, using a fake signature or stamp at the bottom. These emails might inform you that you are owed a refund.

Even though the content might look legitimate, these emails are obvious scams. According to France’s Directorate General for Public Finances (DGFiP), tax authorities will “never send you any emails inviting you to visit an online form to obtain a refund (or to review your tax situation) without first logging into your personal, authenticated online space.”

In order to authenticate the email, check the domaine of the email address. Fiscal authorities will only use “” 

READ MORE: Warning: 6 of the most common scams in France to watch out for

“Any other form of address is indicative of malicious intent,” according to French tax authorities.

A general tip is to pay attention to any signs that could indicate a fraudulent message or email. These might include spelling or syntax errors, requests for detailed information about you, your company company or bank details.

Fraudulent SMS messages referencing fines

The DGFiP “never sends out text messages in the event of non-payment.” Typically, these types of scams will warn you that you have some type of unpaid fine, bill or penalty that you must click a link to pay.

Tax authorities will not send out messages asking for payment, and generally you should not click on any links you receive in a text message telling you that you owe a bill, fine or tax. 

If you have any doubts, feel free to contact the relevant tax department via an official channel, such as your personal online tax account, by email or by telephone.

READ MORE: 7 top tips for dealing with the French tax office

Fake premium rate phone numbers

Some websites have begun to list incorrect phone numbers to contact French tax offices. 

Frequently, these are premium rate numbers – such as 0899 or 0891 – that will charge you a fee for calling.

The DGFiP is working to have these numbers shut down, but individual tax centres would use normal, local numbers that begin with 01, 02, 03, 04, or 05. 

The single toll-free number for the DGFiP is 0 809 401 401, which may appear similar to the incorrect numbers listed above. As such, you should pay close attention to the number listed. The DGFiP toll-free number is available Monday to Friday from 8:30am to 7pm.

Scams targeting businesses

There are a few scams that are specifically targeting businesses and workers. The first is a fake DGFiP email using fake forms as attachments that you should return and fill out.

French tax authorities first saw this scam appear at the end of June, and steps are being taken to put an end to the scam.

If you have any doubt, you can reach out to the DGFiP on its contact page under ‘Professionel’ for businesses.

The second scam targeting companies and employees is the ‘False Transfer Order’. In this scam, fraudsters collect data on the company, like the names of employees and managers, as well as banks used.

Then, the scammers will pretend to be a manager or by taking on the identity of a real creditor. Sometimes they will impersonate an IT technician. They will then request that an accountant or financial worker make an ‘urgent’ transfer in his/her name. If the funds are transferred, then they will not be able to be recovered.

These types of scams might be done by post, phone or email. 

In order to avoid and recognise this scam, ask yourself if the person reaching out is behaving unusually or if the nature of the request is different than normal procedure (perhaps a change in contact details). 

READ MORE: What to do if you have fallen victim to a scam in France